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BALLOONIVERSE The exotic particle making space expand like crazy

TEST-TUBE HUMAN What could we learn from a synthetic genome?

MEET THE BAGGINSES New bones from the ancient hobbit humans WEEKLY June 11 -17, 2016

OLYMPIAN TASK How to Zika-proof the Rio games

FAT VS CARBS What’s really worse for your health?

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STRIKING BACK Stem cell shot reverses stroke damage

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INTRODUCING THE THIRD IN A NEW SERIES OF WHITE PAPERS FROM NEW SCIENTIST What’s the future of business? We at New Scientist decided to take a look at how three of its key drivers – energy, automation and money – might change over the next decade. To do that, we’ve asked three writers with a deep understanding of these areas to tell us how they think the future could unfold, and how it might confound our initial expectations. In this report, author David Wolman looks at the future of money in a world increasingly divorcing itself from centralised institutions. With technology already disrupting the role of the middleman, he examines how long banks can expect to eke out an existence. By a subtractive process, Wolman identifies how much of banking is “socially useless activity” ripe for technological disruption. Even ostensibly specialist products like initial public offerings and insurance are being brought to the masses. He also sees a threat over the horizon to the US dollar’s globally privileged status. To download your free copy, register online at Sally Adee Editor, GameChangers


ABOUT THE AUTHOR The author of our third GameChangers report in the series is David Wolman, who wrote the book The End of Money. Wolman is a contributing editor at Wired, and has written for a range of international publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and New Scientist


] Why trust in traditional finance institutions has broken down, leading to surprising shifts in the currency markets ]Why control of credit is shifting from banks to individuals with the advent of disruptive technology and new P2P business models ] Where is the smart money heading? Find out about the rise of the blockchain and understand what’s driving it


Volume 230 No 3077

This issue online


News 5



Why the cosmos is moving faster


UPFRONT Europe and Australia hammered by floods and storms. Gravity probe’s perfect free fall. Quantum test in space 8 THIS WEEK We domesticated dogs twice. Fossils shed light on Flores hobbit. The genetic code for success. Stem cell injection reverses stroke damage. Eels deliver electric shock in mid-air 14 IN BRIEF Giraffe fades to white. Virus fixes liver cells. Sponge rocks holding Martian methane


Mystery neutrinos could be speeding up the universe’s growth

The row over dietary fat exposes bigger problems with health advice

On the cover



Fat vs carbs


What’s really worse for your health?

10 19 12

Ballooniverse The exotic particle helping space expand Test-tube human What could we learn from a synthetic genome? Meet the Bagginses Hobbit bones revealed Olympian Task Zika-proofing the games Striking back Stem cells to help stroke

Analysis 16 Writing our genome What will building a human genome from scratch achieve? 18 COMMENT How Donald Trump threatens the climate. Is Elon Musk right, are we in a simulation? 19 INSIGHT How to Zika-proof the Rio Olympics

Technology 22 Cheap satellites and AI give intel to farmers. Chip design quirks make unhackable devices

Cover image Stuart Ford/Shutterstock

Aperture 26 The bizarre beauty of lifesaving objects

Features Features


28 Fat vs Carbs (see above, left) 33 Life on the edge The surprising hotspots where evolution flourishes 36 Not from around here (see left) 40 PEOPLE The archaeologist battling treasure hunters

Not from around here The alien invaders redesigning our solar system


44 Emerging minds What happens when you test how animals think – on their own terms? 45 Tomorrow person “Bucky” Fuller’s visions of the future are still beguiling

Coming next week… Mind over matter Is dark energy just a trick of geometry?

Regulars 52 LETTERS Free will or free choice? 56 FEEDBACK Uranus land-grabbers 57 THE LAST WORD Just lion around

False conviction Forensic flaws that might get you jailed

11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 3



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Unhealthy advice The row over dietary fat reveals deeper problems

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MISQUOTING Hippocrates to report as “irresponsible” and defend yourself against charges of “misleading”. The British Dietetic medical illiteracy is not the best Association also rejected it. PR strategy, but those are the Flawed it may be, but the report depths to which the UK’s National contains much food for thought Obesity Forum sank last week. (see page 28). The consensus on Forced onto the defensive after fat, carbs and health has been publishing a controversial report under pressure for years, and on dietary fat and health, the there is growing evidence that the pressure group tried to pour orthodox advice needs revising. (cooking) oil on troubled waters The forum probably jumped the by claiming that the father of gun, but may eventually prove to medicine advised eating “rich have been broadly correct. There foods” to stay thin, including is now a pressing need for a “fatty meats, especially from rigorous review by a body such as grass-fed animals”. Where the Public Health England: despite its obesity forum got this from is not “The consensus on fat, clear, but the wording is very similar to that on a site promoting carbs and health has been under pressure for years grass-fed meat for weight loss. and may need revising” To be fair, Hippocrates did advise overweight people to eat official-sounding title, the rich foods. But he also said they National Obesity Forum is a should only eat one meal a day, self-appointed charitable drink wine, refrain from bathing and sleep on a hard bed. Grass-fed organisation, something that did not come across clearly in the meat doesn’t get a look-in. coverage of the report. This less than rigorous The row also exposes deeper approach to the facts was largely problems with dietary advice. what got the obesity forum into trouble in the first place. Critics of Scientific disagreements aside, the report – called Eat Fat, Cut The the protests over the report were largely based on assumptions Carbs and Avoid Snacking To about what the general public Reverse Obesity and Type 2 would take away from it. Health Diabetes – say that the authors officials fretted that we would be cherry-picked the evidence and ignored important studies. Public left confused, or use the report as an excuse to eat fatty food and Health England condemned the

quit counting calories. The worst outcome would be for people to conclude that the health police don’t know what they are talking about, and stop even trying to lead a healthy lifestyle. These assumptions about how most of us might respond to health advice are reasonable, but they are only assumptions, and quite patronising ones at that. They take it for granted that health advice has to be clear and unequivocal, even if the science itself is unclear and equivocal. What would be really useful is some detailed research on how people respond to health messages, so that genuinely wellintentioned experts, including the obesity forum, understand how to share their wisdom with us. We know from research on communicating climate change, for example, that simply handing down scientific facts doesn’t work and often backfires. There is no reason to assume that health advice is any different. One thing that scientific bodies must do is refrain from appealing to ancient wisdom – a strangely effective but ultimately selfdefeating rhetorical device. Hippocrates was way ahead of his time, but his time was more than 2000 years ago. Modern science can do better. ■ 11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 5



Europe hit by floods... A BARRAGE of heavy rain across France and Germany last week has forced thousands to evacuate their homes and left at least 10 people dead. One region received the equivalent of six weeks of rain in a single day. A weather phenomenon called an “omega block” is behind the deluge. In this case, air currents known as the jet stream have kinked in such a way as to create a large area of low pressure over western Europe. How this fits into the broader trend of a changing climate is unclear. Last week’s flooding event is “not unprecedented but it is unusual”, says a spokesperson at the Centre for Hydrology and Ecology in Wallingford, UK. Warming temperatures can make

the air hold more water – and that in turn could mean a greater chance for floods, says Nigel Arnell at the University of Reading, UK. Yet natural fluctuations obscure the effect that a long-term trend like climate change has on a single event. And there are other factors that might set the stage for more floods – for example, changes in land use. Also, shifting air currents – such as the current omega block – can be affected by things like temperature anomalies in the Atlantic Ocean, ice cover in the Arctic, or air temperature variability in the tropics. “It’s less clear how that’s going to be affected by climate change,” Arnell says. However, he thinks it’s more likely than not that the risk of floods will increase in western Europe over time.

–Paris under water– Oz is battered WHEN garden swimming pools are uprooted and washed into the sea, you know a storm is serious. That’s what happened in Sydney this week after the city was battered for two nights by ferocious winds, torrential rain and waves up to 8 metres high. As New Scientist went to press, four people had been killed, and there was widespread damage, flooding and disruption as the storm headed south, with flooding still set to peak in Tasmania. Luxury properties in Collaroy

“Climate change may mean more such storms near inhabited shorelines in the future – but fewer overall” Beach lost half their backyards – as well as that swimming pool – and the beach itself narrowed by 50 metres. Ian Turner, director of the Water Research Laboratory at the University of New South Wales, says sand levels on the beach dropped by between 2 and 5 metres, with 150 cubic metres 6 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016

washed back into the sea from every metre of the shoreline. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology warned last Friday that the storm would be unusually fierce because of a rare combination of monster waves – called king tides – and the usual seasonal low pressure zones called east coast lows that routinely develop at this time of year. In a commentary posted online, Acacia Pepler, who studies the effect of climate change on east coast lows at the University of New South Wales Climate Change Research Centre, said that there are usually seven or eight such lows per year. Her modelling studies suggest that the current storms aren’t a result of climate change. If anything, east coast lows will decline overall by 25 to 40 per cent by the end of the century, she says. But they may have a larger impact, becoming more frequent in warmer months, occurring closer to inhabited shorelines, and be boosted further if sea levels continue to rise. “That means more properties are vulnerable to storm surges,” she writes.

Quantum satellite IT’S the next step towards an unhackable global network. In the latest demo, a tiny CubeSat satellite has produced and measured photons that all have the same quantum properties. The test paves the way for satellites that could keep messages secure over longer distances than ever before, between New York and London, for example. Both parties could exchange encrypted messages, with the satellite beaming each

of them photons that they could use to create an uncrackable key. Even the satellite wouldn’t be able to eavesdrop on the messages – unlike current networks, which rely on trust. This test is the second attempt to launch a delicate quantum experiment into space by the team based at the National University of Singapore. But already things are going better than first time round – the equipment was on board an Antares rocket that exploded 6 seconds after launch in 2014.

Climate on leaders’ minds IT WOULD firmly put the Paris climate deal on the road to becoming a reality. In his meeting with US president Barack Obama on Tuesday, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, was expected to announce that his country would ratify the 2015 Paris agreement to limit global warming. This would clear a key hurdle of needing nations accounting for at least 55 per cent of global carbon emissions to officially join, or ratify, the agreement before it takes effect.

Obama has already said he would use his executive power to get the US to ratify it. But India’s ability to meet its ambitious climate goals depends on US investment in India’s development of clean energy, experts said ahead of the meeting. India’s energy needs are huge: some 240 million people in the country still have no access to electricity. A clean-energy partnership was also on the discussion agenda for Modi and Obama’s meeting.

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Cancer lottery IT’S tantalising news for people in Europe. A trial of a cancer drug called palbociclib has gone well, but it’s only available in the US. Results of a trial of 666 women with advanced breast cancer were



Tropics’ tallest tree At almost 90 metres tall, a Yellow Meranti (Shorea faguetiana) tree in the Maliau Basin Conservation Area of Malaysia is probably the world’s tallest tropical tree, say University of Cambridge researchers. It’s just a few metres short of London’s Big Ben. Trees in temperate regions, like the giant redwoods, can grow up to 30 m taller, but no one knows why.

“Breast Cancer Now voiced concerns that the $10,000 price tag will stop the NHS from funding the drug”

Enter the BEAM


presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) this week. They revealed that palbociclib combined with existing drug letrozole increased Floating free progression-free survival for a median of 24.8 months compared IT’S the ultimate sky dive. Two 2-kilogram cubes of gold and with 14.5 months for women platinum floating inside a taking letrozole alone. spacecraft are now experiencing Palbociclib has been available the truest free fall ever achieved in the US for more than a year, but you still can’t get it in Europe. by human-made objects. The European Space Agency’s The drug’s maker, Pfizer, applied for a European licence last August, LISA Pathfinder mission is designed to test the technology but the European Medicines needed for a gravitational-wave Agency is yet to make a decision. observatory in space. Predicted by Even if the drug is approved, Albert Einstein almost a century UK charity Breast Cancer Now ago, such ripples in space-time has voiced concerns that the $10,000 a month price tag will stop the National Health Service “The spacecraft can measure the distance from funding the treatment. between the cubes down Palbociclib is taken with to the femtometre scale” letrozole to treat late-stage oestrogen receptor-positive are caused by collisions between breast cancer – the most massive objects such as black holes. common form of this cancer. ESA has long-term plans for a trio of spacecraft called LISA, which will fly 1 million kilometres apart and pick up any changes in distance between them caused by passing gravitational waves. LISA Pathfinder’s test cubes are just 38 centimetres apart, but measuring that distance to within a trillionth of a metre, or less than the width of an atom, as required for LISA involves the same principles. The cubes were released within the spacecraft shortly after launch, and are now in free fall together, meaning they are barely –The two may agree energy deal– moving with respect to each

–In free fall–

other. The first results, released on Tuesday, show that the spacecraft can measure the distance between the cubes down to the femtometre scale – 100 times better than planned. That means plans for the larger observatory can go ahead. “The most important message is, we can go with LISA,” said mission lead Stefano Vitale of the University of Trento, Italy.

End of microbeads? TINY plastic beads may have had their day. A UK parliamentary hearing this week will consider whether the nation should follow the lead of the US by banning plastic microbeads in cosmetic products. Between 16 and 86 tonnes of plastic microbeads from facial exfoliants are washed down UK drains every year, according to a new report by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. The beads are too small to be filtered by waste-water treatment and end up being ingested by fish and other marine organisms, impairing their health. “Cosmetic companies need to clean up their act,” says Mary Creagh, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, which will hold the hearing. “If they refuse to act, the Environmental Audit Committee will consider calling for a full ban on microbeads.”

An astronaut has floated into the latest addition to the International Space Station, an inflatable room called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module. Jeff Williams opened the hatch to BEAM on Monday to check its sensors and confirmed it is in pristine condition.

Star tern An Arctic tern has claimed the record for the longest ever migration, with a 96,000 kilometre trip from the UK to Antarctica and back. The 100 gram bird wore a 0.7 g tracking device on its leg so its route could be followed. Its colony breeds in the Farne Islands off Northumberland, and travels to find food around the Southern Ocean for nine months of the year.

Perky pensioners Good news for readers worrying about old age – recent increases in life expectancy have been accompanied by a greater increase in disability-free years, driven by better cardiovascular and vision therapies. A report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that between 1992 and 2008, life expectancy rose by just over a year, while disability– free years rose by almost two.

Zuck gets hacked If your password is “password123”, you’re not alone in your poor digital hygiene. Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg had his Twitter and Pinterest accounts hacked last week, revealing that the password “dadada” was used on both accounts.

11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 7


The cosmic expansion crisis WE MUST be missing something. The universe is expanding 9 per cent faster than it should be. Either our best measurements are wrong, or a glimmer of new physics is peeking through the cracks of modern cosmology. If that’s the case, some lightweight, near-light-speed particles may be missing from our picture of the universe shortly after the big bang. But we might be in luck. Particle physicists have

“We’ve given these young cosmologists a great toy, and they’re trying to break it. Maybe they have.” already spent over a decade chasing something that fits the bill: ghostly neutrinos unlike the three already known. For a cosmological quandary, the issue isn’t that complicated: two ways of measuring how quickly the universe is flying apart are coming up with increasingly different numbers. The first looks at dimples in the cosmic microwave background, a glow left behind by the hot, soupy universe just a few hundred thousand years after the big bang. The size of these fluctuations let us calculate how quickly the universe was expanding when it began some 13.7 billion years ago. The other method measures how distant galaxies appear to recede from us as the universe expands – which led to the discovery of dark energy, a mysterious outward pressure pushing the universe apart. The trouble comes when we compare the two estimates. “They 8 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016

don’t agree,” says Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, one of the recipients of the 2011 Nobel prize in physics for dark energy’s discovery and an author of a new paper pointing out the tension ( abs/1604.01424). So what are we missing? Our picture of what the universe is made of can’t change much, since it agrees so well with observations. These show that the history of the universe has been a balancing act between just a few ingredients, which competed for dominance as the universe stretched and changed. This model of the cosmos has been the mainstream idea for years, but it’s showing signs of strain. “We’ve given these really smart kids, the young cosmologists, what we thought was a pretty good toy, and now they’re trying to break it,” says Michael Turner at the University of


We may have already seen a particle pulling the universe’s strings, says Joshua Sokol

Chicago. “Maybe they have.” Would tweaking the ingredients themselves help make sense of the difference? One possibility is that dark energy is a little stronger than we thought. Or it could have ramped up over time, giving expansion a bigger push. That’s not a very

MISSING LITHIUM A fresh particle may solve another mystery related to the big bang: why the element lithium is much less common than it should be. All heavier elements were forged during the lives and deaths of stars, whereas lighter materials like helium, beryllium and lithium were produced around the big bang. But lithium poses an accounting problem: the early universe had between a half and a fifth of the amount we think should have been produced when radioactive beryllium decayed. Now, Andreas Goudelis at the

Institute of High Energy Physics in Vienna, Austria, and colleagues think they have just the thing to explain it: a light, short-lived particle with the power to interact with quarks – the constituents of atomic nuclei. The new particle could have been gobbled up by beryllium atoms, destroying them before they had time to decay into lithium (Physical Review Letters, It is predicted to stick around for just a few minutes or hours – not long enough to alter the abundances of other elements.

appealing theory, though, says Avi Loeb of Harvard University. The measured strength of dark energy is already a “big headache”, he says. Letting it vary in time would add another, perhaps unjustifiable, wrinkle. “That would be twice as much pain,” Loeb says. But the deeper problem with darkening dark energy is that it doesn’t do enough to bridge the gap between the ancient and modern measurements. Fiddling with dark energy enough to help would put it into disagreement with other observations. “You can only do this so much,” Riess says. The easiest solution, says Riess, is dark radiation: small, unknown particles similar to neutrinos, moving close to the speed of light around the beginning of time. This is the period when effects from undiscovered particles would have been felt most strongly (see “Missing Lithium”, left). In our current understanding, as the universe expanded, dark

In this section ■ Fossils shed light on Flores hobbit, page 10 ■ What will building a human genome achieve?, page 16 ■ Cheap satellites and AI give intel to farmers, page 22

Man’s best friend was domesticated twice

Weaker brakes But if some mass was trapped in light, fast-moving particles, dark energy would have won even more quickly. That’s because as the universe expanded, stretching space would have shifted the particles to lower energies, weakening their pull. Adding this ingredient into the standard account of the early universe could bring the modern and primitive expansion rates back in line – not because the foot on the accelerator was heavier than expected, but because back then the brakes were a little weaker. There may be a chance that we have already glimpsed a dark radiation particle. For years, we

Friedland at the Stanford Linear Accelerator in California. “They have their own interactions, and they are part of some hidden sector – some world which exists right under our noses but interacts with our world extremely weakly.” If so, such neutrinos could be the missing ingredient. And through neutrino experiments and ever-better studies of the early universe, we might know within the next decade if a hidden sector of particles offers a way out. “This is where we are,” Friedland says. “There are hints, and they will be tested.” ■


energy filled the space formed, with matter becoming more dilute. Through a war of attrition, the outward-pushing dark energy came to dominate matter.

A CANINE conundrum solved? It looks as if dogs emerged from not one, but two wolf families at opposite ends of Eurasia. Debate has raged for years over whether man’s best friend came from Europe or Asia, with genetic studies finding conflicting results. It now appears that both camps may be right. Laurent Frantz at the University of Oxford and his colleagues constructed an evolutionary timeline by comparing the complete genome of a 4800-yearold dog skull from Ireland and mitochondrial DNA samples from 59 ancient dogs that lived up to 14,000 years ago, with genomes of more than 600 modern pooches from across Eurasia. The results show that dogs originated from two separate wolf populations in the eastern and western halves of Eurasia. Then, between 14,000 and 6400 years –I see it!– ago, people brought Asian dogs westwards, where they partially have seen hints of so-called replaced their European counterparts. This mixing of lineages is the reason “sterile” neutrinos, which would interact with gravity and the three why past genetic studies have been difficult to interpret, says Frantz. known neutrinos, but little else. “It would have blurred the signal.” Vexingly, measurements rule Few modern dogs have pure out the simplest version of sterile neutrinos as our missing particle. European or Asian roots, the study shows. An example of a breed with But there may be room for largely Asian lineage is the Tibetan something stranger still. mastiff, while German shepherds are “Let’s say these neutrinos are closely aligned to ancient European not truly sterile,” says Alexander

dogs (Science, Mietje Germonpré at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels says the dual-origin theory is plausible. “It reconciles two hypotheses – that dogs were either domesticated in Europe and the Middle East or in the Far East,” she says. The theory is also consistent with archaeological evidence. Ancient dog remains from more than 12,000 years

“New genetic evidence now reconciles two opposing views on the origins of domestic dogs” ago have been found towards the eastern and western ends of Eurasia, but not in the middle. “Combined with our DNA analyses, this observation suggests that two distinct populations of dogs were present in eastern and western Eurasia during the Palaeolithic period,” says Frantz. It is still unclear how dogs became domesticated. It’s not as simple as Palaeolithic people choosing to take wolf pups into their camps and trying to domesticate them, Franz says. “Domestication was most likely a long-term phenomenon that started as a natural-selection process, whereby wolves that were less wary of humans were more likely to come closer to camps and become domesticated.” Alice Klein ■

–Who gets the better deal?– 11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 9


Hobbit ancestors found on Flores HAVE we found the ancestors of Homo floresiensis, aka the hobbit? Perhaps. A new cache of hobbitlike remains uncovered on the island of Flores answers at least some questions in the decadelong quest to understand the identity and origins of this tiny ancient hominin. The hobbit stood about 1 metre tall and the single skull found so far had a braincase no larger than a chimpanzee’s. It lived around 190,000 to 50,000 years ago. One idea is that it evolved from a small species like H. habilis; another that a group of larger H. erectus reached Flores about 1 million years ago only to shrink because of peculiar conditions on the island. Or the hobbit may be a small-bodied member of our own species, with the single small skull just the result of disease. The new remains – six teeth, a fragment of jawbone and a tiny piece of skull – don’t settle the issue, but Yousuke Kaifu at Tokyo’s National Museum of Nature and Science and his colleagues think the fossils back the shrunken H. erectus theory. The 700,000-year-old fossils

Thank your genes for some of your success NEXT time you’re celebrating an achievement, you’d better toast your genes as well as your supportive spouse. Subtle variations across the genome can go a small way to predicting how likely a person is to have a prestigious job, a high income and a likeable personality – in short, to be successful. 10 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016

were collected in the So’a Basin on Flores, which was an African-like savannah at the time. The similarities with the hobbit are striking, say Kaifu. In particular, the jawbone, which the team says belonged to an adult – as the wisdom tooth it once housed had fully erupted – is just as small as its hobbit equivalents (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature17999). “I was stunned by the extreme smallness of these fossils,” says Kaifu. If the fossils are, in fact, older members of the hobbit lineage, then Flores seems to have been their home for hundreds of thousands of years. This means


Colin Barras

–If the jaw fits...–

the hobbit has a much deeper evolutionary history than we thought, says Bernard Wood at the George Washington University in Washington DC. So where did it come from originally? Kaifu’s team says the new jawbone has the characteristically thin, vertical shape of H. erectus – as opposed to the thicker, slightly curved shape

The lost world of the hobbits The tiny ancient humans are now thought to have lived on the Indonesian island of Flores at least 700,000 years ago

Flores Sea

New remains found in So’a Basin


First hobbit remains found in caves at Liang Bua, 2003

Daniel Belsky at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has been looking at data on 918 New Zealanders whose lives have been recorded in detail since they were born. The research builds on a 2013 study looking at the genetic profiles of 126,000 people. It compared these with the highest level of education each person achieved. Researchers found thousands of genetic variations that together offered a way of calculating a “polygenic score” that accounted for 2 per cent of the variation in educational attainment.

Savu Sea

When Belsky and his colleagues looked at the genetic profiles of the New Zealanders, they found those with higher polygenic scores not only did better educationally, but achieved more in other ways. By the age of 38, they had more prestigious occupations, higher incomes, more assets and were better at managing their finances.

“People with higher scores were more likeable and friendly, but not happier or healthier”

typical of H. habilis jawbones. “The evidence definitely tips the scale towards a close relationship with early Javanese Homo erectus,” says team member Gerrit van den Bergh at the University of Wollongong, Australia. But not everyone is convinced that H. erectus could have shrunk from perhaps 170 centimetres to just 1 metre, and shed about half its adult brain volume in such a short time. Robert Martin at the Field Museum in Chicago thinks we need to uncover a second tiny skull before he can even accept that the hobbit is a distinct species. The new skull fragment is too small to be informative – so his scepticism remains. The find is likely to refocus the fossil hunt on the So’a Basin in the hope that many more fossils from around 1 million years ago will be discovered there, boosting our understanding of this chapter in early human evolution. ■

The relationship held regardless of level of education or socio-economic status. People with higher scores were also more likeable and friendly, but not happier or healthier (Psychological Science, It’s important to respect genetic scores, says Robert Plomin at King’s College London. “When kids don’t do well, we blame their teachers and parents, but kids vary genetically. [A low polygenic score] doesn’t mean a kid can’t learn, but we should recognise that it might take more effort.” Jessica Hamzelou ■

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Leaping eels deliver electric shock in mid-air

Stem cells repair stroke damage Andy Coghlan

showed improvements. Their scores on a 100-point scale for evaluating mobility – with 100 being completely mobile – improved on average by 11.4 points, a margin considered to make a real difference to people’s quality of life. “The most dramatic improvements were in strength, coordination, ability to walk, the ability to use hands and the ability to communicate, especially in those whose speech had been damaged by the stroke,” says Steinberg.

PEOPLE once dependent on wheelchairs following a stroke are walking again after receiving injections of stem cells into their brains. Participants in the small trial also saw improvements in their speech and arm movements. “One 71-year-old woman could only move her left thumb at the start of the trial,” says Gary Steinberg, a neurosurgeon at Stanford University who was part of the team that performed the procedure on 18 participants. “One woman could only “She can now walk and lift her move her left thumb... She arm above her head.” can now walk and lift her Run by SanBio of Mountain arm above her head” View, California, the trial is the second to test whether stem cell injections into peoples’ brains Steinberg injected genetically can help ease disabilities resulting modified stem cells into regions from a stroke. Volunteers in the of the brain that control motor first trial, carried out by UK movements, which had been company ReNeuron, also showed damaged by the stroke. Each measurable reductions in participant received either 2.5, disability a year after receiving 5 or 10 million cells. their injections and beyond. The injected material consisted Everybody in the latest trial of mesenchymal stem cells taken 12 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016

MORE than 200 years ago, naturalist Alexander von Humboldt recounted seeing electric eels leaping out of the water to attack horses in the Amazon. The story was thought to be an exaggeration – nobody else had witnessed a similar assault. Until now. Kenneth Catania from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, saw the eels jumping when he used a net to transfer them to a different tank in his lab. “Sometimes up to half of their body rises out of the water,” he says. “This isn’t something electric –Brain injections could help– eels typically do.” He initially thought the eels were trying to avoid the net, but from the bone marrow of then noticed that they kept their two healthy donors. SanBio chin in contact with it during a leap. engineered the cells to possess So he decided to record their electric a gene called Notch1, which pulses by placing a conductive rod activates factors that help brain development in infants. Previous in an aquarium. He then dunked a fake alligator head laced with LEDs studies in rats revealed that the into a tank, which would light up if engineered stem cells disappear the eels shocked it. within a month, but not before When the eels jumped onto the secreting growth factors that alligator head, the current it received build connections between brain increased as the eels slithered higher cells and spawn the growth of up, maintaining the contact between new blood vessels to nourish the tip of their electric organ and their brain tissue. target (PNAS, “We think the cells change the The eels have only a single adult brain so that it’s more like high-voltage setting, so can’t tweak a baby’s brain, which repairs the power output. To provide a greater very well,” says Steinberg. “They shock, they seem to be delivering an are secreting all sorts of growth attack directly, instead of sending a factors, which aid repair, and current through the water. “It seems which also alter the immune system to get rid of inflammation clear that the eels are actively keeping contact with their chin to that otherwise obstructs repair.” try to target the object they see as In the ReNeuron trial, people a threat,” says Catania. received neural stem cells “It is a beautiful example of how extracted from the brains of the eel has evolved a fairly simple aborted fetuses, then multiplied behaviour that exploits the basic to produce larger amounts. physics of electricity,” says Bruce Shamim Quadir, a spokesman for the UK Stroke Association, says Carlson of Washington University in St Louis. the latest trial “adds to a growing Catania thinks the behaviour is an body of early clinical evidence adaption to life in the Amazon, where suggesting stem cell treatment could promote recovery in people water retreats during the dry season, leaving eels trapped in small bodies months, even years, after having of water and exposed to predators. a stroke, bringing hope to many Sandrine Ceurstemont ■ living with a disability.” ■

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Eating planets makes stars go pink

How the hipster chicken got its handsome beard THE hipster chicken’s secret is out: now we know how it got its beard. “The Huiyang bearded chicken is a famous local breed,” says Xiaoxiang Hu at the China Agricultural University in Beijing. When Hu and his colleagues searched for the genes that control the development of beards in chickens, they found that a complex mutation switches on the HoxB8 gene in the skin cells of a chicken’s chin (PLoS Genetics, The gene makes them grow long feathers to form a handsome beard. They also develop mutton chops called “muffs” to go along with it.

Hox genes are famous for their role in regulating spine and limb growth in animals from fish to the great apes. If HoxB8 controls feathers on these chickens’ faces, it’s possible that Hox genes are responsible for more than just an animal’s basic body plan, says Cheng-Ming Chuong at the University of Southern California. Perhaps some control external body characteristics like skin and feathers, says Chuong, including the plumage of showy species such as birds of paradise and peacocks. Previous studies showed that some Hox genes guide hair development in mice. It could also mean that those genes guide patterns of skin and hair in humans, too. “I think Hox genes are a good candidate,” he says. “Humans really are not that different from chickens.”

Lens is thinner than the light it bends IT MIGHT be small, but it’s a very big deal. A lens built from lightwarping metamaterials is thinner than the waves of light it focuses. In a normal lens, a curved glass surface a few millimetres or even centimetres thick redirects light rays to a common focal point. To improve the image, you have to keep adding glass layers. Metamaterials, by contrast, can bend light towards a common 14 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016

point using structures that are as small or smaller than the wavelengths of the light waves themselves. “Our lens is flat, but I call it virtual curvature,” says Reza Khorasaninejad, who designed the new lens with a team at Harvard University. Using a beam of electrons, the team carved “nanofins” – 600-nanometre-tall blocks that together resemble the world’s

smallest Stonehenge – out of a block of titanium dioxide. Across that lens, the nanofins are rotated at different angles to catch the polarised light, which lets them pull light rays together. They tested three lenses, tuned to red, green, and violet light. Each could focus light more sharply than a 55-mm-thick Nikon microscope lens with similar optical properties (Science, doi. org/bjkb). The next step is to expand the lens’s colour range.

A STAR is what it eats. Consuming a planet or two early in its life may explain why some young stars are iron-rich – and those habits can change its colour. Emanuele Tognelli and Pier Giorgio Prada Moroni at the University of Pisa compared what happens when planets of various sizes – from Earth-like to 50 times more massive – get enveloped by the outer layer of a young star. The simulations showed that swallowing one or more planets containing iron is enough to change the chemical make-up of the star, giving it a reddish tint – similar to how flamingos become pinker with every shrimp they slurp ( Since this happens early on in a star’s evolution, it’s hard to say if more mature stars had planeteating habits in their youth. But it’s possible that our sun ate one or more planets long ago, the team says.

Desert plant loves a tipple – from the air TAKE a leaf out of this book. A common desert moss sucks water directly out of the air instead of from the ground. The discovery could be used to inspire ways of collecting clean drinking water in developing countries. Most desert plants, including cacti, rely on extensive root systems to mop up scarce groundwater. But the desert moss Syntrichia caninervis collects fresh water straight from the atmosphere. Tiny fibres attached to the tips of the moss leaves, known as awns, allow S. caninervis to harvest fog and mist droplets, says Tadd Truscott of Utah State University, who filmed the plant’s drinking behaviour (Nature Plants,

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IT’S a curious case of a fading giraffe. Zoe Muller at the Rothschild’s Giraffe Project has reported the first known case of an adult wild giraffe turning white. “I first started to see a few white spots appear on the animal’s coat back in November 2009, and was puzzled as I had never seen this before,” says Muller, who studied the giraffe in the Soysambu Conservancy in Kenya. Over the next six years Muller saw the white patches grow and spread (African Journal of Ecology, “There has never been a documented case of a giraffe turning white over time.” The skin condition is called vitiligo, where the skin gradually loses its pigment. The condition affects people, too, and Michael Jackson is thought to have had it. In the case of the giraffe, Muller thinks a skin infection might be to blame, as the giraffe had been scratching itself excessively before it started changing colour. The giraffe is alive and well, and appears to be unaffected by its unusual skin colour. But Muller fears that such an infection – should it spread – could have a serious impact upon the survival of the Rothschild’s giraffe subspecies, of which there are only 1100 left in the wild. It could reduce their camouflage, for example.

Trojan horse virus turns failing livers into healthy organs FROM foe to friend. A modified virus can repair diseased livers by turning bad cells into good ones. The method could one day offer a lifeline to thousands of people with liver failure. The treatment targets liver fibrosis, the progressive scarring of the liver that leads to organ failure. Fibrosis occurs when healthy cells called hepatocytes are damaged by alcohol and disease. The gaps left by these cells are filled with myofibroblasts, which generate scar tissue from collagen.

Eventually, the liver can’t generate new hepatocytes quickly enough to counteract the scar tissue damage, and the organ fails. Holger Willenbring of the University of California, San Francisco, and his colleagues have worked out a way to transform myofibroblasts into healthy hepatocytes using a cocktail of liver gene switches called transcription factors. They packed the transcription factors inside an adeno-associated virus, and used it like a Trojan horse to get inside the

myofibroblasts in mice with liver damage. Once inside, the virus spits out the transcription factors, which transform the cells into hepatocytes. The treatment increased the number of healthy cells, and reduced the collagen content of the rodents’ livers by about a third – improving liver function (Cell Stem Cell, “We think the combination of making more hepatocytes and reducing collagen is the most promising approach to treating liver fibrosis,” says Willenbring. NASA/GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER SCIENTIFIC VISUALIZATION STUDIO

Wild giraffe turns ghostly white

Brain drain makes you act on impulse WE’VE all been there: after a tough mental slog, your brain feels as knackered as your body does after a hard workout. Now we may have pinpointed one of the brain regions worn out by a mentally taxing day and it seems to also affect our willpower, so perhaps we should avoid making important decisions when mentally fatigued. In a small trial, Bastien Blain at INSERM in Paris and his colleagues asked volunteers to spend six hours doing tricky memory tasks, while periodically choosing either a small sum of cash now, or a larger amount after a delay. As the day progressed, people became more likely to act on impulse and to pick an immediate reward. This didn’t happen in the groups that spent time doing easier memory tasks, reading or gaming. For those engaged in difficult work, fMRI brain scans showed a decrease in activity in the middle frontal gyrus, a brain region involved in decisionmaking (PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/ pnas.1520527113). If this area is becoming less excitable, that could impair people’s ability to delay gratification, says Blain.

Rocks hold Mars’s methane hostage IT COULD be a blow for those who believe there’s life on the Red Planet. Spongy minerals at the surface, not living organisms, could be releasing Mars’s mysterious methane. Methane gas, which chiefly emerges from biological processes, was identified on Mars in 2003. Because it doesn’t hang around for long, something must still have been producing it. But a new study is hypothesising that the methane is actually very old and has been locked away, perhaps for billions of years, occasionally pulsing into the atmosphere.

Olivier Mousis at the Marseille Observatory in France and his colleagues suggest that the methane is being stored in a reservoir of zeolites: sponge-like minerals with microscopic holes and channels that easily trap and release gases (arxiv. org/abs/1605.07579). On Earth, these form in volcanic rocks or materials, such as ash exposed to water. Evidence suggests the Red Planet had a watery past, so it’s reasonable to expect that it supported zeolites, too – although despite 30 years of searching, we haven’t found any yet.

11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 15


Synthetic humans are go “WHAT I cannot create, I do not base pairs, including “whole understand.” Last week, 25 leading genome engineering of human synthetic biologists decided it was cell lines and other organisms time to follow Richard Feynman’s of agricultural and public famous credo. health significance”, the team After nearly two decades spent writes. This will require poring over the 3 billion letters technological development or base pairs that make up the early on in the project “to propel human genome, they announced “You could use this plain a 10-year plan to chemically yogurt of humanity to synthesise one. “Reading the slot in different genes genome can only get you so far. and find out what they do” At some point you have to build it,” says Susan Rosser of the Mammalian Synthetic Biology large-scale genome design Research Centre at the University and engineering” (Science, of Edinburgh, UK, and a co-author on the paper outlining the plan. The artificial genome won’t The team, which counts among be derived from any one person, its leaders the maverick geneticist but will be created using George Church, says it is aiming computer-aided design – one of to launch the ambitious initiative the main players is software this year, depending on raising company Autodesk. Chunks of an initial £100 million. synthetic DNA could then be put The primary goal of the Human into cell lines, like those used to Genome Project-Write, as it is test drugs, or into E.coli bacteria, the workhorse of the research lab, known, is to engineer large with the host genetic material genomes of up to 100 billion

AN ALMIGHTY LEAP The project to create an artiicial human genome will build on previous work to construct synthetic genomes REWRITING BAKER’S YEAST Sc2.0 is an international attempt to recreate the genome of baker’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, one of the first organisms to be sequenced. The yeast genome is tiny: just 12 million base pairs on 16 chromosomes, compared with the 3 billion base pairs of the human genome spread over 23 chromosomes. The project should address some previously unanswerable questions, such as how transposons – “jumping genes” that insert themselves in DNA – evolve. The project is expected to finish in 2018. 16 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016

CRAIG VENTER’S ARTIFICIAL BACTERIA In 2010, a team led by Craig Venter reported that it had synthesised the only chromosome of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides and transplanted it into an empty chassis of a separate strain of Mycoplasma. Earlier this year, the team announced that it had whittled down the 901 genes of the synthetic bacterium to the minimum needed to support life. Of these essential genes, we have no idea what 31 per cent of them do.

gradually being replaced. While difficult to put a figure on the cost at this stage, the team says it expects the final bill to be less than the $3-billion cost of the first Human Genome Project. But what’s the point of such a lofty proposal? To entice funders, the team has outlined several pilot projects that will take advantage of the progress as it is made. Those discussed in the paper include the development of an ultra-safe line of cells that would be virus resistant, cancer resistant and free of potentially harmful genes that could lead, for example, to prion diseases. That would be a boon for stem cell medicine, says Paul Freemont, who runs the synthetic biology centre at Imperial College London. One of the benefits of stem-cell therapies is that the cells can multiply rapidly – but this is also a characteristic shared by cancer cells, so a therapeutic injection of stem cells turning cancerous has long been a concern. “A synthetic biology variant encoded to never become cancerous would be preferable,” he says. Other projects include finding the minimal human genome – the tiniest possible stash of DNA capable of supporting life – and adapting the pig genome so it becomes a better source of organs for human transplants. There’s also a proposal to develop a reference human genome. This would consist of the most common gene variants that humans carry at every single position of the genome. It could be used to make a cell that has a generalised genome that most accurately represents the baseline genetic code of the majority of the human race.


What’s the point of building the entire human genome from scratch? Sally Adee investigates

Church calls the genome this would create a totally plain human. “If you had this, you can introduce variants of unknown significance one at a time. These are turning up constantly in genome research but you don’t know if the variants are causal, or how many it takes [to cause disease],” he says. “You could use this blank slate, this plain yogurt of humanity, to slot in the different genes and find out”. This could help identify why some populations are more susceptible to certain diseases, for example sickle cell anaemia, which is more common in people of African, African American or Mediterranean heritage. “This would be a way of finding out why,” says Freemont. Some see darker applications, however. “Some of the speculative

large-scale production-oriented ‘HGP-Write’ effort,” he said in a statement. Then there’s the question of who would own the synthesised genome. Unlike existing DNA that has been manipulated, a wholly synthetic cell could be owned outright. This could benefit any corporations involved. “If you process it in your lab, it is yours, you can patent it,” says Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

Genome owner “In the first Human Genome Project, it was clear that the knowledge gained would be owned by everyone – anyone can download and use the information,” says Freemont. “But it’s less clear how that will work with this project – this will not be digital information, this will be a physical entity… It’s an issue that hasn’t been sorted out.” Rosser says that is exactly the discussion the team’s paper is intended to catalyse. But not everyone is placated by –No easy task, ethically or technically the authors’ talk of “responsible innovation”. Zoloth and Drew goals of this project sound it doesn’t state clearly what Endy, a synthetic biologist at innocuous or benign… potential risks or ethical Stanford University, say the Others would be dangerously quandaries the project might authors fail to pose essential unacceptable,” said Marcy raise, says Baojun Wang, also at questions in their proposal. Darnovsky, who heads the the University of Edinburgh. More “Nor do they detail specific California-based Center for justifiable reasons than those limits about what should not Genetics and Society, in a given in the paper – namely that it be done.” This raises the question statement. In an interview with would deliver important scientific of whether the group is well US radio station NPR, she said: equipped to organise and lead “The worry is that we’re going to “The worry is that it could such a project, the pair say. be used to produce be synthesising entire optimised Church says that people are human genomes – manufacturing synthetic humans they working to make sure certain see as improved models” chromosomes that could be used actions cannot be carried out. ultimately to produce synthetic As an example, he points to the advances and reduce the cost of human beings that they see as now widely implemented safety genetic engineering – are needed improved models.” standards he devised in 2004 to to start the HGP-Write project, While there is no suggestion prevent DNA being used to make he says. “The investment is huge that the artificial DNA sequence biohazardous material. and long-term and will involve created by the project would be What is certain is that there is governmental taxpayers money.” still plenty of time to get things put into a human egg or embryo, Francis Collins, director of the allowing the creation of a human in order. With just a few groups from scratch, the paper doesn’t do US National Institutes of Health, capable of writing genomes with much to allay these fears. While it agrees. “NIH has not considered millions of bases, the synthetic the time to be right for funding a mentions ethical considerations, human is a long way off. ■

UNCERTAIN AMBITION The Human Genome Project–Write was generating controversy before it was even officially announced. On 10 May, team members held an invitation-only meeting at Harvard University. Attendees were barred from speaking with the press, leaving people to guess at the applications of the rumoured project. This led to suggestions of using “the synthetic genome to create human beings without biological parents”. The reality will be less sensational but just as radical, says geneticist George Church at Harvard, one of the leaders of the project. “We are not well suited to 60-mile commutes, a super-abundance of food, and certainly not for being astronauts,” says Church. Knowledge gleaned from this project could, for example, switch off the genes that make us susceptible to type 2 diabetes. While the descriptions of the applications (see main story) seem uncontroversial enough, greater ambitions may lurk behind them. “There has been a ratcheting down of the rhetoric of the project [since 10 May],” says Hank Greely of the Stanford Centre for Law and the Biosciences. “But whether there’s been a ratcheting down of the plans, I don’t know”. Clues may lie in its leaders’ wider interests. During presentations, for example, Church likes to show a slide on which he lists naturally occurring variants of around 10 genes that give people extraordinary qualities or resistance to disease. Andrew Hessel of software company Autodesk, who first proposed the human genome synthesis project in 2012, is a lecturer at think-tank Singularity University, which explicitly tries to adapt to a future in which technology outpaces biology. Hessel has often spoken of his plans to make genetic engineering into an accessible “programming language”, using Autodesk software.

11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 17


Climate denial’s Trump card A Donald Trump presidency would disrupt the fight against global warming, threatening to snuff out all hope, warns Matthew Nisbet DONALD TRUMP’s promise to “cancel the Paris climate agreement”, end US funding for United Nations climate change programmes, and roll back “stupid” Obama administration regulations to cut power plant emissions should worry us all. The Republican presidential candidate has often defied party orthodoxy, but his scripted speech to an oil industry meeting directly echoed the party line on climate change and energy – probably reflecting a desire to win industry funding for his campaign and boost voter support in oil, gas and coal states. Republicans sceptical about anthropogenic global warming are nothing new. Yet a Trump presidency poses an existential threat to efforts to combat climate change that are qualitatively different from past candidates. It could set in motion a wave of

political and economic crises, creating turmoil that would fatally disrupt efforts to tackle this issue. Alarmed by the possibility of a Trump victory in November, international negotiators are urgently working to finalise the UN Paris agreement, in the hope that it can become legally binding before President Obama leaves office. Yet even if this succeeds, a Trump victory could cripple progress in other ways. To meet the Paris targets, countries will have to ratchet up efforts to end reliance on fossil fuels over the next few years. Just when the world needs US leadership on this, Trump’s incoherence on climate and energy and disgust for global collaboration would have a chilling effect on progress. The broader disruption of a Trump presidency would do even greater

A virtual certainty? Elon Musk says our universe is a simulation. Are we all code now, wonders Geraint Lewis ARE we, and the universe we are in, a simulation? SpaceX chief Elon Musk thinks there is a tiny billions-to-one chance that we actually exist physically, and it is much more likely that we are data swirling around on someone’s supercomputer. What leads him to this strange conclusion? Musk is immersed in a 18 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016

technological world that has advanced rapidly, and it seems inevitable to him that a functioning human brain, consciousness and all, will exist within a computer in the not too distant future. With the growth in computing power over the next few millennia, this first lonely brain will be joined by many

more in a computed universe. Maybe this has already happened and we are in someone else’s synthetic universe. There are some intriguing properties of the universe that make us ponder this possibility, in particular the masses of fundamental particles, such as electrons and quarks, and the strengths of the forces that dictate their interactions. Growing evidence tells us that if the universe had been born with masses and forces only slightly

“Are we only here because some higher dimensional programmer fine-tuned our fundamental laws?”

different to the ones we have, the results would have been catastrophic, with a dead and sterile cosmos. Perhaps we are only here because some higher dimensional programmer “finetuned” our fundamental laws. But how would we know? There might be subtle clues. If their computers are like ours, then they rely on numbers with finite digits, which would result in coarse graining of space and time rather than a smooth continuum. We could look for this. Alternatively, we could search for glitches and bugs, places where the program is not behaving properly. But in both cases, we might just treat

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Matthew Nisbet is professor of communication at Northeastern University in Boston

these as new “features” of the universe and include them in our fundamental laws. Of course, the notion of a simulated universe gives rise to many philosophical questions, not least on free will. What if we are just unintended consequences in a simulation run for some other purpose? And what happens if the computer loses power? Science offers no definite answers, and Musk’s odds are little more than wishful thinking. But at the moment, they are as good as anyone else’s. ■ Geraint Lewis is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Sydney

INSIGHT Olympic threat


damage, weakening efforts to create a sense of urgency over climate change. His candidacy has brought public discourse in the US to its ugliest level, as he trades in trash talk and outrageous insults, spreading falsehood and innuendo, fomenting bigotry and prejudice. His success emboldens far right and ultra-nationalist movements in the US and across Europe, risking destabilisation. At home, Trump’s promise to ban Muslims from entering the US, to build a wall at the Mexican border, and to deport millions of immigrants will spark widespread protest and civil unrest. Abroad, his bravado and reckless unpredictability, his vow to renegotiate trade deals and to walk away from security alliances will generate tensions with China, Russia and Europe, risking financial collapse and conflict. In the midst of such dysfunction and upheaval, the glimmer of hope offered by the historic climate change pact agreed to in Paris last year may fade forever. The stakes in a US presidential election have never been higher. ■

–Just weeks left to prepare–

WeneedtoZika-proof theRioOlympics Debora MacKenzie

to be going home to somewhere with the right mosquitoes. Critics of the WHO’s approach argue that the Olympics attract a richer national and social mix than the norm for air travel: almost every country sends people, and not all go home to the mosquito-proofed lives of typical jet-setters. That could make it more likely that one person could repeat what happened in Brazil in Dhaka or Addis Ababa. And August is mosquito season in the northern hemisphere. That said, the risk of catching Zika in Rio will certainly diminish between now and August. The southern-

SHOULD the Olympic Games go ahead in Rio de Janeiro, despite Brazil’s Zika epidemic? Last week, 200 health experts called on the World Health Organization to recommend moving the Games, or delaying them until the virus is under control. The WHO argues that Zika is already present in many countries, and people with the virus in their blood are already flying to uninfected nations that have the Aedes mosquitoes able to transmit it. Pregnant women should avoid Rio, says the organisation, but stopping other people from travelling to the “Should we delay or move Olympics won’t make a dent in the the Games? I suspect existing viral tourism. it won’t happen, so we This argument is weak. The DNA need to cut the risk” evidence shows the epidemic in Brazil was started by one traveller carrying Zika. That means just one person hemisphere winter will slow viral could cause an outbreak somewhere replication in mosquitoes: Zika petered else with the right mosquitoes. out in Rio last August. Many in the It doesn’t matter that Rio is only one state have also now been exposed to of many Zika-affected destinations – the virus, and their immunity will slow especially as many of the rest aren’t its spread. In addition, the campaign to nearly so badly infected. It may matter spray Rio with pesticide since February far more that travellers to the Games will have had some effect. are on average more likely than normal But the risk won’t be zero. So how

much is too much? The country has spent some $11 billion on the Games – a huge investment to lose, even in part, to address the unmeasurable risk of hastening Zika’s spread elsewhere. Brazil was on a roll when it bid for the Olympics, but has since been hit hard by falling oil prices, never mind the cost of the Games and of Zika itself. The WHO, and governments, have in effect covered their backs: visitors have been told how to avoid catching and spreading Zika, so now it’s their responsibility not to get infected. But everyone knows that insect repellent and condoms won’t be 100 per cent effective. Some Olympic visitors will get the virus, some could carry it somewhere vulnerable, and we can’t really say how likely that is. Should we delay or move the Games? I suspect at this point it just isn’t going to happen, so we need to cut the risk as much as possible. Someone – are you listening, World Bank? – should give Brazil several million small bottles of Deet-based mosquito repellent, to be handed out relentlessly at all Olympic venues. A donor could also boost diagnostic capabilities for Zika in countries where they are lacking, to keep a lid on any virus that does get away from Brazil or any of the other affected countries. And we won’t get ahead of this virus – or the next one – until we have a vaccine. If we spent as much on that as we do on the Olympics, we might not be having this problem. ■ 11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 19


See the future, change the future


OTHER PLACE ON EARTH Welcome to New Scientist Live, a four-day festival of ideas and discovery. Here, you’ll find the best, latest and most provocative science, guaranteed to touch all aspects of human life

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WHERE ExCel London WHEN 22 – 25 September 2016 WHAT Talks, debates, exhibits, demonstrations. Interact with the latest technology and engage with 100 of the world’s most original thinkers







20 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016

Engineers and architects have long built models to see their next big creation and iron out problems before construction starts. Innovate UK’s Transport Systems Catapult is taking this idea to a new level: using big data and virtual reality to model entire cities to gauge the impact of future changes. The “Manchester Table” is an interactive map of the city below which sit layers of data about road, rail and tram networks. The system connects everything together, and calculates how flows of people might change in response to road closures, park-and-ride schemes or even innovations like electric bikes and cars. Planners can drop travellers – such as families, students and business people – on to this map who make decisions according to their own needs and wants. As changes are made to the future city, these “people” alter their travel patterns, letting planners see how their plans will play out. Virtual reality also offers the chance to model the future as never before. A catapult programme has paired an Oculus Rift VR headset with an omnidirectional treadmill to create a rudimentary version of a Star Trek holodeck. It enables people to walk around a virtual model of Milton Keynes, a train station or even architectural designs. By adding real world data, researchers can monitor people’s reactions to changes in crowds, traffic or weather, for example. The possibilities for shaping our future are endless and intriguing.





How to rebuild the world from scratch

science into a mitigation strategy for when the next big storm comes our way,” he says.

processes that make us who we are. Will we ever manage to find the answer? “The only way to find out is to try,” says Seth. Come to New Scientist Live to hear more.



Prepare for the next big solar flare What do we do when the sun attacks? Find out at New Scientist Live. With terrifying unpredictability, our local star emits massive bursts of radiation in our direction. “Solar storms are much more likely than large asteroid strikes,” says astronomer and writer Stuart Clark. History shows they can be devastating. The last big one hit in September 1859, when skies turned red and “phantom electricity” caused sparks to fly from telegraph machines, shocking operators and causing fires. In today’s networked world, a large-scale solar storm could frazzle our communications networks and leave us without grid power. Our knowledge of the sun is getting better all the time, says Clark, but that on its own will not be enough. “The trick is to turn this pure


Whittling away at ‘the hard problem’


Time to decide your future climate

Where does consciousness come from? It’s a famously hard question. Perhaps so hard that we might never be able to get our primitive brains around it. After all, says Anil Seth, a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex, even a planet’s worth of frogs would struggle to understand general relativity. But as brain imaging technologies improve, we will get ever closer to pinpointing the complex neurological



“We have the power to choose very different futures”, says Alice Bows-Larkin, a climate scientist at the University of Manchester. If we keep emitting greenhouse gases as we do now, Earth’s average temperature could rise by a further 3°C, putting it 4°C above preindustrial levels. That would bring heat waves, droughts, and other extremes of weather. “Our infrastructure is not designed to cope with such extremes,” she says. The UN’s Paris climate agreement, reached in December 2015, commits countries to limit temperature rise to “well below 2°C” over pre-industrial levels. Though still not ideal, it’s the best we can hope for. Come to New Scientist Live to find out what each of us can do to help us get there.



It’s not the end of the world: just of civilisation as we know it. At New Scientist Live, astrobiologist and author Lewis Dartnell from the University of Leicester will ask: what would be the most vital knowledge you’d want to preserve in the event of an apocalyptic event? Alongside such obvious candidates as agriculture and electricity, Dartnell believes it’s more subtle forms of knowledge we might miss most. “I’d argue that it’s the notion of germs,” he says. Without the knowledge that disease-causing microbes are too small to be seen, we could be transported back to a time when infections were blamed on fractious gods or “bad air”.

Alice Roberts highlights the unique traits that set our ancestors on the road to global domination

BEYOND THE HIGGS BOSON Tara Shears has the inside story on the latest strange signals from the Large Hadron Collider

YOU SEEM SAD TODAY, DAVE. CAN I HELP? Computers that detect your emotions are on the way. Peter Robinson explores their promises and dangers

THE METEORITE IN TUTANKHAMUN’S TOMB There was far more to Egyptian astronomy than we had ever imagined. Join Marek Kukula for a fascinating tour

HOW TO HIJACK A SATELLITE Meet Keith Cowing, who hacked a NASA space probe 3 million kilometres from Earth

ARE WE ALONE IN THE UNIVERSE? And if not, where are the aliens hiding? Find out from Duncan Forgan

To find out more and buy your tickets go to or if you are in the UK call our ticket hotline on 0844 581 1295 11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 21


Viewed from above Tech start-ups are taking advantage of cheap satellites to share intel on our changing planet from space, says Hal Hodson WE’VE long had eyes in the sky. But now a handful of start-ups are using these satellites to monitor everything from flood damage to crop yield with greater frequency and detail than ever before. Efforts to keep tabs on Earth from above began with NASA’s Landsat programme, which started in 1973. It currently has two satellites in orbit imaging the whole of Earth’s surface every 16 days. The resolution is high enough to capture major roads, but not individual houses. More recent satellites supply far greater detail – and more often. Thanks to private firms like SpaceX, the cost of launching a commercial satellite is also a lot less than it used to be. But the real breakthrough is in the computerassisted analysis that can be done on the images. Improvements in machine learning let us analyse high-definition images of Earth’s surface to gain previously unavailable insights about our planet and the way it is changing. For example, Google-owned

“Small commercial satellites can now provide previously unavailable intel on crop yields and construction”


Terra Bella offers its customers overviews of how land is being used around the world and assessments of flood damage, as well as information about the progress of construction projects. Other companies are using satellites to look for landfill sites that might be profitably mined for valuable materials. Astro Digital, a company based at the NASA Ames Research Center –Fertile territory– in Mountain View, California, 22 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016


For more technology stories, visit

provides similar intel. But it will also focus on monitoring agricultural land – letting farmers monitor their crops from several hundred kilometres up. It’s all about building tools that mine insight from large volumes of data, says Bronwyn Agrios at Astro Digital. “This is not about creating maps or pretty pictures.” In three months, Astro Digital will launch the first of its Landmapper satellites on a SpaceX rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc in California. The company’s set-up will eventually consist of 30 satellites orbiting 650 kilometres above Earth. A third of these will take images every day at a resolution of one pixel for every 22 square metres of land. The rest will capture images at a resolution nine times higher every three to four days. The first group will broadly identify where changes are happening, says Agrios. Then the more precise sensors will zoom in and see what is changing and how. With its satellite launches still a few months away, Astro Digital has been working on its image processing platform. To test the system, it is using existing free data from public satellites, such as Landsat. The company’s website already lets you play with processed images of London, for

Yazbek says that farmers are impressed by the ability to pull insight from pictures taken from space. Yet most just want to know about their crops, not have to learn how to use novel software. So Farm will use Astro Digital’s tools to provide farmers with information about their crops in a way that makes sense to them. It will tell farmers how much of a planted crop has emerged, for example. It will also monitor crop health through the growing season, especially during periods of high temperatures or drought. Farm plans to start offering its services in October. But the –Wide open spaces– ultimate goal is to estimate crop yield, giving farmers a sense of rather than having a few drones how big their harvest will be well example. One shows built-up watching a single plot from the in advance. areas in blue and grey, with open air, satellites will be used instead. Descartes Labs, a start-up based spaces in red (see image above). in New Mexico, wants to make Over time, these regions shift. such predictions from satellite Once Astro Digital’s satellites are Not missing out data using machine learning. in orbit, it will be possible to keep However, for individual farmers Last September, Descartes Labs tabs on the ebb and flow of the wanting to know about their projected that US corn harvests world’s largest cities. farms, existing satellites aren’t would be 2.8 per cent lower than The company’s main focus will quite enough. Farmers need official estimates. A few days later be on scanning agricultural land, updates every few days and the US government issued a however. And South African Landsat images every 16 days slightly lower forecast – though start-up Farm is ready to help don’t cut it, says Yazbek. “You not because of Descartes Labs. farmers make the most of Astro would keep missing the growing At first, Astro Digital will send Digital’s tools. phase,” she says. But with Astro all of its image data to Earth for Chantal Yazbek and her team at Digital’s satellite updates coming processing. But Agrios says the Farm initially looked into using through twice a week, the tech company plans to start processing drones as a means of monitoring becomes useful. “You can pick and some of it on the satellites to land and crops, but decided that choose what it is you want to focus save on expensive space-to-Earth training pilots and maintaining on in a given month.” data transmission costs. Not aircraft would be impractical. So needing to send everything down to Earth will let it capture IN THE DARK ABOUT POVERTY larger, more detailed data sets Eyes in the sky can also help us learn at night. This let them match data as well – including information things about humans. Night-time about prosperity previously tied to from other wavelengths of light lights, viewed from space, are known light levels to physical features on such as infrared. It will also let to be a proxy for areas of relative the ground instead. They could then them filter images and dump wealth, as they tend to trace urban use information about houses and ones that mostly show clouds, areas. But in the poorest places in roads rather than the light – or lack for example. the world there are few lights, so of it – to identify poverty. Agrios thinks that small the technique isn’t so useful for They found that their system commercial satellites will monitoring poverty. Now Michael accurately estimated poverty levels soon be a widespread source of Xie and his colleagues at Stanford in regions that don’t have electric information. Rather than buying University have a fix. lighting. The researchers think that still satellite images, people will The researchers used machine by providing a measure of poverty in subscribe to a service that feeds learning to match features visible the world’s least visible places, their the data stream directly into in satellite pictures taken during approach has the potential to help an app, she says. “The satellite the day with levels of lighting seen change people’s lives for the better. space is about to be totally commoditised.” ■ 11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 23


Chip design quirks make our lives more secure


HAS your bank recently sent you a credit or debit card with a chip in it? If so, you may now be in possession of a little piece of tech that is quietly helping to secure the ever-expanding realm of internet-connected devices – which, yes, includes your card. At least one US bank has started supplying its customers with cards that contain what is known as a physically unclonable function – or, more snappily, a PUF. Every silicon-based chip gets this unique fingerprint from the way it is manufactured, and it is almost impossible to replicate. “It’s a biometric in a way,” says Boris Kennes at Intrinsic-ID in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. “Each chip is born with unique characteristics that are completely uncontrollable and different, just like a fingerprint.” Many people are concerned that the proliferation of improperly secured internet-connected devices are easy targets for hackers. If we want to live in a

24 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016

it is produced. Upon applying a current, bits flip to a 1 or 0 state on the basis of this arrangement – producing a pattern that amounts to a signature for the chip. But just as a human fingerprint is only a useful method for identifying someone once you know how to read it, the trick with PUFs has been to harness these production patterns for the purposes of encryption. A signature can be read simply by passing electricity through the chip – and then used to sign a message destined for just one place. But only recently has this technique become accurate and efficient enough to be built into cheap off-the-shelf devices.

world where our fridge can order food for us online, or where our bath starts running when our phone tells it we are 10 minutes from home, then PUFs could be a way to protect ourselves. There are lots of systems out there for storing encryption keys securely, says Steve Owen at NXP Semiconductors, which is using PUFs supplied by Intrinsic-ID to make secure chips in credit cards. NXP’s chips have 112 different security features, he says. The best security systems at present – such as Apple’s “secure “Like humans, every silicon enclave”, which recently prevented chip has a fingerprint that the FBI from accessing an iPhone – can be used to uniquely identify it” are expensive and complicated works of engineering. With billions of devices being connected to What’s more, because a chip’s the internet – many of which are fingerprint is only produced when throwaway – a low-cost alternative current is flowing, the system is is needed. “You can’t afford to put even more secure than most a big computational engine into existing approaches – at least in everything,” says Owen. theory. Securing a device such as a PUFs could provide an smartphone is usually done using answer. The alignment of silicon a system based on digital keys crystals in a chip is fixed when stored on a hard drive. But there is a small – yet real – risk of the key being copied, even when the device is turned off. With PUFs, the fingerprint disappears without the current. “When you turn off the power, there is nothing left,” says Kennes. However, before becoming widespread, PUFs must be vetted by the security community. In a 2012 paper, researchers from Technische Universität Darmstadt in Germany evaluated different kinds of PUF. They found that three types have features that could make them vulnerable to attacks that involve raising a chip’s temperature – but not the kind being rolled out in credit cards. Owen says he sees the tech not as a replacement for existing systems, but as an additional layer that may allow us to secure more –Now with added fingerprints– devices more cheaply. Hal Hodson ■

Replicating replicants The suits at Warner Bros probably still don’t know what to make of it. Last week the firm demanded that streaming site Vimeo remove two videos for violating the copyright on 1982 film Blade Runner. A few days later the videos were reinstated. It turned out they were in fact a reinterpretation of the film produced by an artificial intelligence. London-based researcher Terence Broad had showed the film to a machine learning system, which then reconstructed it frame by frame.

“It’s not enough to target steps and sleep” Cavan Canavan, CEO of Los Angeles start-up FocusMotion, hopes his motion-tracking app will help people exercise, recover from injury and monitor use of force by the police.

Lighting the way Keep your eyes on your phone. Sydney has become the third city in the world to install traffic lights in the pavement at pedestrian crossings. The aim is to prevent accidents caused by someone stepping out into traffic because they were looking down at their phone rather than up at the lights at eye level. Two German cities – Cologne and Augsburg – installed similar lights in April.



A career in science, it’s not always what you think From movie advisor to science festival director, where will your science career take you?


26 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016

Medical oddities THEY’RE objects that have stood between us and death. After photographer Reiner Riedler’s newborn son spent two weeks in a neonatal unit, he began paying closer attention to the fantastic forms of the tools that keep patients alive. Riedler spent five years photographing medical equipment around Europe, from historic prototypes that never saw a hospital to well-worn veterans of many procedures. Rather than take photos of devices in action on trauma wards or in intensive care units, Riedler posed them as isolated shapes, often with black backgrounds and simple, direct lighting. “I didn’t want to show a drama,” he says. “For me, it all turned into something very positive.” Riedler says he was drawn to objects that showed a human touch – some contrast high-tech equipment with ordinary or improvised materials, like the test tube rack held in place with tape (centre left). Others mimic human organs, like the machine that models the flow of fluid through a pump-assisted heart (top left). The main image shows “Romeo”, the prototype of a robot designed to help older people with everyday tasks. Top right is the “AugenAkkomodationsmodell”, invented by an Austrian optician sometime around 1900 to track how the eye changes shape as it focuses on nearby objects. Below that is an electrical stimulator used to treat epilepsy and other nervous system disorders by jolting the vagus nerve as it passes through the ear. Then comes a 1H/31P doubletuned radio-frequency surface coil that helped make magnetic resonance images of brains. Lastly, bottom left is a CaStar CPAP helmet that kept intensive care patients’ airways open using air pressure. Taking photos of prototypes old and new gave Riedler hope for our ability to devise solutions to complex problems. “It’s about the power of humans to survive, to find solutions to get along,” he says. The project is showcased in a new book, Will, due out in June from La Fabrica. Conor Gearin

Photographer Reiner Riedler

11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 27



EOPLE have told me what I do is dangerous. They have walked away from me at meetings,” says David Unwin, a doctor practising in Southport, UK. Unwin suggests to his patients with type 2 diabetes or who want to lose weight that they do the opposite of what official health advice recommends. He advises them to stop counting calories, eat high-fat foods – including saturated fats – and avoid carbohydrates, namely sugar and starch. Telling people to avoid sugar is uncontroversial; the rest is medical heresy. But crazy as it sounds, Unwin has found that most of his diabetes patients who follow this advice are getting their blood sugar back under control, and that some are coming off medication they have relied on for years. Those who are overweight are slimming down. This might seem like just another controversial fad diet, but a growing number of researchers, doctors and nutritionists around the world are backing it, and reporting their findings in peer-reviewed medical journals. Last month, the National Obesity Forum, a UK body for health professionals involved in weight management, made headlines when it overhauled its advice, telling people to ditch calorie-counting, low-fat foods and carbs in favour of fats. The recommendations provoked a furious backlash from mainstream scientists and dieticians, but they should concern us all. If the advice is to be believed, starchy food isn’t just bad for diabetes, it makes us fat and causes heart attacks. This is analogous to finding that

28 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016

smoking protects people from lung cancer, says David Haslam, an obesity specialist at the Lister Hospital in Stevenage, UK, and head of the National Obesity Forum. “It is terrible,” he says. “We have let people down.” For decades, standard dietary advice has been to shun fat and fill up on starchy food like bread, potatoes and rice. We are told this is good for our waistlines and our hearts, and is especially important for anyone with diabetes. Guidelines in the UK, the US and Australia, for instance, tell people to fill around a third of their plates with starchy food (see diagram, overleaf). When the UK government agency Public Health England revamped its “Eat Well Plate” earlier this year, it cut added fats (such as oils and spreads) down to a mere 1 per cent of the recommended food intake. Fat first came under suspicion when research early last century found that the arterial plaques that can lead to a heart attack contain the fatty compound cholesterol. Then came several studies showing that heart attack rates were higher in countries where people ate more fat, especially saturated fat from meat and dairy foods. Fat was also deemed the enemy of people wanting to stay slim, since it has over twice the calories, gram for gram, as carbohydrates and protein. From the 1950s onwards, these ideas crystallised into official dietary guidelines, and the health-conscious started switching to leaner cuts of meat, low-fat milk and swapped butter for vegetable-oil based margarines. And they filled up on starchy carbs. Yet average body weight has continued to >


Is official dietary advice fuelling the obesity epidemic and making us sick, asks Clare Wilson

11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 29

Food fight The standard nutritional "plate" suggests we get around a third of our daily calorie intake from carbs and almost nothing from added fats. Proponents of an alternative high-fat, low-carb approach come up with very different advice for a sample day

Standard plate : low fat

Alternative plate : high fat

Recommends a daily total of 2000 calories for women, 2500 calories for men. Percentages add up to 99% because of rounding

There is no overall daily calorie recommendation, only a recommended range of calorie intakes for each individual food group. For rough comparability with the low-fat plate, the percentages in the diagram are based on an average calorie intake from each group










500-1400 CALORIES








16% 250-450 CALORIES




200-400 CALORIES



Low-fat diet top tips

High-fat diet top tips



■ Avoid sugar

■ Avoid sugar

■ Fill up on starchy carbs, especially wholegrain or higher fibre sources with less added fat, salt and sugar

■ Limit starchy foods like bread, potatoes, rice, pasta, cereals



■ Avoid artificial trans fats found in processed foods

■ Avoid trans fats and processed, polyunsaturated vegetable oils such as sunflower, corn, soyabean

■ Choose unsaturated oils for frying and spreading and use in small amounts ■ Limit fat as much as possible to avoid weight gain

■ Fill up on olive oil, butter, full-fat dairy and fats in meat ■ Don't worry about calorie counting - the diet will make you feel full and prevent overeating

DAIRY AND ALTERNATIVES ■ Choose lower fat and lower sugar options

DAIRY AND ALTERNATIVES ■ Choose full fat. Try different varieties of cheese

PROTEIN ■ Eat less red and processed meat


■ Eat more beans and pulses

■ Try to have grass fed cattle and free range eggs



■ Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day

■ Eat a mixture of fruit, vegetables and salad, at least 400g/day

30 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016

SLIPPERY SUBSTANCE climb, as have rates of associated problems such as type 2 diabetes, culminating in what is now arguably a health crisis. In the UK, US and Australia, around two-thirds of the population are either overweight or obese. The orthodoxy was challenged when some dieters adopted the Atkins diet, which caused a sensation in the early 2000s. This urged people to shun fruit and veg and scoff meat, butter and cream. Doctors warned it couldn’t work and all that saturated fat was a heart attack waiting to happen. And yet, research showed otherwise. One trial directly compared 156 women on either the Atkins diet or a low-fat diet. After a year, those following Atkins had lost more weight, and their blood pressure and cholesterol profiles were, if anything, better than those on the low-fat diet. Another trial, which lasted two years, had similar results. The idea that those with type 2 diabetes should ditch carbs has also been led by people defying medical advice. Unwin first learned of it when he called in a diabetes patient who had been missing check-ups. “Her blood tests were amazing,” he says. “They seemed to show that she wasn’t diabetic anymore.” This broke all the rules. Type 2 diabetes is supposed to be progressive and irreversible. It is the result of our cells becoming increasingly resistant to insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas to help with the uptake of glucose from the blood. The pancreas works ever harder until it cannot produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels under control. As a result, blood sugar gets too high after meals and this gradually harms blood vessels, leading to a range of nasty consequences such as foot amputations and heart attacks. Newly diagnosed diabetics are usually advised to lose weight with exercise, and by eating less fat and more fibre, including bread, cereals and fruit and vegetables. But like most dieters, they usually don’t succeed, and the majority need oral medication to control their blood sugar within a year of diagnosis. Unwin’s rebellious patient told him she began low-carbing after stumbling across a website that recommended it. As Unwin researched the idea, it started making sense. Diabetics are told to avoid sugar, but starch is basically long chains of sugar and is quickly digested into sugar in the gut. Yet diabetics are told to eat starchy food just like everyone else to help them eat less fat. Fat is the bigger enemy because it leads to heart disease, says Louis Levy, head of nutrition science at Public Health England. And even wholegrain carbs, which are

The idea of “good” and “bad” fats has come under scrutiny in recent years. The benefits of unsaturated fats, traditionally seen as good for the heart, may vary due to their omega-3 content, which is thought could have anti-inflammatory effects. Then there’s the fact that when most vegetable oils are heated, they form toxic compounds called aldehydes, which have been linked to heart disease, cancer and dementia. So you might be better off frying in butter than sunflower oil. Many cherished beliefs about cholesterol have also turned out to be wrong. Too much cholesterol in the blood, especially a type called LDL cholesterol, can cause dangerous plaques to build up in blood vessels. But more recently we discovered that smaller LDL particles cause more plaques than large LDLs. And while eating saturated fat raises large LDL levels, small LDLs are boosted most by refined carbohydrates. That’s alarming because it suggests past research that used total LDL as a proxy for heart attack risk would be misleading – underplaying the dangers of eating processed carbs and exaggerating those of saturated fat.

recommended, cause our blood sugar to rise, albeit more slowly than their milled equivalents. A slice of wholemeal bread raises blood sugar the same amount as three teaspoons of pure sugar, according to research due to be published by Unwin and his colleagues in the Journal of Insulin Resistance. A jacket potato – archetypal healthy fare – is akin eating 9 teaspoons of sugar (although how fast it is released depends on what you eat with it – fat or protein lowers the speed). The sugar triggers release of insulin, which stimulates fat storage, and in the long term worsens insulin resistance. Eating fat and protein, in contrast, releases less insulin, and protein is the most filling food group, so will suppress appetite more. People with type 2 diabetes are sometimes told to eat food with a low glycaemic index (GI), a measure of how quickly blood sugar rises. The faster the blood sugar rises, the

harder it is for cells to take up glucose quickly enough to avoid a spike. But a strictly low-GI diet can end up being high-fat by default. Startled into action, Unwin took the maverick step of offering weekly meetings on this dietary approach to his patients with diabetes or who were overweight. He put them on a less extreme version of the Atkins diet, telling them not only to cut down on starchy food but also to eat lots of non-starchy vegetables and the less sugary fruits, such as blueberries and raspberries. In place of carbs they should fill up on meat, fish, full-fat dairy products, eggs and nuts (see “Food fight,” left).

Under control It seemed to work. “They weren’t hungry and every week they came back smaller,” he says. Their blood tests showed improvements in glucose control, as well as blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Unwin published the results from his first 19 patients in 2014. It wasn’t a randomised trial, but there have been such studies in the US. In one study of 34 overweight people with type 2 diabetes, those on a low-carb, high-fat diet with no obligation to calorie count ended up with significantly better blood sugar control after 3 months than those following the lowfat guidelines for diabetes. Three times as many low-carbers were able to stop taking at least one diabetes drug as those on the standard diet. Unwin’s unorthodox approach has not gone unnoticed. Earlier this year he received a National Health Service innovator of the year award, partly in recognition of the savings being made at his practice, Unwin says. Their per-patient spend on diabetes drugs is about 70 per cent of the local average. So is it time to overhaul official dietary advice? The National Obesity Forum is certainly leading the charge with its new report. But in an official statement, Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, called its contents irresponsible, saying the report was based on opinion rather than evidence and that it ignored “thousands of papers”. Her colleague John Newton said it was at odds with the international consensus. And it has also caused a rift within the National Obesity Forum, with a number of members unhappy about the report. Critics of the idea argue that mainstream nutritional advice is based on decades of research, involving many hundreds of thousands of people, showing that a diet too high in saturated fats is bad for the heart. > 11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 31

Sugar rush Even typically healthy starchy foods can lead to a spike in blood glucose


Small plain baked potato


153g serving of boiled long grain white rice


all raise your blood glucose levels as much as

And yet in the past few years, ears a body of literature has emerged to suggest that the question of fat might not be as straightforward as we once thought. For instance, a recent analysis of past studies found that diets lower in saturated fat are not significantly associated with less heart disease or stroke. Another found that the effects of reducing saturated fat depended on what people ate instead; there was a small benefit from replacing it with polyunsaturated fats, but no benefit from replacing it with carbs. The best kind of study is a randomised trial that alters people’s diet to see how their health changes. Here too, there is conflicting evidence – some trials show a benefit from reducing saturated fat, while others indicate none or even the opposite. A high-fat diet could also be concealing other aspects of lifestyle or diet, such as too much sugar or a lack of exercise, which may be the real culprits for heart problems. It also seems fat is a more diverse food group than it first appeared. Oils from plants tend to be unsaturated fats, liquid at room temperature; we thought of these as “good”, unlike saturated fat, mostly found in meat and dairy products and solid at room temperature. But recent studies suggest that dairy fats, which are saturated, do seem to protect people from type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Unsaturated fats too, are a mixed bunch (see “Slippery substance”, page 31). The role of insulin resistance, the key 32 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016


32g serving of cornflakes

teaspoons of sugar

pr probl m i di betes also o seems see to t be a bigg ger er player in heart problems than we thought. One recent study found it is a bigger heart attack risk factor for men than high blood pressure, high cholesterol and being overweight. “We have been focusing on the wrong things,” says Aseem Malhotra, a cardiologist at the Lister Hospital, who is a vocal advocate of low-carbing. Still, many mainstream dieticians remain unconvinced. Julie Lovegrove at the University

“The question of fat might not be as straightforward as we once thought ” of Reading, who is a member of the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, says that while not all the studies show consistent findings, “a diet high in saturated fat is not optimal for cardiovascular health”. Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford, takes particular issue with the idea of not bothering to count calories on a low-carb diet, espoused in the new report. “Very few people manage to control their weight without some dietary restraint,” she says. Such conflicting advice might well leave many of us scratching our heads over what to eat. Almost the only thing both sides agree on

“Food fight”, is th t t sugar is bad for yo ( page 30). If you tried to hedge your bets and avoid both fat and carbs, there would be little left. A more moderate approach is to limit just saturated fat, added sugars and refined carbs, leaving you more or less with an extra-oily Mediterranean-type diet, high in whole grains, fish, fruit, vegetables, nuts and olive oil. This diet is higher in fat than the standard recommendations, but a recent large trial of a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra olive oil or nuts found that either approach cut heart attacks by nearly a third over five years compared with the standard low-fat diet. People with type 2 diabetes, who are most at risk of heart disease and weight gain, seem to be voting with their feet. Unwin has published his diet advice on a free website and since its launch last November, 110,000 people have signed up, and over 80,000 people have completed the 10-week course. Of 2500 who took a survey 6 months later, the proportion taking diabetes drugs had dropped from 70 to 60 per cent. Although this was not a randomised trial and the results need to be replicated, Unwin thinks it’s a sign of what the diet can achieve without much input from health professionals. “The internet is democratising medicine, and patients have taught me so much,” he says. “It’s a new world doctors should join in” ■ Clare Wilson is a news reporter at New Scientist


A new approach to conservation is turning the spotlight on overlooked habitats, inds Steve Nadis

Life on the edge E

Beyond the rainforest: life flourishes on the margins

VERYONE’S heard of the Amazon, but can you name the world’s second largest rainforest? It covers an area twice the size of France, contains 20 per cent of all known plant and animal species, and is the only place on Earth where you can find bonobos living in the wild. The Congo rainforest may be less familiar than its South American counterpart but it is no less endangered. Africa is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, with its confluence of poverty, rapidly growing human populations and shortages of water and food. So you may be surprised to discover that this region of central Africa is at the cutting edge of conservation. Three decades ago, ecologist Norman Myers argued that conservation efforts should focus on “biodiversity hotspots” – threatened areas such as rainforests that contain an exceptional richness of species. The idea has since been extended to recognise the value of rare, unusual species, too. But in central Africa, some conservationists have a radically different approach to identifying areas for preservation. They are looking beyond existing biodiversity, to the underlying processes that create and sustain it. And they are finding that evolution can > 11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 33

“Species that inhabit the periphery face different selection pressures. To survive, they must adapt”

Cauldron of biodiversity The Congo rainforest is home to around a fifth of all plant and animal species, but you can see new ones in the making on its scrubby margins in the Mbam Djerem National Park Mbam Djerem National Park



500 km

The Mbam Djerem park has what it takes to create novel species

flourish in surprising places. The first inkling of this came from a 1997 study of a small bird called the little greenbul that lives in and around the Congo rainforest. Thomas Smith, who now directs the Center for Tropical Research at the University of California, Los Angeles, and three colleagues examined a dozen populations of greenbuls – six from the central rainforest and six living in the transition zone between rainforest and savannah. This region, known as the ecotone, is up to 1000 kilometres wide in places and looks like a scrubby mixture of forest and grassland. The team found striking differences between the two groups. Ecotone birds sang at a different pitch than their rainforest counterparts, were heavier, had longer legs and wings, and deeper bills. Such changes could confer advantages such as making these birds better able to avoid aerial predators in a more open environment. They might also make the birds more likely to breed with one another than with the rainforest greenbuls. Smith and his collaborators concluded that they were seeing the early stages of speciation. And the greenbul was not an isolated case. The researchers subsequently spotted similar changes in ecotone-dwelling populations of two other birds and a lizard in Cameroon – plus another lizard in Australia called the leaflitter skink. The phenomenon has even been observed in primates. Katy Gonder of Drexel University in Philadelphia, has found that a subspecies of chimpanzee she discovered in the 1980s is divided into two genetically distinct groups, one occupying the forests of western Cameroon, the other living in the woodland/savannah ecotone of central

Cutting-edge conservation

encompassing the entire transition zone, along with dense forests in the south and savannah in the north (see map, left). Although not immune to illegal hunting, logging and grazing – all widespread problems throughout the continent – Smith considers the park a success. However, he admits that the decision to designate the area as a park as based on very limited information – mainly about a single bird species, the little greenbul. Now that knowledge gap is being filled. In 2012, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) began funding a five-year, $5 million project in central Africa. The research team, headed by Smith, Gonder and Nicola Anthony of the University of New Orleans, includes scientists from Africa, the US and Europe. To identify hotspots of evolutionary change, they are mapping the distribution of representative organisms from nine different taxa, ranging from plants and insects to chimpanzees, and GREG HAROLD/AUSCAPE

It’s not easy to identify the best areas for conservation, though. We need to protect both ecotones and biodiversity hotspots, but as the climate changes their locations will shift. The best strategy, according to Smith, is to conserve areas that are big enough to buy us some time. In 2000, he pioneered this approach when he persuaded the World Bank to finance the Mbam Djerem National Park in Cameroon, which covers 400,000 hectares,

Congo bird: ecotone greenbuls are evolving into a new species


Cameroon. “It just speaks to the universality of this phenomenon,” says Smith. “We’re now seeing it in multiple taxa. As we add more species, we see the same patterns.” It makes perfect sense. Species that inhabit the periphery face different selection pressures, including different temperature and precipitation patterns. To survive, they must adapt. That’s why ecotones are such hotbeds of evolution. Despite the mounting evidence, these mixed habitats have failed to inspire mainstream conservationists. “It’s human nature to protect things we can easily classify – such as pure forest and pure savannah – which means that transition areas are often overlooked,” says Smith. “But we can show they are very important, and they will become more important still in the face of climate change.” He likens the situation to investing in the stock market: “You want to maximise the diversity of your stocks because you don’t know what the future will bring,” he says. In conservation terms ecotones are crucial because the species within them exhibit diverse forms. “The hope is that some of those will have a better chance of adjusting to a changing climate.”

Outside its comfort zone, the leaf-litter skink must adapt

using genomic techniques to determine genetic variation among different populations of each species. The analysis also incorporates maps displaying the best available climate projections to assess how things might change in the future. And this data is being combined with information about human activities throughout the region, including mining, logging, agriculture and construction, to ensure that land designated for protection is not already destined for another fate, such as becoming an open-cast cobalt mine. It’s a cutting-edge approach with a practical aim: “The challenge is to translate our findings into concrete recommendations for conservation action,” says Anthony. From the start, the researchers have been meeting with environmental ministers from Cameroon and Gabon, and with representatives of NGOs committed to land preservation. Recently, the Cameroonian government announced a plan to create 10 new protected areas within the next decade. At the same time, Gabon has initiated a nationwide assessment of land use. And, although funding for the NSF project ends in 2017, the researchers have already scheduled additional workshops and training programmes to run beyond that. Smith is confident that this programme is more than a flash in the pan. “It will help bridge the gap between science and decisionmaking and really accelerate things here,” he says. That could make all the difference as climate change really kicks in. “We don’t have a lot of time,” says Smith. ■ Steve Nadis is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts 11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 35

NOT FROM D AROUND HERE Some unexplained alien interlopers could disturb our cosy story of the solar system’s origins, says astronomer Simon Portegies Zwart



OOK up at the sky on a dark, clear night and you will see the moon, a few planets and many stars. Without a large telescope, you will not notice the asteroid belt, the band of icy rock that girdles the sun between Mars and Jupiter. The clouds of rubble lying far beyond the most distant planet, Neptune, are entirely invisible, except perhaps for the pinprick of light that is Pluto. This is the solar system’s liminal zone, where it peters out into interstellar space. Here, in the Kuiper belt that houses Pluto and even further out in the Oort cloud, which stretches a substantial part of the way to the next star, there may be more bodies than there are stars in the entire Milky Way. Here, too, are the answers to mysteries surrounding how our cosmic neighbourhood came to be. As yet, we know little: our first foray into these chilly climes was the fly-by of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft last July. But bit by bit, using more indirect methods, we are building up a picture of what is – and is not –

out there. I believe that what is being revealed requires a fundamental rethink of the solar system’s origins, and even of what a solar system is. Put simply, our solar system might not be entirely ours at all. We have a pretty settled, if rudimentary, picture of how the solar system formed. An outside disturbance – generally thought to be a nearby supernova – caused a cloud of dust and gas to start collapsing in on itself. This cloud began to spin faster, and its centre ignited to form the sun. The leftover material settled into a disc rotating around the new star’s midriff, from which, over time, bigger and bigger clumps of rock condensed. In the inner reaches of the solar system, the result was the rocky planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars. Further out, colder temperatures meant more material condensed, and the gas giants formed: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. Further out still, the density of material was low and there was probably no chance of massive planets forming; relatively small lumps of ice and rock known as planetesimals were the limit of the achievable. This material formed the Kuiper belt – more properly the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt, as its existence was independently proposed around 1950 by the Irishman Kenneth Edgeworth and the Dutch-American Gerard Kuiper. It lies outside Neptune’s orbit at 30 AU (1 AU, or astronomical unit, is the distance of Earth from the sun), and extends to perhaps 40 AU. The first object discovered there – besides Pluto and its moon Charon – showed up in 1992, and is still known only as (15760)

1992 QB1. Today, we have charted the orbits of more than 1000 Kuiper belt objects. The standard model of the solar system’s formation suggests no reason for the Kuiper belt to stop where it does, at the “Kuiper cliff” some 40 AU out. Yet only much further away, starting perhaps a few thousand AU out, do things possibly start to become a little more crowded in the Oort cloud. Its existence was hypothesised in 1950 by a predecessor of mine at Leiden Observatory, Jan Oort, although the Estonian Ernst Öpik had vaguely floated a similar idea in 1932. The Oort cloud has never been seen. The justification for it remains Oort’s original one: that “long-period” comets, swinging by Earth and the sun perhaps once every few hundred years, must come from somewhere. Hale-Bopp, the great comet of 1997, is the most prominent recent example.

Eccentric orbits My story really starts, however, not in the Kuiper belt or the Oort cloud, but in that mysterious gap between the two. The longperiod comets are evidence that the orbits of smaller bodies in the Oort cloud are not static. The tug of nearby stars and fluctuations in the galaxy’s gravitational pull disturb them, sometimes slingshotting them towards the inner solar system. Something similar is true of bodies in the Kuiper belt. Typically perturbed by the outermost giant planets, Uranus and Neptune, they adopt inclined, highly elliptical – “eccentric” – orbits that tend to end up in sync with the giants’ orbits. The dwarf planet Eris > 11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 37

Alien interloper The strangely elongated, inclined orbits of Sedna and about a dozen other bodies discovered between the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud since 2003 suggest they might originate outside the solar system

SEDNA Orbital period: 11,400 years Closest distance to the sun: 76 AU Furthest distance from the sun: 940 AU

PLUTO Orbital period: 248 years Closest distance to the sun: 30 AU Furthest distance from the sun: 49 AU




OORT CLOUD (never directly observed)

it is close, and recent estimates have suggested that there could be some 500 Sedna-like objects awaiting detection. We have found about a dozen such bodies – and with them a mightily strange problem. They all orbit in practically the same plane, but it is not the same as the plane occupied by the solar system’s major planets. What’s more, viewed from the sun, their points of closest approach all lie in roughly the same direction. So they can’t have been booted out of the Kuiper belt in the solar system’s earliest days, because that would have randomised both the inclination and their direction of closest approach. A similar problem means they cannot have come from the Oort cloud.

Solar siblings Kuiper belt 0







Distance (Astronomical units: 1 AU = Earth-sun distance) Long-period comets occasionally observed in the inner solar system are thought to originate in the Oort cloud

and its tiny moon Dysnomia – the names of a mother and daughter in Greek mythology – are examples of objects with wide, eccentric orbits as a result of being bullied around by Neptune. Such ructions, incidentally, make these bodies rather relevant for life. They may have made Earth habitable by bringing water inwards: when Earth formed, it would have been so hot that any water would boil off. One class of meteorites is rich in nucleobases, a building block of DNA, and may even have fertilised Earth. On the other hand, comets threaten life. Probably one of them did for the dinosaurs 65 million years ago: a crater as large as Chicxulub off the coast of the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico, which dates from that time, is best explained by the impact of a fastmoving object such as a comet. In the zone between the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud, bodies are far enough away from the sun and the giant planets on the one hand, 38 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016

and the nearby stars on the other, that their orbits would remain unperturbed. Only patient observation with telescopes can reveal anything in this region, and we saw nothing until November 2003. Then, Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and his team discovered the dwarf planet Sedna. Sedna is considerably smaller than the moon but hugely more reflective: it would be almost as bright as the full moon if it were the moon’s distance away. Being 30,000 times further away at present, it is very hard to spot, and it moves so slowly that it hardly stands out among the stars. In a sense, finding Sedna was a lucky shot: if its surface were as dark as that of a normal asteroid, it probably would have remained invisible. Sedna’s orbit is curious (see diagram, above). It is very elongated, getting as close as 76 AU from the sun but extending out to over 900 AU at its furthest. We can see it only when

Attempts to explain this coincidence have led to the current hype about an unseen “planet IX”, with a gravitational pull that might keep these orbits aligned. My work suggests a different conclusion: Sedna and its family did not originally belong to this solar system at all. I came at this problem from a rather odd angle. Until a few years ago, I was not the least bit interested in the solar system. I was a computational astrophysicist studying the dynamics of black holes and star clusters, and I regarded the sun as a single, unexceptional star in a nondescript corner of the Milky Way. During the Christmas holidays of 2008, a sudden thought made me begin to revise my opinion. Star clusters reveal that stars are not born in isolation, but in litters of perhaps thousands as the shock wave of a supernova shakes up its immediate environment. Eventually, buoyed by the gravitational tides of the Milky Way, these stars bob their separate ways. The sun may be a single star now, but was not when it was born. And the gravitational jostling between the sun’s siblings would have left its mark on the early solar system – something standard models fail to take into account. My colleague Lucie Jílková and I set out to change that. An encounter between two stars is a deterministic process, meaning that one can precisely calculate their trajectories from first principles – in this case Newton’s laws of motion – just as, in forensic science, the trajectory of bullets can be traced back from the point of impact to where the gun was fired. Unfortunately, the sheer number of surrounding planetesimals needed to make a realistic simulation complicates the problem considerably: it becomes more like tracing the bullet trajectories from two machine-gun-

wielding gangsters shooting at each other while running. But take the solar system as it looks today as the desired end point of a computer simulation, and you can begin to characterise what early close encounters might have led to it. Working out the details is still a mammoth undertaking, involving some 16 parameters, such as the stars’ masses and angle of approach, that can vary independently. Solving this requires not just computing power, but algorithms that “learn” which combinations of parameters produce the closest fit to today’s solar system, and use those as the basis for the next stage of the search. We have been working on this problem for the past couple of years, culminating in a calculation that lasted weeks on dozens of workstations crunching along in parallel. What emerges is a close brush between our solar system and that of a star almost twice as massive as the sun. Its disc of rubble extended to beyond 160 AU, and it approached at 4.3 kilometres per second to within 230 AU of the sun. In cosmic terms, that is scarily close, although luckily not close enough to have upset the orbits of the solar system’s main planets. For smaller bodies, the jolt was felt as far in as about 40 AU, ripping out any planetesimals beyond that point into


“Sedna and its family did not originally belong to the solar system at all” interstellar space – in other words, producing the Kuiper cliff (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, vol 453, p 3157). Apart from having reshaped the solar system’s outer regions, the simulations show that more than 2000 planetesimals orbiting the other star would have become bound to the young sun, about half ending up in orbits similar to that of Sedna. Most of these bodies were probably considerably smaller and dimmer than Sedna, making them even harder to find now. If this idea is right, Sedna’s name would be strangely appropriate. The Inuit girl after whom it was named was supposedly abducted by a gull-like bird god after her husband abandoned her on a cold, deserted beach – perhaps not so different from the solar system’s frozen outer reaches where the celestial Sedna was found. Around 500 more foreign bodies would have been deposited further out, between

around 1000 AU and 5000 AU in the Oort cloud. The remainder would wind up within Neptune’s orbit. These innermost interlopers would have been scattered by the giant planets – most of them probably out of the solar system once more, but some perhaps our way. It is exciting to speculate that the meteorite collections of the Natural History Museum in London or the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, or even, in my neck of the woods, the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, might contain material that originated in another solar system. How the proximity of a more massive star might have affected mineral crystallisation in ways we could conclusively identify is a research project ripe for adoption. How else might we find more proof to back up what the simulations appear to be saying? Many hopes are pinned on the Gaia satellite, launched in December 2013 by the European Space Agency and soon to start mapping a billion stars in our quadrant of the galaxy. Naively, we might expect that stars born in the same cluster will have similar chemical compositions and be moving in similar ways. If so, Gaia may be able to identify our sun’s siblings and pinpoint any that might have disturbed its early development. Gaia’s keen eye will also be able to spy out objects in the inner Oort cloud directly for the first time. Should it or other surveys, such as the US PanSTARRS and Japanese Hyper Suprime-Cam projects, continue to find clumpings of highly anomalous orbits, that could provide

The appearance of comets such as Hale-Bopp suggest the solar system extends far further than we can see

important substantiating evidence. Apart from delivering material into the solar system, the star we brushed up against must have captured something from us. The number of bodies depends on the size of the sun’s planetesimal disc at the time: if it extended out to 90 AU, it would have been an equal swap of around 2000 objects each. It is fanciful to suggest we might spot these objects in orbit around another star given current observational capabilities – but one day, who knows? In any case, these particular hostages have probably long since been released. Being more massive, that other star surely has already burned itself out through a redgiant phase into a white dwarf. In that case any planetesimals in wide orbits would become unbound, free-floating in the dark and cold space between the stars. A similar fate is expected for Sedna when the sun becomes a white dwarf billions of years hence. In Inuit mythology, Sedna eventually drowns in a cold, bottomless ocean. Our Sedna might again become a wanderer between solar systems – and perhaps ultimately an alien intruder in a second solar system. ■ Simon Portegies Zwart is an astronomer at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands 11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 39

Booty patrol Charles Beeker is a man on a mission to save historic shipwrecks from professional treasure hunters


N THE mid-1500s, a merchant ship laden with wares set sail across the Atlantic headed for one of Spain’s Caribbean colonies. In its hull were hundreds upon hundreds of pewter cups, plates and flagons, silver coins, gold rings and at least one piggy bank. The ship crossed the ocean only to fall foul of shallow reefs off the eastern coast of what is now the Dominican Republic. As the wooden hull was ripped apart, its riches spilled out over the reef and sandy ocean floor. They remained there for 450 years, becoming dull and encrusted in hard calcium carbonate. For a time, they seemed destined to be permanently encased in the local reefs. Then, in 2010, a ship passing overhead registered a large magnetic disturbance on the sea floor. Divers working for a private company were sent down to hunt for metal objects, which they found in their thousands. The Punta Cana Pewter Wreck became one of the oldest known shipwrecks in the Americas. Its load remains the largest cache of pewter ever discovered. “This is one of the most interesting and important shipwrecks that I have ever seen,” says Charles Beeker of Indiana University’s Office of Underwater Science in Bloomington. Beeker, 63, is a formidable man with a no-nonsense mien and a workaholic’s approach to life. He has dedicated his career as a marine archaeologist to salvaging historic shipwrecks in the US and Caribbean. It’s a job that has repeatedly put him at loggerheads 40 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016

with another brand of shipwreck diver: the professional treasure hunter. Their relationship is ambivalent, to say the least. Beeker isn’t averse to collaborating with treasure hunters, but his goal is squarely in opposition to theirs. When Beeker works on a wreck, he seeks to leave it as undisturbed as possible – to study it underwater, then turn it into a submerged museum for divers. The treasure hunters are principally after its valuable contents, which they sell at auction.

An early calling Beeker’s fascination for submerged wrecks began early. As a child, he would visit family in the Florida Keys, where looting shipwrecks was legal, even glamorous. He started diving at a young age and was struck by the damage this was doing to wrecks. After a stint studying botany at Indiana University, he turned his attentions back to the oceans, eventually becoming director of the university’s academic diving programme. He obtained grants to excavate historic wrecks in Florida and the Great Lakes. In the mid-1980s, Beeker advised the federal government as it drafted the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act. Enacted in 1988, it declared wrecks found on the US sea floor the property of the state government, protecting them from treasure hunters and making it possible to turn them into museums. One way of doing this is to raise them from the deep and exhibit them on

National treasure... or just treasure? It depends who you ask



land. But this is neither easy nor cheap, especially for fragile wood and metal that have been submerged for centuries. As a result, Beeker and other archaeologists began advocating for bringing visitors to the wrecks instead. In 1989, Beeker helped turn this vision into reality at the San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve, which lies 5 metres beneath the waves off the coast of Florida. Visitors can snorkel or dive on a Spanish wreck that was sunk by a hurricane in 1733, rediscovered in the 1960s and looted for its silver treasure before the state turned its remains into a museum, complete with replica cannons, an anchor and a commemorative plaque. On the back of this success, Beeker helped establish a dozen similar reserves in Florida and California. Faced with tricky US legislation, the professional treasure hunters headed to the Caribbean, where the wrecks were plentiful and many conservation laws more lax. Undeterred, Beeker followed, promoting underwater museums as a way for countries to reclaim their maritime heritage and still generate revenue. “As an archaeologist in America, I’m appalled that these American companies can own these foreign shipwrecks,” he says. “You can only sell a shipwreck once as a treasure hunt, but you can sell an underwater museum forever.” In fact, the “museums” don’t charge for admission. The idea is they generate profit for the region by boosting diving and snorkelling tourism. > 11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 41

Beeker soon found himself in the Dominican Republic, in waters that are rich in centuries-old wrecks. Many still hold goods that were either being brought back to Europe from the colonies, or, like the Punta Cana, carried overseas from the Old World. Anchor Research and Salvage, the company that discovered the Punta Cana in 2010, is a division of Floridabased Global Marine Exploration (GME). In a deal typical for the Dominican Republic, the firm obtained a government permit, excavated the wreck and took half the treasure. It sold more than 200 pewter plates and bowls at auction in 2013 for $400,000.

Unfinished business Beeker examined the site in 2014. From the anchors and cannons he concluded that the ship dates from the first half of the 16th century, one of just 10 wrecks of this era to have been found in the Americas. He sees it as a prime candidate for an underwater museum. “This site is begging to be protected,” he says. Aside from pewter wares, ceramics, mortars and pestles used to grind medicines and foods, medical equipment, early firearms and crossbows were also found. Beeker says they are important witnesses to the colonisation of the Americas. But GME says it has unfinished business at the wreck. In 2013, the Dominican Republic stopped giving it access to the area, which GME’s CEO Robert Pritchett claims is a breach of their agreement. As a result, in 2014, his firm filed a lawsuit against the government. The case is on-going. Pritchett says GME will not shy away 42 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016


Can you see it? At Punta Cana in May, Beeker spotted five anchors inluding this one

from what it sees as its legal right. About Beeker’s desires to preserve the wreck as an underwater museum, he says: “I have warned Charlie Beeker once about this issue, as well as the university he works for.” If Beeker carries out work on GME shipwrecks, Pritchett told New Scientist, GME will sue him and the University of Indiana. Beeker seems unfazed by the threat. It’s not the first time he’s tangled with treasure hunters. Some of the skirmishes have even got physical. In 2007, a snorkeller came across a pile of cannons in about 3 metres of water off the Dominican Republic’s south-east coast. Government officials asked Beeker if he could have a look. He and his colleagues eventually located 26 cannons, three anchor crowns, a section of the lower hull of a boat and other items, all of which helped them conclude these were the sought-after remains of the Quedagh Merchant – Captain Kidd’s ship, which had gone under in about 1698. The site was officially declared an underwater museum on 23 May 2011, the 310th anniversary of Kidd’s hanging in London for piracy. This

Thar she lies! The waters around the Caribbean have become the final resting place for many historic ships. Some shipwreck sites are now preserved as underwater museums FL FLORIDA A




Punta Cana wreck

HAITI ITI 1724 Guadalupe preserve Nuestra Señora de Begoña


Quedagh Merchant underwater museum

Caribbean Sea 500 km

didn’t sit well with treasure hunters, who had been searching for Captain Kidd’s swag for years. Beeker was having a drink with colleagues at his favourite restaurant in the Dominican Republic one day, when an inebriated man staggered over, pointed to their Indiana University shirts and asked if

Identifying centuries-old wrecks is never straightforward. In 2014, Charles Beeker, a marine archaeologist at Indiana University in Bloomington, was called on by underwater explorer Barry Clifford. Clifford had found a wreck off the north coast of Haiti, and thought it was none other than Christopher Columbus’s flagship vessel, the Santa Maria, which sank in 1492. He had a permit to investigate it and sought out Beeker’s help to confirm its identity. On first examination, Beeker said Clifford could be right. He proposed to the Haitian government that Indiana University carry out the studies. Instead, in October the same year, a team assembled by UNESCO did their own examination at the government’s request, and concluded that the ship hadn’t been part of Columbus’s fleet. Among other things, the team found fasteners typical of 17th- and 18th-century vessels, which suggests the wreck was too young. Beeker dismisses the UNESCO study as inconclusive, and says it didn’t

analyse the wreck’s wood, ballast or datable ceramics. According to Beeker, politics were behind the decision to reject his proposal. He claims UNESCO wouldn’t let him back on the wreck if he was working with Clifford. UNESCO denies the decision was political. In an email written shortly after the organisation reached its sponsible conclusion, Ulrike Guérin, respo for underwater cultural age al h heritage matters at UNESCO acknowledged CO, ackn that the organisation frowned on ganis Clifford’ss pre presence because of his “commercial exploitation contract m with the preceding government of Haiti”. But she said that didn’t influence their investigation. “I understand that Mr. Beeker and Mr. Clifford are frustrated that their find is not the Santa Maria,” wrote Guerin, “but our work in this matter was absolutely neutral and purely in response of the Haitian government’s request. If the site would have been the Santa Maria, we would have said so, please be assured of this.”

they were the archaeologists who stole Captain Kidd’s shipwreck from him. The man “started getting a little rowdy”, Beeker recalls. There was pushing and shoving, overturned tables and broken glass. “The guy had spent his savings and lost his marriage, and I guess he blamed me,” says Beeker. Despite the quarrels, he is willing to work with treasure hunters. Some of

“They concluded these were the remains of Captain Kidd’s ship” his peers flatly refuse to do this on ethical grounds, but Beeker believes archaeologists shouldn’t confine themselves to their ivory towers and may benefit from a carefully managed collaboration. In 2010, he invited treasure hunter Burt Webber to join his investigation of artefacts from the Nuestra Señora de Begoña, an 18thcentury Spanish ship in Dominican Republic waters. Beeker’s application for a government permit had been approved, but Webber’s was not.


Chasing the Saint

Columbus’s Santa Maria ran aground off Haiti

Beeker suggested they join forces. The union was short-lived. In a letter to Beeker, Webber accused him of being a “plagiariser and exploiter of other people’s work”. Webber says he found the Begoña in 2009. Beeker responds that only artefacts were discovered. “Webber is upset I never announced the discovery of the shipwreck, which he wanted credit for,” he says. “How can he be credited for finding a ship that has not been found?” For Beeker, such clashes are just part of the job. There are signs that his campaign for museums may have had some traction. “Charlie Beeker’s research provides an alternative to excavating and selling shipwreck artefacts,” says Francis Soto, technical director of the Dominican Republic’s underwater heritage office. “My government has not given new permits, and I hope we will instead look to make more parks to protect our maritime heritage.” One of the Dominican Republic’s museums, the 1724 Guadalupe Underwater Archaeological Preserve, is among the most visited shipwrecks in the country. “Not only has this provided tremendous economic benefits

through tourism, but it also helps tell the maritime history of my country and the importance of the Caribbean in the 15th to 18th centuries,” says Soto. Beeker is also trying to persuade officials from Haiti, Turks and Caicos, and Colombia to embrace underwater museums. He visited the Punta Cana site last month to take stock of its condition. He says the scene looks like a war zone, with excavated objects lying about, including five large anchors, cannons and horse shoes. Beeker was most excited to find pieces of the wooden hull. Very little is known about how the ships of the time were built and what kind of technology they had on board. “[There is] tremendous potential to gain new insight into the construction and lives of early 16th century colonisation of the Americas less than 50 years [after] the Columbus voyages of discovery,” says Beeker. The threat of a lawsuit doesn’t deter him. “I’ve been sued before,” he says. “I’ll take the heat.” ■ Michael Bawaya is the editor of the American Archaeology magazine 11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 43


On our own terms We’re overdue a rethink on animal smarts, finds Bob Holmes

HOW well can non-human animals think? Especially the brainiest ones – apes, elephants, crows and parrots? This question has long fascinated behavioural scientists and the public, so books with fresh answers are likely to find a willing audience. Two of the latest explore the line dividing humans from the rest of the animal world and deal with many of the same observations and experiments on cognition, involving captive and wild animals. But the books’ perspectives are so different that each tests the other in a way that strengthens the final outcome. Frans de Waal’s position is clear from the very title of his book: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Here he surveys the history of the research, and it doesn’t reflect well on researchers. Until recently, most studies have measured animal intelligence by human standards, which is silly. “It seems highly unfair to ask if a squirrel can count to 10 if counting is not really what a squirrel’s life is about,” he writes, noting that squirrels (and some birds) show prodigious memories for where they have hidden nuts. De Waal’s book is full of examples of scientists asking the wrong question of their experimental subjects. For many years, researchers thought chimps were unable to recognise individual faces, but, as de Waal notes, the tests used photos of human faces. When his colleague 44 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016


Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal, W.W. Norton, $27.95 Evolving Insight by Richard W. Byrne, Oxford University Press, £24.99

used photos of chimp faces instead, the animals did just fine. Elephants can’t recognise themselves in a mirror? Sure they can – if you give them a mirror big enough to show more than just a leg or two. As researchers learn to design more appropriate IQ tests that meet the animals on their own terms, more and more claims about things only humans can do are proving false. Citing example after fascinating example, and often drawing on his own decades of experience, de Waal makes a case for intellectual sophistication in many animals. Alex the African Grey parrot, who died in 2007, could be shown a mix of colours and shapes and correctly answer questions like “how many green

squares?” And wild chimps carry hammer stones for hours to crack nuts they only expect to find. Macaques will share food with a companion in their troop, unless they know he or she has recently eaten, which shows they understand others may have different feelings. By the end, it’s hard not to emerge with a fresh respect for the cognitive abilities of animals and the way these match their own particular lifestyles. And de Waal is such an engaging guide, sympathising so deeply with the animals he writes about, that the journey is a pleasure to make. After this, Richard Byrne comes across as a bit of a buzzkill in Evolving Insight. Where de Waal’s inclination is to give the animal

Great apes may owe their smarts to processing food competitors can’t

the benefit of the doubt (“it is safer to doubt one’s methods before doubting one’s subjects,” he writes), Byrne takes a more sceptical position. Where de Waal tells charming, witty stories of particular animals and their behaviours, Byrne tends toward drier, more abstract ideas. But readers who stay the course will find the journey worthwhile. Byrne’s concern is with one particular part of the intellectual landscape, a skill he calls “insight” – an animal’s ability to form and manipulate ideas in its head. Many apparently sophisticated behaviours need not imply any insight at all, he

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“It seems unfair to ask if a squirrel can count to 10 if counting is not really what a squirrel’s life is about” suite of abilities suggests they have at least a minimal sense of self. It’s reassuring that Byrne, for all his scepticism, ends up somewhere close to de Waal. The most interesting part of Byrne’s book, though, comes at the end, where he tries to understand why insight might have evolved in one lineage – the great apes – while it is lacking in monkeys. It can’t be a matter of social complexity, because monkey societies are often just as large as those of apes. Instead, he argues that insight helps apes learn the complex manual procedures – with or without tools – that help them process foods that none of their competitors can use. It’s an intriguing idea, although he sidesteps the question of why elephants and crows, which don’t process their food the same way, also show evidence of insight. Never mind, it’s all good food for thought. Literally. ■ Bob Holmes is a consultant for New Scientist

The tomorrow person “Bucky” Fuller’s future visions still beguile, says Simon Ings You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the future by Jonathon Keats, Oxford University Press, £16.99 $24.95

now rolling over us, improving our future through degree shows, galleries, museums and (now and again) in the real world. Indeed, Fuller’s“comprehensive anticipatory design scientists” are ten-a-penny these days. Until last year, they were being churned out like sausages by the design interactions department at the Royal College of Art, London. Futurological events dominate the agendas of venues across New

IN 1927 the suicidal manager of a building materials company, Richard Buckminster (“Bucky”) Fuller, stood by the shores of Lake Michigan and decided he might as well live. A stern voice inside him “Fuller deserves his intimated that his life after all had visionary reputation. He grasped in his bones the a purpose, “which could be fulfilled only by sharing his mind dynamism of the universe” with the world”. And share it he did, tirelessly for York, from the Institute for Public over half a century, with houses Knowledge to the International hung from masts, cars with Center of Photography. “Science inflatable wings, a brilliant and Galleries”, too, are popping up like never-bettered equal-area map of mushrooms after a spring rain, the world, and concepts for from London to Bangalore. massive open-access distance In You Belong to the Universe, learning, domed cities and a new Jonathon Keats, himself a critic, kind of playful, collaborative artist and self-styled politics. The tsunami that Fuller’s “experimental philosopher”, wing flap set in motion is even looks hard into the mirror to find what of his difficult and Domed if you do: Fuller’s geodesic sometimes pantaloonish hero design was a symbol of US power may still be traced in the


argues. When a band of chimps cuts off every escape route from a tree and thus kills a monkey, it may look like a planned, coordinated act, but each chimp may simply be maximising its own chance of getting the monkey by finding a spot where it has no competitors. Similarly, seemingly insightful social awareness (say, recruiting higher-ranking allies to avoid being picked on) could be explained more simply by a good memory and quick learning. Still, Byrne finds a small kernel of genuine insight in at least a few non-human animals: great apes, elephants, crows and perhaps whales and dolphins all recognise themselves in a mirror, show some empathy for others and some awareness of death. This

lineaments of your oh-so-modern “design futurist”. Be in no doubt: Fuller deserves his visionary reputation. He grasped in his bones, as few have since, the dynamism of the universe. At the age of 21, Keats writes, “Bucky determined that the universe had no objects. Geometry described forces.” A child of the aviation era, he used materials sparingly, focusing entirely on their tensile properties and on the way they stood up to wind and weather. He called this approach “doing more with less”. His light and sturdy geodesic dome became an icon of US ingenuity. He built one wherever his country sought influence, from India to Turkey to Japan. Chapter by chapter, Keats asks how the future has served Fuller’s ideas on city planning, transport, architecture, education. It’s a risky scheme, because it invites you to set Fuller’s visions up simply to knock them down again with the big stick of hindsight. But Keats is far too canny for that trap. He puts his subject into context, works hard to establish what would and would not be reasonable for him to know and imagine, and explains why the history of built and manufactured things turned out the way it has, sometimes fulfilling, but more often thwarting, Fuller’s vision. This ought to be a profoundly wrong-headed book, judging one man’s ideas against the entire recent history of Spaceship Earth (another of Fuller’s provocations). But You Belong to the Universe says more about Fuller and his future in a few pages than some whole biographies, and renews one’s interest – if not faith – in all those graduate design shows. ■ 11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 45

Executive Director, North Pacific Research Board Congress created the North Pacific Research Board in 1997 to recommend marine research initiatives to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, who makes final funding decisions. Primary Responsibilities: Under the direction of the North Pacific Research Board (NPRB), provide leadership for a nationally recognized scientific organization to maintain and enhance the organization’s reputation for excellence in marine research. To meet this goal, manage the staff and established processes to administer sub-awards with funds made available to the Secretary of Commerce from the Environmental Improvement and Restoration Fund (EIRF). EIRF funds provide for Federal, State, private and foreign organizations or individuals to conduct; research activities for cooperative marine research projects and activities on, or relating to, the fisheries or marine ecosystems in the North Pacific Ocean, Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska and Arctic Ocean (including lesser related bodies of water) as set forth at 43 U.S.C. §1474d(e)(1) and in accordance with criteria and priorities for grants established by the North Pacific Research Board, as set forth at 43 U.S.C. §§1474d(e)(2) and (e)(4)(B).

Specific Duties: Work jointly with the parties of the Memorandum of Understanding pertaining to the North Pacific Research Board (NPRB) and the North Pacific Marine Research Institute; the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Alaska SeaLife Center to meet the overall objectives of the EIRF. Employ and manage NPRB staff and contractors in accordance with relevant laws and regulations to assist in achieving the duties and responsibilities outlined in this scope of services. Develop the annual work plan formulation process to generate budgets for the operation and administration of all research, education, and administration activities, and submit these timely for NPRB approval, together with all proposals for grant funding; track and report on the work plan in synchrony with Board meetings. Manage the overall NPRB budget, and track and report on the budget in synchrony with Board meetings. Provide NPRB with all information necessary to approve research, education and demonstration projects in accordance with 33 U.S.C. §2738 and oversee implementation and monitoring of all approved grants to ensure compliance and timely conduct; report to Board timely on issues associated with grant implementation. Work with and for the Board, including working at the direction of the Board to develop standard operating procedures, science and strategic plans, and other policies for ultimate NPRB approval and oversee their implementation by staff, consultants, and contractors. Provide oversight of scientific guidance provided to the Board and scientific peer review of grant requests via the Science Panel; implement and administer grants, programs and projects, and perform such other science review functions as may be required by the Board. Coordinate Advisory Panel meetings and reports to the Board and foster community and public input to the Board as appropriate. Oversee a public process of communications and outreach and develop a biennial report of NPRB activities for Board approval. Oversee, in

conjunction with the ASLC HR manager, performance appraisals of NPRB staff; submit to the Executive Committee an annual performance report for this position and meet annually to agree on personal business goals and priorities for the year ahead. Represent the Board at appropriate public, professional, and scientific meetings and symposia. Ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations and work with the Fiscal Agent for the NPRB (the Alaska SeaLife Center) to ensure compliance with all Federal, State and local regulations pertaining to NPRB operations; comply with all NPRB policies, procedures, and programs and all ASLC financial agent requirements relating to human resources, fiscal management, risk management, etc. Perform other related duties as assigned from time to time by the Executive Committee. Physical Requirements: The physical demands described are representative of those that must be met by the employee to successfully perform the essential functions of this position. Reasonable accommodations may be made to enable individuals with disabilities to perform the essential functions.

Minimum Skills and Qualifications: Proven/strong managerial and leadership skills; team building; and strong interpersonal skills; At least 10 years experience at a senior level in research and/or organizational management with 5 years of program-level supervisory experience; Proven communication and interpersonal skills - must be able to communicate effectively, internally and externally, to multiple audiences; Leader and facilitator – ability to motivate, influence, and develop capacity in others to create conditions that elicit passion, commitment, and best in class work that builds the reputation of an organization; Proven emotional intelligence (i.e., ability to appropriately perceive, use, understand, and manage the emotions of oneself and others); and a Bachelor’s degree in a field related to science, business, law, administration, fisheries, or environmental research.

Preferred Skills and Qualifications: A postgraduate degree in a field related to science, business, law, administration, fisheries or environmental research; A record of accomplishment with a particular emphasis on oversight of multidisciplinary research that has management applications; Solid understanding of issues relating to marine ecosystems, including current, key, and developing issues; Experience working with and for a board of directors; Ability to work effectively with key government, private and academic institutions; Current knowledge of key government and academic institutions and partners in marine science and management, including fisheries, oil and gas, tourism and other marine industry organizations; Demonstrated experience with business and financial management; Demonstrated partnership-building experience with diverse political environments at State, National and International levels; Able to work with confidential information and diverse stakeholders; Be alert to opportunities, be innovative, entrepreneurial, and take on new challenges in a manner that supports and reinforces the priorities of the Board; and Be of the highest levels of character and ethical behavior.

This is a regular, full-time position equivalent to the GS-15 level in federal service. Candidates should submit a letter of application, curriculum vitae, a two-page summary of their philosophy on guiding collaborative research and contact information for four references at Applications will be accepted through June 24, 2016 and review of applications will take place in July with an anticipated start date of no later than October 21, 2016. NPRB is committed to affirmative action, equal opportunity and the diversity of its workforce.


Free will or, rather, free choice? From Greg Nuttgens John Hastings suggests that scientists who claim that we have no free will cannot be trusted because they themselves have no free will and were bound to come to that conclusion (Letters, 14 May). While I believe it is true that our thoughts and decisions are dependent on everything that makes us what we are, I think there is a difference between conclusions based wholly on belief and those based on demonstrable facts, such as the evidence for evolution. From a deterministic view, scientists may have no choice but to come to the conclusions they do – but that does not mean that their conclusions are incorrect. I prefer to believe that, with our increased knowledge of the world and how it works, our predetermined conclusions are more likely to be correct than not. Porthcawl, Mid Glamorgan, UK From Denise Taylor The main problem with free will is terminology. The freedom to “will” things suggests a power over the universe to set the options – and that is not the same as choosing between them, which is the limited power we have. I suggest that freedom of will is a misleading term and what we actually have is the freedom to choose. London, UK

To read more letters, visit 52 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016

Truth standards in healthy debate From Barry Cash You suggest that health gurus should be held to higher standards (21 May, p 5). May I suggest that a law requiring all public figures and profit-seekers to tell the truth, and correct mistakes if they make them, would be a good start? It is claimed that oil companies have known about climate change since 1977 and continue to spend millions each year blocking action on this issue. And what about Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo insisting that HIV can pass through pores in a condom? I see a problem in getting such legislation passed, though. The UK Advertising Standards Authority ensures that adverts are “legal, decent, honest and truthful”. But there is an exception: adverts attempting to influence the outcome of elections. Bristol, UK

What renewable energy needs From Andy Taylor Cheap renewable energy is not inherently the dangerous myth that Michael Le Page suggests (21 May, p 19). It may be, as long as its production remains subject to “free market” rules. If you separate renewable energy production from economic forces, transforming it into a common good, the issue disappears. This comes at a price but perhaps it is a price worth paying when measured against the long-term effects of climate change. Le Page ends with a message to politicians to take action, but it is the public mood that ultimately drives most political decisions. It is the rest of us that need to take a long hard look at what kind of future we want. Edinburgh, UK

From John Greenwood Le Page is too pessimistic. Industries that use the excess cheap but intermittent energy will evolve – for example, the production of metals by electrolysis. There is a double benefit if the metal being won is now produced by means that emit carbon dioxide. Loughborough, Leicestershire, UK From Roy Harrison Le Page makes a valid point concerning the operation of the electricity market. It is clearly true that when solar, wind and nuclear generation reaches a certain level, further investment in any of these will bring a lesser return. But he says “we can’t keep subsidising [renewables] forever” – when that is exactly what we have been doing with fossil fuels for decades. The users of fossil fuels have not been paying for the damage they have been doing. In the not-so-distant future, major costs will strike home, which will make the present taxation deficit look like footling small change. We should compare the cost of renewables with the true cost of fossil fuels. East Wellow, Hampshire, UK

All showy leaves and no seeds From Tony Marmont Olive Hefferman indicates that plant growth is “increased with extra CO2 and temperature” and this is of course true (7 May, p 20). More than 20 years ago, the Royal Agricultural Society ran tests in geodesic domes at Kenilworth with different temperatures and carbon dioxide levels. As expected, plant growth was enormous in the highest temperatures and CO2 concentrations. But the yield of seeds dropped to low levels or nil. That is not something we could live with. Loughborough, Leicestershire, UK



What if your mind’s eye is an illusion? From Tony Durham Dustin Grinnell reports Adam Zeman’s interesting suggestion that people who believe they have no “mind’s eye” may nevertheless be using visual imagery at an unconscious level (23 April, p 34). Surely the contrary is equally plausible – that some people who claim to possess a mind’s eye may be mistaken? It is notoriously difficult to examine the workings of our own minds. For many people, the mind’s eye provides a convenient theory of spatial thinking, but it may be no more than that. It is entirely possible to think spatially without forming any internal visual images at all. Brighton, East Sussex, UK

Driverless cars and guardian angels From Christina Cheers Like many others, I already drive a car that the manufacturers regard as a “guardian angel” (14 May, p 22). It has automatic emergency braking that allows it to stop itself if a collision is imminent. The designers seem to have an odd vision of the dangers posed by different collisions. A bird flew in front of me, was “perceived” as a collision, and the emergency brakes slammed on. Certainly the bird must have thought it had a guardian angel. What if a truck, without guardian angel brakes, had been hurtling along behind me? Such systems may indeed limit collisions in the future, but until all cars are similarly equipped, I want to be the one who decides which of us dies, me or the bird. Sunbury, Victoria, Australia From Brian King I am still not certain what happens if a person stands in front of a driverless car and

“Thanks for ‘it’s the first time this has been seen in other animals’ – yes, we’re animals too” Elisa Drass appreciates the precision of our online video on killer whale “culture” shaping their evolution (

refuses to move. Can it back off and try to drive round the person? Barton On Sea, Hampshire, UK From Mike Daplyn There has recently been a great deal of discussion about a coming revolution in self-driving vehicles. This often focuses on anticipated reductions in road deaths. Most of that will be in developed countries where many customers can afford the new autonomous vehicles – and which already have relatively very low levels of road death. They will do nothing in the near future for developing countries like Nigeria and Bangladesh, where the most basic standards of vehicle maintenance, driver skill and highway condition are lacking and the casualty rate is orders of magnitude higher. Totescore, Isle of Skye, UK

The A to Z of your memories From Marilyn Kirk You report that memory isn’t arranged in alphabetical order, TOM GAULD

and indeed I am sure mine isn’t (7 May, p 15). However, why is it that when I fruitlessly attempt to remember something, I often remember only the initial letter, which subsequently proves to have been correct? Rainham, Kent, UK

legally a landmine. And of course not all nations have signed up to the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines: those not signing include the US, Russia and China. London, UK

When did drones When a landmine is solve anything? From Sune Fortmeier not a landmine From David Hambling Reader R. T. Lewis notes that I say that “persistent drones could sit on buildings or trees and keep watch indefinitely” and asks: “When is a drone that sits in wait for its victim not a military mine?” (Letters, 28 May). If there is a human operator in the loop controlling the drone, it does not count as a mine. This is why the US is replacing anti-personnel mines with networked munitions, which are operator-controlled rather than activated by victims. However, if communications fail, or the drone is designed to be autonomous and selects a target without human input, then it is

Do we want every foreign policy issue to be settled by sending in the drones, asks David Hambling (16 April, p 18). No foreign policy issue has been settled by sending in drones. In the future, as today, they are more likely to raise issues than settle them. Copenhagen, Denmark

Wide-eyed and far away but focused From Brian Pollard Tim Stevenson writes that at the distance of the Oort Cloud, the sun could not be obscured by a pinhead, since the dilated pupil of

the eye would be bigger than a pinhead (Letters, 14 May). This is surely a misconception. The lens in the viewer’s eye will focus the image of the sun and the pinhead onto their retina, and this image will contain the pin and the sun as their correct relative sizes, with the pin image larger than the sun image. This will be true whatever size the pupil is. Great Shoddesden, Hampshire, UK

Coal has not quite gone bust yet From Romeo Flores I read with great interest your report linking the bankruptcy of Peabody Energy to China burning less coal and inroads of renewable energy (23 April, p 7). I suggest that the bankruptcy is rooted in a low coal price, related to an extended depression in oil and gas prices. Thermal coal prices declined from US$142 to $43 per short ton from 2008 to 2015, leading to more than 42 US coal companies filing bankruptcy. Coal mines continue operations while the companies that own them restructure. For instance, in Powder River Basin in Wyoming, 5 of 14 mines owned by Peabody (the largest), Arch (second largest) and Alpha (fourth) produced 28 per cent of total US coal in 2015. Weakened demand associated with cheap oil and gas together with a glut in coal, the federal clean power plan, coal-to-gas switching and financial factors are the proximal causes of the current coal crisis. Golden, Colorado, US

Letters should be sent to: Letters to the Editor, New Scientist, 110 High Holborn, London WC1V 6EU Email: Include your full postal address and telephone number, and a reference (issue, page number, title) to articles. We reserve the right to edit letters. Reed Business Information reserves the right to use any submissions sent to the letters column of New Scientist magazine, in any other format.

11 June 2016 | NewScientist | 53

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resist writing in after watching today’s edition of Australia’s rural affairs programme Landline.” In which, Peter tells us, “Bevan Eatts, chairman of Southern Forest Food Council, brought us up-to-date on a subject in which he is obviously well-qualified.”

SOMETHING to ponder: Dennis Chesters reports that the University of Helsinki in Finland is home to a professor of philosophy named Jan von Plato.


WHEN property prices skyrocket, buyers need to go the extra mile to find something affordable. Or in the case of Kevin Davey, 2 billion miles, to Uranus, which he discovers is being sold off by online store Living Social for just $19 per acre. Buyers will receive a property deed, a map indicating the location of their purchase, and a fact book about the seventh planet from the sun. The seller also informs us, counterintuitively, that land on Uranus is valued at $40 per acre, although by who we’re not sure. “Should I tell them that this gaseous planet has no land?” asks Kevin.

OUR litany of strange smells in nature shows no signs of abating. Paul Finlow-Bates writes to tell us that the guides at Tiger Island in Australia’s Dreamworld theme park inform visitors that they may get a sudden whiff of peanut satay sauce, even in the absence of any Indonesian fast-food stall. “This is because they take the tigers for a walk around the park in the early hours,” says Paul, “and

the males like to mark their territory along the way. Their urine, apparently, smells just like satay.” IN A variant on the popcorn scent of greyhound feet (21 May), Tracey Neville reports that her husband “used to insist our dog’s feet smelled just like digestive biscuits”. Rather than a greyhound, this was a beagle. “Our latest dog is a beagle mix. Her feet are less smelly, but he says they are ‘a bit like digestives’.”

PREVIOUSLY Steve Backshall told us that CK One perfume is used to attract big cats to camera traps (21 May). “Presumably the pumas are disappointed to discover that the smell does not originate from some soft, pampered, colognewearing city slicker who will make easy prey,” says Dave Ball. WE HAVE determined that we’ll never be able to move on from nominative determinism. “I know that your file is at bursting-point,” writes Peter Hardy-Smith, “but I was unable to

Alan Edgar writes: “Being interested in acoustics and music, I was delighted to discover the organist at York Minster is one David Pipe” 56 | NewScientist | 11 June 2016

AND lastly, Steve Carper sends us a news clipping about a college lacrosse champion who goes by the name Danny LaCrosse. Feedback is distracted, however, by further information in the source, which tells us that 30 years ago, columnist Peter Taub of The Times-Union newspaper in Rochester, New York, had a regular feature he called “names that work – for instance, a tailor named Taylor or a mechanic named Carr.” Can it be that a cache of nominative determinism examples lies forgotten in the records of that now defunct paper? If anyone has some old copies lying around, be sure to tell us.

A PILLAR of malachite is arousing some debate online over the, er, suitability of such material for intimate use. First posted to Bijoux et Mineraux, curious minds were soon pondering whether the bright green, undulating spar was strictly for display purposes only. The resulting thread takes in chemistry, microscopic structure, the relative acidity and moisture content of parts of the human body, microbiology and the lead-contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan. You can read the full discussion at the appropriately named Bad Science Shenanigans ( malachite). PATRICK FENTON asked us if a term existed for sentences in web pages that were truncated in interesting ways (30 April). “I’m not sure if there is one,” says Ginny Craig, “but was surprised to read on the British Columbia newsfeed that ‘Upgrades

aim to reduce the stink wafting up from below Alex’.” Was the press mobilising against a particularly smelly citizen? No, says Ginny: “Disappointingly, the full text revealed that the river flowing under the Alex Fraser bridge had sewage problems, which were causing a stink and deterring motorists from using it.” Good news for local drivers, and for stinky Canadians named Alex.

IN THE era of declining newspaper sales, the Swindon Advertiser is giving individual attention to its readers: Sam Millard notes that the newspaper boasts that it is “read by 46,872 people in print and online every day”. Such a precise figure boasts a phenomenal level of loyalty – or consistency. “Given that readership is not identical to sales volume, due to many people reading the same paper, I find this level of precision even more remarkable,” says Sam. JUST the thing for those who want a salad without the dressing: London restaurant Bunyadi is hiring

“experienced, passionate and hard working” staff who will need to be confident, as “not only will the food be pure, clean and naked, the customers and you will also be naked”. Feedback has rather lost our appetite.

You can send stories to Feedback by email at Please include your home address. This week’s and past Feedbacks can be seen on our website.

Last words past and present at

THE LAST WORD Just lion around If a lion were assessed under criteria for human health, would it be considered unfit?

in human heart disease. That there can be two opposing conclusions to the question of a lion’s fitness has profound implications for using animals to study how particular factors affect human health. One reason the fat and cholesterol hypothesis of human heart disease, for instance, is again rousing controversy is that the original studies on which it was founded used rabbits and

■ The lion’s fur and lack of sweat glands mean it can’t sustain prolonged daytime activity without overheating – it ought to get its hair cut and not be so lazy. It is also arguably an unhealthy eater in first going for its prey’s organs and fat. And because a lion “The body takes care to runs a higher blood-sugar level keep the testicles cool and than humans it could be deemed the skin of the scrotum is diabetic. rich in sweat glands” Alternatively, you might say we are the sick ones. We overchickens, whose diets and food exercise, forgo sleep and poison ourselves for the sake of supposed metabolism are quite different from ours. betterment, pleasure or And what of, say, nutrientconvenience. The lion’s appetite and feeding activity are regulated dense, low-calorie and delicious cocoa? Safety testing this on cats by well-functioning biological and dogs would have ruled it out feedback systems. But our diets for us too, because it kills them. and eating patterns are sorely Conversely, if the deadly hand of dysregulated by such things as cocoa had extended from cats and artificial abundances of food, carbohydrate and fat combinations dogs to humans then “death by unknown to nature, and culturally chocolate” might well be our most formidable food fear – without imposed meal-frequencies. any help from the sugar or fat. A lion knows it has no need for dietary carbohydrate because – as Len Winokur Chartered Biologist with us – its liver readily makes Leeds, UK glucose from protein. Nor does it have a red meat issue, because muscle tissue, being relatively poor in energy and vitamin Cold comfort content, is only its third food The Last Word informs us that the choice. As for being unfit in the scrotum is wrinkled to help keep the athletic sense, Lenny the Lion testicles cool. But why do we have to would experience stresses keep our testes flapping in the breeze, but never chronically stress exposing them to predators and other himself out – a known factor

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

submitted by readers in any medium or in any format and at any time in the future. Send questions and answers to The Last Word, New Scientist, 110 High Holborn, London WC1V 6EU, UK, by email to or visit (please include a postal address in order to receive payment for answers). Unanswered questions can also be found at this URL.

hazards, while birds (with high body temperatures) and even elephants, keep theirs in the abdomen?

■ An increase of a few degrees in the scrotal surface means it can’t form sperm, and this is why it descends away from the rest of the warm body after birth, hanging in a special pouch or scrotum. The body takes great care to keep the testicles cool and the skin of the scrotum is therefore rich in sweat glands, with only a few small hairs, and just beneath it is a thin layer of muscle fibres. In cool conditions, these fibres contract to pull the skin together and make the scrotum more compact, forming wrinkles, while the entire scrotum is raised nearer to the body by the cremaster muscle. Unfortunately, in most fourlegged mammals, apart from elephants, sloths and hyraxes where it stays in the abdomen, the scrotum with its precious contents literally dangles in the teeth of pursuing enemies. Nature clearly regards this as a justifiable risk as long as production in the sperm factories keeps going. One suggestion for the temperature sensitivity of sperm production is that a critical enzyme fails to work at higher temperatures, but what about the elephants, sloths and hyraxes? There must be some other reason. Cedric Mims Canberra, Australia

■ In animals that jump or run, there are drastic changes in intraabdominal pressure. If the testes were kept inside, semen could be pushed out into the bladder when the pressure rises. Indeed, experiments showed that the urine of Oxbridge Blue oarsmen contained prostatic fluid after they had finished rowing. In animals that swim or burrow, intra-abdominal pressure changes are much less, so semen loss is not a problem even if testes are kept inside. So big changes in intra-abdominal pressure seem to be highly correlated to external testes, and small changes in intraabdominal pressure are correlated to internal testes. The problem was studied in a 1996 paper “Reason for externalization of the testis of mammals” (Journal of Zoology, P-L Chau Cavendish Laboratory University of Cambridge, UK

This week’s question SNORE FLAW

I snore. My wife snores. Our cat snores. Next door’s dog snores. I’ve heard zoo animals snore. Revealing your position to every predator within earshot when you are vulnerable has got to be a bad idea. But we don’t snore all the time, so it’s not an unavoidable activity like breathing. So why hasn’t evolution eliminated snoring? Adrian Bowyer Foxham, Wiltshire, UK

Question Everything The latest book of science questions: unpredictable and entertaining. Expect the unexpected Available from booksellers and at

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