Is Alzheimer’s triggered by infectious bacteria?
Schrödinger’s cat can be sawn in half
WHAT’S IN A FACE
Can you really spot criminals by their appearance? WEEKLY 4 June 2016
BREXIT How the most irrational vote ever will be decided S P E C I A L
I S S U E
T H E E N D How everything will eventually finish... and what will come next
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Volume 230 No 3076
This issue online newscientist.com/issue/3076
5 Free speech has met social media, with revolutionary results
Time-travelling writing tablets
6 UPFRONT Why zoo gorilla had to be shot. Should Brazil hold Olympics? Your phone probably won’t give you cancer 8 THIS WEEK Schrödinger’s cat can be split in half. Could we vaccinate against Alzheimer’s? Stuff of life found around comet. Neanderthals’ mystery cave building. Cells blog with CRISPR 14 IN BRIEF Mongol hordes beaten by weather. The oldest animal ever. Baby black holes. Pain and pleasure memories take separate paths
Britain’s oldest known writing reveals daily life in 1st century AD
On the cover
10 Brain invaders Is Alzheimer’s triggered by infectious bacteria? 9 Quantum magic Schrödinger’s cat can be sawn in half 22 What’s in a face Can you spot criminals by their appearance? 16 Brexit How the most irrational vote ever will be decided
Special issue: The end How everything will eventually finish… and what will come next
16 EU referendum How Britain will decide 18 comment Why science would benefit from Brexit – or not 19 insight There are better ways to decide the big issues than referendums
Technology 20 Computers understand phone calls. Smart shirt for epilepsy. How websites take your fingerprint. Guessing personality from faces
24 Duck and diving up close
Britain makes up its mind
26 SPECIAL ISSUE: THE END How you, the universe, civilisation, life, sex, disease, science, humankind and much more will cease to be 38 PEOPLE Shari Forbes on opening Australia’s first body farm
Francois Lenoir / Reuters
How the most irrational election ever will be decided
Coming next week… Fat lot of good
Has official nutrition advice caused obesity?
The bits of the solar system that don’t fit in
40 The peak oilman Following the trail of M. King Hubbert, a geologist with a canny idea 41 Stand-up role Sara Pascoe on being female 42 Inside job When’s a parasite not a parasite?
Regulars 52 letters Fudging of data begins early 56 Feedback Noah’s ark minus a captain 57 The Last Word Born to drive
4 June 2016 | NewScientist | 3
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Political truths Free speech has met social media, with revolutionary results “IT’S confusing the public, it’s democratic legitimacy: their very impoverishing political debate... popularity demonstrates that the public are thoroughly fed up they have tapped into the anger, with it.” That was the verdict last frustration and patriotism of week by the chairman of the UK’s voters who feel their concerns Treasury Select Committee on the have been ignored. Continuing war being waged over the country’s to ignore them is not an option. European Union membership, But the fitness for office of these which he says has become an demagogues can be questioned. “arms race of ever more lurid Social media lets them craft claims and counterclaims”. messages that fly in some circles, As in any war, the first casualty even if they make little sense to has been truth. Much dissembling outsiders. Should we care if those of information has taken the form messages are falsehoods – and of “mathswash”, presenting vague if so, how should we curb them? estimates as firm predictions with nary a caveat or error bar in sight. “A cynic might wonder if politicians are actually Other claims are misleading but catchy – designed to spread faster any more dishonest than they used to be” than efforts to debunk them. The net result is that the UK’s forthcoming vote on “Brexit” Worries that personalisation probably won’t be decided on the on the internet could create “filter bubbles”, within which people see basis of level-headed arguments, only what fits with their existing but by the cognitive shortcuts we turn to when we’re clueless about views, have come home to roost. the right thing to do (see page 16). That turns out to mean not just convenient truths, but also myths Truth has also been a casualty and distortions, propagated by of Donald Trump’s bid to become algorithms which score them by the Republicans’ US presidential popularity, not truthfulness. And candidate. His pronouncements, often made using the megaphone it’s not just ignoramuses whose news is thus polluted: the recent of social media, have shown little furore over Facebook’s curation of fidelity either to the real world or to his previous pronouncements. its trending topics suggests that anyone who leans on social media Populists all over the world have for their news may be seeing a adopted similar tactics. Their opponents cannot claim they lack funhouse mirror of the truth.
Thus the right to free speech has morphed into the ability to say and spread anything, no matter how daft or dangerous. Hence the buzz around the idea of “post-truth politics” – although a cynic might wonder if politicians are actually any more dishonest than they used to be. Perhaps it’s just that fibs once whispered into select ears are now overheard by everyone. We have been here before. As printing became widely available in the 1600s, there was a boom in pamphleteering: cheap, crude publications, often denouncing political and social foes in vitriolic and slanderous terms. These were important in fomenting both the English civil war and the American war of independence. The idea that the fusion of technology and media may have revolutionary outcomes – primed this time round by politicians rather than proletarians – will alarm those who prefer the status quo: there have been calls for the new media titans to be regulated. To be sure, they cannot carry on dodging their responsibilities. But the ultimate answer isn’t policing social media for rabble-rousing mistruths, but bursting the filter bubbles and talking to those who disagree with us. Because we need democracy to be more than just a popularity contest. n 4 June 2016 | NewScientist | 5
Buda Mendes/Getty Images
Olympics Zika threat NEARLY 200 bioethicists have called
staying in air conditioned rooms,
for this year’s Olympic Games to be moved or postponed due to Zika virus. The games are set to begin in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 5 August. There are currently 32,000 probable cases of infection in the city. In an open letter to the World Health Organization last week, the bioethicists said that more people are likely to get Zika if the games go ahead than if they are held elsewhere or delayed until Rio has driven out its mosquitoes.
and that visitors should use condoms “or abstain from sex during their stay and for at least four weeks after their return”. August falls in the southern hemisphere’s winter, meaning that the games are expected to take place during the annual low point for mosquitoes in Brazil. But the letter says that cases of dengue fever, which is carried by the same mosquitoes, are much higher than usual this year, suggesting that the
The WHO says such drastic measures won’t change the global spread of the virus, and that it can be avoided by preventing mosquito bites and blocking sexual transmission. It recommends wearing insect repellent, avoiding slums and
insects are unusually numerous and may not entirely disappear. It also warns that visitors from the northern hemisphere could spread the virus, if they carry it home to countries that are in the midst of the mosquito season.
Under the sea
capacity one yet, moving data at 160 terabits per second. Slated to be completed by October 2017, it will stretch from the US state of Virginia to Bilbao in Spain. Infrastructure like this will “enable customers to more quickly and reliably store, manage, transmit and access their data in the Microsoft Cloud”, said the companies in a release. Microsoft and Facebook aren’t the only tech giants plotting their own private cables. In 2014, Google struck deals to build two, intended to link the US with Japan and Brazil.
from the Swiss Federal Office of Energy to fine-tune the plant’s design so it runs more cheaply and efficiently during the three-year pilot period. The company hopes it will then run as a self-sustaining business. The plant will collect 2 to 3 tonnes of CO2 per day. “The advantage of taking it out of the ambient air is that you can do it wherever you are on the planet,” says Dominique Kronenberg, chief operating officer at Climeworks. “You don’t depend on a CO2 source, so you don’t have high costs for transporting it where it is needed.”
WHAT’S the best way to get rid of greenhouse gases? Swiss company Climeworks thinks the answer is to feed them to greenhouses – and is building the world’s first facility to do so commercially.
The firm expects to open the plant near Zurich in September or October. Its technology will suck carbon dioxide out of the air and sell it to nearby greenhouses to spur the growth of lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes. CO2 is already taken out of the air in enclosed spaces such as submarines and space capsules. Climeworks will use a similar process, called direct air capture. With this method, normal air is pushed through a sponge-like filter material impregnated with chemicals called amines, which are derived from ammonia and bind to CO2. Climeworks will use funding 6 | NewScientist | 4 June 2016
“The advantage is that you can suck CO2 out of the air wherever you are, keeping transport costs down”
AIN’T no ocean deep enough to keep them from you. On 26 May, Microsoft and Facebook announced plans to lay a fibreoptic cable 6600 kilometres long under the Atlantic Ocean. Undersea cables criss-cross the ocean floor, as a key part of the internet’s infrastructure, enabling transcontinential exchange of digital information. Microsoft and Facebook say their new cable – named Marea, which means “tide” in Spanish – will be the Atlantic’s highest-
Phones are fine KEEP talking. Scientists have cast doubt over evidence that cellphone radiation may cause cancer. The US National Toxicology Program last week released some results from a two-year study in which more than 1000 rats were exposed to differing levels of cellphone radiation for 9 hours a day, for the whole of their lives. No increases in brain or heart –No need to hang up– tumours were observed in female
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No more passwords
rats. But around 3 per cent of males developed a brain cancer known as malignant glioma, and up to 6 per cent grew heart tumours called schwannomas (BioRxiv, doi.org/bjfm). Michael Lauer of the US National Institutes of Health says the results should be interpreted with caution. The number of cancers was small, meaning they could be statistical blips, he says. Most of the rats in the study were exposed to radiation levels higher than those permitted in current phone models, and on average, the exposed rats lived longer than the controls.
YOU’VE been hearing it for years, now it might really be happening: the password is almost dead. At Google’s I/O developer conference, Daniel Kaufman, head of the company’s advanced technology projects, announced that Google plans to phase out password access to its Android mobile platform in favour of a trust score. This would be based on a suite of identifiers: what Wi-Fi network and Bluetooth devices you’re connected to and your location, along with biometrics, including your typing
speed, voice and face. The phone’s sensors will harvest this data continuously to keep a running tally on how much it trusts that the user is you. A low score will suffice for opening a gaming app. But a banking app will require more trust. It’s part of a trend towards building security and privacy into design, instead of making it the user’s responsibility. Kaufman said that the method is better than two-factor authentication because it does not break down if a phone signal is unavailable. Developer kits will be available by the end of 2016.
Child with gorilla was in danger
HPV vaccine trial
THE UK is to trial offering the HPV WHEN a small child managed to get into the gorilla enclosure at vaccine to gay and bisexual men, Cincinnati Zoo on 28 May, the child but campaigners are calling for it was approached and grabbed by a to be given to all boys, as is done 180-kilogram male silverback. Zoo in the US and Australia. officials shot the animal dead, Since 2008, girls in the UK causing outrage on social media. have been vaccinated against the The zoo said it had no choice. human papillomavirus, which “It was an incredibly dangerous can cause cervical cancer. But the situation for the child,” says Kirsten virus, which is spread by sexual Pullen, head of the British and Irish activity, can also trigger anal, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, penile and throat cancer. and an expert in gorilla behaviour. The pilot programme, “The silverback, Harambe, grabbed announced by the UK public the child by the leg and whooshed health minister Jane Ellison, him through the water. He was will offer the shot to 40,000 using the child as part of a display. men who have sex with men. The We can’t see the gorilla’s expression plan has been welcomed, but has so we don’t know if he is being prompted calls for vaccination to aggressive, but the display be extended to all boys in the UK. “Ideally, you must get people before their sexual debut, and a gender-neutral programme would cover all the bases,” says Carrie Llewellyn at the University of Sussex, UK. A decision on vaccinating all boys is unlikely to be made until 2017, when an advisory panel is due to report on the possible costs and health impact of such a move. But sexual health charity the Terrence Higgins Trust believes this is unnecessary stalling. “We’re urging them to roll it out as soon as possible for all boys,” a spokesperson told New Scientist. –Unpredictable situation–
indicates an agitated animal, and his behaviour is very unpredictable.” Harambe, a 17-year-old western lowland gorilla, was also seen standing over the child. Many people interpreted this as Harambe guarding the child, but that’s not necessarily the case, says Pullen. “The silverback’s job in the group is to put himself between his family and the unknown,” she says. The appearance of a child in the enclosure is an unknown, and represents a possible threat to the group. Gorillas have been known to “rescue” children who fall into their enclosure, but the children had been knocked unconscious in those cases, which would not add to the tension of the situation, says Pullen.
Moth classic in action It is a textbook example of evolution: the rise of industrial cities led to the darkening of the peppered moth — an adaptive response to pollution and bird predation. Now two studies have independently picked up a single gene behind this trait (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature17951 and 10.1038/nature17961).
Pump up the module NASA has successfully puffed up its new inflatable on the International Space Station – on the second try. Astronauts first attempted to inflate the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) on 26 May, but while pressure inside the module increased, its volume did not keep up. A second attempt on 28 May did the trick.
Carbon aliens If aliens exist on one of the most alluring worlds spotted by NASA’s Kepler probe, it’s a big thank you to carbon dioxide. Planet Kepler 62f gets less heat from its star than we do. So, unless its atmosphere is packed with the greenhouse gas, any surface water will be frozen, climate simulations suggest (Astrobiology, doi.org/bhz8).
Electric bumblebees Bumblebees can detect and make sense of electric fields using the tiny hairs on their body. Their mechanosensory hairs bend in response to an electric field, triggering neural activity. Since such hairs are common in arthropods, many insects may be equally skilled (PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1601624113).
Heimlich’s first Ironically, Henry Heimlich who gave his name to the famous anti-choking manoeuvre, has only recently used it himself. The 96-year-old retired surgeon reportedly performed the technique on an 87-year-old woman at a retirement home who was choking on a piece of hamburger.
4 June 2016 | NewScientist | 7
Britain’s oldest writing found Roman messages buried for 2000 years have been unearthed beneath a London station Joshua Howgego
Before the Romans invaded, London didn’t exist, says Roman historian Roger Tomlin at the University of Oxford. There were just “wild west, hillbilly-style settlements” scattered in the area. The documents are written in Latin and date from between AD 43 and AD 80. They show that the city quickly became filled with a variety of characters, including
BETTER smarten up if you want to get ahead in business. That’s advice from the earliest writing ever discovered in the UK. The message is part of a haul of 405 writing tablets unearthed in the heart of London, metres from Bank underground station. They date from as early as AD 43, the year the Romans started their “I never imagined that in conquest of Britain. the late 1st century AD, The tablets reveal a rich cast of there was a community of 1st-century Londoners, contain people very much like us” the first ever written reference to the city and hint at Britain’s very first school (see “What the ancient soldiers, merchants, judges and texts say”, below). even a brewer. “It’s exceptional, really “I’ve been digging around wonderful,” says Michael Speidel in London for years and never of the Mavors Institute for quite imagined that in the late Ancient Military History in Basel, 1st century, there was a Switzerland. “Looking at things in community of people who are very the past is usually a bit like glaring much like us,” says Sophie Jackson, into a fog and we can’t really see who manages the dig for the beyond. With documents like this, Museum of London Archaeology. the fog clears away a bit.” Aside from a few pottery shards
–Clues to Roman London–
that have been scrawled on, the next-earliest known example of writing in Britain is the huge cache of inked wood scraps and wax tablets excavated from the Vindolanda fort near Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. The earliest of these is at least 40 years later than some of the new haul. This “pushes the written record almost back to the
conquest”, says Andrew Birley, director of the Vindolanda excavations. Examples of Roman writing are rare because ancient stationery tends to degrade easily. The London tablets survived because of a quirk of fate. In the mid-1st century, the course of the Thames ran about 100 metres further north, and the area between the
(AD 43-53) “…because they are boasting through the whole market that you have lent them money.
and the 10 denarii of Paterio… Bread and salt represents hospitality in many cultures,
merchandise which has been sold and delivered. This money I am due to repay him or the person whom
Therefore, I ask you in your own interest to not appear shabby. You will not thus favour your own affairs…” This seems to be business advice. It’s not clear if the “market” is real, and refers to a forum, the centre of Roman public life, or if the word is being used metaphorically.
so this expression might be appealing to the recipient to be kind and offer a loan as a favour.
the matter will concern…” This might be Britain’s earliest IOU. Romans had a cumbersome way of defining years – naming the two consulates elected for that year – but in this case it means the document effectively dates itself.
(AD 62-65) “…I ask you by bread and salt that you send as soon as possible the 26 denarii in victoiriati 8 | NewScientist | 4 June 2016
(AD 57) “In the consulship of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus for the second time and of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, on the 6th day before the Ides of January. I, Tibullus the freedman of Venustus, have written and say that I owe Gratus the freedman of Spurius 105 denarii from the price of the
(AD 60-62) “…ABCDIIFGHIKL, MNOPQRST…” (shown right) This looks like writing practice, so could be evidence of Britain’s first school.
What the ancient texts say
In this section n Could we vaccinate against Alzheimer’s?, page 10 n Brexit: how the most irrational vote ever will be decided, page 16 n Computers guess personality from faces, page 22
Underground river During excavations between 2010 and 2014, Jackson’s team found the river Walbrook – underground. The waterlogged ground 6 metres down was free from oxygen, saving artefacts from oxidation, which normally degrades them. The team found 400 shoes and the leather backs from six dining chairs. But the prize discovery was the wooden tablets. These were once filled with wax, which people would scratch messages into with an iron stylus. Sometimes the scratches would leave traces on the wood behind. It was tough deciphering these traces, says Tomlin, because the wax on tablets was replaced, and there are often several sets of scratches on top of each other. So he took pictures of the tablets illuminated from four directions and superimposed the images to get sharper resolutions. The messages hold clues to what society was like at the time. The tablets from the Vindolanda fort typically see people addressing each other as dearest brother or sister. The London tablets, used for keeping records, as notebooks and for letters, will reveal how urban society was organised, says Birley. It’s the earliest evidence of writing in Britain so far. No evidence of writing by the Celts who lived there at the time has yet been discovered. However, merchants operated in Britain before this, and probably communicated with the Romans. “So it is still technically possible that somewhere in Britain we might get a collection of earlier material,” says Birley. “But I have to say that’s extremely unlikely.” n
Schrödinger’s cat can survive being split in two
the same time. “Once that happens, both cavities will have two frequencies at once,” Wang says. The magician’s flourish is to sever
HOW’S this for a quantum magic trick? A clever experiment keeps Schrödinger’s cat alive – and dead – after being sawed in half. The stunt could help knit quantum circuits into a working computer. Fortunately, the technique was tested not on a real cat, but on electromagnetic waves, which can be analogous to the cat in Erwin Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment.
introduce the opposite wave, creating a cat state in which two contradictory things are happening at once. “A mechanical analogue of this would be a pendulum that is simultaneously oscillating to the left and to the right,” says Chen Wang, then at Yale University. Wang’s experiment goes a step further, though. His team prepared two cavities of aluminium in which microwave photons could bounce
the link and show that the two sides are still connected – with a whole, functioning, half-alive, half-dead cat shared between two boxes, like the magician’s assistant smiling and waving after being sawed in half. Wang’s team switched the chip to completely “off” and tested whether the two cavities were still working together. To find out whether he had a cat state, though, he couldn’t just open the box and look. “You can always ask the question,
Quantum particles can exist in a superposition of states, or two modes of being at once. A photon, for instance, can simultaneously be polarised vertically and horizontally. This superposition holds until someone makes a measurement, at which point the photon picks a state. Schrödinger argued that if quantum rules applied in the macroscopic world,
around. Then they connected the cavities with a channel: a superconducting sapphire chip and aluminium circuit, across which electrical signals could travel. Think of that chip like an on-off switch. When the switch is on and the channel is open, microwaves inside a cavity connected to it would oscillate at a different frequency than they
are you dead or alive?” Wang says. “But this question doesn’t tell you whether it is a true quantum superposition, or whether you prepared half the chance of a dead one and half the chance of a live one.” Instead, the team had to ask a question that would reveal the cat state without disturbing it. They measured the number of photons
a cat stuck inside a closed box could be both alive and dead at the same time – at least until you open the box. Microwave photons trapped in a box can be coaxed into a so-called “cat” state. Normally, electromagnetic
would if the switch was off. This being the quantum world, though, it is possible to have the linking bridge be both on and off at
in each box, knowing that cat states made from electromagnetic waves should always turn up with an even number of photons. Measured separately, the two boxes sometimes contained even
waves in the box will oscillate in strength, like a pendulum sweeping back and forth. But it’s possible to
“The two sides are still connected, like the magician’s assistant after being sawed in half” Anthony Pleva / Alamy Stock Photo
modern sites of the Bank of England and St Paul’s Cathedral, where the dig is, was a hilly area bisected by the river Walbrook. The dig was started as part of an archaeological assessment before building new offices.
numbers of photons and sometimes odd. But both boxes added together always turned out even. “That shows you that when you combine the two boxes, you get a true Schrödinger’s cat state,” Wang says (Science, doi.org/bhz5). The idea of building a cat state in just one cavity is a few decades old, and helped win Serge Haroche a Nobel prize, points out Myungshik Kim of Imperial College London. “You might think oh well, that’s a small extension of what Haroche did,” he says. “But it’s an interesting extension.” Kim suggests linking two cavities in a cat state could help with the problem of precisely measuring the phase of light. The real pay-off, Wang hopes, is that entangled cavities could be the building blocks of computers
that exploit the properties of quantum superpositions to blaze through calculations at lightning –Useful in quantum computing– speed. Joshua Sokol n 4 June 2016 | NewScientist | 9
OUR brain’s defence against invading microbes might cause Alzheimer’s disease – which suggests that vaccination could prevent the condition. Alzheimer’s disease has long been linked to the accumulation of sticky plaques of beta-amyloid proteins in the brain, but the function of plaque has remained unclear. “Does it play a role in the brain, or is it just garbage that accumulates,” asks Rudolph Tanzi of Harvard Medical School. Now he has shown that these plaques could be defences for trapping invading pathogens. Working with Robert Moir at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Tanzi’s team has shown that beta-amyloid can act as an antimicrobial compound, and may form part of our immune system (Science Translation Medicine, doi.org/bhzt). To test whether beta-amyloid defends us against microbes that manage to get into the brain, the team injected bacteria into the brains of mice that had been bred to develop plaques like humans do. Plaques formed straight away.
Building blocks of life spotted around a comet A FROSTY comet could have delivered the ingredients for life on Earth. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft has spotted an amino acid on the comet it orbits – confirming that a ball of ice and dust can hold one of life’s major building blocks. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which control essential reactions in living cells. 10 | NewScientist | 4 June 2016
JUAN GAERTNER/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Could a vaccine beat Alzheimer’s? “When you look in the plaques, each one had a single bacterium in it,” says Tanzi. “A single bacterium can induce an entire plaque overnight.” This suggests that infections could be triggering the formation of plaques. These sticky plaques may trap and kill bacteria, viruses or other pathogens, but if they aren’t cleared away fast enough, they might lead to inflammation and tangles of another protein, called tau, causing neurons to die and the progression towards Alzheimer’s disease. “The stickiness of amyloid is both a godsend and a curse,” says Samuel Gandy at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “This work is really important for showing that amyloid can be related to infection,” says Brian Balin at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Pennsylvania. His work has implicated Chlamydia pneumoniae as a possible trigger for beta-amyloid formation, and other research has implicated the herpes virus. But until now, there has been no good explanation for why the plaques form and accumulate.
Support for the immune defence idea comes from work by Jacobus Jansen of Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Using MRI brain scans, his team has found that people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease have more permeable blood-brain barriers, suggesting that they may have developed the disease because their brains were more vulnerable to attack (Radiology, DOI: 10.1148/radiol.2016152244). “The microbe hypothesis seems plausible,” says Jansen. If infectious agents are kicking off the formation of plaques, then
Additional reporting by Alice Klein
Astrobiologists have long wondered whether they could have reached early Earth on the backs of comets
means that all the major types of prebiotics have been discovered on the comet (Science Advances,
the developing planet was probably too hot to support them. But once Earth cooled down, comets with
or asteroids. Now Rosetta, which has been orbiting comet 67P/ChuryumovGerasimenko since 2014, has definitively seen the amino acid glycine in the gas cloud surrounding the comet. The probe also picked up phosphorus, a component of DNA. Previously, the spacecraft had found alcohols, sugars and oxygen compounds, which are also needed for life and cellular structure. The addition of glycine and phosphorus
doi.org/bjfn). “The beauty of it is that now we see all the ingredients which are needed for life in one place,” says Kathrin Altwegg, who directs Rosetta’s chemical detector. How Earth got its prebiotic molecules is a mystery, because
molecules trapped in ice could have delivered the necessary ingredients. Ralf Kaiser of the University of Hawaii at Manoa was not surprised to see glycine near 67P. Lab simulations a decade ago showed how these reactions can happen, he says, but “it’s a really nice confirmation”. Rosetta is now just 5 kilometres above the surface of the comet. Analysing data from this low orbit could reveal more complex components. Conor Gearin n
–Plaquing up the works–
“The beauty of Rosetta’s discovery is that we see all the ingredients needed for life in one place”
vaccines could head them off. “You could vaccinate against those pathogens, and potentially prevent this problem arising later in life,” says Moir. If many microbes are involved, immunising against them all will be hard, says Jansen. “But if the frequency of certain pathogens is quite high, there might be a possibility.” It won’t be easy though. Balin says developing vaccines against herpes and chlamydia has proven difficult. “People have been trying for many years now.” n
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This week Cells use CRISPR to blog about their lives THIS week I beat an invading virus, copied all my DNA, and split in two. #blessed #yolo #celllife. What would our cells say if they could blog? We’ll soon know: the CRISPR gene-editing technique has been adapted to make cells log what happens to them, written inside their own DNA. Such CRISPR-based logging could have a huge range of uses, from smart cells that monitor our health from
–Created 175,000 years ago– within, to helping us understand
Neanderthals built stalagmite circles Colin Barras
including a ring 7 metres across, built from stalagmites snapped from the cave floor. Natural limestone growths have begun to cover the ring structure, so by dating these growths a team led by Jacques Jaubert at the University of Bordeaux could work out an approximate age for the stalagmite constructions (Nature, doi.org/bhzs). They are roughly 175,000 years old, which means they easily predate the arrival of modern humans in Europe. They were built
THEY worked by torchlight, following the same procedure hour after hour: wrench a stalagmite off the cave floor, remove the tip and base, and carefully lay it with the others. Today we can only guess as to why a group of Neanderthals built a series of large stalagmite structures in a French cave – but the fact they did provides a rare glimpse into our extinct cousin’s potential for social organisation in a challenging environment. “The enigmatic structures Gone are the days when we include a ring 7 metres thought of Neanderthals as across, and are built from crude and unintelligent. around 400 stalagmites” Archaeological evidence now suggests they were capable of symbolic thought, had a basic at a time when Neanderthals were knowledge of chemistry, the only hominins in the region. medicine and cooking, and The stalagmite structures are perhaps some capacity for speech. 50 centimetres high in places, A reassessment of evidence says Jaubert. They are built from Bruniquel cave, near from around 400 individual Toulouse in south-west France, stalagmites with a combined suggests even more Neanderthal weight of about 2 tonnes. sophistication. In one chamber, “That must take time [to shift],” 336 metres from the cave entrance, he says – although exactly how are enigmatic structures, long it took the Neanderthals to 12 | NewScientist | 4 June 2016
build the structures isn’t clear. “As often in prehistory, measuring time is not easy.” What we do know is that the structures were built in dark, challenging conditions and the builders had no natural light to help them. Indeed, Jaubert’s team found traces of fire at several points around and on the structures. The simplest explanation is that the structures served as some sort of shelter or refuge – perhaps the stalagmite “walls” supported a roof of perishable wood, for example. But there are no other artefacts and very few signs of domestic activity in the chamber beyond the presence of a charred bone fragment possibly from a bear or large herbivore. That draws comparisons with much later cave sites such as Chauvet, a 30,000-year-old site of modern human occupation that is rich in cave art but contained a mere handful of artefacts. So perhaps Bruniquel – like Chauvet – served some ritual role. If so it would provide more evidence for the Neanderthal’s capacity for symbolic thought. Paola Villa at the University of Colorado in Boulder says the new work lends weight to her view that Neanderthals should be considered on a similar intellectual plane to modern humans. n
exactly how our bodies develop. Darren Nesbeth, a synthetic biologist at University College London, says this is an exciting technology that could record the biography of a cell. For example, immune cells could be engineered to patrol a person’s body, recording what they see and reporting back when recaptured. CRISPR-based logging was developed by Timothy Lu and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They designed a system allowing CRISPR to be activated in a cell whenever it encounters a particular event – such as exposure to a chemical. When this happens, CRISPR generates mutations in a specific region of the cell’s DNA, effectively leaving a mark to log the event. Analysing how many mutations there are reveals roughly how many of these events have occurred. To show that the technique works, Lu’s team engineered cells that could monitor inflammation levels. When they put these monitor cells into mice, those that were in mice that had been provoked to have higher levels of inflammation logged more mutations (bioRxiv, doi.org/bhzv). Geneticist Gaetan Burgio at the Australian National University in Canberra says the technology could be used to understand exactly what happens to a cell when a virus or bacterium invades. “The method shows great promise,” he says. Michael Le Page n
the adult brain is just as agile as a childâ€™s
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in Brief Gas giants’ gravity could herd meteors
Fear and pleasure work their way separately into memory ONE region, two routes. Memories of pleasure and fear are laid down in the same part of the brain, but along
the medial prefrontal cortex, they were stored along separate paths or axonal projections, which in turn linked to different brain regions (Cell, DOI: 10.1016/ j.cell.2016.05.010). This could have implications for treating mental health disorders, says Deisseroth. Some drugs, as well as
different pathways. Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University and his team gave mice a pleasurable experience using cocaine, or frightened them with electric shocks. After death, the team washed away the fatty materials in the mouse brains, making them transparent. Dyes that highlighted previously active cells allowed them to see which
transcranial magnetic stimulation, target the prefrontal cortex. “Now we know the signals for fear and pleasure can be transmitted by different axonal projections, new targeted treatments might be envisioned,” he says. Joff Lee at the University of Birmingham, UK, agrees that the finding might lead to better treatments. If we do not target the right neurons, drugs intended to reduce
networks of neurons were involved in each experience. Although both types of memory were laid down in
fear may inadvertently also affect how we process pleasure, Lee says.
Mongol hordes beaten by rainy weather IT HAS always mystified historians. After a string of major victories, the Mongol army suddenly retreated from central Europe in 1242. Some argue that Mongolian politics forced the withdrawal, while others credit the strength of fortified towns. But Europe could have been rescued by its own bad weather, an analysis of tree rings and historical documents finds. The Mongol cavalry fed its 14 | NewScientist | 4 June 2016
horses on the grassy Eurasian steppe, says Nicola Di Cosmo of Princeton University. A warm climate in the early 1200s made the grasslands lush and this, in turn, helped the Mongols extend their empire into Russia, he says. But Hungary has a high water table compared with the rest of the steppe and floods easily. Analysing tree rings in the region, Di Cosmo and his colleagues
found that Hungary had a cold, wet winter in early 1242 that turned Hungary’s central plain into a huge swamp. Lacking pasture for their horses, the Mongols fell back to drier highlands and then to Russia (Scientific Reports, doi.org/bhxt). While climate wasn’t the only factor in the retreat, it would be a mistake to ignore it, says Di Cosmo. “It’s like saying the winter in Russia had no effect on Napoleon’s army.”
A RARE cosmic balancing act could create spectacular meteor showers. The effect requires clockwork precision – but it may be responsible for some of the best showers in recent memory. The Perseid meteors, which occur every August, come from fragments of ice and rock ejected by comet Swift-Tuttle. From 1989 to 1994, the meteors came in bright, oddly staccato bursts. Now a team led by Aswin Sekhar at the University of Oslo in Norway thinks they know why: a rare gravitational dance between the Perseids, Saturn and Jupiter. At key points in the Perseid stream, meteors may clump due to nudges from what’s called a threebody orbital resonance (arxiv.org/ abs/1605.06340). The showers of the early 1990s may have occurred when Earth passed through a clump of Perseids herded together by the resonance – but the next such event may not be until 2111.
Vaccinations rise, web searches fall NO NEED to Google it. Chickenpox vaccination programmes have meant that fewer people are looking up the disease online. Australia, Germany and the US have been immunising children against the varicella zoster virus for more than a decade, but the success of these initiatives is hard to pin down. Now Kevin Bakker of the University of Michigan and his colleagues have found that between 2004 and 2015, Google searches for chickenpox fell in various countries once they began immunising against it (PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1523941113). Compared with clinical reporting, such “digital epidemiology” is much quicker and cheaper, Bakker says.
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GOLDEN jackals are often seen as a pest, blamed for the death of livestock and wild animals as they move from south-central Eurasia into northern Europe. But they are, in fact, saving countries millions of euros in waste management. “We want to change people’s opinions about jackals,” says Duško C´irovic´ at the University of Belgrade, Serbia. “They are blamed for hunting wild and domestic animals, but we found that they are only eating the carcasses and remains left by people.” C´irovic´ and his colleagues analysed the stomach contents of 606 golden jackals (Canis aureus) in different areas of Serbia that had been shot or killed on roads. They found that most of the jackals’ diet was made up of the skin or intestines of domestic or wild animals that are usually discarded by farmers or hunters. They also ate small rodents – which are crop pests. Considering the jackal population in Serbia, the team estimates that they remove 3700 tonnes of animal
remains and 13.2 million crop pest rodents every year, a service that would cost half a million euros. Based on estimates of Europe’s total jackal population, the overall figures could be as high as 13,000 tonnes of animal remains and 158 million rodents, they claim (Biological Conservation, doi.org/bhxn).
Bloated baby black holes spotted in the distant universe EVEN giants were small once. Two blobs spotted in the distant, ancient universe may be the seeds of the supermassive black holes that now dominate the core of every galaxy. We think that massive black holes existed when the universe was less than a billion years old. But we don’t understand how they grew so large in such a short time. Either they formed from massive stars and fattened up at breakneck speed by swallowing gas, or they had a head start – by being born more than 100,000
times heavier than the sun. Now a team led by Fabio Pacucci at Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy, thinks it has found two examples of the latter: baby black holes that formed directly from a collapsing gas cloud without becoming a star first. The team screened distant galaxies for red objects that also emitted X-rays. Light from near a baby black hole still enshrouded in a gas cloud would emerge in infrared wavelengths, so redness is a good indicator that you’ve found one. Another clue is
X-rays – which typically come from gas falling onto black holes – passing through the gas cloud. The team found only two candidates for baby black holes in thousands of ancient galaxies (arxiv.org/abs/1603.08522). This is puzzling given that supermassive black holes are in almost every galaxy in the modern universe. But Mitchell Begelman at the University of Colorado in Boulder suggests you wouldn’t need many baby black holes for a supermassive one to take root at the heart of a big galaxy like the Milky Way. Alecia Carter
Trash-eating jackals clean up
Sea sponge may be oldest living animal DEEP in the waters off the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands lurks a behemoth. A sponge the size of a car has been discovered that could be hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. Daniel Wagner of the NOAA Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and his colleague spotted the giant, a member of the Rossellidae family, during an expedition last year. Images of the sponge taken at a depth of just over 2100 metres revealed that it was 3.5 metres long, 2 metres high and 1.5 metres wide. The stable, relatively undisturbed habitat of the conservation site has probably aided the sponge’s unfettered growth (Marine Biodiversity, doi.org/bhxx). “A lot of organisms in deep seas grow very slowly, so they need their habitats to remain stable over a long time to be able to grow larger and larger,” Wagner says. “Sponges don’t have things like growth rings that can be used to estimate age. My best guess is that this is likely a very old sponge on the order of century to millennia.” The discovery of the sponge at the site underscores the need to protect the area, the team says.
Compare the meerkat - in the wild IN THE race to the top of the breeding tree, meerkats pig out to boost their own growth in response to a rival gaining weight.
Tim Clutton-Brock at the University of Cambridge and his colleagues conducted an experiment in 14 breeding groups in the Kalahari
In the strict social hierarchy of meerkats, a dominant pair all but monopolises breeding. Up-andcomers of both sexes can wait for years for the top spot to free up – and when the time comes, it’s usually the fattest meerkat that wins. “Those that become dominant and keep their rivals down hit the reproductive jackpot,” says Alex Thornton at the University of Exeter, UK.
desert. They took 48 pairs of same-sex siblings and bulked up selected lighter siblings with doses of boiled egg for three months. When faced with a rival fattening up, meerkats actively increased their own food intake – and subsequent growth rate. Also, when a meerkat becomes dominant, it grows bigger if its nearest rival is close to its own weight (Nature, doi.org/bhxc).
4 June 2016 | NewScientist | 15
EU REFERENDUM analysis
How Britain will decide On 23 June, the UK public will decide whether the country should leave the European Union. Despite politicians claiming otherwise, no one knows the consequences of Brexit. So with reliable information hard to come by, what will determine whether Brits put a cross in the Remain or the Leave box? Gut instinct
Francois Lenoir / Reuters
THE EU referendum could be the most irrational yet. Uncertainty over consequences, and contradictory economic and political information, mean that voters will be swung even more than usual by feelings and biases that have nothing to do with the issues at stake. “Polls show that knowledge about the EU in Britain is low,” says John McCormick, who studies EU politics at Indiana UniversityPurdue University Indianapolis. “To a large extent it’s going to be a domestic protest vote”. He predicts that instead of EU considerations, many voters will be guided by their entrenched views on immigration, the Conservative government and political figures such as David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. In this, the EU referendum is similar to the UK’s Alternative Vote referendum in 2011, in which voters were asked if they wanted to replace the first past the post voting system with the “alternative vote”. The result was no: 68 per cent to 32 per cent. Surveys conducted in the weeks before showed that many people didn’t understand what the alternative system was or what would change were it adopted. Yet many voted anyway, led by their perceptions of party leaders – whether they thought them competent or likeable, for example. This is the kind of cognitive shortcut that psychologists have found we all use in the face of Will the UK go it alone? 16 | NewScientist | 4 June 2016
There are some assumptions pollsters can make, such as voters who have previously supported the UK Independence Party are very likely to be in favour of Brexit. But in general the EU issue cuts across party lines, says John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK, making prediction even more fraught. Jacob Aron
Your Facebook feed
POLITICIANS like to say that the only poll that matters is the one on election day, but opinion polls shape the narrative of a vote. “The polling sets the territory for the debate,” says Anthony Wells at polling firm YouGov. “If the polling shows Leave might win, all the media talk will be
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
What the polls say
THE power of social media to influence politics is one of the narratives of our time – Obama’s US presidential win in 2008 was hailed as the Facebook election and the debate over how much social media jump-started the Arab Spring still goes on. But can social media messaging really make up or change minds on an issue as unemotive as Europe? Campaigners think it’s worth a punt. Paul Stephenson of the campaign group Vote Leave says Facebook is the prime social media platform. “Both campaigns have £7 million to spend and we’ll be putting a large chunk of that in Facebook,” he says. On the face of it it’s a good bet. In the 2015 UK general election, the Conservatives spent £1.3 million on Facebook adverts, targeting people who lived in the 40 constituencies they needed for a majority. But despite the myriad startups that analyse what likes, shares and comments really mean, it’s hard to find out whether this converts to votes. In the case of the 2015 campaign, “all we can do is correlate Facebook spend with the results in those seats that were targeted”, says Darren Lilleker at Bournemouth University, UK. Doing well on social media doesn’t always lead to a win, however. In the 2014 Scottish referendum, the Yes campaign was ahead on social media throughout – and lost. Graeme Baxter of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, UK, says politicians of both sides weren’t using social media’s full
power. In general, he says, campaigns often use it as a broadcast platform. But a monologue tends to appeal only to those who already agree with everything a campaign is saying. It ignores social media’s potential to draw voters into a richer twoway conversation – the digital equivalent of door-to-door canvassing. Stephenson says Leave does respond to direct messages but not to all the posts people put on their feed: “That would be impossible!” The reticence may also be down to the fact that something said in Boris Johnson wants to Leave
Stefan Rousseau/PA/Press Association Images
overwhelming or uncertain about contingency plans.” That information. The problem is that could push people into worrying they aren’t necessarily accurate about the uncertainty of Brexit and may be completely irrelevant. and opting to remain, something One of the most common that happened in 2014’s Scottish shortcuts is “status quo bias”. independence referendum. This is the tendency of people A consistent set of neck-andwho aren’t politically engaged neck polls is likely to galvanise or who are confused about the people to get out and vote, but possible consequences to vote the Leave camp has an advantage against change. It has played a role when it comes to voter turnout, in many referendums including as older people are both more the alternative vote, says Paul likely to vote and to be in favour Whiteley at the University of of Brexit. One thing a close poll Essex, UK, and is likely to be even won’t do is encourage tactical more important in this one. voting – while in a general election Brexit is more important for voters may switch allegiance to a the future of the UK than a switch third party to block another, that to the alternative vote, he says, so can’t happen in a referendum. more people will feel they have a Whatever the result, polling duty to vote even if they really firms can’t afford to get it wrong. don’t know what to do. They are still licking their wounds One of the greatest unknowns after an industry-wide failure to is how the current widespread predict a Conservative majority mistrust of political elites will play out. This has contributed to “Knowledge about the EU the success of Syriza in Greece and is low. It will be a domestic protest vote guided by Podemos in Spain, as well as the entrenched views” rise of Donald Trump and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the UK’s Labour party. Anger at in the UK’s 2015 general election. A report into that failure, political elites – including those in Brussels – may be more influential published in March, concluded that companies had relied on than traditional concerns such as biased samples that underhow the EU affects British values, represented Conservative voters. says Stephen Reicher at the Unfortunately for pollsters, University of St Andrews in the UK. forecasting the results of a “What so many politicians fail to understand is that, in this anti- referendum brings its own challenges. “For a referendum, political age, politics as usual there isn’t a previous one four doesn’t work and that doing years ago that you can base things things that might conventionally on,” says Wells. doom you now doesn’t,” he says. “It might even help you, Young people tend to back Remain something Trump has mastered to perfection.” Michael Bond
response to an individual could get rebroadcast across the web and sound inappropriate. “There have been so many high-profile faux pas over the years, I can understand why some are reluctant,” says Baxter. Perhaps the biggest input of social media will be to draw in people who haven’t been thinking about the referendum – whether that’s via campaign content that people share or via friends’ own grassroots endorsements. “There will be an element of accidental exposure,” says Lilleker, which could push people who hadn’t considered voting to vote. Friends can put information in front of us we may not have sought out ourselves, says Nigel Jackson of Plymouth University, UK, adding that friends are one of the most powerful influences on who we vote for. Hal Hodson n 4 June 2016 | NewScientist | 17
EU Referendum comment
Brexit, or not? The UK and its science will thrive outside the EU, says Chris Leigh. Vote leave and risk big collective gains, warns Mike Galsworthy The UK should leave
CAN the UK thrive outside the European Union? This is a central question in the EU referendum debate, and the fate of British science is part of it. The UK’s scientific status is beyond dispute. A recent UNESCO report confirms British researchers excel globally. They generate around 15 per cent of the world’s most-cited papers. Of the world’s top 20 universities, the five that are in EU nations are all British. Voting to exit the EU won’t throw this into reverse. Recent Royal Society figures show that EU research funding supports just 3 per cent of UK R&D.
“Ill-thought-out and burdensome EU regulation is a major threat to UK innovation” That was UK taxpayer money in the first place, part of the nation’s £13 billion annual contribution. On the whole, our scientific and academic base gains no more than a marginal benefit from political membership of the EU. And while international collaboration is essential for science to excel, Scientists for Britain is confident that after a vote to leave, the UK would continue to work with EU science networks. It could be an associated member of EU research programmes, along with 16 other non-EU nations, including Norway, Switzerland, Israel and Tunisia. They pay in to access grants on an equal footing with member states. Add in British involvement 18 | NewScientist | 4 June 2016
with European projects that are not EU entities – such as CERN, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and the European Space Agency – and it’s clear the UK would still play a major and productive role in European science from outside the union. What’s more, non-EU scientists can sit on the governing body of the European Research Council, with both Israel and Switzerland on it in recent years. And the new Scientific Advice Mechanism, which helps shape EU policy, also allows for non-EU members. Finally, the fact that the US, Canada and Australia recruit a greater percentage of overseas researchers than the UK, France and Germany shows that political union is not essential to the flow of scientific talent. British science can gain from Brexit. The greatest threat to UK innovation comes from illthought-out and burdensome EU regulations, such as the 2001 Clinical Trials Directive, which led to the UK’s global share of clinical trials dropping dramatically in the years that followed. The referendum is not a vote on membership of a science club, as that can continue. For people in the UK, it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to decide who we are and who we want to govern us. Which brings us to another key question: do we want to be a selfgoverning nation with a global vision, or remain as a reluctant participant in a political union set upon the path to federalism? n Chris Leigh is part of the Scientists for Britain group
The UK should stay
THE EU is the world’s science superpower and the UK is in the driving seat. The union of 28 nations produces a third of the world’s research output – 34 per cent more than the US. That gap has widened by 4 per cent over the past six years. Collectively, Europe produces more researchers than China or the US. The EU is the glue that has networked European countries into a powerful hub with global reach. A common budget, common policies and freedom of movement harness an economy of scale to lower barriers, unleash academic freedom
and return huge added value. EU researchers form a talent pool from which universities and small businesses can hire without visa hurdles. Its science programmes are growing rapidly, facilitating multinational research between 170 countries. On policy, EU members collaborate to design science programmes, common academic standards and the innovation standards of the single market. All of these magnify British science. Whether it’s UK technical standards becoming EU standards then global standards thanks to the single market’s size, or the fact that international collaborations have 50 per cent more impact
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Mike Galsworthy (@mikegalsworthy) is programme director of Scientists for EU (@scientists4EU)
INSIGHT Alternative democracy
than domestic research, it’s all about increased value through team play. The overwhelming majority of UK researchers and engineers – 93 per cent in a recent survey – regard the EU as a “major benefit” to UK research. It’s less about the money, which “only” funds 17 per cent of science contracts in universities and about 5 per cent of the total UK research landscape. It’s more that crossborder policies and funding cannot be replaced at national levels. The EU is the glue between European institutions catalysing our multinational capacity. Brexiteers regularly argue that the UK could buy back into the EU science programme from outside, citing examples of small non-EU countries. Their presumptions show little understanding of the balance of interests for the remaining EU members. Yes, the UK would get some access, most probably partial access like Switzerland has. However, full associated status is most likely to be dependent upon retaining a freedom of movement agreement and also some net financial contribution. Even then, there’s no guarantee and the UK would have given up its policy voice. Some might muse that issues of science are trivial relative to the issues of “democracy” or “sovereignty” proclaimed with zeal from some quarters. To quote the English novelist John Galsworthy: “Idealism increases in direct proportion to one’s distance from the problem.” Those that work in science policy see the EU’s democratic processes working well for science and the UK’s leading voice in decision-making. EU science works. That’s why every UK minister for universities and science for the last 25 years has warned against leaving, and there isn’t one UK university vice chancellor that supports Brexit. n
–Who’s unsure about the facts? –
There are better ways to decide the big issues Niall Firth
So, if we do want the public involved in big decisions, what’s the best way of going about it? One of the wackier ideas is liquid democracy, in which every voter has a mandate they can exercise as they see fit. The mandate is transferable, so voters can pass theirs to someone they trust. The whole process happens online and at any point you can retrieve a vote you’ve allocated to someone else and use it yourself. It puts power directly in the people’s hands, while making sure it’s not just a case of who shouts the loudest. But it too has flaws: individuals can garner a
REFERENDUMS are “a splendid weapon for demagogues and dictators”, argued Margaret Thatcher in a debate over Britain’s place in the EU in 1975. Was that anything more than a snappy sound bite? Do referendums appeal to the darker side of democracy? Referendums are the embodiment of direct democracy, which means every citizen gets a vote on an issue. That seems entirely fair, but one argument against them is that they oversimplify complex arguments. They usually frame things in the binary, which is “Baking public involvement rarely how people see an issue. into the democratic Some places have thrived under process would better direct democracy for years. Swiss than referendums” citizens have the right to call a referendum to make changes to the huge number of mandates and wield country’s constitution if enough a disproportionate amount of power. people sign a petition. That sounds A more fundamental problem of reasonable too, but it has revealed such set-ups is political legitimacy. another flaw of referendums – that decisions made by a majority are often Any level of complexity, like the transfer of mandates, makes it harder made at the expense of the minority. to trace how a decision was made. For example, in 2009, Switzerland Demagoguery it might be, but when banned the building of Islamic minarets after 57 per cent voted for it. . the UK public votes on the country’s
future in the EU, the choice is clear, even if the knock-on effects are not. A referendum makes voters feel as if they are directly influencing a situation. Trouble is, most people don’t feel well equipped with facts, leaving a vacuum that is filled with endless spin and fearmongering, as we have seen so far in this campaign. Online tools such as FullFact.org can help, which fact-check arguments made by both sides. Online questionnaires can also be useful, letting you choose the issues you feel strongly about and then suggesting how you should vote. But people still have to search for these tools. A more satisfying option would be to bake public involvement into the democratic process. Enter “deliberative democracy”. This involves a group of citizens discussing issues and making suggestions to the electorate. One example is the Citizens’ Initiative Review Commission in Oregon, where a panel of randomly selected people discusses issues before voting day. After this, a “Citizens’ Statement” is included with each ballot paper, summarising the key points as decided by the voters’ peers . It’s a bit late to get the electorate better informed for this referendum, but it won’t be long before another one looms. Doing it deliberatively next time, in a way that engages people with an issue, and with politics itself, is an opportunity the establishment should grasp. n 4 June 2016 | NewScientist | 19
They are listening Computers can now speed through thousands of phone conversations to pick out suspect behaviour, finds Hal Hodson SAY it out loud and the machines will know. Search engines are moving beyond the web and into the messy real world. And they’re finding some odd things. Every call into or out of US prisons is recorded. It can be important to know what’s being said, because some inmates use phones to conduct illegal business on the outside. But the recordings generate huge quantities of audio that are prohibitively expensive to monitor with human ears. To help, one jail in the Midwest recently used a machine-learning system developed by London firm Intelligent Voice to listen in on the thousands of hours of recordings generated every month. The software saw the phrase “three-way” cropping up again and again in the calls – it was one
churning through the recordings. This story illustrates the speed and scale of analysis that machine-learning algorithms are bringing to the world. Intelligent Voice originally developed the software for use by UK banks, which must record their calls to comply with industry regulations. As with prisons, this generates a vast amount of audio data that is hard to search through. The company’s CEO Nigel Cannings says the breakthrough
of the most common non-trivial words or phrases used. At first, prison officials were surprised by the overwhelming popularity of what they thought was a sexual reference. Then they worked out it was code. Prisoners are allowed to call only a few previously agreed numbers. So if an inmate wanted to speak to someone on a number not on the list, they would call their friends or parents and ask for a “three-way” with the person they really wanted to talk to – code for dialling a third party into the call. No one running the phone surveillance at the prison spotted the code until the software started 20 | NewScientist | 4 June 2016
Marmaduke St. John/Alamy Stock Photo
“No one at the prison spotted the code word until software started churning through calls”
came when he decided to see what would happen if he pointed a machine-learning system at the waveform of the voice data – its pattern of spikes and troughs – rather than the audio recording directly. It worked brilliantly. Training his system on this visual representation let him harness powerful existing techniques designed for image classification. “I built this dialect classification system based on pictures of
the human voice,” he says. The trick let his system create its own models for recognising speech patterns and accents that were as good as the best handcoded ones around, models built by dialect and computer science experts. “In our first run we were getting something like 88 per cent accuracy,” says Intelligent Voice developer Neil Glackin. The software then taught itself to transcribe speech by using recordings of US congressional hearings, matching up the audio with the transcripts.
Cheap as chips
The power of machines that can listen and watch is not that they can do better than human ears or eyes. In fact, they perform much worse – especially when confronted with data from the real world. Their power, like all applications of computation, lies in speed, scale and the relative cheapness of processing. “The cost would work out at 4 pence per hour of audio,” says Cannings. Human transcription costs can be 1000 times that. An automated transcription service is something Intelligent Voice is considering, but for now they are focusing on search. Most large tech companies are developing neural networks for understanding speech, opening up data sets that were previously difficult, or impossible, to search. Voice-activated virtual assistants like Google Now, Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Echo and Microsoft’s Cortana must also make sense of the quirks of human speech. And Facebook recently announced that it has repurposed its image-recognition software to draw maps based on satellite photos of Earth. These maps are of lower quality than those produced by humans but, again, the advantage is speed. Facebook’s system can map the entire land surface of the planet – every road –All on record– and house – in just a few hours. n
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NHS may soon use a smart shirt to diagnose epilepsy A SHIRT and cap that can diagnose epilepsy quickly and easily has been approved for use by European health services, including the UK’s NHS. Epileptic seizures are the result of excessive electrical discharges in the brain. More than 50 million people worldwide have the condition, including 6 million in Europe, making it one of the world’s most common serious neurological conditions. To diagnose epilepsy, someone must typically have a seizure recorded by an EEG machine in a hospital. But seizures rarely coincide with hospital visits. “The diagnosis can take several years and is often imprecise,” says Françoise Thomas-Vialettes, president of French epilepsy society EFAPPE. Seizures are so difficult to record that 30 per cent of people with
–Who’s surfing who?–
How websites take your fingerprint on the sly
epilepsy in Europe are misdiagnosed. To make diagnosis easier, French start-up BioSerenity developed the Neuronaute, a smart outfit that monitors people as they go about their day. The shirt and cap are
THE web is watching you. Chunks party, sometimes dozens of of code hide inside every website, times. The audit also revealed tracking your online behaviour. several previously unknown Now, a pair of computer “fingerprinting” techniques that scientists have published their sites are using. Here, the website embedded with sensors that record attempt to spy back. They audited asks the browser to perform a task the electrical activity of the wearer’s 1 million of the most popular that is hidden from the user. The brain, heart and muscles. If a seizure websites for tracking behaviours – site then fingerprints individual occurs, the outfit can send an EEG more than anyone has looked at machines based on slight recording to doctors via a smartphone. before. Their investigation gives differences in their performance. The Neuronaute has recently new insight not only into what Trackers used to do this by completed trials at Pitié-Salpêtrière sites might know about you, watching how the browser draws Hospital in Paris. It could be especially but how they’re figuring it out. “The audit found that some useful for diagnosing children, says Studying a million websites is Thomas-Vialettes. Frances Marcellin n hard. To do it, Arvind Narayanan – websites were asking for who heads the Web Transparency data on a visiting device’s battery level” and Accountability Project at Princeton University – built a tool called OpenWPM with graduate a graphic; now, they check student Steven Englehardt. what fonts are installed or how OpenWPM can visit and log in to the browser processes audio. websites automatically, taking A couple of trackers even gathered more than a dozen measurements the device’s battery level. of each one. It took two weeks to Tracking lets websites serve crawl through the top million targeted ads, personalise what websites, as ranked by web traffic users see, or even price products firm Alexa. differently. Audits like this one Narayanan and Englehardt can make the process behind discovered that many trackers these behaviours more are sharing the information they transparent, says Narayanan. –At home diagnosis– gather with at least one other “You often don’t know how
much tracking is going on, who’s doing the tracking, or what data they’re collecting about you and what that will be used for,” he says. “There needs to be external oversight, somebody holding companies’ feet to the fire.” Overall, they discovered more than 81,000 third-party trackers. News websites had the most, on average. Adult websites and those owned by government agencies and universities tended to have the fewest. Information like this could be helpful for privacy tools like Ghostery, a popular browser extension that blocks trackers, says Narayanan. “A big part of our research is helping [software] like Ghostery,” he says. “Tools like this can block only the known stuff, not the unknown stuff.” David Choffnes of Northeastern University in Boston says it’s hard to be surprised by revelations like this when web tracking is so ubiquitous. “Is it frustrating and disappointing? Very much,” he says. “Such studies are important to keep consumers aware of privacy risks while browsing the web, informing regulators, and guiding the design of countermeasures for those who do not want to be tracked.” Aviva Rutkin n 4 June 2016 | NewScientist | 21
ONE PER CENT
Spot that poker face New tech claims to tell personalities from faces, says Sally Adee
suitable candidates,” says Wilf. Many machine vision researchers are crying foul, however, including Emin Gün Sirer at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “A classifier that tries to flag every single person of Arab descent could identify 9 out of the 11 Paris attackers at the cost of falsely flagging 370 million out of the 450 million Arabs in the world,” he says. “Such a classifier is completely useless.” Wilf says that for each of their classifiers, the training sets of images run in the thousands. But for behaviours as uncommon as terrorism or paedophilia, this will still lead to a number of false positives and Wilf acknowledges this. “There are always accuracy issues with machine learning algorithms,” he says. For that reason, the algorithm will always defer to human judgement. What that means in practice is unclear, as the human ability to infer personality from facial traits is only slightly better than chance, says David Perrett at the University of St Andrews in the UK. Face recognition technology has been the subject of many ethics debates in recent years. Most recently, there was an outcry over FindFace, a Russian app which uses data from social network Vkontakte to enable users to identify people they snapped on the street. “We would never license our IP to someone who would use it for those kinds of purposes,” says Wilf. But Gilad Bechar, a cofounder of the company, says one of its clients is an unnamed security contractor outside of the US. “This is a new idea,” Wilf says. “New ideas are often greeted –Anyone for bingo?– with friction.” n
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Traffic-jam buster What carries 1400 passengers and travels at 60 kilometres an hour but takes up no space on the road? Step forward the “straddling bus” (see model above), which aims to solve China’s urban congestion problems by carrying passengers in cabins 2 metres above the road, letting cars pass underneath. Beijing-based company Transit Explore Bus plans to test a full-size model in July or August.
The number of workers to be replaced by robots at a Foxconn factory in Kunshun, China, according to local authorities. Foxconn supplies electronics to Samsung and Apple
Robots in disguise Do we trust robots too much? Serena Booth and her colleagues at Harvard University tested the idea by placing a wheeled robot outside different student residences. When it asked to be let in a pass-protected door, only 17 per cent of people did so when approached on their own. But this rose to 76 per cent when the robot was disguised as a cookie-delivery bot from a made-up outfit called RobotGrub. Only one person out of 108 asked to see an access card.
CAN software identify complex terrorist, paedophile, white-collar personality traits simply by criminal, poker player, bingo analysing your face? Faception, a player and academic. To come up start-up in Tel Aviv, Israel, courted with its custom archetypes, Itzik controversy this week when it Wilf, Faception’s chief technology claimed its tech does just that. And officer, says the system was not just broad categories such as trained on the facial features of introvert or extrovert: Faception thousands of images of known claims it can spot paedophiles, examples. The software only terrorists – and brand promoters. looks at facial features, he says, Faception’s algorithm scours and ignores things like hairstyle images of a person from a variety and jewellery. of sources, including uploaded “Faception claims it can spot photos, live-streamed video terrorists, paedophiles – and mugshots in a database. It and even brand promoters then encodes facial features, and bingo players” including width and height ratio, and key points – for example, the corners of the eyes and mouth. Wilf says this has led to notable “Using automated feature successes. When presented with extraction is standard for face the photos of the 11 people behind recognition and emotion the 2016 Paris attacks, the recognition,” says Raia Hadsell, algorithm was able to classify nine a machine vision engineer at of them as terrorists. Similarly, Google DeepMind. it spotted 25 out of the 27 poker The controversial part is what players in an image database. happens next. Faception maps The Faception site also lists these features onto a set of more prosaic uses for its tech, 15 proprietary “classifiers” that including marketing, insurance it has developed over the past underwriting and recruiting. three years. Its categories include “HR could use it to identify
C60 Trident Pro 600 Chronograph
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Duck and dive THIS is how eider ducks get their lunch. The common eider (Somateria mollissima) flocks to the Norwegian coast in winter to surf the waves and feed in the protected bays and fjords. Pål Hermansen has been photographing the birds along Norway’s central Trøndelag coast for three years, but he is mostly working blind. To get pictures like this one, he lowers a remotecontrolled camera on a pole into the water and fires off shots as the birds dive in. This image of a male eider is his favourite shot. The birds like to snack on mussels, which they swallow whole. The shells are crushed in their gizzard and excreted in small pieces. Crabs are trickier: the eider has to tear off the claws and legs before gulping down the body. The scientific name for the bird comes from the Ancient Greek somatos, for body, erion, for wool and the Latin mollissimus, meaning “very soft”. The down feathers of the female were once used to fill “eiderdown” pillows and quilts, but these days it is more common to use either synthetic materials or down from domestic geese.
Photographer Pål Hermansen www.naturepl.com
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1system 2 Industrial 3 civiliSation Life on The solar
this is 4 E a r t h
Disease 6 Science
All things must pass. But how, why and when will all the stuff we take for granted cease to be? And what comes after? From the personal to the cosmic and the avoidable to the inevitable, in this special feature we look at 13 endings that will transform the world as we know it
7 You 8S e x EcOnomic growth
The Milky Way 11
12 Homo sapiens
The Universe 13 26 | NewScientist | 4 June 2016
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The solar system
UR star is not destined to explode as a supernova, hurling its planets into space. It’s just not massive enough. But when it finally burns through its supply of hydrogen some 6 billion years from now, the great sphere of hot plasma at the centre of our solar system will grow so spectacularly bloated and bright that it will transform our cosmic neighbourhood forever. Like most stars, the sun is a main sequence star: in its core, nuclear fusion generates energy by converting hydrogen to helium. Once all the hydrogen there has been consumed, a layer of hydrogen around the core will ignite, and the extra heat produced will overcome the gravity that was keeping the sun from ballooning. The result is a red giant: a swollen sun, thousands of times more luminous than it is now, whose outer layers will engulf the innermost planets. At full splendour, its radius will extend a little further than Earth’s current orbit.
And yet our little blue marble may yet escape. As the sun swells, it will lose up to a third of its mass to a great outward wind of charged particles. With that will go some of its gravitational pull, allowing the comets, asteroids and planets held in its sway to migrate to wider orbits. For the innermost planets, it’s a race against time. “Mercury, Venus and Earth effectively will each try to outrun the sun as it becomes larger,” says Dimitri Veras of the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK. Mercury and then Venus will almost certainly lose, each being engulfed in the sun’s inflated atmosphere and torn apart by tidal forces. The fate of Earth is less certain. As the planet drifts away, it will be hauled back in by tides from the sun’s outer layers. “The case is too close to call,” Veras says. Still, any life clinging on would be in trouble: the very tides tugging Earth inwards will cook its interior, giving rise to volcanic eruptions worldwide (see “The end of life on Earth”, page 30).
All the planets beyond Earth should survive, but their atmospheres will be transformed or boiled off. Our supercharged sun will even cause havoc in the asteroid belt, says Veras. When sunlight strikes asteroids they spin faster and faster, and many will centrifuge themselves into smithereens. The Oort cloud, a vast population of icy objects loosely bound at the farthest margins of the solar system, will quietly drift away into interstellar space. There is a silver lining: the puffy old sun will be so luminous that the chilly outer regions of the solar system, including the Kuiper belt where Pluto resides, may become hospitable to life. But the opportunity will be fleeting. After 800 million years as an inflated red giant, the sun will shrink to roughly 11 times its current size, then briefly swell again. Finally, its atmosphere will blow away to leave a glowing core: a white dwarf. The stellar embers will cool and eventually crystallise, leaving the Kuiper belt once again out in the cold. Joshua Sokol 4 June 2016 | NewScientist | 27
OU have your own mind, right? You have your own thoughts and you experience the world in your own unique way. In short, you’re an individual. Maybe future generations won’t enjoy the same privilege. If you believe some futurists, technology will make telepaths of us all. We will live every day in a vast network of brains that communicate directly via sensors and implants. This “noosphere” could enable true global consciousness – but it might also obliterate the individual, transforming our existential landscape forever. Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have already demonstrated a human brain-to-brain interface. Rajesh Rao wore a sensor-studded cap to measure his brain’s electrical activity, while Andrea Stocco sported a device that stimulates brain regions using targeted magnetic fields. By imagining moving his hand, Rao was able to send a signal to Stocco’s brain, causing him to move his finger. Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and his colleagues have gone further with rats and monkeys. Last year, they connected the brains of three monkeys, showing that the primates could synchronise brain activity to control a virtual arm. But the leap from monkey brains coordinating an action to a global shared consciousness is massive. “You cannot transfer minds, emotions, memories,” says Nicolelis. We don’t know how to measure and encode such higher-order brain functions. Anders Sandberg at the Future
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of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, UK, says that even if we could establish connections with the required fidelity, we will have a translation problem. “My mind doesn’t work like your mind,” he says. Creating software that can translate different mental representations of various concepts might be as challenging as creating humanlevel artificial intelligence. There may be a workaround. The brain’s plasticity allows it to incorporate and interpret new sensory information. Sandberg thinks that with the right technology we might train our neocortices, the regions of our brains responsible for consciousness, to adapt to more complex signals coming from other brains, rather than from simple sensors. What might life in the hive mind be like? Acting as part of a group can be joyous and fulfilling,
and the larger the group, the greater the benefit. So joining a global noosphere could be a profound and ecstatic experience. We might all share the joy of holding a newborn baby, multiplied by the 350,000 born around the world every day, say, or marvel at how quickly billions of coordinated hands can fix the environment. But there is a dark side. “If technology makes it easy for the
“Global shared consciousness could be a profound, joyful experience”
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good ideas to spread, it can also make it easy for the stupid ideas,” says Sandberg. False accusations, for instance, could rage through our shared consciousness like wildfire, supercharging the worst that mob rule has to offer. Advanced neural filters that automatically block the most dangerous thoughts might prevent the worst-case scenarios, says Sandberg. The same goes for securing our minds against brainhackers seeking to influence or even directly control our thoughts and desires. But such filters would have to assess the content of neural signals to understand human thought, a staggeringly complex task to say the least. If all such hurdles are overcome, the hive mind might operate at different scales, says Sandberg. Our local individual experience would still be ours, as long as the security measures hold up, but we might choose to switch viewpoints, as in a video game. And we might modulate signals coming from higher levels – family, city, regional and global – so that we experience them as our own preferences or even gut feelings. However, as in the early days of the internet, you will probably have to get used to buffering. Nerve impulses move more slowly than the signals between computers. Multiply the inevitable lag by billions of brains, and the hive mind might feel positively indecisive. Even in the deepest future, the speed of light will impose limits on what a hive mind can do, says Sandberg. “A universe-scale hive mind might take billions of years to think a single thought.” MacGregor Campbell
OME, the Maya, Bronze Age Greece: every complex society in history has collapsed. Will our industrial civilisation be any different? Probably not. It all comes down to complexity and energy. Societies inevitably grow more complex as they chase prosperity and find solutions to the problems thrown up by success, and that comes at a cost: energy. Civilisations collapse, the thinking goes, when they can no longer generate enough juice to maintain existing complexity and solve new problems. We got to where we are today because the industrial revolution exploited readily available high-quality anthracite coal. We then used that energy to tap progressively harder-to-access energy sources, driving our complexity to unprecedented heights. But unless we find a bounteous new source, we will one day overshoot what we can afford. Then complexity quickly unravels: political and economic institutions falter, production and trade diminish, global supply chains break. Technologies become impossible. States fragment. Lots of people die. But there is hope. Except for small, isolated societies in which everyone died, no historical collapse has wiped the slate clean. All retained enough of their technologies and institutions to start afresh, and eventually do better. So could our descendants take what remains and build a new civilisation? The problem is that this time, there might be nothing left. “Rome didn’t have nuclear weapons,” says Ian Morris at Stanford University in California. Collapsing societies undergo dramatic shifts in power and wealth, which are always accompanied by violence, he says. “This could be the final collapse.” Globalisation could also make our meltdown different. When past societies fell, there were others left to carry on, says Thomas Homer-Dixon at the
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University of Waterloo in Canada. “If our one global civilisation collapses there won’t be outside resources, capital and knowledge to reboot things.” For Ugo Bardi at the University of Florence in Italy, the chances of rebuilding depend on whether we can keep the electrical grid running. This isn’t just to keep the lights on, but to produce the materials required for industrial civilisation – steel for machinery, potash for fertiliser, silicon for semiconductors and so on. With easily accessible fossil-fuel energy sources long exhausted, Bardi calculates that after a collapse we wouldn’t be able to recover enough energy to mine or smelt the materials we rely on unless we retain a working grid. That means we can future-proof our energy supplies, but only if we act now. Generating fossil-fuel or nuclear energy requires substantial energy up front – if that system collapses we won’t have what it takes to crank it up again. Sun and wind, however, are free; we need only maintain the devices that capture them. Bardi calculates that if half our electricity came from renewables, the
grid could generate enough energy to maintain us and, crucially, itself, through crises that would completely collapse our present system. But we would need to build it while we have the silicon and civil order, and that would require investment in renewables to be 50 times its current level. If not, says Bardi, “we don’t have enough anthracite to reinvent electricity or launch the industrial revolution again. So it will be agriculture: simple tools and dark nights.” Then again, climate instability might hinder farming, leaving hunting and gathering. To do any better than that we will need to keep our key institutions, Homer-Dixon thinks, but that could be impossible amid severe climate change and conflict. When things settle down, all our records could be gone: even hard drives decay in a century or two. And in case you think we might be better off forgetting the knowledge that led to our civilisation’s fall, think again: the more primitive the society, the more violent people were. Collapse will be no return to Eden. Time to start installing those solar cells. Debora MacKenzie 4 June 2016 | NewScientist | 29
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Life on Earth
HEN it comes to what could wipe out all life on Earth, asteroids and comets are the likeliest culprits. If that doesn’t do it, a swollen sun will (see “The end of the solar system,” page 26). In the short term the greatest threat comes from comets, says Peter Ward at the University of Washington in Seattle. Comets hit at three times the speed of asteroids, he says, so they pack more of a punch. “Hale-Bopp is 50 kilometres in diameter. Had it hit, there would be no life on Earth.” The energy released by a HaleBopp-sized impact would boil the oceans and vaporise rock. Earth’s surface would be sterilised. The only possible refuge would lie deep inside our planet, currently home to hardy bacteria and archaea. If life survived down there, maybe in time it could reseed the surface. But it may never get the chance. “Some say the deep microbial biosphere couldn’t survive because if you wipe out the surface ecosystem, sooner or later the nutrients they need will disappear,” says Ward. So if life here were extinguished, could it start again? “You could argue that it happened once, so it would likely happen again,” says David Kring at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. “But it’s difficult to say because strictly speaking, we don’t know what the steps were from an abiotic world to a biological one.” One thing’s for sure: conditions on Earth post-annihilation would be more favourable than first time around. Amino acids and other molecular building blocks of life
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would remain. And the sun is 30 per cent brighter than it was when life began, making liquid water a certainty. If life did rise again, it may not be as we know it. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould famously argued that if life started over, it wouldn’t evolve the same way. “It’s assured that the nature of life, even if it were to re-evolve on the same planet, would be different,” says Kring. Ultimately, though, life on
“If life rises again on Earth, it may not be as we know it: life wouldn’t evolve the same way again” Earth is doomed. Our sun will eventually get so hot that it will start killing off plant life. Higher temperatures also mean more rainfall, accelerating the weathering of silicate rocks, which in turn draws more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Eventually photosynthesis becomes impossible, setting off a cascade of extinctions that starts with large mammals and ends with the hardiest microbes. Life might restart once in a while when conditions improve for brief spells, but there will come a point when the supercharged sun creates conditions that couldn’t possibly support biology. There will be no coming back from that. Andy Ridgway
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HE ultimate goal for medicine is a world without disease. It sounds ideal, but should we be careful what we wish for? Wiping out infectious killers is still a remote prospect, not least because new foes like SARS, HIV, Ebola and Zika are emerging all the time. But let’s assume for the moment that we are up to the task. Let’s imagine, too, that gene editing comes good, putting an end to genetic disease. Many of us would live longer than we do now. But everyone has to die of something. Autopsies on supercentenarians, people who made it past their 110th birthday, have revealed that a build-up of plaque-like substances in organs such as the heart was the cause of death in more than 70 per cent of cases. This still counts as disease even if we choose to describe it as “natural causes”, says Aubrey de Grey, chief science officer at the SENS Research Foundation in Mountain View, California, a charity devoted to combating ageing. Even these problems might be eliminated if stem-cell therapies and tissue engineering live up to their promise. But doing so could create fresh challenges – not least that of our finite planet having to sustain an exploding number of death-defying ancients. It may not have to. Leonid Gavrilov of the Center on
Demography and Economics of Aging at the University of Chicago has modelled what would happen if age-related disease disappeared in Sweden. Assuming that mortality rates would cease rising once people reach 60, the median lifespan would then be 134 years for men and 180 for women. It would also mean that in this century, Sweden’s population would grow from 9.1 million to 11 million, an increase of just 22 per cent. The trouble is that these calculations are based on two assumptions: that couples have fewer than two children and that women stop reproducing before the age of 50. The first isn’t true for much of the world, and donor eggs and IVF are already undermining the second (See “The End of Sex”, page 34). So it’s possible that the population of a disease-free world will spiral out of control after all. Then radical solutions might have to be considered. Suicide and euthanasia might become more acceptable. Or maybe people
“Would you swap the right to children for access to life-extending technologies?”
would have to sacrifice the right to children in exchange for life-extending technologies. Hopefully, we wouldn’t end up with generational cleansing as in the 1976 film Logan’s Run, in which an exploding population was kept in check by the “young” killing anyone who reached the ripe old age of 30. But if that horrifying scenario were ever to come to pass, it’s just as likely to be the old killing the young, says John Harris, director of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester, UK: the old tend to hold the positions of power. The good news is that the end of disease is unlikely to be sudden, which gives us time to adapt. Besides, think of the benefits. Before an effective vaccine was developed, smallpox killed millions of people each year. Tuberculosis, malaria, AIDS and cancer continue to kill many millions more. Then there is the economic side: if people in the poorest countries lived into adulthood and stayed healthy, it might go a long way to alleviating the worst extremes of poverty. “If you think of all the misery and suffering that disease and premature death causes, how could you not say that it would be a wonderful thing to eliminate it,” says Harris. “But it would be a wonderful thing that we’d have to learn to manage.” Linda Geddes 4 June 2016 | NewScientist | 31
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of gravitational waves confirm the foundational paradigms of quantum mechanics and general relativity. Brilliant achievements, sure, but they don’t fundamentally alter our view of the universe. In their desperation to go beyond what we know, physicists are still pursuing string and multiverse theories. But such ideas are as lacking in empirical evidence as they were 20 years ago; in fact, they are yet to yield any testable predictions. Stung by this complaint, some physicists have begun to argue that falsifiability – our best criterion for distinguishing science from pseudoscience – is overrated. Not a good sign. Biology has fared better in recent years, spawning countless advances, from cloning and the Human Genome Project to CRISPR, a powerful new gene-editing technique. But all fit neatly within the framework of DNA-based genetics and
WENTY years ago, I asserted that science at its purest and grandest, the quest to understand the universe and our place in it, is ending. Scientists will produce no revelations as startling as natural selection, the genetic code, quantum mechanics, relativity or the big bang theory. Yes, they will keep extending, refining and applying their knowledge, but they won’t discover anything to force radical revisions of our current maps of reality. Nor will they solve the deepest riddles of existence. Why is there something rather than nothing? How did life begin on Earth, and was it a once-in-eternity fluke? How does matter make mind? Since my book The End of Science was published in 1996, science has achieved nothing that contradicts my dismal forecast. Take physics. The discovery of the Higgs boson and that
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neo-Darwinism. There’s nothing revelatory here. Of all fields, neuroscience has the greatest potential for breakthroughs that could turn our world upside down. Imagine if researchers demonstrated conclusively that bacteria or iPhones are conscious, or have free will. That would shake things up. The US and Europe are pouring money into giant brain-research projects. But the vexed question of how mental and physical states are related, known as the mind-body problem, remains as baffling today as when Descartes pondered it in the 17th century. Some researchers are so desperate that they are seeking inspiration from Buddhism, a 2500-year-old religion. So are scientists starting to accept my end-of-science thesis? Hardly. Most reject it as vehemently now as they did 20 years ago. But rather than present reasoned arguments, they usually profess their faith in scientific progress and scoff at any mention of limits. That’s fine with me, because my views have evolved since I started teaching at an engineering school. When my students resist my argument, as many do, I’m relieved. Get out there and prove me wrong, I say. If one of them cracks the neural code or finds extraterrestrial life, launching a whole new era of science, I would be more than happy to eat my words. I would be ecstatic. John Horgan
how you die Six million might be pushing it, but there are many ways to die – scan the ribbons on the right to find out how people in England and Wales expire. For each age group, the height of each coloured band represents the percentage of deaths in 2014 as a result of the corresponding disease or cause.
External causes (accidents/self-harm/assault /overdose/surgical mishaps) Not classified Congenital/chromosomal diseases Genito-urinary diseases Musculoskeletal diseases Skin diseases Digestive diseases Respiratory diseases Circulatory diseases Nervous system diseases Mental/behavioural disorders Endocrine/nutritional/metabolic diseases Blood/liver/immune system diseases Cancer Infection SOURCE: OFFICE FOR NATIONAL STATISTICS, DEATHS BY UNDERLYING CAUSE, PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 2015
how you decay
In the hours after your heart stops, blood pools in your veins and your muscles stiffen, starting with your face. Your cells begin to self-digest, and blowflies move in to lay eggs.
Bacteria resident in the gut feast on the debris from your dying cells, releasing gases that swell the abdomen. Some gases escape from your orifices, producing the distinctive smell of death.
You have to go some day, so here’s what happens to your body once you’re dead. The rate of decomposition depends on the environment, but the stages are common to everyone. Maiken Ueland
The gassy build-up makes you so bloated that your skin ruptures. The resulting fluid leakage, combined with microorganisms and maggots gobbling
With most of the soft tissue removed, the blowflies and maggots move on and Dermestidae beetles settle in to feast on the remaining
What remains decays slowly. The hair is gradually gobbled up, leaving only bones.
up your soft tissue, leads to shrinkage and collapse.
leathery, dry flesh.
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UMOURS of the end of sex are probably premature. It has served us well so far, and besides, we are biologically programmed to want it. But when it comes to making
also appeal to people who can conceive naturally, because the random shuffling of DNA when sex cells are made can lead to problems. Every year millions of babies are born with a disability caused by genetic defects, and many more inherit
babies, it is no longer the only option – and reproduction without sex looks set to become increasingly common. Last year, human sperm and egg precursor cells were created by reprogramming adult skin cells. Ethical concerns stopped the researchers from coaxing those cells into fully functional
gene variants that predispose them to serious illness. Parents-to-be can already have embryos, created in vitro, screened for genetic abnormalities before they are implanted in the uterus. Using stem cells would make it easier to produce lots of eggs, which in turn makes pre-implantation
sperm and eggs, but the feat seems to have been achieved in mice: a team in China has reported using stem-cellderived sperm to sire healthy mouse pups.
checks a more viable option. But will this application ever be allowed? Pacey suspects not, given the strength of opposition to destroying embryos. Henry Greely, director of
What would happen if the trick could be safely repeated in humans? That would be a genuine cure for infertility, says reproductive biologist Allan Pacey at the University of Sheffield, UK. It would also mean same-sex couples could conceive without the help of donors. It even raises the prospect of individuals procreating alone,
the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University, California, and author of The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction, begs to differ. He anticipates that stem cells will first be used to help people who are unable to make eggs or sperm. Once this is approved, he says, other applications are likely to follow – particularly in
if we could make sperm from a woman’s stem cells and eggs from a man’s stem cells. The offspring wouldn’t be clones of the person concerned, since DNA is shuffled every time you create a sex cell. Even so, it’s not a good idea, says Pacey – self-fertilisation is tantamount to inbreeding, because it halves the genetic diversity available to the child. Sexless reproduction might
the US, where “off-label use” of any approved medical product is allowed. Peer pressure might even persuade people that natural conception is irresponsible, leading fertility clinics to capitalise by imploring us to “have the best child you can”. “This is going to change humanity,” says Greely, “so it’s something people need to pay attention to.” Daniel Cossins
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F IT’S shrinking or flaccid, you’re in trouble. You want it large and growing. We’re talking about gross domestic product – that vital symbol of a nation’s economic virility. On the face of it, the obsession with economic growth is fair enough. A bigger cake means more to share around, and that further increases GDP in a neverending virtuous circle. Or does it? The idea that economic growth has natural limits first came to public attention in 1972, with a report called Limits to Growth from the think tank Club of Rome. It argued that sooner or later, the world’s economies would demand more resources than the planet could supply.
But things aren’t that simple, says environmental economist Cameron Hepburn of the University of Oxford. “We’ve had scare stories for 40 to 50 years about resources running out. They don’t come true and they won’t.” Where a resource has a price, he says, using too much forces the price up – and the economic burn drives us to find alternative ways of making things. Innovation, then, is the key to sustained, sustainable growth. But innovation might be a finite resource too, says Robert Gordon of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth. Since the first throes of the industrial revolution, he argues,
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economic growth has been propelled by consecutive technological revolutions: steam power, electricity and the internal combustion engine, and digital communications. But today it’s not easy to see where the next big boosts are coming from. That might explain why GDP growth has been slowing in Western economies since the 1970s. Hepburn thinks that view is unduly pessimistic. “I don’t think humanity has lost its mojo,” he says. Part of the problem is accountancy, he says: GDP, defined as the total value of goods and services an economy makes, is not a good way to measure economic strength in societies that are finding better
“Our well-being need not rely on making and consuming ever more stuff” ways to make things cheaper. He also sees a big productivityboosting innovation shimmering on the horizon: cheap solar power. Anyway, would a world with no economic growth be so bad? The conventional doom-laden answer is yes. Zero growth brings political
HE last ice age ended 12,000 years ago, when the ice sheets retreated from Eurasia and North America. We are now basking in the warmth of a so-called interglacial period, but there is still a staggering amount of ice. The Antarctic ice sheet alone covers an area larger than the US and India combined, and it is nearly 5 kilometres thick in places. Perhaps not for much longer. If we are foolish enough to burn all the fossil fuels we’ve found so far, the age of ice will finally come to an end, a study out last year concluded. It will take thousands of years, but when the last great chunk of Antarctic ice melts or slides into the sea, global sea levels will be about 70 metres higher than today. On average, that is. Around Antarctica and Greenland, sea level will actually fall. That’s because the shrunken mass of ice will exert a weaker gravitational pull on the water than it did before. And as the weight of all that ice is removed, the land will slowly rise.
polarisation, says Gordon: there’s less money to finance schools and hospitals, and the gulf between the haves and have-nots widens. The growth of populist movements in Europe and the US since the 2008 financial crash gives us a foretaste of what we can expect. Some pessimists even see the beginnings of parallels with political changes in the zero-growth 1930s that propelled the world to war. The outlook doesn’t have to be that gloomy, says Tim Jackson of the University of Surrey in Guildford, UK, author of the 2009 book Prosperity Without Growth. Beyond a certain level of material development, our wellbeing need not rely on making
The retreat of the ice will be bad news for polar bears, but there will be winners too. Plants, animals and people are already moving in. Greenland, currently a barren white expanse with a few green strips on the coast, will finally be green all over. It will also attract something more surprising: the pole. As Greenland’s ice is lost, the axis of rotation of the planet will shift towards the island. Earth’s rotation will also slow slightly, because rising sea levels around the equator act like a pirouetting dancer extending their arms to slow the spin. Dramatic as that sounds, neither of these changes will have serious consequences, says Richard Alley of Penn State University in University Park. The same cannot be said for the rise in sea levels. For someone looking down from space, the changes wouldn’t seem that drastic. True, some large chunks of land will vanish beneath the waves, including Florida, Bangladesh, the Netherlands, Denmark,
and consuming ever more stuff. In this vision, prosperity does not have to be curtailed in a postgrowth world: a sharing economy, greater emphasis on renovation and refurbishment rather than making new things, and more time spent on cultural activities are all ways of increasing value while maintaining social cohesion and without consuming more. That sounds utopian, and it would require revisiting assumptions that have underpinned economic thinking for a century or more. We might all end up the richer for it, though. “It’s not a trivial thing to achieve by any means,” says Jackson. “But we could have more fun with less stuff.” Richard Webb
eastern England and a big part of China. In most places, though, only a relatively thin strip of coastal land will disappear. Yet the land that will be lost is where nearly a third of the world’s people live today, and where we have built our greatest cities. Venice, London, New York, Shanghai, Sydney and many more will be partly or wholly lost in a slow-motion catastrophe of barely imaginable magnitude. This will not be the first time humanity has been forced to retreat. At the end of the last ice age, the sea swallowed vast coastal plains around the world – like Doggerland, which once connected Britain to mainland Europe, but now lies under the North Sea. Just like the people of Doggerland, the residents of modern coastal cities will no doubt build anew. Perhaps one day Antarctica will be home to magnificent metropolises that make our cities seem nearly as primitive as the settlements drowned 10,000 years ago. Michael Le Page 4 June 2016 | NewScientist | 35
12 11 F the end of
OR a tiny smear of light drifting in a sea of darkness, the Milky Way seems stable enough, and indeed it has been around almost as long as the universe itself. But just as gravity created the galaxy we call home, so it has sealed its fate: a slowdance death spiral with the nearby Andromeda galaxy. Andromeda, also known as the spiral galaxy M31, is heading straight for us at about 360 kilometres per hour. The good news is that, being more than 2.5 million light years away, it won’t collide with the Milky Way for another 4 billion years. Astronomers have known about Andromeda’s approach for the best part of a century, but measurements of its trajectory weren’t precise enough to tell whether our galaxy would get winged or truly clobbered. That debate is now settled. “Our measurement implies that the encounter will be a head-on collision,” says Tony Sohn at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who has tracked Andromeda’s motion in 3D using data from the Hubble telescope. The collision itself will play out over 2.5 billion years. Andromeda will at first loom ever brighter in the night sky. Then, as hundreds of billions of stars, vast gas clouds and swathes of dark matter from the two galaxies swirl and smash, new star-forming regions will ignite, each lasting for millennia. The galaxies will pass through each other a number of times as they merge into a new mega galaxy, sometimes called Milkomeda. But stars and planets are unlikely to crash into one another, says Sohn. The average distance between stars in the Milky Way is 4 light years, which leaves plenty of space for Andromeda’s stars and planets to pass through unscathed. Believe it or not, the initial collision is likely to leave our solar system alone – although near misses could distort gravity, disrupting planetary orbits, says Sohn. When the churning is done, Milkomeda will probably settle down as an elliptical galaxy – a giant ball of diffuse light in the night sky. The galactic merger will be complete, leaving a slightly larger smear of light in the endless dark. MacGregor Campbell 36 | NewScientist | 4 June 2016
the end of
E HUMANS are a successful bunch: no other species has guided its own fate or shaped its environment as completely as we have. In doing so, we have sidestepped many of the selection pressures that drove our evolution. But Homo sapiens has evolved more quickly than ever in the past few thousand years and will continue to do so. So what will be the fate of our species? Predicting our future evolution is a tricky business: it’s hard to know what genetic novelties might arise, and which of them might take hold. Even so, scientists have started to weigh the possibilities by studying trends in health and reproduction. A team led by Stephen Stearns at Yale University, for example, has found that over the past 60 years, relatively short and heavy women in the town of Framingham, Massachusetts, tended to have more children than women with the opposite traits. They also found that these physical characteristics are being passed on to their daughters, suggesting natural selection is alive and well in humans. It is difficult to say
The Milky Way
what is selecting for these traits, but it looks as if we can expect women in Western countries, on average, to become slightly shorter and stouter. More radically, we might begin to direct our own evolution. In one sense we already do: by shaping our environment and culture, we inadvertently drive heritable changes in our genes. But if sophisticated gene editing technologies permit whole genome engineering in sperm and eggs, we would have more control than ever – we would get to choose which traits we pass on to the next generation. It’s possible we will cut the whole enterprise short by bringing about our own extinction through nuclear annihilation, runaway climate change or some other cataclysm. In most apocalyptic scenarios, however, at least a few H. sapiens would survive, perhaps forced to retreat into remote refuges. From a deeply interconnected species of 7 billion individuals, we would become fragmented across various ecological settings, each population beset by local environmental pressures. These are the conditions that favour the formation of new and
distinct species, says Ian Tattersall, a palaeoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. If those populations are small enough, over deep time the random mutations that prove advantageous might be incorporated into the genomes of surviving H. sapiens – and as the genetic novelties accumulate, populations might begin to diverge. Eventually, for instance, humans in the northern reaches of Arctic Canada might adapt to the challenges of their environment to become something new. Meanwhile, in Australia, people might adapt in profoundly different ways. Eventually, members of one group could no longer be able to mate with those of the other – one of the key signifiers of a distinct species emerging. In the event that those new hominin species ever came into contact again, it would be war. “We would have a situation pretty much like what we already had at the end of the last ice age,” says Tattersall. “Modern humans spread all over the world, encountered other hominid populations and eliminated them.” So history could repeat: like those we outcompeted in the past, our all-conquering species might itself be driven to extinction. Making a new hominin would be a slow process. It would take hundreds of thousands if not millions of years, says David Pilbeam, who studies human evolution at Harvard University – and that makes this sort of speciation unlikely. Regardless of the apocalyptic scenario, unless humans lost the urge to explore, isolated populations would encounter each other and breed before speciation could occur. Ultimately, H. sapiens might have to colonise other planets to provide the long-term isolation required for speciation. So if there is ever to be a new form of human, it will be shaped by the alien environment of a strange new world in outer space. Christopher Kemp
the end of
SLURP, crunch, rip or freeze? How the grand finale of everything pans out depends on the enigmatic nature of dark energy. Or perhaps not…
In the 1990s, observations of distant supernovae indicated that the universe’s expansion has been gathering pace over the past few billion years. “Dark energy” is held responsible for that, but no one knows what it is. If it is unchanging, as most cosmologists assume, the cosmic ballooning will continue unabated and the universe will eventually become so thinly stretched that no galaxy, star or even particle is in contact with or even in sight of another. No new stars will form, and existing ones will burn out. As its temperature drops ever closer to absolute zero, this flaccid universe will go out in a cold, dark whimper.
Dark energy has made its presence felt only in the past few billion years, so it might be growing stronger over time. If so, the universe is bound for a more dramatic fate than a freeze. A surging dark energy would slowly tear apart galaxies and stars, and eventually space-time itself. Recent calculations indicate that the earliest this “big rip” could happen is 2.8 billion years from now, well before our sun is due to burn out. Most cosmologists think the solar system is safe, however. A big rip, if it ever happens, is most likely to be tens of billions of years in the future.
If dark energy should for any reason weaken – perhaps even turn negative – gravity would finally prevail over its repellent phantom nemesis. The universe would crank into reverse gear, and begin shrinking again, right down to the same sort of pinprick of infinite density in which it started. The big bang universe will be bookended with a big crunch. Although that would be bad news for anything in the cosmos, it might not be bad for the cosmos itself: some models suggest it could rebound in a “big bounce” that would create another universe, starting the cycle all over again.
There’s a disturbing, and disturbingly possible, alternative endgame. The Higgs boson is the particle that gives other fundamental particles mass, and so is in some sense a guarantor of the universe’s stability. But the Higgs boson discovered at CERN in 2012 is strangely light, suggesting that the universe it builds is an unstable “false vacuum” state, teetering on the brink of ruin. A quantum fluctuation could at any moment conjure up a bubble of true vacuum. In that case the universe would eat itself from the inside out at the speed of light – faster than we would ever know. Daniel Cossins 4 June 2016 | NewScientist | 37
Life amid death at the body farm Human bodies decompose differently in Australia, so Shari Forbes opened the first body farm outside the US
Tell me about your body farm.
Are people keen to donate their bodies?
It’s a rural environment where donated bodies are placed on the ground or in shallow graves and allowed to decompose naturally – for research purposes. We opened in February and we already have six bodies at the facility.
More than 100 people have signed up, of all ages. Of course, we hope we won’t see them any time soon! We also have a donor programme that allows a person’s body to be donated by their next of kin, and that’s where our first few donors have come from. The next of kin might be a husband, a wife, a son or daughter, or a parent. We ask that they can demonstrate the person truly wanted to donate. Often people want to, they talk about it while alive or write it into their will, but they haven’t signed our consent form. We’ve actually had to turn away half a dozen bodies because we weren’t expecting such a good response. We don’t want to accept donors unless we have specific research that we are ready to do with their bodies.
Can you describe the place?
It is 12 acres of land surrounded by a highsecurity fence with many CCTV cameras installed. There’s a small building on the site but most of it is just rough ground. Why are there so many CCTV cameras?
We’re aware that some people might get curious, so we made sure it’s a high-security facility. It is important to preserve the dignity of our donors. The only people who can visit are those who have a reason to be there, such as researchers or police for training.
Profile Shari Forbes is a professor at the Centre for Forensic Science at the University of Technology Sydney. She directs the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research
Forbes has used animals as proxies for decomposing humans
What makes people donate their bodies? Did you have any trouble getting the body farm set-up?
It’s been three years in the making. We needed three things to set it up: land in a remote yet accessible location, a body donation programme, and approval to build it. It was the approval process that took the most time. It was a challenge for the local council, but they were willing to work with us to make sure everyone was happy with the outcome. Even though it is remote, our facility sits in a small community, and the council sought feedback from our neighbours. We made sure that people were aware of what we were doing and allayed any concerns they might have. For example, we had to show that they wouldn’t be affected by odours or increased insect activity. Some were concerned about the potential impact on the value of their homes. 38 | NewScientist | 4 June 2016
Many people sign up because they like the idea of their body returning to the earth in a natural way. They like the idea of it being environmentally sustainable. Not all parts of a coffin decompose.
decay”, when our body turns from a solid into a liquid. The fourth stage is “advanced decay”, when you dry out. Finally, you have “skeletonisation”, when there’s really just bone left.
When would-be donors ask what happens to a body left out in the open, what do you say?
Do all bodies go through these stages of decomposition?
I don’t usually go into too much detail, but some of them have already looked it up on the internet. If they do ask, I’m happy to talk about it. There are five typical stages of decomposition. The first, which we call “fresh”, covers the few hours immediately after death. The second stage is referred to as “bloat”. That’s where the enzymes and the microbes in the body start to degrade the internal organs, producing a lot of gases and distending the torso. Following that is “active
No, there are lots of things that can change the process and the rate of decomposition. In our particular location, we’re finding that bodies don’t go through all of the stages. The dry environment dries out the body very rapidly, so the final stage we see is mummification. Is differing climate the reason there’s a need for body farms in different parts of the world?
Decomposition is mainly driven by environmental variables, but it’s not just
How did you get into this line of research?
I visited a body farm in Tennessee when I was a postdoctoral fellow doing research using pig remains as an analogue for humans. Seeing Tennessee made me realise I needed to use human bodies. You see things with human remains that you don’t see with pigs. The rate of decomposition can be quite different, and that’s important because we use that to estimate time of death. And with pigs I would quite clearly see the five stages I described, but with humans, you might see the first two stages and then go straight to mummification. Why do humans decompose differently to pigs?
We’re still trying to understand many of the reasons, as few people have done a direct comparison between pig and human remains. There’s obviously a difference in body mass.
“Our environment dries bodies rapidly, so the final stage is mummification”
Some of the soft tissues are similar, but human and pig fats are different and don’t degrade in the same way. And think about the extremities – our arms and legs are much longer, and contain more tissue and bone.
climate. It includes the bacteria in that environment, the insects, the larger scavengers and carnivores. There are now eight facilities in the US because all of those parameters change considerably across the country. It’s the same for Australia. This is our first facility but we would like to have more so that we can get much more accurate data about the ways a body can decompose, or be preserved through mummification. Your work is mostly about odours produced during decomposition. Why is smell important?
The police use smell to find bodies. The challenge is to understand what chemicals make up particular odours and use this information to train victim-recovery dogs to locate human remains. There are hundreds of compounds behind the different smells, but a
few show up in every stage of decomposition. We suspect that those are the key ones that dogs recognise. Once we know what the key compounds are, and at what concentration dogs detect them, we can better train dogs to focus on them. Such discoveries will also help us clarify what dogs can and can’t do. Is it feasible for them to find a body shut in a car or sealed in a barrel? Can they find bones that are 30 years old? We use dogs all the time but we don’t really know the answers.
Was your visit to Tennessee the first time you had seen human remains?
As an undergraduate in forensics I had investigated why bodies weren’t decomposing in part of a cemetery in Sydney, which involved exhumation of human remains. The difference was that I’d seen them in a cemetery environment, encased in coffins and deeply buried. Seeing lots of unburied bodies decomposing in a very small area certainly gave me a different perspective, but my forensic training helped me keep an emotional distance from it. Has your work changed your own attitude towards death?
You were involved in a project to build an electronic nose to detect these compounds. How did that go?
I don’t think so. I have no trouble talking about death: I can talk to my family about it. It’s a natural conversation for me to have, which I think is probably not typical of most people. However, once I tell people what I do they always have a morbid curiosity. Maybe that’s what drew my interest to this area. I’m just trying to know the unknown. n
Ultimately, we realised that dogs’ noses are hugely more sensitive than any instrument we could ever design – and probably will be for a very long time.
Interview by Douglas Heaven For more on what happens to the human body after death, see “The End of You” on page 32 4 June 2016 | NewScientist | 39
The peak oilman David Strahan follows the trail of a geologist with a canny idea
THIS is a curious time to publish a biography of M. King Hubbert. The story of how this brilliant but irascible Shell geologist accurately forecast in 1956 that US oil production would peak and go into terminal decline by 1970 is by now well worn. Worse, after the supply crunch of 2008 that sent the price soaring to $147 per barrel and was widely mistaken for the global peak, the world is now swimming in oil once more, and the price languishes at around $50. In The Oracle of Oil, Mason Inman seeks to rehabilitate Hubbert, yet he struggles to make a convincing case. The book is nonetheless well written, deeply researched and rich in anecdote – Hubbert’s character and his intellectual achievements sing out. Born to poor Methodists in hardscrabble Texas hill country, Hubbert sold his cow to go to college, was driven to science by his atheism, and later made donations to Martin Luther King. He achieved many breakthroughs with little more than a fierce intellect and a blackboard. In 1953, he was the first to figure out how fracking worked, showing that the fractures caused by injecting fluid into rock would spread vertically not horizontally as industry experts then believed. Initially, they ignored him, convinced only 40 | NewScientist | 4 June 2016
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty
The Oracle of Oil: A maverick geologist’s quest for a sustainable future by Mason Inman, W. W. Norton, $29.95
after experiments involving a goldfish bowl, a soda bottle and a turkey baster.
Forecast battle You couldn’t accuse this account of being pacy, though. It’s a good 100 pages before we come to Hubbert’s defining achievement: a revolutionary way of forecasting that introduced us to the idea that the rate of oil production would peak and start to fall long before reserves were exhausted, often as early as halfway through. On a graph this produced a roughly symmetrical bell curve with a
The oil crisis of 1973 showed that central peak – hence the name. Hubbert’s forecast pitched him Hubbert’s key ideas were right into a running battle with many in the oil industry until he was his own material – that Hubbert’s eventually proved excruciatingly work may no longer matter. right during the oil crisis of 1973, At the start of this century, talk and achieved “oracle” status while of peak oil flooded the energy Jimmy Carter was president. debate. Surging demand in China, Inman plots Hubbert’s work the invasion of Iraq and the and short-lived impact on US upward march of the oil price energy policy, until the geologist’s suggested an impending crunch. death in 1989, but his uncritical This seemed to have arrived approach relegates any attempt to between 2005 and 2009, when find current relevance for Hubbert global production stayed flat at to a 20-page epilogue. Even here, between 82 and 83 million barrels the author seems too much in per day (mb/d), sending the price love with his subject to confront spiralling to $147 per barrel – up the toughest conclusion raised by 15-fold on the previous decade.
For more books and arts coverage, visit newscientist.com/culturelab
“In his lifetime, the oracle’s forecasts were always ignored or dismissed until it was too late” bulk of oil supply, this caused the temporary plateau of global oil production that helped pitch the global economy into recession. Now the former naysayers, from the International Energy Agency to most major oil companies, admit that conventional crude production has indeed peaked. Hubbert’s forecast, made a lifetime before, again proved to be spectacularly accurate. But then again, so what? Total oil production, including “unconventional” sources such as tar sands and shale oil, soon started to grow again. Of the 6 mb/d increase in global oil production between 2006 and 2014, almost a fifth came from the Canadian tar sands, and the rest from the US “shale oil revolution” driven by fracking. Inman misses another huge irony here: Hubbert’s forecast for the peak of global crude oil was bang on, but its full impact was deferred by the very production technique he had helped develop 60 years earlier. Many economists would argue that this exposes the blind spot of
Hubbert’s approach – it didn’t take into account the potential of technology to expand the oil resource we can extract. That has been demonstrated, but if tar sands and shale oil are what’s left, it may not give us much of a breather. There is no knowing the future trajectory of tar sands output now that its production capital, Fort McMurray in Canada, has been devastated by wildfire after unusually dry weather some blamed on global warming. As Inman points out, in the US shale patch, fracking wells suffer vertiginous decline rates of up to 50 per cent in the first year; the sweet spots have been tapped already; and the industry is massively in debt and failed to cover its costs even at $100 per barrel. He might have added that even the International Energy Agency expects US shale production to peak in 2020. But this is almost beside the point. Hubbert’s legacy will not be determined by a forensic scrutiny of his life or of the short-term outlook for US shale, but by what happens after shale peaks. If non-conventional production continues to meet growing global demand, Hubbert will fade into footnote. So too if demand for oil starts to fall sooner than supply, through improvements in efficiency and the electrification of vehicles. The chances of this have improved with the Paris climate agreement, as even Saudi Arabia seems to accept, having announced a $2 trillion fund to wean its economy off oil by 2030. If, however, nothing turns up to replace shale, technologies fail to curb oil demand, and supply constraints finally bite, Hubbert may yet be proved broadly right. But his influence will probably still be negligible: as Inman makes depressingly clear, the oracle’s forecasts were always ignored or dismissed until it was too late. n
Stand-up woman Does a well-known comic capture what it’s like to be female? Linda Geddes explores
WHEN Sara Pascoe does her job, she is referred to as a “female comedian”. She isn’t really angry about this, but she says it has made her notice gender more than she might have done otherwise. But what does it even mean to be a woman? In Animal, Pascoe tries to find out, combining her personal experience with lots of reading about the origins of human behaviours such as jealousy, infidelity and society’s preoccupation with breasts. The book covers love, body and consent, similar territory to Caitlin Moran’s How To Be a Woman, but more up-to-date with such issues as female genital mutilation and why Fifty Shades of Grey proved such a hit. Her tone is, er, humorous, and often reads like her shows. As it
says on the dust jacket: “Women have so much going on, what with boobs and jealousy, and menstruating, and sex and infidelity and pubes and wombs and jobs and memories and emotions and the past…” Pascoe’s treatment of the science, though, is a mixed bag. At best, she casts a critical eye over arguments such as that about the role of forced intercourse in evolution, pointing to the fact that in many species the female acts as a gatekeeper to reproduction. Elsewhere, she is less critical, taking evolutionary theory at face value to explain her feelings about relationships, and why Mark Owen and Robbie Williams (of boy band Take That fame) proved so attractive. But perhaps I’m unfair. Animal is fun, thought-provoking, and if there is a message, it’s that evobio is interesting, just not the whole story. As Pascoe writes: “Women are not complicated. We’re just not the same as men and we’re not the same as each other.” n
Comic timing: comedian Sara Pascoe wonders about women
Linda Geddes is a consultant for New Scientist
Animal: The autobiography of a female body, Faber & Faber, £12.99
Francesco Guidicini / The Sunday Times
Many thought we had reached the limits of oil production and the global peak was nigh. But production started to grow again, and by 2014 had reached almost 89 mb/d, causing the price to slump from what appeared to be the new normal of around $115 to less than $30 by the start of 2016. The irony is that peak oil of a sort did arrive in 2006, and Hubbert hit the bullseye, though Inman makes surprisingly little of this. In 1956, Hubbert forecast that global production of crude oil – oil found in pressurised reservoirs that flows freely up when wells are first installed – would peak “within about half a century”. Exactly 50 years later, crude oil production peaked at 70 mb/d, and because it then made up the
David Strahan is the author of The Last Oil Shock (John Murray) 4 June 2016 | NewScientist | 41
Hidden persuaders When is a parasite not a parasite, asks Sheena Cruickshank
THE mere mention of parasites can make the skin crawl, and yet these organisms provide some astonishing examples of biology. Take crickets, and their fraught relationship with water. Once infected by parasitic worms, they hurl themselves into water where they can easily drown. This apparent suicide bid enables the worms to reproduce. Toxoplasma parasites make rodents attracted to open spaces and the smell of cats, which, in turn, eat them and help the parasite complete its life cycle. Parasitic wasps turn cockroaches into “zombies” that they drive back to their burrows. The cockroaches act as both home and larder for the wasps’ developing young, which devour them from within. The idea of parasites modifying host behaviour is called the manipulation hypothesis, and it was brought to the attention of the general reader in 2000 by Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex. Journalist Kathleen McAuliffe is fascinated by such gruesome stories, and they form the basis of her book. McAuliffe, a science journalist, is at her best when she focuses on the scientists, describing how far they go to pursue their hypotheses. One, for example, threatened to go on hunger strike What sinister force makes rodents attracted to the smell of cats? 42 | NewScientist | 4 June 2016
when his funding application was rejected. Such stories reflect the passion, fervour and struggles of the researchers. Unfortunately, McAuliffe has a casual disregard for what parasitology actually is. This is best illustrated in the two chapters on how the microbiome – the collection of bacteria, yeasts and viruses that live in and on us – is thought to change behaviour. Bacteria in the gut, for example, signal to the brain when we have eaten enough. Some researchers reckon that if our gut bacteria misfire we may become obese. Interesting as this is, our
microbiome isn’t parasitic: its as the parasite seeks to infect organisms are vital helpers that others. This is based on a study offer us many advantages. In that followed people given a flu any case, bacteria, fungi and shot (it being unethical to give viruses aren’t usually considered people actual influenza). The parasites; parasites are organisms subjects’ increased sociability that have to live in or on a specific might have been due to viral host, from which they take what they need in order to survive and “Our microbiome is not parasitic: its organisms reproduce. The borders of this are vital helpers that offer discipline are fuzzy, but they us many advantages” are there. Oblivious, McAuliffe skips manipulation, but for my money into attention-grabbing territory it’s more likely they were simply armed with only the flimsiest of evidence. She claims, for example, feeling confident about being protected from infection. that infection makes us more McAuliffe also argues that, sociable and sexually voracious having evolved disgust to avoid potential contaminants, we find these feelings underlie certain religious practices and belief systems. For example, people in infection-prone areas would be more likely to be prejudiced to outsiders for fear they will bring in contagions. This is heady stuff, but it is purely speculative. If there is evidence to support it, I couldn’t find it here. Relatively little of this book is about parasites proper. Psychological theories about behaviour predominate, and the evidence for these is largely anecdotal. The major issues in parasitology – how parasites can persist in a host, hiding from our immune response and adapting to the host environment – aren’t dealt with at all. McAuliffe’s sincere aim is to present the parasite as a master behavioural manipulator. In doing so, she has overlooked some amazing parasitology research. n Robert Holmgren/Getty
This is Your Brain on Parasites: How tiny creatures manipulate our behavior and shape society by Kathleen McAuliffe, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27
Sheena Cruickshank is an immunologist and parasitologist at Manchester University in the UK
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Bioinformatician: Molecular Informatics/Modeller At Unilever, we strive to develop and innovate products that are safe for our consumers, workforce, and the environment. We are also committed to the elimination of animal testing and are at the forefront of research into novel non-animal approaches for assessing consumer safety. An exciting opportunity has arisen for a Structural Bioinformatician to join our team in the Safety & Environmental Assurance Centre (SEAC), where we carry out safety assessments for all our products as well as supporting Unilever’s alternatives to animal testing programme. The role primarily involves provision of bioinformatics expertise to SEAC Scientists particularly in the area of structural bioinformatics: analysis of protein-ligand interactions, docking (ranking/prioritization), molecular dynamics. In addition the Bioinformatician will contribute to the development and evolution of a platform that integrates and visualises data from different sources to build capability in predictive non-animal approaches for consumer safety. As you will work in multidisciplinary teams, you will need strong written and verbal skills to enable you to communicate complex concepts to a broad audience. You will also need to be an excellent problem solver who is comfortable working independently. A degree in Bioinformatics, Computational Biology or equivalent and/or significant professional experience is essential. Demonstrated practical experience in computational structural biology including 2D and 3D methods of pharmacophore inference, ligand- and structure-based virtual screening, docking and molecular dynamics is also essential. You will have experience working with tools such as Gromacs, Discovery Studio, Pipeline Pilot, Schrodinger Maestro and MoE as well as demonstrated programming skills in at least one of the following: Perl, Python R, Java, PHP. Some background in statistics, machine learning, database management/ development, mass spectrometry and proteomics data analysis is desirable.
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LETTERS editor’s pick
Mass fudging of data begins early From a teenage reader I have read several articles recently describing how the scientific profession has become discredited by scientists changing and manipulating their data (see for example 16 April, p 5 and p 39). This practice is even more deep-rooted than you might think. For my GCSE biology course I must “investigate what factors affect simple animal behaviour”. We chose to put woodlice in a choice chamber and let them run around, to study the effect of different light intensities. There are 60 students in my year, and we all came to the resounding conclusion that woodlice are completely psychotic. So did we write a thoughtful evaluation? Did we repeat the test? Did we seek secondary data to explain our findings? Of course not. How could I expand “woodlice are psychotic” into a 5000-word submission with graphs and tables in 4 hours? We all fudged our data. We created new data sets from scratch. One student created two data sets, and published one on a blog so he could reference it. We need better education to stamp out such behaviour and to teach school students that this can’t be done. What was worse was that it was considered the norm. Got bad data? Make up some more! Name and address supplied 52 | NewScientist | 4 June 2016
More walking does not reduce traffic From Olaf Olsen Will increased walking or cycling bring down air pollution (14 May, p 6)? Probably not. The immediate effect would be less congestion and cleaner air. So far, fine. But congestion is a deterrent to driving. When it is reduced, unless there is a new legal or physical impediment, such as road closure or narrowing, or monetary fees, new drivers will appear from the large reservoir of potential drivers. These will enjoy, briefly, pleasant motorised travel. Soon pollution and congestion will again be in balance. In the 1980s, tolls on some New York river crossings were lowered for “high-occupancy vehicles” – those with at least one passenger besides the driver. A co-worker responded by picking up a passenger or two at a bus stop before the Holland Tunnel. So transit operators lost revenue, along with the bridge and tunnel agency, and pollution from his large Lincoln car remained as it was. Dreamers and reformers should think beyond step one. Millerton, New York, US
Driverless cars and the tragedy of jam From Adrian Bowyer You rightly say that we should be thinking about the implications of driverless cars now (14 May, p 5). I suggest that the most common number of occupants of a driverless car on the road will probably be zero. A very important aspect of a highly automated and widely distributed technology is that it doesn’t matter to users how slowly it works, within reason. It takes 15 minutes for you or me to wash a pile of dishes. It takes a dishwasher an hour, but we don’t mind the extra three-quarters of
an hour because it isn’t our time. Similarly a sprawling traffic jam of stationary unoccupied driverless electric cars on their way to collect the week’s groceries is costing their owners nothing and emitting no pollution. Driverless cars will create a vast tragedy of the commons, these commons being road space. The only solution I see is ubiquitous road pricing, which – with the encrypted secure logs that the insurance companies will insist that the cars have – should be easy to implement. Foxham, Wiltshire, UK
I am not sitting comfortably in that From Perry Bebbington Are you sitting comfortably, asks the caption on an image of a driverless car (14 May, p 22). Not in those awful seats. No lower back support, horribly concave. It might as well have been designed to make back pain worse. Kimberley, Nottinghamshire, UK
Axiom of evil would be a big deal From Hazel Brickhill Jacob Aron says that if one of the Turing machines simulated by Adam Yedidia and Scott Aaronson halts, it would prove the set of axioms of mathematics called ZFC to be inconsistent, but mathematicians wouldn’t be too panicked because “they could simply shift to a slightly stronger set of axioms” (14 May, p 9). It seems Aron here means “stronger” in the everyday sense of “tough”, not the sense I use at work as a mathematician – “able to prove more things”. An inconsistency in ZFC would be a big deal for me. It would undermine virtually all work in modern set theory since before Kurt Gödel’s 1931 second
incompleteness theorem. This proves that a set of axioms sufficient to define arithmetic cannot prove its own consistency: you can add more axioms to prove the consistency of your first set, but you will not be able to prove the consistency of this bigger set without adding more axioms again – and so it goes on. Bristol, UK
Empathy need not be painful From Steve Haines Empathy may not require feeling others’ pain (14 May, p 32). It could be defined as imaginatively entering into another’s experience. That requires only understanding. This sort of empathy would provide the means for those with different lives and experience to better empathise – and moreover offers a protective model for those professionals in danger of burnout. It would be an important construct for politicians to adopt before developing policy that excludes some groups from access to fully sharing in society. Bishop’s Waltham, Hampshire, UK From Julian Smith You describe a growing worldwide crisis in empathy (14 May, p 5). I draw your attention to papers such as “From Painkiller to Empathy Killer: Acetaminophen (Paracetamol) reduces empathy for pain”, also published in May (Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience, doi.org/bhtd). Rochdale, Lancashire, UK
Protecting the internet of things From Neil Doherty So John Matherley’s Shodan webcrawling engine lists everything connected to the internet (14 May, p 40). That’s a creepy crawler if ever I heard of one. For me it
“Let’s get rid of the profit aspect of energy. It’s what keeps renewables from being mass-produced” J orge Rodriguez challenges economic arguments about falling renewable electricity prices (21 May, p 19)
highlights the weakest link in the thingternet (internet of things): the Wi-Fi router/receiver. This is the first thing that such a crawler will find in your home. Wi-Fi routers do offer security settings, but I doubt many people bother or know how to use them. Shouldn’t firms that manufacture this first point of contact for hackers be obliged to ensure that they continually check security, blocking and warning by default? Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK
Is your data safe in Scotland? From Sam Edge In his letter describing NHS Scotland’s approach to privacy (9 April), Harry Burns mentions its reliance on Guiding Principles for Data Linkage, published by the Scottish government (bit.ly/ NS_gpdl). I was concerned to find the document stresses that it does not set out rules. It sanctions the dissemination of personal data without consent Tom Gauld
or notification. It makes no strong requirement for recipients of data sets to secure the data or to be independently audited. It states that recipients should not try to de-anonymise data, but does not require policing of this. Again and again it mentions privacy concerns but states that these should be addressed “where practicable”. Ringwood, Hampshire, UK
For want of a ‘standard’… From Chris James Lisa Grossman attributes the demise of the Mars Climate Orbiter to “failure to convert between standard and metric units” (7 May, p 19). Metric units have of course been “standard” for decades in advanced technological countries. The US retaining the irrational measurement system of its former colonial rulers is one of its more bizarre features. A mix-up over what is standard may be why the spacecraft was lost. Winchester, Hampshire, UK
Asynchronous rhythms of life From Mabel Taylor Catherine de Lange describes work on biological clocks (16 April, p 30). But some of the findings she reports have long been known, as shown in Gay Gaer Luce’s well-researched book Body Time (reviewed in New Scientist, 6 November 1972, p 417). It is amazing how such ideas can come back as mainstream 40 years later. Knutsford, Cheshire, UK
Please remember early Australians From Stuart Leslie As so often when discussing ancient humans, your writers ignore evidence from Australia – and the article on graves was no exception (14 May, p 36). At Lake Mungo in New South Wales a male was carefully buried lying on his side, slightly flexed, with his hands placed neatly over his groin. He was covered with so
much red ochre the sands are still stained with it more than 40 years after the excavation. This burial has been dated to at least 42,000 years ago. The nearest source of red ochre is over 200 kilometres away, so considerable effort and resources were put into this burial and it was obviously important. This is by far the oldest formal, ritual burial of a modern human. Nearby were found the remains of Mungo woman, older than 20,000 years, burnt and then broken up. This represents the oldest evidence of cremation in the world. Dorrigo, New South Wales, Australia
Victorians did spot melting glaciers From Graham Davis As I was reading a new acquisition, Ice by Mariana Gosnell, I heard New Scientist drop onto the doormat – with your report that Victorians experienced early climate change but missed the signs (30 April, p 15). Gosnell mentions that in 1871 physicist John Tyndall gave a lecture to young people about mountain glaciers and reported that “for the last fifteen or sixteen years the glaciers of the Alps have been steadily shrinking…” At the time, this was attributed to the recovery in temperatures from the Little Ice Age. In 1894, an international group of scientists was set up in Zurich to monitor the state of the glaciers. Bracknell, Berkshire, UK
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BILL BALDWIN finds a vial of lens cleaner from Vision Clear boasts some extraordinary ingredients on the label. These include “propagandist”,
“cellulose acetate butterfat”, and the chemically confounding “5-chlorine2-methyl-4-indianapolis-3-one”. “I’m not sure that I want to put any of that on my glasses,” says Bill. Feedback is left to ponder if propagandist is the sort of mindaltering chemical now outlawed by the Psychoactive Substances Act.
LAST seen perched atop Mount Ararat, Noah’s ark has reappeared in the rolling hills of Kentucky. Christian ministry and mythological re-enactment society Answers in Genesis is putting the finishing touches to Ark Encounter, a full-size replica of the famous ship.
PREVIOUSLY we explored the surprising passport-related facts
Previously responsible for the Creation Museum, the organisation has constructed the world’s largest timber-frame structure, a 160-metrelong, 25-metre-high biblical boat, built in part to “dispel doubts that
contained within the Home Office’s exciting pamphlet Introducing the new UK passport design (28 May). Yet even armed with this, we find ourselves unable to provide an answer to Rory Allen, who writes “when my
Noah could have fit two of every kind of animal onto a 500-foot-long ark”. Unfortunately, in the event of any Old Testament wrath the new ark will not float. This may explain why Ark Encounter has positions advertised for zookeepers, shuttle drivers and
wife recently renewed her passport, on the last page there was a square yellow label reading simply ‘Please remove this label’. Can Feedback or any of your readers suggest the logic, if any, behind the label and the request to remove it?”
bus supervisors, but no mention of an opening for captain. A vote of faith in the unlikelihood of catastrophic climate change, or worrying oversight from the ministry of arks?
FURTHER to previous suggestions of odd-smelling flora and fauna, Ilene Yeomans writes of a particularly fragrant sea creature: “Here on the west coast of Canada, we have a hooded nudibranch
that smells like watermelons.” Which prompts Feedback to wonder, do ocean-dwelling creatures think that watermelons smell like hooded nudibranchs?
JOHN COCKTON reports that delivery vans for Well Pharmacy in Newcastle upon Tyne now announce on the back that, among other items, “No oxygen is left in this van overnight”. “I assume they use some form of air-fractioning equipment after parking up,” says John. “Or do they seal the vehicles and fill them with nitrogen?”
Brendon Hooper informs us that the US navy’s new stealth destroyer, the USS Zumwalt, is commanded by none other than Capt. James Kirk 56 | NewScientist | 4 June 2016
JAPANESE artist Megumi Igarashi, who built a kayak modelled on her own vulva, has escaped an obscenity charge for the creation of her body-themed boat. However, while Tokyo District Court dismissed charges against the artist (better known as Rokudenashiko or “good-fornothing girl”) for her artworks, it upheld a separate charge relating to the distribution of 3D data used to create the boat, which Igarashi had shared with those funding the piece. Feedback thinks this may be the first time 3D files – which encode a set of measurements rather than a rendered image – have been classified as pornography. Are readers aware of antecedents?
Celebrity Diet, which recommends eating foods low in calories but high in energy (23 April). Monica Backes discussed possible foodstuffs with her family. “We rejected anything ingested as a high-velocity projectile on health and safety grounds,” she says. “Inspiration was found a few days later: the Celebrity Diet must be composed of food eaten on top of Helvellyn.” Other mountains are available for imbuing food with potential energy, Feedback adds. IF YOU have a pessimistic view of the future and a track record of publishing in high-impact journals, you’ll be perfect for University College London’s new position, Professor of Future Crimes. The winning applicant will head a centre dedicated to “identifying emergent crime and security threats and developing and
IAN NAPIER is left puzzled by some out-of-the-box thinking he found in an article from the Independent on how London became the UK’s capital. Here we learn that the Romans cemented the city’s importance with a unique “125-by-90-metre playing-card-shaped fort”. “At first I thought that rectangular would have sufficed, but then considered that perhaps it might be the ratio of the sides that is also being described by this odd unit of measurement,” says Ian. However, neither poker cards nor bridge cards match the relative dimensions given. Feedback is stumped – but then Roman architecture was never our strong suit.
PREVIOUSLY, Feedback pondered the latest celebrity diet, confusingly known only as
recommending pre-emptive measures”. Civic-minded clairvoyants, fortune tellers and associated fruitloops: this is your time to shine.
WHEN it comes to nominative determinism, there are always plenty more fish in the sea, proves Maya Hussain: “The BBC’s new series on bioluminescence features a marine biologist named Stephen Haddock.”
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THE LAST WORD Born to drive How did we evolve to be able to safely control cars travelling at 100 kilometres per hour?
n In climbing, running, fighting, exploration and experiment over many millions of years, long before cars existed, our ancestors evolved strength, reflexes and intelligence adequate for driving. Humans and roads were therefore preadapted to cars, which were necessarily adapted rapidly to match. Context is all:
“Given that over a million people die in road accidents every year, it is clear we are not adapted to drive” had our preadaptations been different, so would our cars. No matter who drives, we want roads to match our vehicles and vehicles to match our evolutionary heritage that can be controlled in a way that does not kill us. Our roads evolved over millennia to serve foot traffic, then wagons, coaches, bicycles, and finally motorised traffic. We now demand vehicles and roads that allow us to read traffic situations a good 2 seconds in advance, for which our reflexes and coordination are adequate. If we had been given, say, the physical attributes of slugs or snakes, our cars would have been different, even if the performance and functions were similar. Jon Richfield Somerset West, South Africa
The writers of answers that are published in the magazine will receive a cheque for £25 (or US$ equivalent). Answers should be concise. We reserve the right to edit items for clarity and style. Please include a daytime telephone number and an email address if you have one. New Scientist retains total editorial control over the published content. Reed Business Information Ltd reserves all rights to reuse all question and answer material that has been
n The question has put evolution in the wrong place. We did not evolve to be able to safely control cars travelling at 100 kilometres per hour. It is cars that have evolved to be safely controlled by us. Early cars were certainly unsafe at any speed, and it was only user pressure that forced those off the road and applied the rule of survival of the fittest to roads and motor vehicles. Given that more than a million people die in road accidents every year, it is clear that evolution has not adapted us to drive. We can only hope that the evolution of the driving environment continues until it succeeds in counteracting our genetic shortcomings. Crispin Piney Mougins, France
Brewed at altitude How does atmospheric pressure affect the boiling point of water?
n Water molecules can always escape from their liquid phase to form vapour. These escapees exert a vapour pressure, which contributes to the overall atmospheric pressure and depends sensitively on temperature. At higher temperatures, water molecules in liquid move faster and are thus more likely to escape into the air. It is the most energetic molecules that escape, lowering the average speed of the remainder – which is why evaporation cools the
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remaining liquid. For water to boil, vapour bubbles must form within the bulk of the liquid. However, these will be squeezed shut by the surrounding atmospheric pressure until the vapour pressure in the bubble matches it. Hence, water boils at the temperature at which these pressures become equal. This happens at a lower temperature when the atmospheric pressure is lower – up a mountain, for example. Conversely, it boils at a higher temperature if the pressure is increased, which is why food can be cooked more quickly in a pressure cooker. Chris Evans Earby, Lancashire, UK n A liquid boils when the atmospheric pressure above its surface equals its vapour pressure. So as the former decreases, the liquid’s boiling point does too. Thus at the top of Mount Everest, where the pressure is only about 34 kilopascals (compared to 101.3 at sea level), the boiling point of water is only about 71 °C. Eventually, when you reach outer space where the pressure is zero, liquid water boils instantly no matter what its temperature. One practical consequence of this is that although you can boil an egg at the top of a mountain, it may not actually cook because the temperature of the boiling water is too low. Simon Iveson Chemical Engineering Discipline
Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment The University of Newcastle New South Wales, Australia
This week’s questions Green machine
I bought too much broccoli a couple of weeks ago. Not wanting to waste it, I boiled and froze it. But when I came to defrost and eat it, it wasn’t as nice as the pre-frozen broccoli from a supermarket. Even though I hadn’t overcooked it, it was soft and a bit mushy, and the florets had all stuck together – whereas pre-frozen ones are separate in their bag. What do the producers do to avoid the problems I had? Billy Sturman Chelmsford, Essex, UK Rooting out trouble
I read that when cooking root vegetables, you should put them into the water when it’s still cold and bring them to the boil. But I also read that other types of vegetables should be placed in already boiling water. Why? Annemieke Wigmore Ilminster, Somerset, UK Playback payback
Why, as a general rule, do we not seem to like the sound of our own voices when we hear them in recordings? Melanie Green Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, UK
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