Icy rock in reverse hints at solar system secret
DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN It’s your brain checking for memory mistakes
FASTER, HIGHER, OLDER The search for the greatest centenarian athlete
WEEKLY August 20 -26, 2016
THERE’S A ZAP FOR THAT Electroshock therapy makes a comeback
LIFE’S MANY BEGINNINGS
Early Earth was teeming with experiments in evolution. Only one survived...
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Electroshock therapy works, but at what cost? Live the Olympic dream
Mission to map the deep sea
UPFRONT English bees killed by pesticides. Australia’s taps leached lead. First quantum satellite 8 THIS WEEK Déjà vu explained. Fake black hole mimics real thing. The world’s best centenarian athletes. Mystery object sits beyond Neptune. Salt may prevent migraines. 500-year-old shark is the oldest vertebrate 14 IN BRIEF The brain’s genes in action. Sewing wasps work with silk. Brain training reduces paralysis. Confusion over proton radius
Diving down 200 metres in a tiny submersible
On the cover
Life’s many beginnings
Early Earth teemed with evolutionary experiments
Déjà vu all over again The brain’s memory check Unseen influence Icy rock in reverse Faster, higher, older Centenarian athletes There’s a zap for that Electroshocks are back No regrets Poker bot life strategies
Analysis 16 Mental health Can tainted therapy make a shock return? 18 COMMENT Supercollider dreams face a reality check. The bottled nonsense that fooled the world 19 INSIGHT Give animal-human chimeras a chance
Technology 20 AI hackers fight to the death. Plasmabombing the sky. Stunt-double drones pass on skills. Computers hunt money launderers
Cover image Kat Wedmore
24 Bread bugs in 3000-year-old loaf
26 Life’s many beginnings (see above left) 30 No regrets (see left) 34 Into the ignorosphere Conquering the atmosphere’s final frontier 38 PEOPLE Roland Richter, Argentina’s fusion fraud
Poker bots teach us strategies to win at life
Coming next week… Shadow world
There’s a reality all around us that we can’t touch
42 Back off! Obsessive over-parenting is a formula for stunting child development 43 Mall tales An artist‘s take on consumption 44 Peace ’n’ love A world made by cybernetics
Regulars 52 LETTERS Mining sea and space for whom? 56 FEEDBACK Men, set your citations higher 57 THE LAST WORD Ocean’s lull
Why so many cures never worked in the first place
20 August 2016 | NewScientist | 3
Professor Dame Carol Robinson 2015 Laureate for United Kingdom
By Brigitte Lacombe
Science needs women
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A real headache We must understand electroshock therapy’s unwanted harm AFTER receiving a muscle relaxant and general anaesthetic, you are wheeled into the operating theatre for a procedure that will last less than a minute. A couple of hours of recovery and it’s home time. Eight to 10 such sessions should see you free from the depression you’ve found so debilitating. What a relief! Serious depression creates misery for many people, including friends and family. Drug and talking therapies are hit and miss, so a surgical procedure that promises relief sounds great. At least until you hear it is electroconvulsive therapy or ECT, in which an electric current is passed through the brain to induce a seizure. ECT fell from favour at the end
of the last century, in part because it is so extreme, but it never went away. The description above is how its advocates would like modern ECT to be seen – a routine outpatient procedure. The costs of lifting depression are temporary, they say: muscle pain, a headache, confusion and memory loss. In the US they hope to dispel the stigma attached to ECT and offer it to more people and for disorders other than serious depression in adults (see page 16). Ranged against them is a variety of groups – some credible, some not – claiming that ECT can cause permanent memory loss and brain damage. Some even argue that ECT does not work. The evidence does not support that last contention. Analyses of
Live the Olympic dream THE Rio Olympics is a feast of fabulous entertainment as we watch competitors push their honed bodies and minds to the very limit. Usain Bolt, who has stayed at the top for three Olympics, perhaps epitomises the spirit of the games. Bolt is a mere 29. Look down the lists and there are older athletes. Katherine Grainger won a silver in
the double sculls at the age of 40. In the 10,000 metres, 42-year-old Jo Pavey ran in her fifth games, beating her Team GB rivals, who are 18 and 19 years her junior. After the age of 40, athletic performance tends to drop by 10 to 15 per cent per decade. But if you’re nearing that watershed, or over it, don’t despair. The prowess of champion cyclist Robert
many trials show that ECT is an effective short-term treatment for depression, and probably better than drugs. However, medical science has fallen short when it comes to the downsides of ECT. The UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence points out that study of the scale and longevity of cognitive impairments caused by ECT has been neglected in randomised controlled trials. Is the damage done by follow-up courses of ECT cumulative? We cannot say. Work needs to be done here. To recast a popular phrase, rehabilitating such an extraordinary treatment will require extraordinary evidence. We need to be certain not only of ECT’s benefits, but also its costs. ■
Marchand has fallen by just 8 per cent per decade for 60 years (see page 10). Marchand is 104. Exercise is a wonder drug. It helps to protect us from heart attacks and strokes, diabetes, obesity, cancer and Alzheimer’s. It maintains muscle mass, which is important as we get older, and even boosts memory. So, whether it’s a lap of a track, a walk round a park or a dance round your living room, live the Olympic dream. It might just save your life. ■ 20 August 2016 | NewScientist | 5
XINHUA NEWS AGENCY / EYEVINE
End of eavesdropping CHINA has successfully launched the world’s first quantum communications satellite. It will test out technology that could one day be part of an unhackable network. The 600-kilogram spacecraft blasted off from the Gobi desert on Tuesday. Officially known as the Quantum Science Satellite (QUESS), the mission has been nicknamed Mozi, after the ancient Chinese philosopher said to be the first to conduct optical experiments. Like Mozi, Jian-Wei Pan of the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei and colleagues will use photons to test out quantum key distribution, a form of secure communication in which the laws of quantum mechanics prevent eavesdropping.
If successful, they hope to create a communications system. “For sure, we will launch more satellites to construct a quantum constellation for global coverage,” says Pan. The team will also conduct more basic research. QUESS will beam photons 1200 kilometres down to Earth to test whether entanglement – in which the quantum properties of two particles are linked even when separated – works on a large scale. Other groups working on quantum satellites are watching with interest. “We can test many things on the ground, but final validation has to be done in orbit,” says Alexander Ling of the Centre for Quantum Technologies in Singapore. “Everyone working on free-space quantum communication is very excited.”
–All over for snoopers?–
Catch the wave GET back in the space-based hunt for gravitational waves. That’s the message to NASA of a report from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on how well the nation is meeting key goals in astronomy and astrophysics. The report assesses advances made since the US’s 2010 decadal survey, a wish list that the
“NASA has been urged to finish what it started: hunt for gravitational waves using the LISA experiment” astronomical community releases every 10 years to identify research priorities. “The progress in the first five years has been incredible,” says Jacqueline Hewitt at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was chair of the committee that wrote the report. “The government is getting its money’s worth in terms of the resources it’s been investing in support for scientists.” The committee praised the 6 | NewScientist | 20 August 2016
US-based LIGO experiment for its groundbreaking detection earlier this year of gravitational waves, ripples in space-time shaken off when massive objects accelerate. That success prompted the committee to recommend that NASA finish what it started: the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA). This experiment was designed to hunt gravitational waves from even bigger black holes than LIGO can detect by sending lasers between three spacecraft arranged in a triangle. It was originally a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency, but NASA pulled out in 2011 citing funding limitations. “That’s been put on hold, even dissolved,” Hewitt says. ESA plans to launch “evolved LISA” or eLISA on its own, and its test bed LISA Pathfinder spacecraft has been performing beautifully. Given that success – and the fact that we now know gravitational waves exist – the National Academies committee urged NASA to renew its partnership with ESA.
Opioids hit babies THE epidemic announces itself even at birth. In the US, the number of babies born with an addiction to opioid painkillers has quadrupled in just 15 years. A report by the US Centers for Disease Control analysed cases reported in 28 states from 1999 to 2013. Over that time, the number of addicted babies rose from 1.5 to 6 per 1000 hospital births. The highest rate was in West Virginia, with 33 cases per 1000 births (MMWR, doi.org/bn7w).
The babies are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome – the result of exposure in the womb to opioids such as heroin, methadone or the common painkiller oxycontin. Symptoms include tremors, seizures, feeding difficulties and an unstable body temperature. Its effects on longterm development are unclear. The condition has become more common in parallel with the growing US opioid addiction epidemic in adults, which led to almost 20,000 overdose-related deaths in 2014.
Bee decline linked to pesticide THE decline of England’s wild bees has been linked for the first time to the use of neonicotinoid pesticides on oilseed rape farms. The effects such pesticides have on bees have been documented before, but there was no strong evidence linking them to long-term losses of wild bee species. Now, Ben Woodcock at the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Wallingford, UK, and his colleagues have studied data on 62 bee species
from 31,800 surveys across more than 4000 square kilometres of land. Populations across all species declined by an average of 7 per cent after 2002, when farmers started widely using neonicotinoids on oilseed rape. Species that forage on rapeseed were hit three times as hard as those that do not (Nature Communications, doi.org/bn72). Woodcock says other factors may also be implicated in bee decline, such as climate change and disease.
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IT’S another ominous milestone. In July, the world’s surface was the hottest it has been since records began, according to NASA. That means it is probably at its hottest since the last interglacial period 125,000 years ago.
CHRIS HONDROS/GETTY IMAGES
Never been this hot
Feverish fight Central Africa’s yellow fever outbreak has claimed nearly 500 lives, with thousands more suspected cases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola. A campaign to vaccinate half a million people in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa began this week, using a diluted dose to make vaccine stocks go further.
“A warmer planet means more extreme weather events, and that’s exactly what we are seeing”
Hackers peddle wares
This record for the hottest month will not last long: as the planet continues warming, it will get smashed again and again. And average annual temperatures are Polio returns soaring too, with 2016 expected JUST as Africa was due to celebrate to be the hottest year on record two polio-free years, comes the at around 1.2°C above the average announcement that the virus pre-industrial temperature. has paralysed two children This means we are well on course in Nigeria’s Borno state. The to breach the warming limit, continent had been on track to agreed at last year’s UN climate be declared officially polio free conference in Paris, by 2036. in just one year’s time. A warmer planet means more “The overriding priority now is extreme weather events, and to rapidly immunise all children that’s exactly what we are seeing. around the affected area and For instance, the temperature in ensure no other children succumb,” Mitribah, Kuwait, reached 54 °C said Matshidiso Moeti, the World on 21 July. That’s the hottest temperature reliably recorded outside of Death Valley, California. “This is a reminder that the world cannot afford to be Extreme rainfall events like complacent while we are the one that caused extensive on the brink of eradication” flooding in Louisiana in the past week will also become ever Health Organization’s regional more common, as a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. director for Africa. Nigeria previously had a large incidence of polio. In 2012, the country accounted for more than half of all cases globally. But an immunisation campaign meant it was able to celebrate two years without a new case in July. “This is an important reminder that the world cannot afford to be complacent, as we are on the brink of polio eradication,” said Michel Zaffron, director of the WHO’s polio eradication programme. “We are confident that with a swift response and strong collaboration with the Nigerian –Tasty, but tainted– government, we can soon rid the
country of polio once and for all.” Only 21 wild polio cases have been reported around the world so far this year, compared with 34 at the same point in 2015. The WHO has been predicting that the virus will be eradicated by 2019. Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only other countries still reporting cases of polio. Here the Taliban has opposed vaccination.
Toxic taps LEAD is leaching into Australia’s drinking water, with brass taps the likely culprit. Lead, which is often added to brass, is a neurotoxin that is particularly harmful to children. Exposure has been linked to falls in IQ and attention span. A study detected lead in 56 per cent of samples from kitchen taps in 212 homes in New South Wales. Eight per cent of the samples exceeded the national limit of 10 micrograms of lead per litre. A handful had almost 90 micrograms per litre, comparable to levels during the recent crisis in Flint, Michigan, after distribution pipes began to corrode. The researchers have still to test whether the levels correlate with health problems, but co-author Paul Harvey at Macquarie University in Sydney believes they could be harmful (Environmental Research, doi.org/bn7s).
Hacker group Shadow Brokers are auctioning what they say are stolen surveillance software tools developed by a team linked to the US National Security Agency, although some security experts say it could be a hoax. Samples of the tools released so far are relatively old, but could potentially get around common types of firewall.
Timely infections Check the clock. A study of circadian rhythms shows that mice are more susceptible to viral infection at the end of their waking period, or when their body clocks are disrupted (PNAS, doi.org/bn7n). This could mean that shift workers are more susceptible to viral diseases, says team member Rachel Edgar at the University of Cambridge.
Space crew downsized It could get a bit lonely up there. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, may lower its crew complement on the International Space Station from three to two, leaving the ISS with five astronauts. Russia may also cut down on cargo flights to the ISS to reduce costs.
Charitable by nature How giving you are could be down to your brain, according to scans that picked out a region in the cerebral cortex. People who are more empathetic show more activity in this “generosity centre”, and were faster at learning how to reward others when playing a computer game (PNAS, doi.org/bn7p).
20 August 2016 | NewScientist | 7
FIELD NOTES The Sargasso Sea, Bermuda Coral that looks like corkscrew wires and bare-branched trees grows in a bed of mossy brown algae. As we move along at a leisurely 1 metre per second, we spot grouper, bass, eel and butterfly fish darting between the rocks. A pair of invasive lionfish pop up, then disappear into the darkness. Ahead of us, Nemo is filming a stretch of ocean floor. When the mission is over, Alex Rogers at the University of Oxford and his team will pore over the videos, counting up the different species they see. So far, they say they have discovered five or six new species of algae, as well as a handful of –Prepare to dive– fish they can’t immediately identify. A crane lifts Nomad into the air Our job is to collect water and deposits us into the rolling samples. Rogers has given me a sea. The pilot, Kelvin Magee, runs clipboard, with instructions to through a series of checks over note down the exact times and the radio: the battery pods aren’t depths at which each bottle snaps leaking, the thrusters are working, shut. Other dives return with life systems are good. I give the samples of the local fauna: sea Submersibles are key to a vast project to map “OK” sign to Steeds on the deck, stars, crustaceans, urchins and a visual reassurance that I’m not coral. On the day I’m there, one the deep sea. Aviva Rutkin takes the plunge going to freak out in the tiny sub returns with the prize of a space. We are cleared to dive. large glass sponge. A CREW member points to a spot how it is changing over time. One pilot-in-training told me We also catch a white plastic on the speedboat’s GPS screen, Nekton is taking the very first that the subs manoeuvre like hose that Nemo spots first. somewhere in the blue expanse step, establishing a baseline. “a cross between a helicopter Rogers tells me beer bottles, lost off the southern coast of Bermuda. “We have better maps of Mars and a hot air balloon”. It’s an apt lures and abandoned cables are The location is surrounded by red and the moon than we have of our description. Nomad slips under a common sight. flags and carries a warning in bold own seabed,” says Oliver Steeds, the surface, tipping forward, then Nekton hopes to take its survey text. Our driver laughs. “‘Area To mission director of Nekton. Some righting itself. For the next half techniques around the world, Be Avoided’,” he says. “That’s us.” 95 per cent of the ocean remains hour, we drift slowly downward. sharing them with researchers On a brilliantly sunny Friday unexplored. The water fades from clear green looking to make their own morning, we are zooming to this Today’s site, Tiger, is about an to a murky blue-black. The surface measurements. “Hopefully we’ll watery location to meet the hour offshore from Bermuda’s becomes a glittering memory be developing almost a standard Baseline Explorer research vessel. capital, Hamilton. With the help method that any oceanographer “I give the ‘OK’ sign, a visual and marine biologist can actually For the last month, it has circled of two submersibles, Nemo and reassurance to the mission apply,” says Rogers. Bermuda, releasing submersibles Nomad, Baseline Explorer will director that I won’t freak that dive 200 metres deep in the explore one side of a steep gully. Down below, what surprises me out in the tiny craft” Sargasso Sea. Today, I’m going At the centre of each of these the most is the sheer vastness of down with them. burnished yellow craft is a glass the ocean. Everywhere I look, the The effort is part of the Nekton dome, just big enough for two above my head, a few faraway hazy water stretches out, keeping Mission, a global campaign to passengers. That afternoon, after sunbeams on the water. Soon, the secret of what lies a few comprehensively capture what a quick safety briefing, I take off I can’t see it at all. hundred metres away to itself. life is like in the ocean’s depths. my shoes and slide in through At 200 metres deep, Magee After 2 ½ hours, we finally surface The goal is to create an “ocean the hatch at the top of Nomad. suddenly points. “There it is! through a cloud of sargassum health check”, helping us It’s sweltering inside. I can see Do you see it?” I squint. Ahead weed shot through with rays of understand not only what this through the glass in almost all of us, an enormous submerged sunlight, a little bit wiser to the ecosystem looks like now, but directions, even the floor. mountain gradually materialises. alien world below. ■
Into the blue with Nomad and Nemo
8 | NewScientist | 20 August 2016
In this section ■ Mystery object sits beyond Neptune, page 10 ■ Salt may prevent migraines, page 12 ■ Can tainted therapy make a shock return? page 16
You get déjà vu when your brain checks itself
PLAINPICTURE/FOLIO IMAGES/DANIAL HOGBERG
FEEL like you’ve read this before? Most of us have experienced the eerie familiarity of déjà vu, and now the first brain scans of this phenomenon have revealed why – it’s our brain checking memories. Déjà vu was thought to be caused by the brain making false memories, but research by Akira O’Connor at the University of St Andrews, UK, and his team suggests this isn’t the case. How déjà vu works has long been a mystery, partly because its fleeting, unpredictable nature makes it difficult to study. To get around this, O’Connor’s team developed a way to trigger the sensation of déjà vu in the lab. The team’s technique uses a standard method to create false memories. It involves reading a list of related words – such as bed, night, dream – to a participant but not the key word linking them together, in this case, sleep. When
O’Connor presented these findings at the International Conference on Memory in Budapest, Hungary, last month. He thinks that the frontal regions of the brain are checking our memories, and sending signals if there is some kind of memory error – a conflict between what we’ve actually experienced and what we think we’ve experienced. “It suggests there may be some conflict resolution going on in the brain during déjà vu,” says Stefan Köhler at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.
the person is later quizzed on the words they have heard, they tend to believe they have also heard “sleep” – a false memory. To create the feeling of déjà vu, O’Connor’s team first asked people if they had heard any words beginning with “s”. The volunteers replied that they hadn’t. This meant that when they were later asked if they had heard the word sleep, they knew that they couldn’t have, but the word “Déjà vu may make people more cautious, because still felt familiar. “They report they don’t trust their having this strange experience memory as much” of déjà vu,” says O’Connor. His team used fMRI to scan the brains of 21 volunteers while they If these findings are confirmed, experienced this triggered déjà they suggest déjà vu is a sign vu. We might expect that brain that your brain’s memory areas involved in memory, such as checking system is working the hippocampus, would be active well, and that you are less likely during the phenomenon, but this to misremember things. wasn’t so. Instead, the frontal This would fit with what we areas of the brain, involved in already know about the effects of decision making, were active. age on memory – déjà vu is more common in younger people and trails off in old age, as memory deteriorates. “It may be that the general checking system is in decline, that you’re less likely to spot memory mistakes,” says O’Connor. Christopher Moulin at Pierre Mendès-France University in Grenoble says the findings do not bode well for those who don’t get déjà vu.“Without being unkind, they don’t reflect on their memory systems,”he says. But people who don’t experience déjà vu may just have better memory systems to begin with, says O’Connor. If they’re not making memory errors, there’s no trigger for déjà vu, he says. We still don’t know if the phenomenon is beneficial, says Köhler. “It could be that déjà vu experiences make people cautious, because they might not trust their memory as much,” he says. “But we don’t have any evidence for –Looks familiar? Good– that yet.” Jessica Hamzelou ■
Fake black hole mimics the real deal THERE’S only one way to study a black hole up close: build a copy in the lab. One such replica may be the first to demonstrate a prediction made by Stephen Hawking. Ultra-dense leftovers of dead stars, black holes are black because their gravity is so intense that nothing, including light, can escape – a point of no return called the event horizon. But in 1974, Hawking predicted that event horizons should leak a faint glow. Quantum theory says that each particle has an antimatter counterpart, and these pairs constantly spring into existence before embracing in mutual oblivion. But a black hole might pull pairs that form at its edge apart: if one of the pair is just outside its clutches, it could escape while the other is pulled across the event horizon. In theory, the escaped particle can be seen as so-called Hawking radiation. Now Jeff Steinhauer at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa has built the latest in a series of artificial black holes in which sound plays the role of light, and claims he has seen Hawking radiation from quantum entangled particles at its event horizon. Steinhauer created his black hole using a quantum state of supercold fluid called a Bose-Einstein condensate. Parts of the fluid flow at supersonic speeds, creating a kind of waterfall that mimics an event horizon. He measured pairs of sound particles, called phonons, at the edge of this horizon and found evidence that they were propagating at the exact same time, despite being separated by the horizon. This suggests these are entangled, as Hawking predicted, he says (Nature Physics, doi.org/bn7r). Daniele Faccio at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK, says that several assumptions are needed to come to this conclusion, and that further tests are needed. “But if true, then yes, entanglement is a key quantum feature of Hawking emission,” he says. Rebecca Boyle ■ 20 August 2016 | NewScientist | 9
Cyclist named best athlete over 100 Frenchman Robert Marchand, who holds the world record for his age group in 1-hour track cycling. Cycling 26.93 kilometres in 1 hour, Marchand was only 50.6 per cent slower than Bradley Wiggins’s 54.53 km record (Age
THINK you’re too old to do sport? Think again. An analysis of the world’s oldest record-breakers has named 104-year-old cyclist Robert Marchand as champion. Romuald Lepers at the University of Burgundy, Dijon, and his colleagues are investigating how age affects athletic performance. While looking at middle-aged athletes, the team began to wonder who the world’s best 100-plus sportsperson might be. They identified all the best performances by centenarians in athletics, swimming and cycling. Then they compared each athlete with the world record holder in their discipline. For example, sprinter Donald Pellmann, competing in the 100 to 104 age group in 2015, ran 100 metres in 26.99 seconds – a 64.5 per cent decrease in performance compared with Usain Bolt’s 9.58-second record. The centenarian athlete who showed the smallest decline was
Deliquent object Niku found in strange orbit THE outer solar system just got weirder. An object has been spotted beyond Neptune sitting above the plane of the solar system – and moving upwards. Nicknamed “Niku”, which means rebellious in Chinese, the transNeptunian object (TNO) – something that orbits beyond Neptune – is 160,000 times fainter than Neptune, making it likely to be less than 200 kilometres wide. What makes Niku such a rebel is 10 | NewScientist | 20 August 2016
that it’s tilted 110 degrees to the plane of the solar system, meaning it swings backwards around the sun. This is strange because a flat plane is the signature of a planetary system, because a star-forming gas cloud creates a flat disc of dust and gas around it. That means anything that doesn’t orbit within the plane of the solar system or spins in the opposite direction must have been knocked off course by something else. “It suggests that there’s more going on in the outer solar system than we’re fully aware of,” says Matthew Holman at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, part of the team that discovered Niku using the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Maui,
and Ageing, doi.org/bn7v). Studies have shown athletic prowess can be maintained until 35 to 40. After that, performance decreases by about 10 to 15 per cent per decade, says Lepers. But Marchand’s ability has declined much more slowly. Lepers says that Marchand has exceptional muscular and cardiorespiratory function for his age. His performance corresponds to an age-related decline of less than 8 per cent per decade for
more than 60 years. The rate of athletic decline also depends on the sport. “Our study shows that in some disciplines the decline is less pronounced,” he says. Performance in running and swimming tends to plummet, for instance, while the fall in throwing and cycling is gentler. It can be difficult to qualify as a centenarian athlete. Despite being able to run 100 metres in 23.4 seconds – closer to Bolt’s record than Pellmann’s – 105-yearold Fauja Singh was not included in Lepers’s study because he has no birth certificate. They were not officially issued in India when he was born – in 1911, he says. Lepers’s team have yet to discover a supercentenarian athlete – someone aged over 110. But this might change, he says. “Given the increased number of centenarians worldwide, it is very likely the number of centenarian athletes will increase in the coming years.” These athletes are not only exceptional biological examples, but also good role models for others to follow, says Lepers. Take Canadian Ed Whitlock, he says. Whitlock was the first person over 70 to run a marathon in less than three hours. He took up running in his 40s. “It’s never too late to –Not that far off Bradley Wiggins– be active,” says Lepers. ■
Hawaii (arxiv.org/abs/1608.01808). And it’s the unknown that excites astronomers. “Whenever you have some feature that you can’t explain in the outer solar system, it’s immensely exciting because it’s in some sense foreshadowing a new development,” says Konstantin Batygin at the California Institute of Technology. He should know. Batygin was one of two astronomers who earlier this year announced that the presence of another highly inclined group of objects could be pointing towards a
“It suggests that there’s more going on in the outer solar system than we’re fully aware of”
large undiscovered world, perhaps 10 times as massive as Earth, lurking even further away – the so-called Planet Nine. Niku appears to be part of another group orbiting in a highly inclined plane, so Holman’s team tested to see if these objects could be attributed to the gravitational pull of Planet Nine. It turns out that Niku is too close to the solar system to be within the suggested world’s sphere of influence, so there must be another explanation. The team also tried to see if an undiscovered dwarf planet could supply an explanation, but without success. “We don’t know the answer,” says Holman. Shannon Hall ■
RELATIVITY AND BEYOND SATURDAY 29 OCTOBER 2016 Six leading cosmologists, one amazing day of discovery. Hear how Einstein’s relativity continues to revolutionise our view of the cosmos and ask our expert speakers the questions you’ve always wanted answering. By the end of the day, you’ll feel like an expert too.
THE BIGTHEMES: Get to grips with gravitational waves, the big bang, dark matter and dark energy. Discover what makes black holes so special, how we’ll find a theory of everything and more. OUR EXPERTS: David Kaiser, Robert Caldwell, Lisa Barsotti, plus 3 more leading experts to be announced.
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Salty food linked to fewer migraines Jessica Hamzelou
experienced a severe headache or migraine during that time. Of 8819 adults surveyed between 1999 and 2004, the team found that those with the highest levels of sodium in their diets – in products like meat, cheese and bread as well as table salt – reported the fewest severe headaches and migraines (Headache, doi.org/bnx8).
COULD a salty diet keep bad headaches at bay? People who eat a lot of salt report having fewer migraines and severe headaches – the first evidence that dietary sodium may affect the condition. However, researchers caution that more evidence is needed before people change their diets, given that high salt consumption is linked to heart disease and stroke. “Sodium makes neurons more excitable, so the idea During a migraine, sodium it could prevent migraines levels have been found to rise in some way is puzzling” in cerebrospinal fluid, the liquid that bathes the brain. Plenty of sodium gets into our bodies Harrington says he’s surprised via the food we eat. “I started to by the results. We might have wonder if migraines could be expected the relationship to affected by diet,” says Michael go in the other direction. That’s Harrington at Huntington because high sodium levels Medical Research Institutes generally make neurons more in Pasadena, California. excitable, so the idea that they His team turned to the in some way inhibit or prevent National Health and Nutritional migraine activity is puzzling. Examination Survey, a US survey “I think people with migraine of the health and diets of tens handle sodium differently,” of thousands of people. Among says Harrington. other things, the survey asks The theory makes sense, says respondents to list everything Svetlana Blitshteyn, who treats they consume over a 24-hour nervous system disorders at period, and whether they the University at Buffalo School
A GREENLAND shark has lived at least 272 years, making the species the world’s longest-lived vertebrate, smashing the previous record held by a 211-year-old bowhead whale. But the shark may have been as old as 500 years. Greenland sharks are apex predators living in the deep frigid waters of the Arctic. “We didn’t expect that it would be the longest-living 12 | NewScientist | 20 August 2016
of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in New York. Blitshteyn specialises in disorders of the autonomic nervous system, which controls our automatic functions, such as heart rate and breathing. Many of her patients have migraines too, and she has noticed that if they start consuming more salt as a treatment for a different condition, their migraine symptoms often get better – although this evidence is only anecdotal and hasn’t been published yet. But it is too early to know how FRANCO BANFI/GETTY
Sharks that may get to the ripe old age of 500
–Will a pinch of salt help?–
vertebrate,” says Julius Nielsen of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. It was once thought to be impossible to age sharks. Their skeletons, made of cartilage, lack the calcified growth rings of hard-boned vertebrates. Other fish are aged by measuring calcareous bodies that grow in their ears, but this doesn’t work for sharks. Instead Nielsen and his colleagues focused on traces of radiation in the sharks’ eyes, left over from nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s and 60s. Because the lens tissue doesn’t change during its –Centuries old and still going– lifetime, it preserves these traces.
safe eating more salt is for people who have migraines, and who might benefit from doing so. “We need more evidence before we can make general recommendations,” says Blitshteyn. Harrington agrees. Salt has its own risks, and is linked to high blood pressure. Harrington points out that almost all of the people surveyed in his study were on typical US diets, which are already high in salt. Until we know more, the best advice for people with migraines is to eat well and regularly. ■ After catching a 2.2-metre shark whose radiation levels indicated it was born in the 1960s and was about 50 years old, the team calculated how fast the sharks grew. The group estimates that one 5-metre animal was at least 272 years old – but could be more than 500 (Science, doi.org/ bn2d). And female sharks don’t reach breeding age until they are about 150. “They have to wait more than 100 years to get laid,” says Nielsen. Other deep-sea shark species could also have long life spans, says Neil Hammerschlag at the University of Miami in Florida. “This might be just the tip of the iceberg.” Conor Gearin ■
Alan Turing is arguably one of the greatest scientists of the modern age. Join us as we explore his life, work and greatest achievements and learn more about this fascinating figure in 20th century science
DAVIDE CIOFFI/ FINE ART IMAGES /GETTY IMAGES
4 – 8 NOVEMBER 2016
Visit King’s College where Turing studied mathematics and went on to lay the theoretical foundations for modern computers. Marvel at the chapel’s famous Gothic architecture and medieval stained glass. Our guided tour of the city includes the American Cambridge cemetery and the Eagle pub, where Francis Crick first announced that he and James Watson had discovered DNA. After dinner, enjoy a talk by intelligence expert Mark Baldwin and a demonstration of a rare fourwheel Enigma machine.
Soak up the atmosphere of the huts where Enigma messages sent by the Germany military were decrypted. Visit Turing’s office to see how it would have looked during the second world war. Discover the ingenious mathematical techniques and devices that Turing and his colleagues designed to crack the Enigma code. At the nearby National Museum of Computing, see a rebuild of Colossus the world’s first electronic computer. Reminisce over the museum’s collection of home computers from the 1970s and 1980s.
After the war, Turing became deputy director of the computing laboratory at the University of Manchester. Here he worked on software for one of the earliest computers, the Manchester Ferranti Mark 1 and conducted pioneering work into artificial intelligence. He also turned his attention to pattern formation in biology, though his life was cut short in 1954. Our guided tour of Manchester takes in key locations associated with Turing, from the university and Museum of Science and Industry to the old cinema where a liaison led to tragic consequences.
WHAT’S INCLUDED ❭ Four nights’ bed and breakfast ❭ Welcome reception, dinner and lecture ❭ Second night dinner with wine and talk ❭ Private coach ❭ Local expert guides ❭ All talks, admissions and guided tours
From £775 per person FIND OUT MORE
Call +44 (0)20 7251 0045 or visit newscientist.com/travel/turing
IN BRIEF Odd rock blasted in from Kuiper belt
Selfish dogs would rather play than help out a human MAN’S best friend? Dogs may be more self-centred than their sterling reputation suggests. Our canine companions are unusually good at communicating with us – better than creatures such as chimpanzees, says Patrizia Piotti at the University of Portsmouth, UK. But when dogs know something that humans don’t, they are unlikely to come to our aid. Piotti and Juliane Kaminski, studied 24 family dogs in the lab to see if they would help a human find a lost possession. Testing each one individually, the researchers put a dog toy in one corner of the room and in the other
corner they stashed either a notebook that the dog had seen someone using or a stapler that it hadn’t seen before. This was done with the dog watching. When the notebook owner returned and searched for their “lost” item, the dogs indicated the toy more often than either of the other objects. And when they did indicate the location of the items, they were no better at pointing out the notebook that the human cared about than the unimportant stapler (PLoS One, doi.org/bn2q). It could be that the dogs didn’t understand the task or they struggled to help without direction. “Does the dog take an interest in an object that a human is interested in or only in objects that dogs are interested in?” asks Clive Wynne at Arizona State University in Tempe. “That got a clear-cut result: dogs only like objects that dogs like.”
Mystery over proton radius deepens JUST how big is the proton? Despite new data, we still don’t know. For years, the proton’s radius seemed pinned down at 0.877 femtometres. But in 2010, Randolf Pohl at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, got a different answer using a new technique. This kicked off the “proton radius puzzle”. Pohl’s team altered a hydrogen 14 | NewScientist | 20 August 2016
atom by switching its electron for a heavier particle called a muon. They then zapped the atom with a laser. Measuring the resulting change in the atom’s energy levels allowed the team to calculate the size of its proton nucleus. To their surprise, it came out 4 per cent smaller than the traditional value measured via other means. Pohl’s team also applied this technique to deuterium, a
hydrogen isotope with one proton and one neutron in its nucleus, called a deuteron. This offers an indirect way of measuring the proton radius. Accurately calculating the deuteron’s size took a long time, but we now know that it also comes up short: in this case, by 0.8 per cent (Science, doi.org/bn2v). Only further experiments will show if these results are wrong or if we don’t understand something fundamental about the proton.
A FIREBALL that streaked across the sky over a decade ago may have brought the first meteorite from the edge of the solar system. Most meteorites found on Earth are thought to start out in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. But the Tagish Lake meteorite, which fell on an icy lake in British Columbia, Canada, in 2000, looks nothing like other space rocks. That might be because it formed in the Kuiper belt, the ring of icy bodies beyond Neptune. Bill Bottke at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and his colleagues suggest that a fifth giant planet, later ejected from the solar system, may have hurled debris from the outskirts into the asteroid belt. And some rocks, including the Tagish Lake meteorite, might then have travelled onwards to Earth (The Astronomical Journal, doi.org/bn2w).
Robotic training reduces paralysis FROM virtual to reality. Eight paralysed people have regained some feeling in their legs after training with brain-controlled robotic systems. Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University in North Carolina and his team used a virtual reality tool connected to the brain to simulate controlling legs with thought in people with spinal cord injuries. As well as regaining some sensation, most also developed better bladder control, meaning they could use catheters less, lowering their infection risk (Scientific Reports, doi.org/bn2z). “Until now, nobody has seen recovery of these functions in a patient so many years after being diagnosed with complete paralysis,” says Nicolelis.
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GIVE a wasp a needle, and it’s only a matter of time until it starts to sew. Female wasps have a long, needle-like organ called an ovipositor for piercing plant tissues or the exoskeletons of insects so they can deposit their eggs. One group of parasitic wasps also uses it to make a type of felt for stitching eggs inside the silky nests of its host, the jumping spider. Niclas Fritzén and Ilari Sääksjärvi at the University of Turku, Finland, offered a Clistopyga wasp a jumping spider in a lab to see what would happen. The wasp inserted its ovipositor tip to paralyse the spider, then laid its eggs. What happened next was a big surprise: the wasp picked up the spider silk with its needle-like ovipositor and closed openings in the nest in a zigzag stitching fashion. “The needle goes up and down like in a sewing machine,” says Fritzén. “I knew this was something new and very special.” The process is similar to felting, in which needles are used to grab the top layer of fibres and then enter the wool, tangling them with the inner layers. This felting makes the fluffy nest silk stiffer, and could protect the eggs from predators or other parasites, creating a stable microclimate and preventing the host spider from escaping (Biology Letters, doi.org/bn2t).
Orangutan mixes fruit cocktails in its mind and guesses taste WHAT’S an orangutan’s favourite cocktail? By providing a captive orangutan with its own cocktail bar, a team of researchers know it loves cherry and rhubarb mix. And in the process they discovered that these great apes have a predictive ability thought to be unique to humans. Naong, a male orangutan in a Swedish zoo, was offered three distinct-tasting fruit juices – cherry, rhubarb and lemon – as well as cider apple vinegar. Each was in a small bottle on a table adjacent to his cage, and he
could access them using a straw. He learned their flavours, and then had a choice of blends mixed for him by a personal bartender. The researchers found that Naong could predict whether combinations he had never tried would taste pleasant, and remember the flavour of each one (Animal Cognition, doi.org/bn2r). “The orangutan was able to predict whether never-beforeexperienced mixes would taste good or bad, and he could do this as well as 10 human subjects,” says team member Gabriela-Alina
Sauciuc of Lund University in Sweden. The upshot is that it is not just humans who can use prior experiences to predict whether a new situation will be pleasurable or not, an ability called affective forecasting. This makes evolutionary sense because having to make trial-and-error choices for every new experience could be risky and costly. “Our study strengthens the view of orangutans as possessing advanced mental capacities and flexible cognition,” says Sauciuc. H.-Y. WEY ET AL., SCIENCE TRANSLATIONAL MEDICINE (2016)
Sewing wasps stitch up spiders
Now we can scan minds on the move IT’S time to set brain experiments free. The first wearable PET scanner can capture the inner workings of your brain while you are moving about. Existing techniques for looking at the deeper regions of our brains require a person to be perfectly still. But the new scanner, which consists of 12 detectors on a ring placed around the head, will enable researchers to study brain behaviour in normal life. This could include examining people during the tremors of Parkinson’s disease (Brain and Behavior, 10.1002/brb3.530). The team tried the device on four people as they spoke and moved around. The resulting images were similar in quality to those from a traditional PET scanner, says Julie BrefczynskiLewis at West Virginia University in Morgantown. “No one’s ever really been able to study the brain in motion before to this extent,” she says. Her team hopes the technique will show how well patients who have had strokes respond to treatments, and reveal the brain areas involved in the exceptional mental abilities displayed by some autistic savants.
Brain’s genetic hotspots revealed THIS is where genes are being switched off in your brain. For the first time, we’ve watched changes in gene activity in live human brains. To see this, Jacob Hooker at Harvard Medical School and his team developed a radioactive tracer chemical that binds to a type of enzyme that “deactivates” genes – which means stopping genes from making the proteins they code for. Injecting the tracer into people enabled the team to use brain scans to detect areas where the deactivation enzyme was working. Red areas, such as the cerebellum
(bottom right), have the least active genes (Science Translational Medicine, doi.org/bn2x). The black and blue areas represent the highest gene activity – such as in the hippocampi, involved in memory, and the amygdalae, which process emotion. “We expected lots of variation between people,” says Hooker. But the eight healthy people they scanned showed very similar patterns of gene deactivation. His team is now investigating whether these patterns are different in people with conditions like schizophrenia.
20 August 2016 | NewScientist | 15
ANALYSIS MENTAL HEALTH on the brain. Could this new understanding be enough to rebrand ECT as a modern treatment, and shift the stigma? The treatment has moved on a lot since Jack Nicholson was pinned down. Nowadays, there aren’t really any convulsions. People undergoing ECT are given general anaesthesia and a muscle relaxant. “Nothing really moves during the procedure,” says Farrell. “Maybe the big toe twitches, but that’s it.”
Chemical boost The way ECT works on the brain is also less brute force than it might seem. For instance, it appears to alter the levels of brain chemicals known to be involved in a range of psychiatric and neurological conditions. Standard antidepressant drugs boost the activity of serotonin, at least –That feels better– partly by limiting the number of serotonin binding sites. ECT seems to have the same effect. It also appears to increase brain levels of dopamine – an important chemical for a wide range of brain functions, including learning and movement. This might help explain why the treatment can be Electric therapy is shaking off its violent image, says Jessica Hamzelou useful for people with Parkinson’s disease – which causes tremors JACK NICHOLSON has a lot to and movement problems – as from the UK Royal College of Administration (FDA) to consider answer for. One of the knock-on Psychiatrists last September reclassifying ECT devices to make well as for psychiatric illness. effects of hit 1975 movie One There is plenty of evidence that showed that three-quarters the technology more accessible Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ECT triggers the release of a of people with mental health for people with depression or was a public backlash against protein called brain-derived problems felt improvement after bipolar disorder. The public electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). neurotrophic factor, too. This having ECT. And psychiatrists will still take some convincing, The treatment, used since the protein spurs the growth and say that a similar percentage of however. In a 2005 survey in 1930s for a wide range of mental development of new brain cells – a people who have schizophrenia Switzerland, for example, 56 per health conditions, delivers a jolt of that doesn’t respond to drug process that happens in healthy cent were against ECT, while just electricity to the brain big enough treatment find ECT effective. 1 per cent said they were in favour. brains, but seems to be halted in to trigger a seizure. conditions like depression and “I’ve never seen an ECT Perhaps that’s no surprise – The film’s brutal depiction of schizophrenia. The higher the treatment that doesn’t work,” giving someone a seizure to treat ECT and lobbying helped it fall out says Helen Farrell, a psychiatrist levels of the protein after ECT, a psychiatric illness seems brutal of favour in the 1980s and 1990s. the better the remission of at the Beth Israel Deaconess and archaic. Even the name But ECT may now be undergoing Medical Center in Boston. depression. And brain regions that “electroconvulsive therapy” isn’t a revival, led by psychiatrists who Mounting evidence has very comforting. “People in society appear shrunken in depression – champion it because of its success convinced the US Food and Drug areas involved in emotion and have such a skewed view on it,” rate. “It’s the most effective says Farrell. “It is seen as primitive memory – increase in size after treatment we have in psychiatry,” “People have such a skewed and horrific.” And until recently ECT. Again, antidepressants are view of electroconvulsive says George Kirov at Cardiff thought to work the same way. we still didn’t know how it works. therapy. It is seen as University, UK, who oversees ECT Some evidence also suggests That’s changing too as we learn primitive and horrific” treatments in the area. A report that ECT might affect the immune more about what effects ECT has
Can tainted treatment make a shock return?
16 | NewScientist | 20 August 2016
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system. Katherine Narr at the Antidepressants and University of California, Los antipsychotic drugs also come Angeles, and her colleagues have with side effects. Many people been investigating whether the with depression actually feel activity of any genes related to more suicidal when they start immune function is turned up or taking antidepressants, and down after people have had ECT. the drugs can also cause nausea, The tests suggest that a course weight gain, fatigue and of ECT causes an initial drowsiness and problems with inflammatory boost, but sexual function. Antipsychotics long-term dampening down can have similar effects, along of immune activity. This might with slow thinking, stiffness help explain why the treatment and shakiness. is useful for schizophrenia and But ECT “remains in the depression. Both conditions shadows”, says Charles Kellner, have recently been linked to the who directs ECT services at the immune system, and clinical Mount Sinai Hospital in New trials of anti-inflammatory York City. He describes it as the drugs for both are under way. “I know plenty of people for But ECT is pretty extreme. whom ECT worked, and it General anaesthesia has its own worked for me temporarily. risks and it is usual to have It’s kept me here” headache, jaw pain and mild confusion for a while after the “second most controversial treatment. Short-term memory medical procedure”, after problems are common, and a small percentage of people report abortion. In the US and UK, only a tiny fraction of people with permanently losing memories of depression that doesn’t respond events from around the time of to medication are offered ECT, their treatment. And despite the despite evidence that it can be fact that ECT has been around effective. for decades, there are few high Many mental health quality studies assessing its longprofessionals avoid term effects, and how exactly it recommending it. Kellner says should be applied.
THE NEW BRAIN BOOM Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) might not be widely popular, but other brain-stimulation techniques are booming. Devices that deliver electric currents to the brain – by direct current or magnet – are claimed to boost attention and memory or make us better at maths. You can even buy your own trendy headpiece from Thync, a start-up in San Francisco. Thync’s device is designed to alter the brain’s activity by targeting nerves in the neck, to create one of two “vibes”. And deep-brain stimulation (DBS) has become more acceptable in recent years, for conditions ranging from depression to Parkinson’s to obesity. DBS involves drilling a
hole in your skull and inserting an electrode into your brain before electrically stimulating it, so it is more invasive than ECT, and comes with added risks of infection after surgery. The market for neurostimulation devices – which covers DBS, brain stimulation and nerve stimulation – was estimated to be worth $5 billion in 2013, and this figure is expected to double by 2020. “Brain stimulation is extremely fashionable, but I don’t think people put ECT in the same category, even though they probably should,” says George Kirov, who oversees ECT treatments at the University of Cardiff, UK. “I’ve seen people refuse ECT and ask for DBS,” he says.
most of his patients have sought him out personally after doing their own online research. “There are very mixed feelings about ECT, even among psychiatrists,” says Kirov. “If I speak to medical professionals outside of psychiatry, there is almost disbelief that we are using such an archaic practice.” Despite this, ECT has regained some lost ground in recent years. After looking at how effective it has been, the FDA has developed plans to reclassify ECT devices. If plans go ahead, ECT treatments for many adults with depression or bipolar disorder will be downgraded from the high-risk “Class III” category to a lower-risk “Class II” category, which should make it easier for doctors to prescribe and use them. There are problems with the proposals, though. While the American Psychiatric Association generally supports the move, there are concerns that some conditions are excluded – ECT will remain in the highest-risk category for schizophrenia and mania for example, as well as for use in children and adolescents. But all these groups stand to benefit from ECT, says Kellner. There is no guarantee that the reclassification will go ahead, either. Similar plans have been derailed in the past, at least partly because of extensive lobbying from anti-psychiatry groups, largely funded by the Church of Scientology. Such groups are already protesting the new reclassification proposals. Kirov hopes that better education will help reduce the stigma around ECT. For the past five years, he has been running a programme that ensures all of the trainee doctors in Cardiff witness ECT treatment and its effects. “We get people shuffling in, mute, and the day after treatment they are talking and walking around,” he says. “Once you see that, you’re a convert.” ■
ECT was like lifting a huge weight “I attempted suicide five days before my graduation,” says Deena Nyer Mendlowitz, a 39-year-old comedian and writer based in Cleveland, Ohio. Since then, she has received a range of diagnoses and treatments. Every so often a drug would lift her depression and ease her suicidal thoughts, but usually the benefits were short-lived. It wasn’t until 12 years later that she was offered electroconvulsive therapy. “When you first hear about ECT, there’s a scariness to it,” says Mendlowitz. “I was frightened, but when the other thing you’re thinking about is death, you’ll try anything.” Mendlowitz would wake up feeling tired and confused, and the treatment didn’t have much of an effect at first.
Feeling the effect On waking after the eighth or tenth treatment, Mendlowitz felt different. “I remember thinking: ‘oh my god, I think this helped’,” she says. “It was a sudden relief, as if a huge weight had been lifted.” The treatment dispelled Mendlowitz’s suicidal thoughts. “It saved my life,” she says. Mendlowitz’s first round of therapy lasted nine months, during which she had 21 ECT treatments. After that she remained well for around a year, but then the thoughts started to return. “I went back to ECT, and it helped a little.” But when the treatment was ramped up and applied to both sides of her head, she found she started to forget things. “I got my cognitive functioning back, but the memories are gone forever,” she says. Now, Mendlowitz opts for a combination of psychoanalysis and medication. But she wouldn’t rule out using ECT again. “There definitely is a lot of stigma,” she says. “But I know plenty of people for whom ECT worked, and it worked for me temporarily. It’s kept me here.” 20 August 2016 | NewScientist | 17
Reality check Particle physics and its dream of building even bigger supercolliders is entering a crucial phase, says Gavin Hesketh PARTICLE physics finds itself in testing times. This branch of science aims to describe the universe by pulling it apart into its most fundamental building blocks, or particles, and putting them back together in a way that explains how everything works. Its most robust attempt, the standard model, explains the subatomic world with incredible precision – but falls short in some big ways, lacking the parts to explain gravity, dark matter and dark energy for instance. Theories like supersymmetry, and those on extra dimensions and novel forces, seek to provide the missing pieces. Almost all of these predict new particles that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, is powerful enough to discover. The anticipation of finding such a particle may explain what happened when a small bump
showed up in LHC data at the end of 2015. This could have been the first sign of a heavier particle predicted by supersymmetry. A flood of more than 500 theory papers attempted to explain it. But after adding data taken at the LHC so far in 2016, the bump went away. The 2015 signal was just noise after all. This prompted questions about the wisdom of pursuing proposals for bigger versions of the LHC. Some go as far as to call this no-show a nightmare scenario – but it is too early to make that call. We experimentalists will go on searching for these particles using the LHC. It is due to deliver 100 times more data than collected so far. Admittedly, we will have to start wondering what to do if nothing new shows up at all. A machine bigger than the LHC would cast the net for heavy particles wider, and perhaps
Bottled nonsense What to make of a website promoting glutenfree water, wonders Anthony Warner A FRIEND on Twitter recently shared a link and declared that “civilisation is over”. It appeared that she might be correct: the site was marketing gluten-free bottled water with the strapline, “because you can never be too sure”. The link had been shared with other commentators, and for a large part of that day we all 18 | NewScientist | 20 August 2016
halo of health and well-being, wrongly implying free-from is somehow more healthy for everyone. Even worse is when brands selling products that have no reason to contain gluten, such as water, market themselves under a free-from banner to drive sales. But all was not quite what it seemed. Gluten-free water turns out to be a hoax. Which is a relief of sorts. The site has been sparking flashes of outrage and,
indignantly retweeted our outrage. I have no problem with brands marketing and selling gluten-free products. For those with coeliac disease, eating even tiny amounts of gluten can have unpleasant health consequences. “What sparks my ire is the tendency to imbue freeWhat does spark my ire is the from products with a halo tendency for brands to imbue free-from products with a general of health and well-being”
incredibly, attracting enquiries about how to buy it since 2014. It has reached news sites and Twitter feeds. Now its creator, Canadian blogger Aaron Binder, is keen to draw a line under it. “I can’t believe it fooled so many,” he says. “It was really set up to explore how easy it is to manipulate with headlines. This is especially true in food and health culture. Superfoods, toxins – they are a multibillion industry based on vague claims.” I spend much of my time trying to expose pseudoscience in food and often criticise people for accepting simple narratives without checking the facts.
For more opinion articles, visit newscientist.com/opinion
Gavin Hesketh is a particle physicist at University College London. His book, The Particle Zoo: The Search for the Fundamental Nature of Reality (Quercus), is published on 1 September
Unfortunately, we all have a tendency to believe stuff without thinking, especially when the simple story fits our view of the world. I had spent so long decrying wave upon wave of food fad pseudoscience, that I nearly didn’t stop to question the existence of gluten-free water. Aaron has other hoaxes on the go. I, for one, am glad – it might just keep us on our toes. Next time I am looking to retweet a clickbait headline, it might just pay to stop and think for a moment. ■ Anthony Warner is a food industry development chef, blogs as The Angry Chef and tweets at @One_Angry_Chef
INSIGHT Growing transplant organs
finally confirm or rule out theories such as supersymmetry. It would be a costly global effort. CERN, China, Japan and the US are vying to host such a facility. To undertake such a project would require thousands of people and billions of dollars over decades. But the economic case is strong: projects like this pay for themselves through spin-off technologies, and by inspiring and training future science, maths and engineering graduates. The main deciding factor, however, must be the scientific case. If we still have no clear sign that such a machine will be able to discover or study the particles new theories predict, the money may be better spent on many smaller facilities that can test the standard model in ways not possible at the LHC. The next five years will be crucial to that decision. It is time for creativity, hard work and some bumps along the way. At stake is a revolution in our understanding of the universe, and the future direction of global research in fundamental physics. ■
–Have a heart–
Giveanimal-human chimerasachance THERE’S a one-in-five chance you’ll die engineering animals with organs that of heart disease. But imagine you don’t trigger immune rejection has could get a healthy new heart on proved so difficult that many demand at the first sign of trouble. researchers have given up. CRISPR If we had a cheap and unlimited gene editing has made it more feasible supply of healthy organs for to overcome this challenge – but it is transplant, it wouldn’t just transform still unclear whether animal organs will the lives of desperately ill people who ever be as good as the real thing. wait years for organs – often only to There is a third possibility: growing get ones in poor condition – it would human organs inside animals. The idea is to create a pig embryo that is also help people who doctors don’t incapable of developing, say, its own even consider for a transplant. We heart. Instead, human stem cells are could have 80-year-olds running injected into the embryo, and grow around with organs as healthy as into a human heart inside the pig. those of people a quarter their age. This idea has been around for Will this vision ever become a reality? Millions are spent on research “The biggest concern is to grow replacement organs outside that it will become some the body. But for all the progress sort of semi-intelligent, made, we are still nowhere near being able to tissue-engineer organs half-human beast” good enough for transplantation. And even if this does become possible, decades, but only recently has a series it is hard to see how they could be of experiments by Hiromitsu Nakauchi made affordable. at the University of Tokyo, Japan, If tissue engineering is unlikely to shown the basic concept to be sound. deliver on cost, how about animal His team managed to grow a rat organs? If we could create genetically pancreas inside a mouse, for instance. modified animals with organs suitable Nakauchi’s success has galvanised for human transplantation, they could the field, and several teams have be bred cheaply. The problem is that already begun adding human stem
cells to pig or sheep embryos. But just as the field was taking off came a major blow: last year, the world’s biggest funder of health research, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), said it would not fund work that involves creating this kind of human-animal chimera. The move cast a shadow over the entire field. The biggest concern is that if a lot of human cells end up in an animal’s brain, it will become some sort of semiintelligent, half-human beast. But many biologists point out that they have been creating human-animal chimeras for decades – such as mice with human immune systems – and that all the evidence suggests that a mouse with a few human brain cells is still just a mouse. And we don’t even need to take any chances. There are various ways we could stop human cells from entering a particular organ using genetic modifications. The NIH is now proposing adding the human stem cells to the pig embryos at a later stage, after the nervous system has begun to form. It is currently consulting the public and could reverse its funding ban next month, depending on the outcome. We should all back this kind of research, despite the “yuck factor”. Sure, it’s far too soon to know whether chimeras really can help solve the transplant crisis – but the potential is so enormous that it would be very wrong not to find out. Michael Le Page ■ 20 August 2016 | NewScientist | 19
TECHNOLOGY idea of how safe a device is before buying it, letting them avoid a baby monitor that is found to be vulnerable to hackers, for example. “All these devices have not been looked at in depth,” he says. “If you go to Amazon and buy a router, there’s a huge chance that it has major vulnerabilities.”
Going rogue But there’s a flip side. “You now also have the potential for creating autonomous attackers,” says Devost. “Launch one of these and you can automate something like the 2014 Sony hack.” Devost is not the only one with concerns. Shortly after the Las Vegas competition, digital-rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in San Francisco –Spectators at an AI hacking duel– published an article on its website praising DARPA’s initiative, but calling for researchers to come together to discuss how to keep such systems from going rogue and doing catastrophic damage. Software like Mayhem could be used to take control of connected Smart programs could roam the internet fending off hackers, devices in far greater numbers says Hal Hodson. But they could also be used against us than human hackers could by themselves, opening up new TAKE a seat and enjoy the show. kinds of attack. By hijacking caught me by surprise,” says “You can make autonomous Earlier this month, computers did Matt Devost of cybersecurity firm defence entities,” says Devost. smart thermostats, for example, something they’ve never done cybercriminals could hold FusionX in Washington DC. It “You might unleash one of these before – they hacked each other, electricity providers to ransom could transform the security and its sole job is just roving without human help. The battle is scene in the next 10 years, he says. around, probing your networks, by threatening to crank up the air set to be the first of many, conditioning and crash the grid. The aim of the competition finding vulnerabilities and especially if such machines The EFF wants researchers to was to encourage the patching them.” become our online protectors. work through the risks of building development of automated ForAllSecure has started The Grand Cyber Challenge at software that can probe and attack systems that can defend the probing the Linux operating the Black Hat cybersecurity on its own. The issues are similar internet against hackers. The system, which is used by many conference in Las Vegas pitted to those faced when working with winner, called Mayhem, was “You might unleash one of artificial intelligences against each created by ForAllSecure in highly infectious diseases. Just as these and have it probe other, while their human creators Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s the modifying and studying the H5N1 sat back and watched. Fighting flu virus in a lab lets us prepare for first time this kind of software has your networks, finding holes and patching them” for a $4 million prize pot from the been shown to work, says the an epidemic, for example, it also US Defense Advanced Research opens the door for that research to firm’s CEO David Brumley, who is Projects Agency (DARPA), each AI be used to spread disease. also a cybersecurity researcher at of the computers that run the tried to hack its opponents’ In a talk at Black Hat, Devost Carnegie Mellon University. internet. The firm plans to release computer systems. They sought joked that the competition The world of connected devices its software online and have it weak spots and figured out how heralded the launch of Skynet, the is becoming too complex for score the security of the systems to exploit them while defending malevolent AI in the Terminator humans to defend on their own. it encounters. “The turning their own computers. films. “Everyone laughed,” he says. So people like Brumley are point is that we can now start The sophistication of the developing tools that scan the inspecting every piece of software “The humans were applauding artificial hackers impressed many internet for vulnerable devices their own demise!” ■ autonomously,” says Brumley. of those present. “This really and assist in securing them. The idea is to give consumers an Additional reporting by Sally Adee
The AI watchers
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ONE PER CENT
Plans to plasma bomb sky Atmospheric boom may be radio signal boon, finds David Hambling But by bouncing between the challenges. One is building a ionosphere and the ground they plasma generator small enough to can zigzag for much greater fit on a CubeSat. Then there’s the distances. At night the ionosphere problem of controlling how the is denser and more reflective. plasma disperses once released. It’s not the first time we’ve tried The USAF has awarded to improve radio communication contracts to three teams sketching by tinkering with the ionosphere. out different approaches. The best HAARP, the High Frequency proposal will be selected for a Active Auroral Research Program second phase in which plasma in Alaska, stimulates the generators will be tested in ionosphere with radiation from “It’s not the first time we’ve ground-based antennas to tried to improve radio produce radio-reflecting plasma. signal by tinkering with Now the USAF wants to do this the ionosphere” more efficiently, with tiny satellites – such as CubeSats – carrying large volumes of ionised vacuum chambers and gas directly into the ionosphere. exploratory space flights. There are at least two major General Science in Souderton, Pennsylvania, is working with researchers at Drexel University in Philadelphia on a method that involves using a chemical reaction to heat a piece of metal beyond its boiling point. The vaporised metal will react with atmospheric oxygen to produce plasma. Another team, Enig Associates of Bethesda, Maryland, and researchers at the University of Maryland, want to rapidly heat a piece of metal by detonating a small bomb and converting the blast into electrical energy. Different shaped plasma clouds can be generated by changing the form of the initial explosion. However, it’s not clear whether the USAF will succeed. “These are really early-stage projects, representing the boundaries of plasma research into ionosphere modification,” says John Kline, who leads the Plasma Engineering group at Research Support Instruments in Hopewell, New Jersey. He thinks one of the biggest stumbling blocks will be packing enough power to generate plasma on to small satellites. “It may be –The sky could be more reflective– an insurmountable challenge.” ■
Weed killer Dude, where’s my roadside drugs test? A new technique for detecting cannabis in saliva uses nanoparticles that lock on to the active ingredient, THC. If none is present, the particles create an electromagnetic distortion that is picked up by a sensor connected to a smartphone. Police could use the test to check up on erratic drivers.
“Overnight we hit 10 million species discovered in No Man’s Sky… that’s more than has been discovered on Earth” Hello Games founder Sean Murray marvels at the speed with which players wandering his game’s vast procedurally generated universe catalogued its alien life. An estimated 8.5 million species have been recorded on Earth
Smart skin You’ve always wanted to play video games by jabbing at your arm. Haven’t you? A touchpad that lets you control apps on a separate screen could be fitted as a second skin or built into clothing. The wearable interface was designed by a team at Seoul National University in South Korea to cope with the jostling of everyday life.
20 August 2016 | NewScientist | 21
ADRIAN SHERRATT / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
CAN you hear me now? The US Air Force has plans to improve radio communication over long distances by detonating plasma bombs in the upper atmosphere using a fleet of micro satellites. Since the early days of radio, we have known that signals that cannot be picked up by day may be heard clearly at night from hundreds of kilometres away. This is down to changes in the ionosphere, a layer of charged particles in the atmosphere that starts around 60 kilometres up (for more on this mysterious layer see page 34). The curvature of Earth stops most ground-based radio signals travelling more than 70 kilometres without a boost.
TECHNOLOGY Stunt-double drones pass on hard-won skills
THE school of hard knocks dishes out good lessons. But what if your drone is too expensive to risk? Simple: get cheap, expendable drones to pass on their hard-won skills to their betters. Robots that can learn and share general concepts in this way should also make better decisions. Teaching an artificial intelligence to fly an expensive vehicle is dicey since it needs to know what both success and failure look like. “Let’s say you want to train it to fly a really big helicopter,” says Shreyansh Daftry at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. “You need it to crash a lot to get it to learn what a crash is – but that’s often not possible.” Daftry and his colleagues took a cheaper vehicle and piloted it through a forest, sometimes deliberately crashing it. By learning from the researchers’ mistakes, the robot figured out how to fly safely by itself. The researchers then transferred the drone’s abilities to an expensive craft, which immediately put the second-hand know-how to good use by steering clear of the trees itself. They want the stunt double to learn general concepts, not specific rules. The strategy should work for many kinds of robots, says Nicholas Roy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s a change in how we think robots should make decisions.” Conor Gearin ■
–Can tech stop old-school crime?–
Cleaning up on laundering AI can catch criminals using their ill-gotten gains, says Chris Baraniuk
WHEN it comes to following the researchers at RMIT University money, the authorities have their in Melbourne. Together they work cut out. Every year, criminals developed a machine learning are thought to launder more than system to identify suspicious $1.5 trillion worldwide. Which is activity. Simple signs that a group why Australia’s financial is involved in money laundering intelligence agency is turning might include large cash to AI for help. payments or properties being In Australia, the scale of the bought and then quickly sold. problem could amount to some Genuine red flags are rarely US$4.5 billion annually. There, the that obvious, however, as money task of cracking down on illegally launderers are getting better at obtained funds falls to the making transactions look Australian Transaction Reports innocuous, says Chou. Previous and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC). detection systems have tried to It faces a growing challenge catch suspicious behaviour by in combing through up to focusing on individuals. But signs 100 million transactions a year, of laundering are often apparent looking for suspicious activity. only when looking at transaction “It’s just become harder and histories across groups. The new harder for us to keep up with the AI system can tease out patterns volume and to have a clear that may not appear suspicious conscience that we are actually “Money launderers are on top of our data,” says Pauline getting much better at Chou at AUSTRAC. making their transactions To tackle the problem, –Ready to crash and burn– the agency teamed up with look innocuous”
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on their own, but begin to look so when viewed collectively. The team trained the system using previous analyses of suspected money laundering networks. In the process, it whittled down millions of transactions to about 750,000 for further investigation by humans. If the system continues to prove itself, AUSTRAC plans to use it in live investigations next year. Jason Kingdon, who in the 1990s helped develop AI to detect fraudulent trades and insider dealing on the London Stock Exchange, is impressed with AUSTRAC’s progress. “They are doing something new,” he says. Kingdon’s firm, Searchspace, went on to work with various banks and other stock exchanges worldwide. However, he says that regulators expect such systems to stand up to auditing: it has to be clear why certain people are flagged rather than others. ■
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 newscientist.com/gamechangers. Sally Adee Editor, GameChangers
GET YOUR COPY NEWSCIENTIST.COM/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
GAME CHANGERS MONEY IN THIS EXCLUSIVE NEW REPORT FIND OUT:
] 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
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Bread bugs MUMMIES weren’t the only bodies preserved in the tombs of ancient Egypt. These biscuit beetles were discovered inside a loaf of funerary bread collected in the early 1800s, possibly from a tomb in the necropolis of ancient Thebes. Such tombs were cool, extremely dry and sealed off from the outside world. “This slowed down in a major way the natural processes of microbial activity and decay,” says Caroline Cartwright of the British Museum in London. The conditions preserved everything from coffin wood to the ceremonial bread — and its stowaways. The beetles, and their final meal, were buried 3000 to 3500 years ago. Along with other foods like fruit and cake, loaves were left in ancient Egyptian tombs as symbolic offerings, intended to feed the deceased in the afterlife. To find out what ingredients were in the ritual bread, Cartwright and her colleague John Taylor took images of more than 20 ancient loaves using one of the Department of Scientific Research’s scanning electron microscopes – catching these bugs in the process. Some of the loaves were made with ingredients we would consider inedible today, like chaff and straw. Others were made of barley or wheat, and some contained fruits. The bugs pictured are biscuit beetles, about 2 to 3 millimetres long, but the loaf also housed adult grain beetles and fragments of larvae belonging to both species. Emily Benson
Photographer Caroline Cartwright The Trustees of the British Museum
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Life, spontaneously Life may have started not once but many times right here on Earth finds Penny Sarchet
N 4.5 billion years of Earthly history, life as we know it arose just once. Every living thing on our planet shares the same chemistry, and can be traced back to “LUCA”, the last universal common ancestor. So we assume that life must have been really hard to get going, only arising when a nigh-on-impossible set of circumstances combine. Or was it? Simple experiments by biologists aiming to recreate life’s earliest moments are challenging that assumption. Life, it seems, is a matter of basic chemistry – no magic required, no rare ingredients, no bolt from the blue. And that suggests an even more intriguing possibility. Rather than springing into existence just once in some chemically blessed primordial pond, life may have had many origins. It could have got going over and over again in many different forms for hundreds of thousands of years, only becoming what we see today when everything else was wiped out it in Earth’s first ever mass extinction. In its earliest days on the planet, life as we know it might not have been alone. Just to be clear, what we are talking about came long before animals or plants or even microbes. We are going right back to the start, when the only things fitting the description of “life” were little more than molecular
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machines. Even then, having stripped away bodies, organs and cells and reduced everything down to the essential reactions, things appear devilishly complex. At a bare minimum, life needs some kind of code, it needs to use that code to make useful molecular machines, and then the code must be able to make copies of itself. Over the decades, people have invoked all
“What if life were easy? No magic, no rare ingredients, no bolt from the blue” sorts of external forces to explain how some of the starting components were made. In the famed Urey-Miller experiments of the 1950s, the trigger was a zap of electricity mimicking a lightening bolt striking water (see “Bolt from the blue”, page 28). Other theories have invoked extraterrestrial delivery by meteorites or comets. More recently, chemists interested in the origins of life have taken a more methodical approach to the problem. By breaking down the very beginning into its component stages (see “Four steps”, page 28), they are stripping
away the mystique that surrounds that initial spark of life. What they have discovered points to a very different beginning. For Philipp Holliger of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, the difference between life and non-life is genetic code. “Biology has memory, while chemistry does not,” he says. “To me, the origin of life is really the origin of information.” Many biologists subscribe to the RNA world hypothesis for the beginnings of life, which says that before DNA, this information was embodied in its close relative, RNA. Both molecules are long strings made of repeating units, or “letters”. So step one to building life, in this version of events, has to be making the building blocks of RNA. In May, Thomas Carell, a biomolecular chemist at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich,Germany, announced that his team had found a very easy way to make some of these units, from substances that could have been abundant on early Earth. “You don’t need much – just take hydrogen cyanide, ammonia and formic acid, and there you go,” he says. Carell’s building blocks are precursors of the ones found in cells today, meaning they are nearly but not quite the finished thing. Even so, his reactions hint that an RNA world could have been made relatively easily. “That’s the >
20 August 2016 | NewScientist | 27
beauty of our work,” he says. “You really don’t need special conditions. These reactions can happen everywhere – a little pond, the deep sea, wherever.” So we have the letters of the code, though they’re not much use in free-floating form. The next stage might be easy, however. Twenty years ago, British chemist Leslie Orgel showed that if you could only get the building blocks of RNA to form they would spontaneously assemble into chains. All he needed was clay. That’s because crystals in some clays carry a natural electrical charge which appears to pull RNA letters in and encourage them to line up and stick to each other.
Four steps A handful of key things have to happen to get life. All of these have now been reproduced in the lab without any unusual ingredients
1 Make genetic building blocks
2 Assemble them into chains to create a template or code
From code to machines We are still some way from life, though. Code is only useful if it acts as a template to make things like proteins – the building materials and engines of all living things. In our bodies, this is known as gene expression, and is an incredibly complicated process overseen by sophisticated molecular machines. They are very unlikely to have emerged just so from the primordial mud. How do you do away with all that in the earliest life forms? Michael Yarus at the University of Colorado in Boulder believes he has the solution. “We spent several years in the wilderness, doing experiment after experiment,” he says. “We did it frozen, we did it dry, we did it in solutions – we did it every way we could think of.” Finally, his team found a surprisingly simple reaction which they say looks like very rudimentary gene expression. By mixing repeating strands of RNA in water with extra free-floating RNA letters, they found that the
3 Use the code to make rudimentary molecular machines
4 Replicate the code to make new living things
A BOLT FROM THE BLUE In the 1950s, two chemists – Stanley Miller and Harold Urey – were the first to show that some of the essential building blocks for life can be made from simpler materials. The critical step was electricity. They mixed water with gases they thought would have been present on early Earth and zapped them with simulated lightning. This produced amino acids, the molecules that all modern proteins are made of. Life did not necessarily 28 | NewScientist | 20 August 2016
need proteins to get started, but they certainly became necessary at some stage, and all living things that exist today rely on the same 20 or so amino acids to make proteins. It is becoming clear that amino acids must form very easily indeed: they have been found almost anywhere in space astrobiologists care to look. “About half are given to us free by the universe,” says Stephen Freeland at the University of Maryland. Some have been found on
meteorites and by the Rosetta probe orbiting comet 67P/ChuryumovGerasimenko. Experiments still suggest there must have been some input of energy to get these amino acids – be it shock waves from a meteorite impact or heat transmitted from deep in the Earth via a hydrothermal vent. So although building a genetic code may not have required a bolt from the blue, building proteins probably did.
letters would spontaneously arrange themselves to form new molecules. The original strand of RNA seemed to act as a template. Intriguingly, the new molecules look like some of the simplest chemical machines inside our own bodies, called coenzymes. Today, coenzymes do very little on their own. Their job is mostly to help other, larger enzymes do theirs, but perhaps they are relics
“This would have been the very first mass extinction, billions of years ago” from life’s earliest stages. Many are made from the same types of components as RNA and DNA. “It’s reasonable to argue that they could be molecular fossils,” says Holliger. Yarus says his team was able to create nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD), a coenzyme that is used by all living cells today to generate energy from sugar, though the work has yet to be published. Just like Carell’s RNA components, these kinds of reactions happen relatively easily. “You don’t need magic, you don’t even need exotic chemistry. You just need things that are lying around in almost every chemistry lab and you can go right to gene expression,” says Yarus. He says his experiments allow you to see “a continuous line of descent going right back to the origin event”. Then again, they might not. The trouble with trying to figure out exactly how life began is that we can never truly know the answer, only make educated guesses. Jack Szostak, an evolutionary chemist at Harvard Medical School says he suspects coenzymes like NAD could form spontaneously in water without RNA templates. If that is true, it weakens Yarus’s claim that he has reproduced a precursor of gene expression. Szostak also has reservations about Carell’s reactions, saying they wouldn’t necessarily have worked on early Earth. “It’s a step,” he says, “it’s just not the final answer.” Szostak does, however, have his own piece of the puzzle to add. Ask anyone what they think the key properties of life are and sooner or later most will say “reproduction”. Living things make copies of themselves, inert things like rocks do not. Without reproduction, life is a dead end. Today, we have special enzymes tasked with replicating DNA. But in June, Szostak’s team showed that RNA can efficiently copy itself
without help from any enzymes. They mixed an RNA template with free-floating RNA building blocks just as Yarus did. But Szostak added a few RNA fragments that matched parts of the template. And that made all the difference. The fragments seemed to kick-start a replication process and soon the team had reasonably faithful copies of the templates. “These reactions happen pretty easily,” says Szostak. Others have been able to copy RNA without enzymes before, but these reactions are faster. He says the small booster fragments are so short they could have formed spontaneously 4 billion years ago. Szostak’s team thinks these reactions or similar ones could have been an early form of replication, even though they might not have generated perfect copies each time. Eventually, new templates would have evolved, coding for really useful inventions like building cell walls. At that point, better copying would have become important. “There’s strong selective pressure to evolve replication machinery once there’s something worth replicating,” says Szostak.
Multiple beginnings Taken together, all these findings suggest that building a rudimentary RNA world may not have been the special, once-in-a-universe occurrence it is popularly made out to be. This raises an intriguing possibility: that life’s earliest stages didn’t happen just once, but over and over again. “If all the steps leading to life are easy, then life could have been starting up many times in many places on early Earth,” says Szostak. If this is true, then life’s first epoch was one of great experimentation. Many different kinds of live molecular machines would have popped up in the primordial soup, some more successful than others. For a time, they would have coexisted, but eventually only the most successful remained, either because it was better than everything else, conditions changed and favoured it, or by sheer chance. This would have been Earth’s very first mass extinction, billions of years ago. We have very few relics left to tell us about the age of experimentation, or its end. We do know that LUCA must have emerged as the ultimate winner, going on to give rise to all future living things. “LUCA must have been an exceptionally successful organism, because if there are any other branches on the tree, they
RAGNAR TH SIGURDSSON/ARCTIC IMAGES/ALAMY ARCTIC IMAGES / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
Sticking point: put genetic letters on clay and they form strings of code
WHERE ON EARTH? As the steps that could have created life become clearer, we might get a better idea of where it all began. We know that clay can help join life’s building blocks together to form strands of RNA (see main story). Unfortunately, that’s one of the world’s worst clues, says Michael Yarus of the University of Colorado in Boulder: “Clay is everywhere.” But life has many more requirements, and there are going to be a limited number of locales where you could have brought them all together, he says. So far, his experiments
suggest life could have begun in water that would sometimes get injections of different chemical elements to feed new reactions. Barbara Sherwood Lollar at the University of Toronto, Canada, studies isolated pockets of ancient water trapped deep inside some of the world’s oldest rocks. Fractures in the rocks open and close up again, she says, providing those kinds of conditions. Rocky fractures like this could have also provided surfaces where reactions could take place while protecting nascent life from the UV radiation and heavy
have not left any other descendants in modern biology,” says Holliger. An important development over the past 20 years has been the realisation that LUCA was quite an advanced organism, says Stephen Freeland, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County. LUCA probably already used DNA instead of RNA, and was packaged inside a membrane which created a micro-environment for building complex proteins. Holliger speculates that innovations like these may
asteroid bombardment that would have made a lot of Earth’s surface inhospitable. What are the odds of finding relics of life’s cauldron? Sherwood Lollar’s rocks are mostly a few billion years old – too young for the first living things. “We do have a very small amount of rock on this planet that still exists from 4 billion years and older,” she says. But it would be an incredible stroke of luck if it happened to harbour life’s origins: in total, these very ancient rocks now make up an area no bigger than Manhattan.
have meant it survived when all alternative forms of life died out. But with everything else long gone, test tubes are our only hope for a glimpse of how life got started. “The only way is to try to grow these systems and see what could form and what could work,” says Szostak. Who knows – along the way, it’s just possible we could create whole new kinds of life ourselves. ■ Penny Sarchet is biomedical news editor at New Scientist 20 August 2016 | NewScientist | 29
IDWAY through a poker competition at the Rivers casino in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one player seemed to lose the plot. Opponents watched baffled as Claudico risked large amounts of money with weak cards, or raised the stakes aggressively to win a handful of chips – and then suddenly appeared passive, dithering over decisions and avoiding big wagers. Yet despite never having set foot in a casino before, Claudico had played more poker games than all of the other players put together. Claudico was a bot. Created by researchers at the nearby Carnegie Mellon University, it had learned poker by playing billions of hands against itself. But for all Claudico’s experience, this was the first time a computer had taken on human professionals at “no limit” Texas hold’em poker, so who knew what might happen? In the end, the humans won the Brains vs Artificial Intelligence contest – by a whisker. Brains, it would appear, will not have the edge for much longer. The contest, staged in April 2015, was the latest instalment in almost a century of scientific research into games like poker and Go. It isn’t just about pushing the boundaries of mathematics and artificial intelligence. Poker is a game of hidden information – you can’t see your opponents’ cards and they can’t see yours – and so mimics the uncertainty of many real-life situations, from negotiations and bidding at auctions to share trading and cybersecurity. To triumph in poker, as in life, we must tweak our tactics based on what we know and what our opponents choose to do. Poker bots like Claudico hold lessons for us all about how to cope with risk and make better decisions. The first studies of poker strategy took place in the 1920s, when mathematician John von Neumann looked at a very simple two-player version of the game. He realised the players were involved in a tug-of-war, each trying to limit the opponent’s winnings while simultaneously trying to increase their own profit. Von Neumann wondered whether there was a mathematically optimal way to do this. In other words, is there a strategy that will guarantee the best possible result, assuming your opponent is also hunting for the best strategy? Yes there is, his calculations revealed. He called it the “equilibrium” strategy, because if both players adopt it, neither will be able to gain by changing their style of play. Von Neumann’s discovery made it possible to calculate what the outcome would be if two highly skilled competitors faced each other. Analysing his highly simplified poker, he >
M Watching how computers play poker can teach us fundamental lessons about life, says Adam Kucharski
In poker as in life, we don’t know who’s holding what cards
PLAY YOUR CARDS RIGHT
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POKER LESSONS In 2012, PhD student Will Ma set up a poker course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The classes earned students academic credits, and more than 200 of them attended the packed-out sessions. Here are some of the lessons they learned, which apply to many decisions beyond poker. Know the difference between tactics and strategy. Tactics are short-term actions that bring a benefit; strategy is broader and about putting yourself in a better overall position, even if there is nothing to be gained immediately. The best players in poker and life are good at both. You can make a good decision and get a bad result, or a bad decision and get a good outcome. In situations that involve risk, it’s important to know whether you got lucky, or whether your strategy is one that brings consistent winnings. Don’t be afraid to go all in. Sometimes the optimal tactic will be to raise the stakes substantially. If the situation is in your favour, bet accordingly. Work out how many routes to victory you have, and how many your opponent has. It’s not your cards alone that matter; it’s how many ways you could convert them into a winning position. Exploit your image. When there is hidden information, your opponents will be looking for ways to find out more about you. From the name you use to how much you talk and how long you take to make a move, the image you put across is an important part of a strategy.
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found that if the player with the opportunity to start the betting had a good hand then they should bet, and if they had an average hand they should not, but choose instead to “check” and wait it out. Intuitively this makes sense. However, he also found that if the player has a poor hand, the optimal strategy requires them to bet too. Successful poker players have long deceived opponents using such bluffing tactics, but von Neumann’s proof showed this approach is no quirk of human psychology. Bluffing is a mathematical necessity. In recent years, von Neumann’s ideas about optimum strategies have been key to the success of poker-playing computers. When coders created the first online poker bots around 20 years ago, they often gave them specific tactics to follow. As a result, a bot’s ability was limited by its creator’s skill level: a weak player can’t teach a computer a strong strategy. These days, the best bots are taught just the rules of the game, and it is up to them to learn how to win. By playing countless games against themselves, they try to work out the equilibrium strategy. Coders may have little idea of why their bot “thinks” the way it does, so its choices can be a surprise.
Dealing with regret Claudico’s creators at Carnegie Mellon have a proven track record when it comes to producing talented poker bots. In 2014, their Tartanian7 program fought off several other bots to win the Annual Computer Poker Competition, a worldwide contest held since 2006. Tartanian7 gradually evolved into Claudico, a name meaning “I limp” in Latin. A poker player is said to “limp” if they bet the minimum for their opening move, rather than raising the stakes or declaring themselves out of the game by folding. Limping is generally seen as a weak strategy: good human players don’t limp, notes Sam Ganzfried, who designed Claudico with colleagues Tuomas Sandholm and Noam Brown. Yet Claudico chooses to limp about 10 per cent of the time. It goes to show that artificial intelligence has the potential to prove popular wisdom wrong. By searching for the equilibrium strategy, bots like Claudico are refining how they bluff and bet, and getting harder to beat every year. But it is difficult to reach perfection, given the complexity of poker. Even in a two-player version with limited bet sizes – known as “heads-up limit poker” – there are 3.16 × 1017, or 316 million billion, potential situations that could come up in a game. Although this is fewer than in draughts (checkers), the fact that
information is hidden in poker has made it hard to identify an optimal strategy. A major breakthrough arrived when researchers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, devised a technique called “counterfactual regret minimisation”. “Regret” here refers to the difference between the expected pay-off of the action taken by their poker bot, named Cepheus, and the potential pay-off if it had acted differently. The technique involves Cepheus tweaking its strategy over the course of billions of hands, lowering its overall regret until it is as small as possible. This may seem like a rather unambitious goal, given that we tend to think of human behaviour as being positive and forwardlooking. Much of economic theory, for example, assumes that people try to maximise potential future gains. But do we? In 2008, economists Davide Marchiori of the University of Southern Denmark in Odense and Massimo Warglien at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy, compared human economic decisions with those made by several computer-learning algorithms and found that algorithms based on regret were best at predicting human behaviour. Even if our considerations of regret are subconscious, they could help us make better decisions. Regret minimisation certainly has benefits for bots. According to Neil Burch, one of the Alberta researchers, its power lies in helping them learn without making many assumptions about the game in question. “It gives them that flexibility that lets them work in a lot of different situations,” he says. In fact, regret minimisation has proved so successful that last year, Burch and his colleagues proclaimed: “heads-up limit hold’em poker is solved”. For the two-player version of Texas hold’em poker with limited stakes, Cepheus had identified a strategy that was so near to the optimal equilibrium that it was in essence unbeatable. Regardless of who the bot faced, it would not lose money in the long run. Regret-driven learning also leads to some surprising tactics. For example, Cepheus rarely raises the stakes to the limit, even when it is has the best possible hand. It also plays a broader range of hands than a human might, choosing occasionally to play weak cards rather than fold. And Claudico, which also employs regret minimisation for no-limit poker, uses a much wider range of stakes than a human might, from tiny bets to huge raises, notes Sandholm. “Betting $19,000 to win a $700 pot just isn’t something that a person would do,” said one of Claudico’s human
PATRICK ZACHMANN/MAGNUM PHOTOS
We can make the wrong decision when put under pressure
opponents at the Brains vs AI contest. Why don’t humans use as broad a range of tactics as Cepheus and Claudico, given that they are apparently so successful? One explanation is that we have to make simplifications when dealing with the complexity of a game like poker. Rather than considering all possible moves, we tend to mentally bunch similar situations together. We do the same in daily life: we might round numbers up or down to the nearest ten or hundred, or use stereotypes to categorise people. This process of abstraction makes the world easier to handle, but means we can lose to opponents that are using a better approximation of the world than we are.
“BLUFFING IS NOT A QUIRK OF HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY – IT IS A MATHEMATICAL NECESSITY” Abstraction is not our only weakness. Our behaviour often follows patterns, which makes it easier for an opponent to predict what we will do. We also get impatient and frustrated. Indeed, it’s thought that poker websites can distinguish humans from bots because people tend to switch games more often, moving up to the higher-stakes tables when they get bored or overconfident. Bots can tactically exploit human flaws like these, but to do so they need to move away from equilibrium strategies. Cepheus and Claudico
will not lose in the long run, no matter how good the opponent, but that makes them inherently defensive. In contrast, bots that can cash in on human weaknesses display other behaviours – ones we might emulate to gain the edge in a negotiation. For example, people struggle when put under pressure, and the Alberta researchers have found that if bots mimic aggression they can force people into errors. “The more actions that you make someone choose, the more chances they have to do something wrong,” says Burch. Such tactics are increasingly unlikely to be successful against the best poker players, however. They are already learning from their computer counterparts. As they develop their knowledge of game theory and practise against flawless bots, the top poker players are adopting equilibrium-like strategies, which tend to be less aggressive. Beyond the card tables, when it comes to decisions or negotiations involving hidden information, your opponent must weigh up their options based on what they can observe. As von Neumann showed, the optimal strategy means making this choice as difficult as possible. If your opponent can spot patterns in your behaviour, it gives them valuable information about the cards you are holding, literally or metaphorically. Random choices can help counteract this. But this is something humans are very poor at, in games ranging from rock-paper-scissors to poker. Sometimes the best way to act when making a decision is literally to flip a coin.
The success of bots that try to minimise regret can also teach us something beyond the realm of poker. We may be doing this subconsciously already when negotiating or making decisions, but we might do better if we made it an explicit strategy rather than focusing on maximising future rewards. Another insight from poker bots is the importance of abstraction. We need to know more about how we approximate the world if we are to make better choices. Our need to simplify complex information means we tend to focus on a narrow range of options, whereas bot research suggests it could be worth employing a much wider range of actions when taking risks. In future, we may come to view bargaining as more of a science than an art. On a more philosophical level, bots challenge our notions of ourselves. We tend to think deception is an inherently human behaviour, yet poker bots have taught themselves to bluff because it is the optimal strategy. Starting with a blank slate, bots have come up with strategies that challenge dogmas about what ought to succeed. Bots like Claudico and Cepheus often seem to behave strangely, but they don’t know how we feel about them, or care if we think they are contradicting accepted wisdom. They just want to come out on top. ■ Adam Kucharski is a mathematician at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and author of The Perfect Bet . He has designed a version of von Neumann’s poker that you can play at bit.ly/poker_bot 20 August 2016 | NewScientist | 33
AIR OF MYSTERY A An unexplored slice of the atmosphere could be influencing our weather and more, finds Stephen Battersby
34 | NewScientist | 20 August 2016
ROBOTIC arm pokes out of the International Space Station, holding a rack of tiny probes. Gently it pushes them out, two or three at a time, to start their fatal spiral down towards Earth. It may not sound dramatic, but this moment, scheduled for early 2017, will mark a new era in human exploration. The probes will investigate a forbidden zone surrounding our planet. It’s a realm where planes can’t fly, balloons can’t float, and satellites soon plunge to a fiery end. So seldom have we visited it and so scanty is our knowledge of it that some scientists call it the ignorosphere. This slice of the atmosphere is, at the same time, forbidden and forbidding. It holds both the coldest and the hottest air on Earth. It hosts elusive, shimmering clouds that can only be seen at night. And its moods can change in an instant, as turbulent winds
layers. Lower down is the icy mesosphere, which reaches up to about 100 km. The air here has essentially the same composition as what’s in your lungs, but is desperately thin. Even at the base of the mesosphere, the density is just a thousandth that at sea level. Lower down, ozone soaks up ultraviolet radiation to heat the air, but up here very little radiation is absorbed. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide molecules keep radiating infrared heat away, dramatically cooling things down: parts of the mesosphere get to below -100 °C. This layer is also home to some remarkable atmospheric phenomena, such as those mysterious night-shining clouds (see diagram, page 36).
from lower down mix with plasma arriving from the sun. This unknown zone increasingly matters to us. We are sending up ever more satellites, which are vulnerable to flare-ups in the ignorosphere. Electrical disturbances in this region can scramble GPS signals and other communications. And its influence may even stretch down to ground level and alter our weather. So we need to understand this rarefied air – and to do so, we must go and explore it. The ignorosphere encompasses those inbetween altitudes that we find extremely hard to navigate. Above about 50 kilometres – where the stratosphere ends – the air becomes too thin to support research balloons. And below 300 km, it is too thick for satellites to survive the drag forces for more than a few months. Within this zone are two starkly different
Above the mesosphere is the thermosphere, heated to thousands of degrees by ultraviolet light. The radiation forces some of the molecules to break down into charged ions. As you go higher, inclement space weather makes itself felt. A solar storm can inject heat and material into the ignorosphere, making it puff up. The result is a plume of gas that is much denser than the air around it – a threat to technology circling in low Earth orbit (see “Save our satellites”, right). We might be able to avert this and other hazards if we could forecast what the upper atmosphere will do. The trouble is, our models are starved of data. “Our forecasts of how space weather affects the atmosphere are a factor of 2 to 5 off,” says space physicist Dhiren Kataria at University College London (UCL). The few direct measurements we do have are mostly from occasional rocket flights that streak through the ignorosphere in a couple of minutes – hardly enough to paint a full picture of this complex realm. Apart from those, we have some readings taken from ground level. Anasuya Aruliah, also at UCL, uses optical instruments called Fabry-Perot interferometers to trace the faint glow emitted by atomic oxygen: green from a layer around 120 km up, red from around 240 km up. Observing this glow is a valuable glimpse of conditions up there, because its wavelength is affected by temperature and wind speed. We also have lidar instruments that can measure temperature and composition – though only up to about 90 km – and radar that can probe charged particles in the ignorosphere above 80 km or so. But coverage is patchy and can give conflicting results. For example, Aruliah has used interferometer data to calculate the >
SAVE OUR SATELLITES The elegant dance of the polar aurora attracts legions of tourists every year, but for some the display is not so pretty. The solar storms that create the aurora inject heat and ionised plasma into the upper atmosphere, causing it to puff up and thus increase the drag on satellites in low Earth orbit. Sometimes this is so sudden that space agencies can lose track of their expensive property. ”After intense solar activity, NASA has lost hundreds of satellites,” says Jan Thoemel at the von Karman Institute in SintGenesius-Rode, Belgium. Even small solar storms can throw their trajectories off a little. That’s no mere inconvenience: the ISS and other satellites must already navigate with care to avoid space junk, and collisions will become more of a risk as low Earth orbit gets more crowded. As well as posing a hazard to satellites themselves, sudden changes in atmospheric ionisation can deflect their radio signals en route to Earth. The culprit might be a solar storm or violent weather down below. “This region has two masters: the sun and the weather,” says Cathryn Mitchell of the University of Bath, UK. “We’re never quite sure which is in charge.” During the major solar storm of October 2003, GPS positions were thrown off by hundreds of metres. Such events can have serious repercussions today. “Loads of our infrastructure relies on GPS for positioning or timing,” says Mitchell. Your car’s satnav might be able to cope with some errors, but aircraft, shipping and military operations all rely on precise positioning. GPS-based timing is also used to ensure financial trading is synchronised and fair. Mitchell uses computer models to “nowcast” the upper atmosphere, helping correct for glitches in real time. But it’s a highly inexact science — until we understand the upper atmosphere, that is (see main story). 20 August 2016 | NewScientist | 35
Forbidden zone Lying below satellite orbit but beyond the reach of planes and balloons, the “ignorosphere” is the least-explored part of our atmosphere – and the strangest
Altitude 400 (kilometres)
350 A PLASMA Above 90km, the air starts to become ionised. Higher up, solar storms can inject heat and plasma, which puffs up the air and can throw 300 satellites off course
C COLDEST POINT
A lack of heat-absorbing ozone but plentiful carbon dioxide that radiates away heat means temperatures can fall to -100 ºC here
IG IGN GN G NO OR RO OS O SPH SP PH HE ER RE R E
A band of sodium atoms left behind by burnt-up meteorites emits a faint glow visible in the night sky
D NOCTILUCENT CLOUDS
Made of ice crystals rather than water droplets, these electric blue clouds are only visible when the sun has set
E SPRITES AND JETS
Between 50 and 90km, clumps of gas ionised by thunderstorms create colourful electric discharges known as red sprites and blue jets
“A robotic arm will launch the satellites two or three at a time into oblivion”
Low Earth orbit satellites 300km upwards
B SODIUM AIRGLOW
Highest research balloon 52km
36 | NewScientist | 20 August 2016
density of the thermosphere around 240 km up, but her value was twice that inferred from the re-entry speed of a European Space Agency satellite in 2013. She points out that uncertainty about the total drag on the satellite might explain the discrepancy. Whatever the case, for now we don’t know how dense the atmosphere is at this altitude. Good news, then, that NASA is planning two Earth-observing satellites, known as ICON and GOLD, that will analyse the upper atmosphere. Due to launch in 2018, GOLD will be placed in a geostationary orbit almost 36,000 km up, from where it will be able to look down on and monitor the thermosphere across a wide swathe of the planet. ICON, meanwhile, will concentrate on measuring charged particles. “Continuous coverage is critical,” says Hanli Liu at the National Center for Atmospheric
Research in Boulder, Colorado – especially given the rapidly changing conditions in the upper atmosphere. Whereas those missions will look on from afar, another will really take the plunge – and this is where those tiny explorers come in. The QB50 project will see a fleet of CubeSats, each 20 by 10 by 10 centimetres, entering the ignorosphere. “There is huge potential in this technology,” says project leader Jan Thoemel, at the von Karman Institute in Sint-GenesiusRode, Belgium. “With many satellites, you can take measurements simultaneously in many places.” They are also cheap, because each CubeSat is built as an educational project by one of 50 university teams from across the globe. Students must follow certain specifications, although there is enough leeway that they can work out their own approaches. That might raise quality-control issues, but Thoemel points out that with 50 of the things, you can accept a few failures. Most of the CubeSats will be sent to the International Space Station in December. Within a month or so, astronauts will take a batch of 20 to the Japanese science module, Kibo. Its robotic arm will grab a rack of them, manoeuvre into position and then launch them two or three at a time into oblivion. At their release height of 400 km, the CubeSats will feel only a gentle drag from the thin atmosphere pulling them down. As they descend, the increased drag will mean gravity
pulls them down ever faster. It might take a year or two for them to reach 200 km. The plan is to release a second string of CubeSats three months after the first, so the probes gather data at two altitudes simultaneously. Each CubeSat will carry a sensor. Some will measure the density of neutral atoms and molecules; others will detect ions. To reduce drag and extend their lives, they will try to orient themselves in the direction of orbit using magnetic devices called torquers that can gain a grip on Earth’s magnetic field. But once they descend below 200 km, the CubeSats may only have another week left. Thoemel hopes to get data down to perhaps 90 km, where the CubeSats could fly through noctilucent clouds. “But things will be very difficult at this altitude,” he says: the hypersonic headwind will make it hard for the CubeSats to maintain their orientation, and they may lose contact with ground stations. By about 60 km, the little explorers will burn up – all, that is, but one. “Our own von Karman satellite has a thermal protection system,” says Thoemel. “It should survive and take measurements during the hot reentry phase.” The data from QB50 should help improve predictions of how the thermosphere can snag satellites, as well as refining real-time models of the upper atmosphere used for forecasting. More speculatively, QB50 might shed light on any effect that the turbulent ignorosphere may be having on our weather below. That it has any such effect is hardly an accepted idea, but there have been recent hints that high and low are more intimately linked than we realised. For example, simulations suggest that convection currents rooted in tropical thunderstorms can cause bulges in the thermosphere. Meanwhile, NASA’s AIM satellite has been monitoring noctilucent clouds, and has found that they are surprisingly in thrall to ground-level temperatures on the other side of the planet. If it turns mild in the northern hemisphere winter, then a couple of weeks later there are more noctilucent clouds in Antarctica. No one knows what causes that link. “But one of the really new things we’re finding is how connected the different regions of the atmosphere really are,” says Cora Randall at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Whether influences also run in the opposite direction, from high to low, is controversial. After all, the ignorosphere is insubstantial compared with our thick terrestrial air. Could it really have much of an effect on us? “Lower-
atmosphere researchers have a prejudice that the upper atmosphere doesn’t matter – that ‘the tail can’t wag the dog’,” says Aruliah.
Ignore no more When weather models have been extended upwards in the past, forecasts have improved, says David Jackson, who manages space weather research at the UK’s Met Office in Exeter. Around 15 years ago, the organisation extended the altitude limit of its models from 30 to 60 km, which increased long-term accuracy, he says. If the stratosphere matters to weather, how about the ignorosphere above it? There are a few ideas about how it might have an influence, despite the thinness. One is to do with nitric oxide. This is created in the ignorosphere above the poles by energetic particles from the sun, and winds can carry it around the world. Some of it may reach lower levels, where it can destroy ozone. That, in turn, would affect the climate because ozone is a greenhouse gas. Gravity waves could provide a more powerful downward link. These are waves in
the atmosphere’s gas, akin to those in water, and can be created in the ionosphere when the solar wind’s magnetic field changes direction. According to theoretical work by Paul Prikryl and his team at Canada’s Communications Research Centre in Ottawa, these waves could indirectly generate bands of cloud and boost the strength of cyclones. Jackson is now working on a new wholeatmosphere model that extends right up to 500 km in the thermosphere. His main aim is to understand space weather and its effects on satellites, but the model could also show us whether the wispy air of the ignorosphere can really change ground-level weather. “The QB50 data will be very important in validating this model,” he says. Could QB50 be the forerunner of a bigger scientific presence in the ignorosphere? “Eventually, I think CubeSats could be used like weather balloons, with a swarm perhaps every six months,” says Aruliah. If that does come to pass, it’ll be the ignorosphere no more. We’ll need a new name for what used to be the atmosphere’s last unexplored realm. ■ Stephen Battersby is a consultant for New Scientist 20 August 2016 | NewScientist | 37
I’ll give you fusion in a bottle
Ronald Richter promised Argentina limitless nuclear energy by controlling the process that powers the sun, and President Perón lapped it up Robert Kidd
WITHIN days of moving to Argentina, Ronald Richter stood before the president. The Austrian physicist had an incredible pitch: he’d found a way of generating unlimited, controlled energy from the power of a tiny sun. He had, he said, cracked the challenge of nuclear fusion. It was 1948, and President Juan Perón was looking for new technologies to foster economic independence. His plan to create a “New Argentina” hinged on industrial growth, but his uncompromising style had alienated 38 | NewScientist | 20 August 2016
much of the country’s scientific community. So he was eager to hear ideas from European scientists leaving their homelands in the wake of the second world war. Richter had worked in his father’s lab in Germany, and met Nazi aircraft designer Kurt Tank after the war. Tank was intrigued by Richter’s idea of using nuclear energy to fuel aircraft, so when Tank was later brought to Argentina by Perón, he recommended Richter. Richter met Perón and told him of a technique that could use cheap and readily available elements to emulate the process that powers the sun – and the president was entranced. Here was a man with
just the technology to propel Argentina into the future. Richter was given the chance, and the money, to build this new reactor. It was the nuclear era, but nuclear fission, discovered in 1938, was so far the only game in town. Whereas fusion releases energy by forcing together the nuclei of lighter elements, such as hydrogen, fission does so by splitting the large nuclei of heavier elements, such as uranium and plutonium. It was fission that unleashed the destructive power of the atomic bombs developed by the Manhattan Project, and is what drives today’s nuclear plants. Fusion is an altogether different proposition.
PHOTOGRAPHS: INTERFOTO/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
PEOPLE The isotopes of lighter atoms need conditions of extreme pressure and temperature before they can unite. In the sun, for example, hydrogen atoms fuse to make helium at temperatures of 15 million kelvin and pressures many billions of times greater than atmospheric pressure on Earth. So fusion investigators started with hydrogen’s heavier isotopes, which unite at far lower pressures but need even hotter conditions. Richter said he could create a searing plasma at the required temperature of around 100 million kelvin. And the kicker? He could control and contain this reaction. Richter spent some $300 million (by today’s standards) of public funds building a facility worthy of a James Bond villain. His fusion container turned out to be a concrete bunker 11 metres tall, built on a small island within a mountain lake in the foothills of the Andes. On Isla Huemul, off the shore of the picturesque Patagonian town of San Carlos de Bariloche, Richter’s project proceeded in secrecy. Within two years, 400 men working round the clock built the bunker and other facilities, overseen by Richter. His purchases included 20,000 bags of cement, powerful loudspeakers and a 50-tonne copper coil. In February 1951, Richter said he had performed the first successful experiment with his fusion reactor. If he was right, it would be one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century: it seemed that Perón’s gamble had paid off. Later that month, Perón summoned the press to his mansion and, with much self-satisfaction, announced the breakthrough. He vaguely described Richter’s approach, before claiming that, without the need for uranium, “this new method produced controlled liberation of atomic energy”. He called Richter’s work “transcendental” for the future life of all Argentines, and, “I have no doubt, for that of the world”. Soon energy would be sold in half-litre bottles, like milk. The New York Times reported the astonishing news on its front page and printed Perón’s crowing announcement. But his moment of glory was met with near-universal scepticism. David Lilienthal, former head of the US Atomic Energy Commission, was asked if there was even the slightest chance that the unpublished, unknown Richter had achieved what he claimed. “Less than that,” he replied. The results of Richter’s experiments were never published, and he refused to say how he had reached the required temperatures. And he would only hint at how he controlled the reaction: “When an atomic bomb explodes without control, there is terrible destruction.
Big claims: President Perón (far right) next to Ronald Richter at a press conference in February 1951
I have been able to control the explosion so that it develops slowly and gradually.” With political and media pressure mounting, in 1952 Perón assembled a team to investigate. The resulting report by physicist José Antonio Balseiro was damning. It revealed that Richter’s method was to feed hydrogen into an electric arc at which loudspeakers were pointed to increase the temperature using acoustic waves. The highest temperature reached in Richter’s lab was 100,000 kelvin at most – nowhere near the many millions required. The experiments “could not show in any way that a controlled thermonuclear reaction has been achieved”. The sceptics were right. Richter would never admit it, but
“Richter spent $300 million building a facility worthy of a James Bond villain” his “breakthrough” was a $300 million turkey. It was a blow to Perón, and a huge political embarrassment. Having promised his citizens energy in bottles, he had given them snake oil instead. Damage limitation was suddenly the priority, but this cat was too big for any bag. In December 1952, The New York Times opened an article with: “Argentina’s atomic energy project has exploded with the force of a bursting soap bubble…” Yet despite the fiasco he had created, Richter and his wife were allowed to move to the outskirts of Buenos Aires and live a quiet life – until 1954, when an opposition member of parliament questioned the so-called Huemul Project. Richter insisted his work was legitimate and demanded to give
his side of the story, but Perón’s government, fearing further embarrassment, charged him with contempt of Congress and put him in a cell for five days. He was released to live out his days in obscurity, and died in 1991. After Richter was exposed, Balseiro moved fast – with Argentina’s scientific community behind him – to convince the government that the best way to avoid future embarrassment was to continue investing in research. In 1955, a physics institute was created, repurposing equipment from the Huemul Project, and was affiliated with the Atomic Centre established in Bariloche in 1951 on the back of the fusion experiment. Today, the research centre’s spin-off company, INVAP, collaborates on nuclear energy projects in Latin America, Australia and the Middle East, and develops satellites with NASA. Some 65 years after Richter’s experiment ruined Argentina’s scientific credibility, the country has a reputation for high-quality research. The hunt for controlled nuclear fusion continues. Finding a way to contain and sustain that searing plasma remains the goal of several projects, including ITER, an international reactor project based in France. Although Richter’s experiment failed spectacularly, it remains a mystery whether he was a fraud or simply detached from reality, says Mario Mariscotti, author of The Secret of Huemul Island. Edward Teller, dubbed the father of the hydrogen bomb, summed up the difficulty in defining Richter. “Reading one line [of Richter’s] one has to think he’s a genius. Reading the next line, one realises he’s crazy.” ■ Robert Kidd is a writer based in Brisbane, Australia 20 August 2016 | NewScientist | 39
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Leave them kids alone! Modern parenting is stunting our kids, finds Shaoni Bhattacharya
PARENTING is a terrible invention. Spontaneous loving care, informed by tradition and human experience, has now become a “management plan”. So says child developmental psychologist and writer, Alison Gopnik in The Gardener and the Carpenter. Alongside Gopnik’s scientific new tome comes a fascinating historical and cultural journey through American childhood by social historian Paula Fass, The End of American Childhood. Together the books present a view of Western parenting in crisis as we emerge from the seismic shifts of the 20th century, a world away from our evolutionary roots. As a parent of young children, I’m often overwhelmed by advice. After reading these books, I’m no clearer on what to do. But I am clearer about what not to do: don’t “over-parent” or micromanage your child. In short: middle-class Western parents, back off. Gopnik in particular stresses parents should stop stultifying their kids with endless schedules and heavy expectations, quit the helicoptering and let them get on with it. Fair enough. The idea that some parents now look over their millennial offspring’s university assignments or talk through the minutiae of their kidult’s work 42 | NewScientist | 20 August 2016
ELLIOTT ERWITT/MAGNUM PHOTOS
The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the new science of child development tells us about the relationship between parents and children by Alison Gopnik, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26; The End of American Childhood: A history of parenting from life on the frontier to the managed child by Paula S. Fass, Princeton University Press, $29.95
issues is mad to a Generation X-er like me. Gopnik’s book seems a welcome burst of common sense. Parents, she writes, should be like gardeners, tending young shoots and providing fertile ground. Instead, many resemble carpenters, chiselling away at them to create an image of success that has little to do with their kids’ wishes, talents or needs. “‘Parent’ is not actually a verb,” she writes, “not a form of work… and shouldn’t be directed toward the goal of sculpting a child into a particular kind of adult.” This model causes Western parents’ untold anxiety, while the kids wilt under an “oppressive cloud”. Worse, Gopnik argues, it’s a “poor fit to the scientific reality”. We used to learn from tribes, or
large extended families and communities. Now we have small, geographically scattered families, often with parents who work long hours. Some transfer skills they learned over years in a goaloriented job to raising their children in the hope this will give them the resources to withstand unpredictable futures. “Gardening,” says Gopnik, can create robust and resilient children with the resourcefulness to adapt to an unpredictable world. She draws on current research to build a view that balances the tensions inherent in growing up with intergenerational conflicts. Take play, something that is fundamental to learning. By filling their time with packed schedules of enriching activities, parents
A bit less structure to childhood might help us as adults
may rob their kids of a vital developmental window. And while 5-year-olds play-fighting may not look as valuable as ballet classes or Kumon maths, rough-housing is something many animals do. Rat experiments suggest it is vital for honing social competence . If you chain children to desks, and demand focused attention in a life so different from our evolutionary past, you can expect trouble. As she writes, there’s “a close connection between the rise of schools and the development of attention deficit disorder”. In the US, 1 in 5 boys have an ADD label by 17. It’s all fascinating, but I’m left
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“Parent is not a verb, and shouldn’t be about sculpting a child into a particular kind of adult” European Americans in the US. Fass’s book helps with the cultural picture science needs to fully grasp the complexities of Western childhood. She recalls the sheer brutality of the past, when there was a simple goal: child survival. Fass tells extraordinary tales of children who worked the farms, helped raise their families from the dirt, and absorbed the pain of slavery and the Civil War. For her, this made American children more independent and able to hold their own with adults compared with their European counterparts. This may no longer be the case, for reasons similar to those Gopnik cites. “American parents... (I do not exclude myself) worry too much and provide their children with too little space to grow,” writes Fass. The free-spirited American childhood is no longer possible for Fass, as overparenting in the face of rapid societal change has ensured that, in a sense, childhood does not end. There is still no one magnum opus floating on the ocean of books on parenting, but maybe if Fass and Gopnik got together they would be a force to reckon with. ■ Shaoni Bhattacharya is a consultant for New Scientist
Conspicuous confusion Are malls paradise or hell? Brendan Byrne takes in an artist’s view Black Friday, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, to 31 October
IT WAS once a uniquely American phenomenon. The Gruen transfer – named for Victor Gruen, the Austrian-born architect who designed the first indoor climatecontrolled shopping mall – is what occurs when people enter a space designed to be visually disorientating, confusing them into unplanned consumption. The desire to buy a birthday card, say, is transferred, deliberately and against their will, to very different items such as an iced mochaccino or smartphone cover. The shopping mall spread globally, and the Gruen transfer with it. It’s as a direct response to the malling of the Arab Gulf states that Qatari-American artist Sophia Al-Maria created her video installation Black Friday. She filmed it in the unopened Alhazm mall in Doha, Qatar. Patterned after Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II, a sumptuous 19thcentury proto-mall in Milan, Italy, it is presented in soaring shots, A palatial would-be mall traps us into passive non-consumption
empty of stores or branding. But there are mannequins, often bathed in dayglow, observing the characters as they traverse its corridors, ride its escalators or lie prone under its dome. Sections shot from drones have a disturbing weightlessness: the vulnerable smallness of the figures, splayed on gilt floors or huddled on luxurious stairs, is painfully apparent.
No sale Watching Black Friday is like playing a game in “Explore” mode. A sense of impotence develops slowly but relentlessly. Al-Maria’s subjects are so passive they might be extras in another film; the only way they could be active is if a store were to open. As such, Black Friday is a perversion of the Gruen transfer: confusion which cannot lead to purchase. An authoritative voiceover by actor Sam Neill tells us that “here, there is nothing to ingest, but to be ingested by”. The cumulative effect, against loud, doomy sci-fi music, is apocalyptic. Gruen’s mall opened in 1956 in Minnesota, known for its frigid
SOPHIA AL-MARIA/COURTESY THE THIRD LINE, DUBAI.
with many questions. Gardening children sounds intuitively better than chiselling, but are there risks? ADD aside, it isn’t clear. Gardens can face north, too. When must you intervene? And can gardening turn into chiselling? Then there’s culture. What works in one place may not elsewhere. Some carpenter-like behaviours – say, the expectation of filial obedience – can work in other cultures if underwritten by love. Gopnik doesn’t mention it, but a long-term study in nine countries shows this approach works in Kenya, but not Sweden, and among
winters, partly to address a desire for “ideal” shopping weather. As temperatures rise, it makes sense to retreat further and further into malls. In her memoir The Girl Who Fell to Earth, Al-Maria recalls malls’ centrality to courtship: “There was an intense energy of... desire... nothing to do with what was displayed in the windows.” If that has a ring of J. G. Ballard about it, it’s deliberate. Elsewhere, in an essay titled The Gaze of Sci-Fi Wahabi, she writes of the “inner space” colonised by Ballard and Philip K. Dick: that charged, mythic territory we project on an outwardly anonymous urban landscape. Inner space is no longer a neat metaphor for alienation. Thanks to mobile tech, it is now virtual real estate. Al-Maria recounts the “private worlds” enabled by “rigid public rules”, particularly the way mobile devices (jawal in the Gulf) make secret communication possible. Placed in front of Black Friday is Litany, a collection of mobiles on sand, their screens emitting a disquieting buzz or screeching meaningless noise. She also writes of her first visual memories of her father: a video he sent from Qatar, opening with “a speeding shot from a car in the desert”. It was “a portal into another dimension – one I felt immediate ownership over”. Seeing it “cracked the world into two halves”. Now they are reunited by the technologies of mall and jawal. Al-Maria has invited us into another dimension, one over which none of us has ownership. ■ Brendan Byrne is a writer and editor based in New York 20 August 2016 | NewScientist | 43
How the cyber age gave peace a chance A glorified weapons technology helped spread love and understanding, finds Bruce Sterling
Rise of the Machines: A cybernetic history by Thomas Rid, W.W. Norton, $27.95
door. In Rise of the Machines, Rid has created a meticulous yet startling alternate history of computation. Within Rid’s framing, Alan Turing’s famous Colossus codebreaker merely lurks in a dim barn somewhere. The true primal beast of modern computing is the interactive gunsight system, an artillery gizmo that spewed tracer fire across the dark skies of the second world war. Our central protagonist is not
FRANCOIS LENOIR / REUTERS
THOMAS RID studies war at King’s College London. Recently he has been pondering “cyberwar”, since “cyber” garners much military-industrial gold and glamour these days. This has led him to wonder what people could possibly mean by a strange term “Cybernetic feedback was Darwin-scale high concept, like “cyber”. an intellectual gift that This thoughtful, enlightening would keep on giving” book is his answer: a melange of history, media studies, political science, military engineering, Alan Turing but Norbert Wiener, and, yes, etymology. an academic at the Massachusetts It takes Rid a full 25 pages of Institute of Technology at the cautious scholarly preface to get time, who was researching antito his original research, but after aircraft weapons. Wiener sought that, every chapter opens up as to mathematically automate a smoothly as an automated glass new prediction and aiming
system so that Allied ack-ack gunners could outguess divebombing Axis pilots. He had no engineering success whatsoever; meanwhile all the truly capable MIT guys were away, building atom bombs in the desert. Then peace broke out, and Wiener revealed his new, general theory of humanly interactive yet self-steering machines. He called it “Cybernetics”. Trendspotters quickly picked up and spread the idea, and it’s here that Rid comes into his own as an able historian, excelling at who knew whom exactly when. In the main, the early cybernetics community was made up of peacenik, left-wing intellectuals who were dumbfounded by the A-bomb. Bertrand Russell considered Wiener a moral titan. Wiener also got a swift, favourable hearing from the soft-science brigade, who quickly realised that “cybernetic feedback” was Darwin-scale high concept, an intellectual gift that would keep on giving. As a working technology, cybernetics reached its apogee before any digital computers appeared. Rid has a historian’s tenderness for odd cybernetic mechanical systems, and these, far from being the parents of true computers, are better considered the children of weapons systems. Gadgets like the obscure Ashby homeostat (“the closest thing to a Many avid fans have had a hand in taking the “cyber” label global
44 | NewScientist | 20 August 2016
synthetic brain so far designed by man”, Time magazine proclaimed) have a mid-century Alexander Calder beauty about them: they move mysteriously, metal mobiles steering through a breeze. The original, pre-digital cybernetics was conceptually akin to a vital fluid, a mathematical phlogiston that could manage living organisms, complex mechanisms, human intelligence, and, well, pretty much anything. It certainly had the mythic power to be prefixed to pretty much anything, which is why our world now darkly rejoices in cyber bombs, cyberbullying, cyber coins, cybercops, cybercrime, cyber dominance, cyber
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Close cousins? Cybernetic theory has helped inspire the world of AI
ecosystems, cyberespionage, cyber forensics, cyber fraud, cyber gangs, cyber-geddon, cyber intelligence, cyber jihad, cyber mercenaries, cyber policies, cyberspace, cyberwar… and on and on.
All-purpose plaster To achieve that semantic feat, the term cyber had to ooze through the eager hands of many avid individuals and interest groups. Rid names them, dates them, and divvies them up by decade and areas of activity. They are a loose but persistent social network, unified by their choice of the term cyber as an all-
purpose healing-plaster. I had to restrain myself from cheering when “cyberpunks” suddenly appeared, midnarrative. It’s interesting to see science-fiction writers so carefully placed in a historical perspective. Rid has a remarkably firm understanding of how big, vague ideas can duck and dodge between niche cults and popular mainstreams. He is certainly the only scholar I’ve ever heard of who would study the now defunct magazine MONDO 2000 from a military perspective. Rid went to California to confer with the cyber hippy movers and shakers of Silicon Valley: Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, R. U. Sirius,
devoid of logical code, wafted toward grand mystical answers on the big-data breezes. The ambassadors of Google, Facebook – they drink that kooky Kool-Aid by the gallon now. Today’s technocrats are every bit as fond of snake oil as their grandparents were. “Cyberspace sovereignty” is another new, hard-charging cyber term: it’s all about breaking up the old internet in the service of an aggressive real-world empire. Chinese “sovereign cyberspace” is a mortal enemy of Californian 1990s global-business flat-world
Jaron Lanier and others. I’ve known most of them for quite a while, yet I’ve never seen them assigned their historical place with such understanding and attention to detail. I’d go so far as to say that Rid has done them justice. With the passage of years, these California cyber hippies now come across quite like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalists. They were standard American bohemian thinkers, but in intimate contact “The ambassadors of with some alarmingly practical Google and Facebook… yet crazy ideas. They were lucky are as fond of snake oil as prophets. their grandparents were” The atomic age also had its visionaries, of course, but that era cyberspace, but these drifts and died of radioactive poisons. The space age had wild-eyed prophets contradictions are typical of etymology. Words are made to galore, but it could never control work; all myths are up for grabs. its budgets. The cyber age was What’s truly interesting about different: it had just as many nuts and flakes, but it ripped the lid off cyber was how well, and how long, it sheltered people who never the planet with a comprehensive built any actual machine guns. ruthlessness that we’re only now Starting with Wiener himself, beginning to understand. Rise of the Machines ends rather they were gadget-happy moralists: a preachy, handwaving, suddenly in the present day. Rid has little to offer about the future philosophical caste who never of “cyber”; he thinks the word has dug a fibre-optic cable trench or won the US National Medal outstayed its welcome, especially of Technology. in war studies. Rid is a brave Yet they dreamed and spoke scholar who doesn’t mind staking out a strongly dissenting position, relentlessly about frontiers, so he is quite ready to declare that spaces, communities, nations, peoples and possible futures. “cyberwar” is hype, a crock, a They were cyber techs, cyberfundraising pitch. In his view, scientists, cyber-artists, even aggressive code-juggling can’t be cyber-anarchists, but when you true “war” at all, for it lacks the strip those cyber masks off, straightforward, kinetic, lethal they’re revealed as earnest public potential of guns and bombs. Rid intellectuals – rather weird ones, would prefer to have done with yes, but the cultural transition cyber altogether. they were living through was I sympathise with that weird. They were a crank minority, assessment, but I don’t think it yet a truly prescient community. will happen. The useful verbal There is a touching authenticity murkiness of cyber still thrives to them. Maybe history will in terms such as “artificial intelligence” and “deep learning”. be kind. ■ The latter neologism is Bruce Sterling is a writer and critic exceedingly Wiener-cybernetic, variously based in Austin, Texas; Turin, since it’s all about mysterious, Italy; and Belgrade, Serbia oddly vitalised neural networks, 20 August 2016 | NewScientist | 45
INSIDER / CHEMISTRY
Networking sites might just seem like a good way to stay in touch with friends, but they are increasingly becoming an essential tool for scientists. Suzanne Elvidge investigates hemistry professor Randolph Larsen might describe himself as a social media rookie, but he’s building an online presence to keep in touch with his students and alumni. And professor Robert Flowers’ classes aren’t complete without digital media. While chemistry is everywhere, from the medicine we take to the power in our homes, social media is just as all-pervasive.
46 | NewScientist | 20 August 2016
As its role in our lives expands, social media is creating opportunities for scientists. It is increasingly a powerful tool for building a professional profile, communicating with students, sharing research with other scientists, and spreading the word about science to the public in an accessible way. “It’s important to communicate science with the public, especially for publicly
Public outreach Social media enables scientists to get the message directly to the public as things happen. “Social media is a great way for scientists to disseminate late-breaking news,” says Larsen, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at St Mary’s College of Maryland. “There is a lot of great public outreach going on through social media.” One example is Twitter account @realscientists, where different guest curators from research, medicine, communication and policymaking spend a week tweeting about their lives
GETTY / ERIK ISAKSON
The chemistry of social media
funded projects. It also helps scientists to see what is important and to re-evaluate what we are doing and why,” says Flowers, professor of chemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
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Employers are increasingly searching social media to understand a potential recruit’s skillset, and to find out about their character (both positive and negative). “Recruitment is now almost universally done online, and so it is imperative for scientists to build a personal ‘brand’ using digital media tools such as LinkedIn, as well as relevant science-focused social networking sites such as academia.edu. This helps to strengthen a scientist’s reputation and increases the chances of them being found by recruiters,” says Sherry Nouraini, founder of social media strategy company Captive Touch. Nouraini teaches social media for climate science and policy at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, as well as being an adjunct professor of biology at San Diego City College. As the job market becomes more challenging, students are increasingly aware of networking and its importance. “Through
“Making projects more visible to stakeholders can help secure funding”
and work. “RealScientists gives people a taste of what it’s actually like to be a scientist,” says Jennifer Novotney, public programs coordinator at the MIT Museum. In 2014, she won the inaugural American Chemical Society (ACS) Chemistry Champions competition for her passion for finding new ways to share science with non-scientists. Novotney uses Twitter (@CommonChemist) to communicate interesting things in chemistry, from an element fact of the day, to accessible articles in both the scientific and nonscientific media. “Here at the museum, we connect scientists at MIT with the public, and create interaction and conversation. It is very important to communicate with the public, and social media provides some great avenues to do this,” says Novotney. Developing digital skills can also directly boost chemists’ employment prospects.
LinkedIn, I can keep track of my students’ successes, and they can connect with alumni to begin to develop professional networking skills,” says Larsen. “Seeing what other students have gone on to do also gives them ideas about other career options.” Equally, making individuals, departments and projects more visible to stakeholders through digital communication can help to secure academic funding. “By seeing what people post and how their careers and networks grow, we can measure the success of our program,” says Larsen. “These post-graduation outcomes can be used to support grant proposals and accreditations.” When it comes to communicating with and teaching students who are largely ‘digital natives’, Flowers sees social media as essential. “I use Twitter and other forms of digital media to reach out to my students and to support my teaching,” says Flowers. “It’s important to use the same methods of communication as they do.” He also posts protocols and experiments online, which enables other scientists to better reproduce his results. While the cliché of elderly professors in their ivory towers is rapidly disappearing, there are some academics and professionals who are not taking advantage of the
FIVE SOCIAL MEDIA TIPS FOR SCIENTISTS Social media strategist and scientist Sherry Nouraini gives best practice advice for communicating with the public online 1. As scientists, we forget what it is like not to know. Remember to communicate science at the audience’s knowledge level. 2. Use metaphor and story to help people understand abstract topics; for example, compare size using the area of a football field, the size of a grain of sand, or the weight of an elephant. 3. Use framing to get your audience to care – think about how the research relates to people’s lives and put the science in terms that matters to them. 4. Lose the scientific jargon and replace it with words that have meaning for a non-expert audience. 5. A picture is worth a thousand words. Try communicating with an image, infographic or video.
opportunities that are offered by social and digital media. Developing the right skillsets is about more than just learning how to use social media, as Nouraini explains: “Before learning how to use blogging and the tools of social media, chemists first need to learn the art of communicating with a non-expert audience. However, there is a lack of communication training for scientists at the university or company level. This is why non-profit organizations such as the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science have been established to help fill this gap.”
Staying in touch Social media is rapidly becoming an essential tool for scientists, according to Nouraini. She describes it as a powerful means of scientific collaboration and exchange of ideas, and as a way to combat pseudoscientists and fake experts who mislead the public about science for their own gain. As Flowers concludes: “Scientists can continue to work without social media, but as increasing numbers of people are using this route for communication, we ignore it at our peril.” Q Suzanne Elvidge is a freelance life sciences writer 20 August 2016 | NewScientist | 47
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The NIH Intramural Research Program is Recruiting Tenure-Track â€œEarl Stadtman Investigatorsâ€? The National Institutes of Health, the U.S. governmentâ€™s premier biomedical and behavioral research enterprise and a component of the Department of Health and Human Services, is pleased to announce its eighth annual call for â€œNIH Earl Stadtman Investigators,â€? a broad recruitment of tenure-track investigators (assistant professor equivalent) for the NIH intramural research program. Come join the team whose hallmarks are stable funding, intellectual freedom, shared YLZV\YJLZ HUK HJJLZZ [V H ^PKL YHUNL VM ZJPLU[PĂ„J L_WLY[PZL ( MHU[HZ[PJ HYYH` VM ZJPLU[PZ[Z HSYLHK` OHZ ILLU OPYLK [OYV\NO [OL Â¸:[HK[THUÂš YLJY\P[TLU[ PU [OL SHZ[ ZL]LU`LHYZ ( ]HYPL[` VM IHZPJ HUK [YHUZSH[PVUHSJSPUPJHS WVZP[PVUZ HYL H]HPSHISL ^P[O HYLHZ VM HJ[P]LYLJY\P[TLU[PUJS\KPUNI\[UV[SPTP[LK[V!)LOH]PVYHS:JPLUJLZ)PVJOLTPZ[Y` )PVTLKPJHS ,UNPULLYPUN )PVWO`ZPJZ )PVZ[H[PZ[PJZ *HUJLY )PVSVN` *LSS )PVSVN` *LSS 4L[HIVSPZT *OLTPJHS )PVSVN` *OYVTVZVTL )PVSVN` *VTW\[H[PVUHS )PVSVN`)PVPUMVYTH[PJZ PUJS\KPUN UH[\YHS SHUN\HNL WYVJLZZPUN HUK [L_[ TPUPUN +L]LSVWTLU[HS )PVSVN` ,WPKLTPVSVN` .LUL[PJZ .LUVTPJZ /LHS[O +PZWHYP[PLZ /LHYPUN )HSHUJL 0TT\UVSVN` 0UMLJ[PV\Z +PZLHZLZ 4PJYVIPVSVN` 4VSLJ\SHY 7OHYTHJVSVN` 5L\YVKL]LSVWTLU[ 5L\YVZJPLUJLZ 7O`ZPVSVN` :LUZVY` )PVSVN` :VJPHS:JPLUJLZ:[Y\J[\YHS)PVSVN`:`Z[LTZ)PVSVN`;V_PJVSVN`;YHUZSH[PVUHSHUK *SPUPJHS9LZLHYJOHUK=PYVSVN` --------------Who we are: (TVUN V\Y HWWYV_PTH[LS` WYPUJPWHS PU]LZ[PNH[VYZ HUK [YHPULLZ PU [OL 50/ PU[YHT\YHS YLZLHYJO WYVNYHT HYL ^VYSKYLUV^ULK L_WLY[Z PU basic, translational, population-based, and clinical research. Similar to academia, ^L V LY V\Y ZJPLU[PZ[Z [OL VWWVY[\UP[` [V TLU[VY V\[Z[HUKPUN [YHPULLZ H[ HSS SL]LSZ (e.g., graduate students and postdoctoral fellows) in a research setting. Whom we seek: We seek a diverse cadre of creative thinkers eager to take on innovative, high-impact research. 8\HSPĂ„JH[PVUZLSPNPIPSP[`: (WWSPJHU[Z T\Z[ OH]L HU 4+ 7O+ ++:+4+ +=4 +6 957O+ VY LX\P]HSLU[ KVJ[VYHS KLNYLL HUK OH]L HU V\[Z[HUKPUN YLJVYK VM YLZLHYJO HJJVTWSPZOTLU[Z HZ L]PKLUJLK I` OPNO X\HSP[` W\ISPJH[PVUZ PU WLLYYL]PL^LK QV\YUHSZ (WWSPJHU[Z ZOV\SK IL UVU[LU\YLK ZJPLU[PZ[Z (WWVPU[LLZ TH`IL<:JP[PaLUZYLZPKLU[HSPLUZVYUVUYLZPKLU[HSPLUZ^P[OVYLSPNPISL[VVI[HPU H]HSPKLTWSV`TLU[H\[OVYPaH[PVU]PZH /V^[VHWWS`:(WWSPJHU[ZT\Z[Z\ITP[MV\YP[LTZ[OLĂ„YZ[[OYLLP[LTZT\Z[ILPU H7+-MVYTH[!H*=^OPJOZOV\SKPUJS\KLHSPZ[VMW\ISPJH[PVUZHUKTLU[VYPUN HUKSLHKLYZOPWHJ[P]P[PLZ"H[OYLLWHNLWYVWVZHS[P[SLK9LZLHYJO.VHSZPL[OL YLZLHYJO`V\OVWL[VWLYMVYTH[[OL50/"HVULWHNLZ[H[LTLU[[P[SLK3VUN[LYT 9LZLHYJO=PZPVUHUK0TWHJ[PL^OH[`V\OVWL[VHJOPL]LMVY`V\YZLSM`V\YĂ„LSK HUK ZVJPL[`" HUK JVU[HJ[ PUMVYTH[PVU MVY [OYLL WYVMLZZPVUHS YLMLYLUJLZ :\ITP[ [OLZL [OYV\NO V\Y VUSPUL HWWSPJH[PVU Z`Z[LT H[ O[[W![LU\YL[YHJRUPONV]HWWS` IL[^LLU (\N\Z[ HUK :LW[LTILY ! WT,+;@V\^PSSILHZRLK[V KLZPNUH[L\W[V[^VZJPLU[PĂ„JHYLHZVML_WLY[PZL[VHPKPUHZZPNUPUN`V\YHWWSPJH[PVU to the appropriate review committee. Requests for letters of recommendation will IL ZLU[ [V `V\Y YLMLYLUJLZ ^OLU `V\ Z\ITP[ `V\Y HWWSPJH[PVU 9LMLYLUJL SL[[LYZ ^PSS IL HJJLW[LK ]PH \WSVHK [V [OL ^LIZP[L \U[PS 6J[VILY ! WT,+; Reference letters must also be submitted in a PDF format. We cannot accept paper applications. What to expect: :LHYJO JVTTP[[LLZ JVTWVZLK VM L_WLY[Z PU ]HYPV\Z Ă„LSKZ ^PSS review and evaluate applicants based on criteria which include publication record, TLU[VYPUN L_WLYPLUJL ZJPLU[PĂ„J ]PZPVU WV[LU[PHS ZJPLU[PĂ„J PTWHJ[ VM J\YYLU[ HUK proposed research, awards, and references. Select applicants will be invited to the NIH for interviews and will be considered candidates. These candidates will also present seminars open to the public. Some applicants not selected as Earl Stadtman 0U]LZ[PNH[VYJHUKPKH[LZTH`ILJVUZPKLYLKMVYV[OLYVWLU50/YLZLHYJOWVZP[PVUZ 7SLHZL Ă„UK HUZ^LYZ [V MYLX\LU[S` HZRLK X\LZ[PVUZ H[ O[[W![LU\YL[YHJRUPONV] HWWS`MHXZ[HK[THUO[TS --------------4VYL PUMVYTH[PVU HIV\[ V\Y WYVNYHT PZ H[ O[[W!PYWUPONV] ;OL PUZWPYPUN Z[VY` VM ,HYSHUK;OYLZZH:[HK[THUÂťZYLZLHYJOH[[OL50/PZH[O[[W!OPZ[VY`UPONV]L_OPIP[Z Z[HK[THU :WLJPĂ„J X\LZ[PVUZ YLNHYKPUN [OPZ YLJY\P[TLU[ L VY[ TH` IL KPYLJ[LK [V +Y 9VSHUK 6^LUZ (ZZPZ[HU[ +PYLJ[VY 50/ 6JL VM 0U[YHT\YHS 9LZLHYJO H[ V^LUZYVS'THPSUPONV]+//:HUK50/HYL,X\HS6WWVY[\UP[`,TWSV`LYZ ;/,50/0:+,+0*(;,+;6)<03+05.(505*3<:0=,(5++0=,9:, *644<50;@050;:;9(0505.(5+,4736@4,5;796.9(4: National Cancer Institute (NCI) Postdoc: Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program
48 | NewScientist | 20 August 2016
Assistant/Associate/Full Professor of Genetics in the Institute for Biomedical Informatics The Department of Genetics and the Institute for Biomedical Informatics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania seek candidates for an Assistant, Associate, or Full Professor position in the tenure track. The Department of Genetics and the Institute for Biomedical Informatics comprise faculty with diverse investigative interests and close aďŹƒliations with the neighboring Childrenâ€™s Hospital of Philadelphia. The successful applicant will have extensive experience in computational biology and/or biomedical informatics as applied to human genetics and genomics. Applicants should have a deďŹ ned biological research interest and experience in collaborating with bench scientists. Responsibilities include developing and carrying out an independent research program and participating in graduate and medical school education. Applicants must have a Ph.D. and/or M.D. degree and have demonstrated excellent qualiďŹ cations in research and education. The successful applicant will have the opportunity for aďŹƒliation with Pennâ€™s Department of Computer and Information Science. Attractive laboratory space and substantial resources are available. For more information about the Department of Genetics visit www.med.upenn.edu/genetics and about the Institute for Biomedical Informatics visit www.upibi.org. Apply for this position online at: https://www.med.upenn.edu/apps/faculty_ad/index.php/g/d4396
Associate/Full Professor of Genetics The Department of Genetics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania seeks candidates for an Associate or Full Professor position in the tenure track. The Department of Genetics comprises a faculty with diverse investigative interests and close aďŹƒliations with the neighboring Childrenâ€™s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Wistar Institute. The successful applicant will have extensive experience in original investigation in the ďŹ elds of human genetics, model systems genetics, and/ or regulation of eukaryotic gene expression. Responsibilities include directing an independent research program and participating in graduate and medical school education. Applicants must have a Ph.D. and/or M.D. degree and have demonstrated excellent qualiďŹ cations in research and education. Attractive laboratory space and substantial resources are available. For more information about the Department of Genetics, visit www.med.upenn.edu/genetics. Apply for this position online at: https://www.med.upenn.edu/apps/faculty_ad/index.php/g/d4395
To ensure full consideration, applicants are encouraged to apply by October 31, 2016. Please submit a cover letter, curriculum vitae, and a 2-page statement of research interests, as well as the names of 3 references. We seek candidates who embrace and reďŹ‚ect diversity in the broadest sense. The University of Pennsylvania is an EOE. Minorities/Women/Individuals with disabilities/Protected Veterans are encouraged to apply.
The Senor Chemist’s responsibilities are to set up and validate new tests on Food, Supplement, Environmental and other matrices as needed to grow the business. Part of this will be writing the SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) for the method, creating the quality control documents and procedures associated with the test, creating and executing the validation protocol, writing the official validation report, and training chemists/technicians on new testing. Other duties will include creating costing models for pricing, performing research on current techniques and new testing capabilities, creating training documents to help develop staff, and being a technical resource for chemistry staff and clients. The Senior Chemist will have frequent contact with the client base as well as review, reporting and interpretation of laboratory results in collaboration with the management team. The Chief Science Officer is responsible for all aspects of analytical laboratory processes including technology, methodology, laboratory proficiency measurements, research, and scientific processes. This position is responsible for application and evaluation of approved microbiological techniques and methodologies used in all FSNS laboratories in the analysis of food products as they relate to accreditation, certification, and customer requirements. This position will have contact with customers, laboratory staff and will review new business and special projects proposals. This role may have supervisory responsibilities. Please apply online at
http://chp.tbe.taleo.net/chp02/ats/careers/jobSearch.jsp?org=FOODSAFETYNET&cws=1 Food Safety Net Services (FSNS) is a network of ISO/IEC 17025:2005 accredited laboratories that provide a wide range of microbiological testing and chemical analysis. Testing includes but is not limited to non-routine and routine quantitative and qualitative analysis following standardized and validated methods such as AOAC, USDA, AOCS, FDA, ASTA, USP as well as others. In addition to our comprehensive scope of laboratory testing, FSNS also provides a full menu of auditing services that synergistically improve the effectiveness of food safety and quality programs. Our experts help you ensure that your food safety and quality programs deliver the critical information you need to continually improve your process controls and measurement systems. We assist you to meet and help you develop effective contingency planning for governmental regulatory requirements. Services Include: • • • • • •
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20 August 2016 | NewScientist | 49
Colgate University Assistant Professor Position Title: Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry Req # 03024
The Department of Chemistry at The University of Chicago invites applications for the position of Assistant Professor of Chemistry. This search is in all areas of chemistry, including the sub-disciplines of inorganic, materials, organic, physical, and theoretical chemistry, as well as chemical biology. Applicants must apply online to the University of Chicago Academic Career website at http://tinyurl.com/gl7ej7f and upload a cover letter, a curriculum vitae with a list of publications, a succinct outline of research plans, and a one page teaching statement. In your cover letter, please specify one sub-discipline that best represents your research interests. In addition, three reference letters are required. Reference letter submission information will be provided during the application process. At the time of hire the successful candidate must have completed all requirements for a Ph.D. in Chemistry or a YLSH[LKÃ„LSK9L]PL^VMHWWSPJH[PVUZ^PSSJVU[PU\L\U[PSHSSWVZP[PVUZHYL Ã„SSLK ;OL<UP]LYZP[`VM*OPJHNVPZHU(YTH[P]L(J[PVU,X\HS6WWVY[\UP[` +PZHISLK=L[LYHUZ,TWSV`LYHUKKVLZUV[KPZJYPTPUH[LVU[OLIHZPZ of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national or ethnic origin, age, status as an individual with a disability, protected veteran status, genetic information, or other protected classes under the law. For additional information please see the Universityâ€™s Notice of Nondiscrimination at http://www.uchicago.edu/about/ non_discrimination_statement/. Job seekers in need of a reasonable accommodation to complete the application process should call 773-702-5671 or email ACOppAdministrator@uchicago.edu with their request.
Postdoctoral Scholars for MERIT Program Funded by a NIH IRACDA Program
The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) MERIT (Mentored Experiences in Research, Instruction, and Teaching) Program is seeking individuals who are interested in outstanding teaching and research experiences during their postdoctoral training. The MERIT Program will provide opportunities for research experience at UAB and teaching experiences at minority serving institutions, including Oakwood University and Stillman College, located near UAB. MERIT Scholars are supported for four years at NRSA rates; are provided with health insurance at no charge; Allowance for travel and supplies as outlined on our website.
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Applicants to the MERIT Program must be Ph.D. candidates or recent Ph.D. recipients (with the past year) and a US citizen or non-citizen national; individuals with comparable degrees, include MD and DVM, are also eligible. Women and persons from diverse backgrounds, including underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, individuals with disabilities, and individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds are encouraged to apply. Application materials as well as other information are available at http://www.uab.edu/meritprogram/.
50 | NewScientist | 20 August 2016
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LETTERS EDITOR’S PICK
Mining sea and space for whom? From John Hockaday I read with interest the articles on space mining (9 July, p 32), mining in international waters (30 July, p 38) and its prohibition in the Antarctic (12 October 1991, p 17). Beyond the legal question of who has rights to these resources is an obvious answer: all humanity should benefit from the profits of this mining. Norway reserves a percentage of the profits of North Sea oil extraction in a fund for its people. Hence, inequality is less of an issue there and Norwegians are happier than people in other countries where the mining companies keep most of the profits. Similarly, a large percentage of any profits gained from international or space-mined resources should be reserved for the entire human population. Why should the rich benefit from resources that should belong to all of humanity? Maybe the United Nations could manage a fund to deal with international issues such as climate change, inequality and space travel. I firmly believe that any resources mined off-world should stay there and be used for further space travel, exploration and migration. For example, use mined hydrogen to provide fuel for further space travel, creating foundries in space to process minerals to make spacecraft. We will need these to prepare for our inevitable migration when the Earth’s uninhabitability becomes imminent. Canberra, ACT, Australia 52 | NewScientist | 20 August 2016
Dignity is not just for humans From Carol Binks Your Leader article on human dignity says “If there’s nothing special about us, why should we treat people any better than we do other animals?” (6 August, p 5). Instead we could ask: if there’s nothing special about us, why should we treat other animals any worse than we do people? Thorpe Salvin, South Yorkshire, UK The editor writes: ■ Why, indeed? Much depends on our definition of “personhood”, as discussed in our pages recently (2 July, p 16).
Queer quantum query in the quad From Guy Cox Again you mention the idea that an “observer” is required for the collapse of a quantum wave function (16 July, p 30). Nine years ago I wrote that this made no sense (Letters, 9 June 2007). The wave function collapses whenever a quantum particle interacts with something. If this were not so there could be no chemistry, and with no chemistry there could be no observers. The only possible observer is a god, and I do sometimes wonder whether the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is a religious belief. It has its roots in Bishop George Berkeley’s 18th-century concept of “immaterialism”, long before Heisenberg (and I am not the first to point this out). If humans are supreme, why should the world exist if we aren’t looking at it? Sydney, Australia From Peter Phillips I am glad to read that, as an Anglican priest, I may not be wholly redundant after all. Jon Cartwright’s article makes me
think that Bishop Berkeley’s theory of immateriality may not have been so far from the mark after all. Ronald Knox’s 1924 poem sums it up neatly: “There was a young man who said, ‘God, / must think it exceedingly odd / if he finds that the tree / continues to be / when there’s no one about in the quad.’ REPLY: ‘Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd. / I am always about in the quad. / And that’s why the tree / continues to be / since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.’” Felindre, West Glamorgan, UK
Mysteries of the sleep of ages From Gordon Robertson Clare Wilson reports research suggesting that sleep helps to consolidate new memories and make room for fresh ones (16 July, p 8). Sadly, my wife has dementia and now has no short-term memory. She remembers old basic skills, nursery rhymes and music, but cannot sign her name, only print it rather badly. She seems to have a good night’s sleep: but what is her brain doing in that time if she has no new memories to process? West Malling, Kent, UK From Bruce Denness Wilson notes that one of the reasons we sleep is to help us consolidate new memories. Older people get far less sleep than the young (28 May, p 32). I wonder whether this partly accounts for short-term memory loss? Whitwell, Isle of Wight, UK
Would you go for optogene therapy? From Hazel Beneke Teal Burrell reports developments in using “optogenetics” to treat Parkinson’s disease, pain and some kinds of blindness (25 June,
p 38). But the name appears to be quite inappropriate, since the work has nothing to do with genetics, the study of heritability. There would be no need to write about “optogenetics without genetics” if we simply used the obvious term: optogene therapy. Or was the term invented to avoid criticism by anti-gene-therapy activists? Banksia Beach, Queensland, Australia
Balanced genetic engineering From Birger Johansson Michael Le Page suggests curing male infertility could be what makes germline gene editing acceptable (2 July, p 19). I suggest it would be twice as acceptable if the same treatment also cured a uniquely female ailment. Could we, for example, work to address disabling premenstrual syndrome or premenstrual dysphoric disorder? Its causes in genes controlling interactions of a neurosteroid, allopregnanolone, with the neurotransmitter system are being studied at Sweden’s Umea University – which is also where Emmanuelle Charpentier made her big discovery of using “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” in DNA as the basis of the CRISPR gene-editing technique. Umea, Sweden
Banking needs more than a rule From Bill Summers Mark Buchanan’s analysis of bad behaviour in the banking system is welcome, but does not go far enough (6 August, p 18). I suspect the Basel 3 rules introducing risk analysis into the system in 2019 are not only too little and too late, but wrong-headed. They are just more of the same oxymoronic
“From the advertiser’s point of view, lack of meaning is not a bug, it’s a feature” Mary Thomson gets to the heart of our plea to stop using the meaningless term ‘superfood’ (6 August, p 5)
“self-regulation” that has wrecked aspects of the world economy since the big crash in 2008. Banks are a vessel in which personally risk-free bad behaviour can take place. Nice work if you can get it. It is not a coincidence that the professions of law, teaching, medicine and architecture are the least prone to corruption. The members of these professions have a code of practice to which they must personally adhere, or be excluded from practicing it. Better behaviour than the mere lawful is required. It may grate and be counterintuitive, but banking needs to be made a profession. Sturminster Newton, Dorset, UK
If an orangutan could speak… From Sarah Symmons I was delighted to see your report that an orangutan named Rocky had been helped or trained to produce “word-like” utterances in a “conversational context” (6 August, p 14). This vindicates TOM GAULD
the view of 18th-century linguist Lord Monboddo that an orangutan “might be taught to speak”. The lexicographer Samuel Johnson later ridiculed this notion, as recorded in James Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. Johnson should have been more open-minded. Colchester, Essex, UK
Narcissus and talk of healthiness From Peter Standen Emma Young asks whether some degree of narcissism is essential for success or health (9 July, p 27). In Greek mythology, Narcissus so loved himself that he fell in love with his own reflection, not even realising what it was. This seems a form of madness. Healthy self-regard is a quite different phenomenon: to call it “moderate narcissism” is misleading. It is anchored in genuine experience, not a selfimage. Learning to distinguish genuine from false self-esteem is critical, and not easy. We mainly
learn from Narcissus what not to do. Advising people to become more selfish, entitled or envious is an unnecessarily negative approach to what should be positive experiences. Darlington, Western Australia
Ideas of evolution evolve too From Christine McNulty John van Wyhe describes the neoDarwinian synthesis of evolution, which was in fact set in stone by Darwin’s more utopian successors (16 July, p 35). Darwin had no knowledge of genes. He thought elements called “gemmules” circulated in the blood, absorbing environmental influences, before travelling to the reproductive organs and passing the influences to the next generation as a blend of acquired characteristics. The monk Gregor Mendel demonstrated that inherited characteristics do not “blend”, but are inherited discretely with dominant or recessive effects. Research into epigenetics has
changed the evolution landscape once again by demonstrating that influences outside the nucleus switch genes on and off, tweak their effects and reposition them within the genome. It is living organisms, constrained by and exploiting each other within their context, not inanimate genes, that drive evolution. Epigenetics is the true “evolution revolution” – as many of your contributors have attested. The successful treatment of cancer, via the stimulation of reluctant immune cells, is the most recent achievement of this fascinating technology. Oxhey, Hertfordshire, UK The editor writes: ■ We will deal with these themes in parts 2 and 3 of our guide to evolution: part 2 is due next week.
A truly cosmic insurance excess From Steve Martin Paul Marks gives a detailed summary of legal problems arising from the mining of asteroids (9 July, p 32). But what about the potential to alter the flight path of an asteroid when a portion of its mass is mined? The last thing we need is an impact from a large asteroid on Earth. Nakara, Northern Territory, Australia
For the record ■ Slow motion: the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate is still in the north-west Pacific ocean (30 July, p 32).
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EARLIER this month, Feedback dredged the Twitter emanations of questionably coiffured US presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose famously stubby fingers have left him with only a slippery grip on science issues (13 August). Now we have not only discovered that there is a Green Party candidate, but that her green fingers are no less buttery. Medical doctor Jill Stein has come under fire for her lukewarm support for vaccination, most notably deleting a tweet that declared “There’s no evidence that autism is caused by vaccines” to reiterate it with less conviction as: “I’m not aware of evidence linking autism with vaccines.”
IT SEEMS that male scientists have one expert they like to cite more than any other: themselves. Nearly 10 per cent of citations across 1.5 million papers were found to be selfreferential in a study in Physics and Society. And in the last two decades, male researchers have cited their own publications 70 per cent more often than females, reveal the authors. Self-citation may sound like something your Sunday school teacher warned against, but the finding has a serious message: that the profile of women in science, already diminished by a gender gap, is further curtailed by men’s habit of putting their name at both ends of a publication. Feedback encourages these male authors to ditch the preference for self-reference and set their cites a little higher.
PREVIOUSLY, Feedback examined how UK prime minister Theresa May had learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (6 August). Harvard law professor Roger Fisher once suggested keeping nuclear codes in the chest cavity
of a White House staff member, so that the president would be forced to cut the volunteer open with a cleaver to launch a strike. Such a gory requirement would bring home the reality of what was about to unfold. Given the backstabbing environment in the UK’s House of Commons, it might be more expedient to implant the codes between a colleague’s shoulder blades. PERHAPS pondering the value for money offered by the UK’s nuclear deterrent, MP George Kerevan asked the new prime minister whether she was “personally prepared to authorise a nuclear strike that could kill a hundred thousand innocent men, women and children” during a debate. Perhaps Kerevan thought May would hedge her answer, as every prime minister has before. Instead, she immediately answered “yes”. If the art of a nuclear deterrent is to have one and never use it, we can only hope May pursues the same strategy with the Brexit trigger, Article 50, with the same resolve.
Rob Watkins found himself on board a P&O ferry with a very exclusive Club Lounge. A sign on the door told him: “Admission by ticket only. Tickets available from the Club Lounge.” 56 | NewScientist | 20 August 2016
AN OUTSIDER in the race to the White House, Stein can raise issues that leading candidates never would – such as the danger posed to children by computers. Asked by a member of the public about the “health issues” surrounding technology in schools, Stein responded that computers were “not good in all kinds of ways… not good for their cognitive development… We should be moving away from screens at all levels of education.” She was prompted to add “we should not be subjecting kids’ brains” to wireless internet either. Nonetheless, so long as Trump’s Twitter account is active, shielding children’s brains from the online world may not be such a bad idea.
IN YET another example of quantum physics observed at a macro-scale, Dan Carter reports that cars reaching the four-way intersection outside his home rarely come to a complete halt. This phenomenon collapses in the presence of a police vehicle, however, and “another car coming through the intersection also generally causes the car to stop at the sign. If not, we may have entanglement.” ACROSS continental Europe, the summer slow-news season is associated with cucumbers, for
reasons that remain obscure (30 July). Peter Ratcliffe writes that it is known as Sauregurkenzeit (pickled gherkin time) in German. He says the term must refer to the time the gherkins are harvested. Does the association reflect a time when news-starved journalists dig around their pantry for preserves? A diligent Wolfgang Gerster writes that the venerable encyclopedia of the German language, Duden, suggests the word is a mondegreen, a mistranscription of the Yiddish expression Zóres- und Jókresszeit (very roughly, lean times) – which sounds to German ears much like pickled gherkin time. Danke!
ANDREW COOPER says that weak-handed millennials “may be a real cause for concern,” seeing as reduced grip strength is linked with “future risks of premature heart disease and death (23 July).
Andrews suggests that “one of your entrepreneurial readers could invent a squeezing device to generate electricity for personal electronic devices” – which would certainly enjoy widespread adoption in the target demographic. A simpler intervention, we think, would be to set a mandatory minimum weight for all smartphones of, say, 0.000006 blue whales. You can send stories to Feedback by email at email@example.com. Please include your home address. This week’s and past Feedbacks can be seen on our website.
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THE LAST WORD Ocean’s lull
■ The sound and sight of water is relaxing for a number of complementary reasons. First, it can drown out noises and voices around us, creating a “cone of privacy” that can enhance a conversation or focus our own thoughts. The complexity, clarity and frequency of water sounds can mask noise better than white noise, which becomes annoying and causes anxiety. Second, rhythmic patterns of sound and light, repeating at certain frequencies, can be soothing, leading to entrainment. Members of a band feel this when they are in a musical groove, and audience members experience its pull too. As we walk along the beach with a close companion, our thoughts, words and breathing can become synchronised. Our brains seek patterns; ocean waves provide plenty while remaining interesting and stimulating enough to hold our attention thanks to the occasional rogue wave, shift in the wind, jumping fish or similar. Third, all organisms need to live close to a source of water or they will die. The combination of visual, auditory, olfactory and somatic inputs results in an emotional response to water that
guides us. If we navigate correctly, other types of vegetables should be we live. It makes sense, then, placed in already boiling water. Why? that we find some water sounds, smells and sights appealing. ■ For some vegetables, the For some people, a fear of water cooking time needs to be short derived from a bad experience or and fairly precise. This is more cultural upbringing precludes easily achieved by plunging them experiencing the cognitive them into boiling water. and psychological benefits of However, root vegetables take water. But for many others, longer to cook. Put them in recorded water sounds are boiling water, and you risk the great for lulling them to sleep. outside becoming too soft before Marine explorer Jacques the inside is fully cooked. These Cousteau spoke for the majority “The usual rule is that if when he said: “The sea, once it a vegetable is harvested casts its spell, holds one in its from under the ground, net of wonder forever.” then you boil it from cold” Wallace Nichols California Academy of Sciences, vegetables benefit from slow US, and author of Blue Mind heating, during which time an (Little, Brown, 2014) enzymatic reaction takes place, ■ The calming nature of waves firming them up. crashing against the sand comes According to the book McGee down, possibly, to two things: on Food & Cooking (Simon and the waves remind us of our own Schuster, 2004), certain vegetables breath, and they never stop. and fruits – including potatoes, Meditation practices focus sweet potatoes, beetroot, carrots, on “watching the breath” and beans, cauliflower, tomatoes, how breathing never leaves us cherries and apples – contain an while we live. Similarly, the enzyme in their cell walls that relentlessness of waves lapping becomes activated at around against the shore can be 50°C and inactivated above 70°C. reassuring. The enzyme alters the cell-wall Alexandra Borrelli pectins, making them more Yoga and meditation teacher resistant to being removed or London, UK broken down at boiling temperatures. The usual softening that occurs during cooking can therefore be Rooting out trouble reduced by heating initially to I read that when cooking root a modest temperature. During vegetables, you should put them into this time, the foods develop a the water when it’s still cold and bring persistent firmness that survives them to the boil. But I also read that subsequent prolonged cooking.
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What is it about the sea lapping gently against the shore we find so calming? Is there an evolutionary explanation behind this pleasing phenomenon?
This is also why root vegetables do not do well in slow cookers – they can spend too long in the initial “pre-cooking” zone and go firm in a way that isn’t reduced by further cooking. Pre-boiling them for a few minutes before they go into a slow cooker inactivates the enzyme and allows them to soften during slow cooking. David Gibson Leeds, West Yorkshire, UK ■ Ignore all such advice and steam your vegetables. That way you minimise the loss of nutrients that would otherwise leach out into the water. David N. Cox Senior Research Scientist CSIRO Food and Nutrition Flagship Adelaide, South Australia ■ The usual rule is that if a vegetable is harvested from under the ground, then you boil it from cold. If it is from above the ground, it should be plunged into boiling water. If, however, it is from “underground, overground” then it’s a Womble, and you probably shouldn’t be cooking it. Mike Vose Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, UK
This week’s question BREAKING THE LAW
If the laws of physics very slowly began to break down, who would be most likely to notice first? Paul Oakley Horsham, West Sussex, UK
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