Page 1

Did Picasso steal the Mona Lisa? p12

Volume 2 Issue 3 April 2012 ` 100


The coldest lab

On earth


Gift Hamp


from BBC Entertain ment p38

Plus Fre Mar-Apr e !

Calendar INSIDE

Searching for new life at the foot of the planet p32

Plus: The South Pole, 100 years on – exploring Scott’s legacy p46

R.N.I. MAHENG/2010/35422

inside the mind of a liar p40 Plus:

The bird that thinks it’s a cow p60

What’s the hottest curry your intestines can endure? p65

the decline of the aztec empire p78

On the cover

April 2012

Antarctica • What do scientists hope to find by drilling through the Antarctic ice? p32 • Scott vs Amundsen: the race to plant the first flag at the South Pole p36 • Why Captain Scott’s reputation has been revised over the last century p46





Could the brain scanner soon be the ultimate lie detector – your neurons revealing whether you’re telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Andy Ridgway finds out he classic Simpsons episode Who Shot Mr Burns? sees bar owner Moe hooked up to a polygraph lie detector machine as he answers a police officer’s questions. “Do you hold a grudge against Montgomery Burns?” “No,” says Moe. The polygraph machine lets out a loud BUZZ and a red light glows, indicating a lie. “All right maybe I did, but I didn’t shoot him.” PING – green light. “Checks out,” says the officer, rising. “OK, you’re free to go.” “Good, cos I got a hot date tonight,” says Moe. BUZZ. “A date.” BUZZ. “Dinner with friends.” BUZZ. “Dinner alone.” BUZZ. “Watching TV alone.” BUZZ. “All right,” says Moe, humiliated. “I’m going to sit at home and ogle the ladies in the Victoria’s Secret catalogue.” BUZZ. “Sears catalogue.” PING. “Now would you unhook this already please, I don’t deserve this kind of shabby treatment!” BUZZ.




Poor old Moe. The polygraph test cut through him like a knife. If only it were that simple. The truth of the matter is that it’s not. For most of the last century, the polygraph machine has been the main tool used to discern fact from fiction. It measures the response your body makes to the questions being asked – changes in things like blood pressure, body temperature and breathing rate. The idea is that your body will reveal the truth, even if you’re reluctant to. There are two main criticisms of polygraph machines. Firstly, they simply measure how stressed you are, and being nervous may not show that you’re lying. Secondly, they can be tricked. If a cunning interviewee pricks himself with a pin to boost his heart rate during the easy ‘control’ questions, for instance, his anxiety won’t be clear when the critical questions come along. 

April 2012


40 Don’t even think about it...




60 Stink Bird

Introducing the Hoatzin, the punk-like Amazonian bird who eats a diet of leaves

Lasers are one proposed method of cleaning up the human-made flotsam in space

EXPERT PANEL Stuart Blackman

Susan Blackmore (SB)

Writer and broadcaster Susan is also a visiting professor at the University of Plymouth, UK.

Robert Matthews

An award-winning science writer, Robert is also a visiting reader at Aston University, UK.


Gareth Mitchell

The presenter of Digital Planet on the BBC World Service, Gareth is also a journalist and lecturer.

Nick Rennison

Nick is an editor and writer, as well as a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine.

Luis Villazon

A freelance science journalist based in the UK, Luis holds an MSc in zoology from the University of Oxford.

Yan Wong

What are the physical limits of the human body? How fast is it possible to run? How hard can you punch? And what’s the hottest curry your intestines can endure? Luis Villazon has the last word bones shatter. To this end, we have devised a series of tests that each look at a different area of physical capacity. Standard International Olympic Committee rules apply: no drugs, gene therapy or bionic implants are allowed. Of course, actually performing these tests would be tricky. If we studied real people, our tests would, in most cases, result in the death or serious injury of the subject, so it’s not the sort of research you find written up in Nature very often. Instead, we have talked

to a lot of experts, done a pile of calculations and come up with a number. The results are our best estimates for the absolute ceiling of human endeavour. We’ll also see what the current record is, and gauge how close a normal, healthy adult would come, as a percentage of the theoretical maximum. So turn the page and find out the records that even the most perfect athletes could never better. April 2012





Yan studied under Richard Dawkins and has a PhD in evolutionary biology. He is a popular science TV presenter on the BBC.


ust how far can the human body be pushed? We’re going to discover the theoretical limits of the envelope. In other words, how far could the human species ever go? At this rarefied height of achievement, we are beyond the point at which mere training or willpower are sufficient – or even especially relevant. We want to know the point at which the laws of physics step in and take precedence over those of biology. This is the point where sinew snaps and

Jupiter has the shortest day in the Solar System, taking only 9 hours and 55 minutes to rotate 360º on its axis. Jupiter is the largest planet in the Solar System, with a diameter of 143,883km (89,405 miles). Its mass is 317 times that of Earth. But if it were 80 times larger than its current mass, it would be classed as a star and not a planet.

10 Extreams BBCK-IN0203.indd 65

Was Moctezuma, the last great Aztec ruler, a victim or villain in the eyes of his people?

A zoologist-turned-science writer, Stuart is a contributor to BBC Wildlife Magazine.

Pushed to the

78 Fall of the Aztecs


 How does eye colour affect what you see? p11  How does Stephen Hawking’s voice synthesizer work? p13  What’s the biggest man-made hole in the world? p14  Do dyslexia rates vary between written languages? p15


on the cover: Corbis, GETTY X2, SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY, illuStration by Jonty clark

Is the brain scanner the ultimate device to spot a lie? Andy Ridgway finds out more



Is anything being done to clear space junk?

When it comes to clearing space junk, prevention is better than cure. Disposal plans are therefore built into most missions. At the end of a satellite’s life, it’s usually programmed to steer itself out


of orbit and into a suicide dive down towards the Earth, burning up in the atmosphere. The proposed clean-up technology currently leading the way to deal with existing bits of space junk involves groundbased lasers. A medium-powered laser would be trained on a small fragment to vaporise paint on its


long surface. As is for how months lizard has to the material tuatara its egg incubate hatches fizzes away, it before it creates a tiny force. This pushing motion in the near-zero gravity of space is sufficient to propel the object out of orbit and towards a fiery end as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. GM


April 2012

20/02/12 5:19 PM

65 Pushed to the Extreme Find out how much a human body can endure physically

Q_A_IN-BBCK v2i3-Final.indd 10

10 Q&A

20/02/12 5:25 PM

Is anything being done to clear space junk? April 2012



Contents South Pole: 100th Anniversary

FEATURES on the cover

32 Lake Invaders

Science Nature Nature Science History




36 The Race to the Pole

Trace Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s journey as he beat Briton Robert Scott to the South Pole

38 Frozen Planet

Find out what the BBC Entertainment producers experienced during the filming of this polar series

46 Great Scott?

46 Pole position

84 Frozen Laboratory

52 Portfolio

Antarctica has been the explorers’ and the scientific community’s playground since decades. What’s in store there for the Indian scientists?


ASI, SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY, ALAMY X3, GETTY X2, THINKSTOCK, david doubilet, Walter Piorkowski / Nikkon small world, ASI


Scientists have recently drilled down Antarctica’s largest subglacial ice in the hope of finding a new branch in the tree of life

Captain Scott’s reputation has gone through several changes in the century since his death



April 2012

Antarctica: 100 years after Scott

What lies beneath the ocean’s surface

on the cover

40 Don’t Even Think About It

What is the art of lying. And can the polygraph machine do anything about it?

52 Portfolio: Underwater Habitats

60 Foul-smelling fowl

David Doubilet’s breathtaking photographs illustrate the diversity of life and habitats below the surface of the world’s oceans

The hoatzin, known to the South Americans as the ‘stink bird’

on the cover

60 The Bird that Thinks it’s a Cow Deep in the Amazon jungle lives a bird whose digestive system is more akin to that of a cow on the cover

65 Pushed to the Extreme

How far can you push the human body before it breaks down?

74 Harappan Legacy

What connections does the present day India have with the Harappan and Gangetic civilisations? Michel Danino tells us on the cover

78 Moctezuma: Collaborator or Victim? Has history been unfair on the Aztec ruler who was defeated by the Spanish conquistadors? April 2012

78 Moctezuma

Did the Aztec ruler betray his people?


94 Resource

Is it dangerous to do what your brain wants?

86 The Big Idea: Nature vs Nurture

How much of our being is predetermined by our genes and how much is shaped by our upbringing and the world around us?

Regulars 6 Inbox The editor tells us what’s on her mind

9 Think & Win Stretch your mind and win a cash prize

10 Q&A

on the cover

Questions that boggle the mind until they’re answered

16 Snapshot Three amazing pictures from the world over to enlighten, tantalise and amaze

96 Gadgets Need help in finding the right gizmo? Explore the latest gadgets and apps in the market

UPDATE 22 The Latest Intelligence Keep abreast of the latest developments in the worlds of science, nature and history

22 Update

26 Comment & Analysis

Are we closer to all-conquering cures for everyday allergies?

Demystify the secrets of consciousness with Dr Susan Blackmore

74 Harappan Legacy

Find traces of present day India in the Harappan civilisation

27 Principal Speak Lata Vaidyanathan, Principal of Modern School, Barakhamba Road, New Delhi tells us the secret to her school’s legacy

28 World News in Context David Keys looks at the historical factors that saw Greece’s economy face disaster in 2011

Resource 94 Reviews Recommendations of books and websites to keep you up-to-date with the world

16 Snapshot

Peek into the eyes of the jumping spider

98 Last World Bachendri Pal speaks about her exemplary feat as the first woman to climb Mt. Everest April 2012



Y Send us your letters


This issue celebrates a century since man first reached the South Pole. To be more precise – it is Roald Amundsen who holds the honours. The tale is nothing short of a potboiler; it was a race to the finish between Amundsen and Robert F Scott from Britain. Beaten by only a few weeks to reach the Pole, Scott and his team paid the price of the journey with their lives shortly thereafter. “We took risks - we knew we took them,” Scott writes in his journal as he waited to die on the Great Ice Barrier in March of 1912. A hundred years on, as if on cue – in February of this year, after decades of on-off drilling, a Russian team has finally reached down one of the most inhospitable spots - Lake Vostok, Antarctica’s largest sub-glacial lake. Reaching this has been equated with reaching the Moon (story on page 32). This feat is


extraordinary; the lake is thought to be as old as 20 million years and is expected to be as rich for information about the Earth’s past as the Jupiter ‘alien’ lakes. Away from the accomplishments of the others, to get a real sense of human courage in utmost adversity - a must-read is the article Pushed to the Extreme. Have you ever wondered how far a human body can be pushed physically till it can endure no more? What is the lowest core body temperature that a person can survive? Or how fast can our legs carry us before they tear apart? Read the feature on page 65. This edition of BBC Knowledge is dedicated to the celebration of the spirit - where courage culminates into exploration and adventure.

Preeti Singh


Download this current issue from •

Experts this issue Max Jones Max has spent many years studying the Antarctic expeditions of Captain Scott, with particular reference to masculinity and empire. In this issue, he examines how public perception of Scott as a true British hero has changed in the 100 years since Amundsen won the race to the South Pole. See page 46

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David Doubillet One of the world’s great underwater photographers, David’s self-proclaimed goal is to redefine photographic boundaries each time he enters the water. See page 52

Michel Danino A French-born Indian author, Michel takes keen interest in ancient Indian history. From the age of fifteen, he was drawn to India and then to the nationalist philosopher Sir Aurobindo. He has extensively studied the Aryan invasion theory, evolution of the Indian culture and civilisation. See page 74


April 2012

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E Across

2 Island off Greenland which is the northernmost point of land on Earth (12) 4 Pertaining to the Arctic and Antarctic (5) 5 & 8 Ac Sunrise on the North Pole occurs just before this day (6,7) 9 Ac & 14 Dn The first documented landing on Antarctica is credited to this American sealer (4,5) 10 See 17 15 _____ Mountains: Range which divides Antarctica in two (14) 16 See 12 Down 17 & 10 Ac Phenomenon

which is gradually increasing the temperature of Antarctica (5,9) 18 Dogs you are likely to see on the poles (7) 21 & 25 Ac The sun reaches it’s highest elevation over the North Pole on this day (6,8) 22 The largest of the subglacial Antarctic lakes (6) 25 See 21 27 Mount _____________ : World’s southernmost active volcano (6) 28 The nearest permanently inhabited region close to the North Pole (7) 29 Antarctica is the world’s ____ largest continent (5) 30 Ac & 24 Dn Norwegian

explorer who became the first man to reach the geographic South Pole in 1911 (5,8) 31 Antarctica sees very little of it (4) 32 Antarctica is the world’s only politically ________ continent (7)

H Down

1 See 6 3 30 Across’ ship (4) 4 As early as 1st century AD he had postulated the existence of Antarctica (7) 6 & 1 Down 12 Down’s ship (10,9) 7 Bird you are most likely to see on the South Pole (7)

10 Antarctica is the world’s largest _________ (6) 11 Antarctica’s highest peak (6,6) 12 Dn & 16 Ac English explorer who came within 121 kms of Antarctica in 1773 (5,4) 13 Antarctica is the world’s ___________ continent (7) 14 See 9 Across 19 One of three birds that breeds exclusively in Antarctica (4,6) 20 Type of 7 Down that breeds during the winter (7) 23 City closest to Antarctica (7) 24 See 30 Across 26 He reached the geographic South Pole a month after 30 Across (5)

Winner of Crossword no. 8

Piyush Bhatia BCM Arya Model Senior Secondary School, Shastri Nagar, Ludhiana, Punjab.

April 2012


QA &

Your questions answered

P How does eye colour affect what you see? p11 P How does Stephen Hawking’s voice synthesizer work? p13 P What’s the biggest man-made hole in the world? p14 P Do dyslexia rates vary between written languages? p15

Lasers are one proposed method of cleaning up the human-made flotsam in space

EXPERT PANEL Stuart Blackman

A zoologist-turned-science writer, Stuart is a contributor to BBC Wildlife Magazine.

Susan Blackmore (SB)

Writer and broadcaster Susan is also a visiting professor at the University of Plymouth, UK.

Robert Matthews

An award-winning science writer, Robert is also a visiting reader at Aston University, UK.

Gareth Mitchell

The presenter of Digital Planet on the BBC World Service, Gareth is also a journalist and lecturer.

Nick Rennison

Nick is an editor and writer, as well as a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine.

Luis Villazon

A freelance science journalist based in the UK, Luis holds an MSc in zoology from the University of Oxford.

Yan Wong

Yan studied under Richard Dawkins and has a PhD in evolutionary biology. He is a popular science TV presenter on the BBC.

Science Photo library, thinkstock x2, dreamstime

KNOW SPOT Jupiter has the shortest day in the Solar System, taking only 9 hours and 55 minutes to rotate 360º on its axis. Jupiter is the largest planet in the Solar System, with a diameter of 143,883km (89,405 miles). Its mass is 317 times that of Earth. But if it were 80 times larger than its current mass, it would be classed as a star and not a planet.


April 2012



Is anything being done to clear space junk?

When it comes to clearing space junk, prevention is better than cure. Disposal plans are therefore built into most missions. At the end of a satellite’s life, it’s usually programmed to steer itself out

of orbit and into a suicide dive down towards the Earth, burning up in the atmosphere. The proposed clean-up technology currently leading the way to deal with existing bits of space junk involves groundbased lasers. A medium-powered laser would be trained on a small fragment to vaporise paint on its



ow lon surface. As is for h months lizard has to ra the material gg tuata te its e incuba hatches fizzes away, it re befo it creates a tiny force. This pushing motion in the near-zero gravity of space is sufficient to propel the object out of orbit and towards a fiery end as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. GM

to Earth broke after a few orbits. The most likely cause of death is thought to be heat exhaustion. Whatever the truth, her body was incinerated when her space capsule re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated in April 1958. RM


Why is wholemeal bread better for you than white?


How does your eye colour affect what you see?


Light enters the eye through the pupil, which is surrounded by the iris, the pigmentation of which leads to eye colour. Studies suggest people with dark eyes cope better with light, as their irises reduce the amount of scattered light entering the pupil, boosting the contrast of what they’re looking at. However, people with blue eyes seem to have slightly better colour vision than those with dark eyes. RM


Are hydrogen trains a possibility?

They are indeed. In fact, in November 2010, China announced its first light-duty locomotive powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Similar schemes exist as prototypes in other countries, including the US. In a fuel cell, hydrogen combines with oxygen across an electrolyte, which produces water and an electrical current. Strapping a series of fuel cells together gives sufficient power to drive electrical motors. Fuel cells are increasingly appearing in road vehicles but their range is limited by the size of the hydrogen tanks. But

hydrogen could work well on trains, as they have plenty of onboard storage capacity and they travel between specific depots and stations where they could replenish their fuel. GM


Might the body of Laika the dog still be floating in space?


The distinction of being the first animal to reach orbit goes to the Russian dog Laika, who achieved the feat in November 1957, just weeks after Sputnik 1 became the first satellite to orbit the Earth. As Sputnik 2 wasn’t designed to return safely to Earth, Soviet space engineers had planned to euthanise Laika in orbit. But while she undoubtedly died in space, her precise fate remains unclear as the radio link


A grain of wheat comprises a starchy endosperm with the wheat germ at the base. The germ is the developing plant embryo and the endosperm is its food source – the equivalent of the yolk of an egg. The whole thing is surrounded by the bran, which is a protective coat. When white flour is milled, the bran and the germ are removed so only the endosperm is left. This is mainly starch with a little bit of protein, whereas the germ and bran contain more protein as well as lots of fibre and vitamins. In some countries, like the UK, white flour is fortified with calcium, iron and some B vitamins by law to partly compensate for this. But wholemeal bread and pasta still have much more fibre and also take longer to digest, which helps you feel fuller for longer. LV

Wholemeal breads have wheat grains that have a protective coat of starchy endosperms

QuicKFIRE How is bullet proof glass made? Bullet proof glass is a sandwich made up of transparent plastic between two layers of ordinary glass. The first sheet of glass shatters when it is hit, dissipating much of the bullet’s energy. The remaining momentum is caught by the plastic layer, which distorts but leaves the other glass sheet intact. The material is further strengthened through a process of heating and cooling called tempering. GM

How does salt preserve food? By dehydrating it. When a strong solution of any salt is separated from a weaker solution by a semi-permeable membrane, water is sucked by osmosis from the weaker to the stronger. Food is made from living cells with such membranes, so water is sucked out and the bacteria that cause food to rot can no longer survive. SB

Do ducks really like the rain? In 2009, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK was criticised for a £300,000, three-year study to find out that ducks do like rain. By allowing domesticated ducks access to different water sources, they found that ducks preferred to stand under the shower, rather than in a bath or a trough, possibly because it helps to get rid of feather mites. LV

QA &


Your questions answered


Did you know? Framed! Did Picasso steal the Mona Lisa? Pablo Picasso was once arrested on suspicion of stealing the Mona Lisa. In August 1911, Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting vanished from the Louvre. The Parisian police, initially baffled by the crime, began to suspect that the group of avant-garde artists surrounding Picasso was actually a gang of international art thieves. Together with the poet Guillaume Apollonaire, the painter was arrested and taken for questioning. He was released when he was able to prove that, at the time of the theft, he had been in the Pyrenees. The painting was found two years later in a flat in Florence. NR


Why do cats and snakes have slits for pupils?

llustration by Jonty clark, dreamstime x3, press association, corbis x2


Not all of them do. The pupils of domestic cats contract to slits in bright light, but large cats like lions and tigers have round pupils like ours. Similarly, snakes like pythons and boas have pupils that close as slits, but many others – like grass snakes – don’t. Slit pupils close more tightly, so they can handle a broader range of light conditions. Comparisons between

snakes support this idea: species active purely in the daytime don’t have slits. In bright light, slits also produce more depth-of-field horizontally than vertically. That could explain why they’re typical of ambush hunters, which need to detect prey moving across their field of vision. Additionally, slit pupils are seen in vertebrates that have ‘multifocal’ lenses, with different areas focussing different colours. Slits mean that more colours can be seen in bright light. YW

Slit pupils close more tightly to handle a broader range of light conditions 12

April 2012

Ostriches lay the largest bird eggs, but in relation to their body weight theirs are the smallest eggs laid by any bird. The eggs weigh between 1.4 and 1.5 per cent of the total weight of the ostrich, which can be up to 150kg (330lb).

Neolithic – around 10,000 years ago. The looms needed to produce e good cloth would that som the length (36in) is bamboo can grow have been too f o e s th ie em spec making th nts big and heavy to in a day, la p g in w ro fastest-g world carry around. The in the oldest fragment of woven fabric yet found was discovered in the waterlogged site of a Neolithic stilt house in Switzerland that dated to around When was woven cloth 6500 BC. The oldest sizeable invented? piece of fabric is a piece of linen from Egypt, dating to c.5000 BC. It’s thought that weaving Since fabric rots away to nothing did not develop until after in the ground, the chances of humans had abandoned the finding cloth any older than this nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle during an archaeological dig are of the Paleolithic era for the more very small. RM settled farming lifestyle of the




The oldest fragment of woven fabric yet found was in a Neolothic stilt house in Switzerland in 6500 BC

Lightning above the erupting Puyehue volcano in Chile in June 2011

QuicKFIRE Could a supervolcano affect Earth’s orbit? The eruption of a supervolcano – such as the one believed to be simmering below Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park – would undoubtedly be incredibly violent. Past explosions are estimated to have lofted thousands of billions of tonnes of debris into the atmosphere. Even so, the energy unleashed is far too small to shift the Earth as it orbits within the titanic gravitational field of the Sun. RM


Why does lightning occur with volcanic ash clouds?


Ordinary thunderclouds build up an electrical charge when ice crystals crash into each other. The same thing happens with the ash and grit in a volcanic plume. But volcanoes also release a lot of water in the form of steam and, as it rises and cools, ice crystals form and collide to add more electrical charge. LV


What’s the difference between a cyclone and a hurricane?


The short answer is that there isn’t one. They are different names for a rotating, low-pressure weather system with inward-spiralling winds, which spins clockwise in the southern hemisphere and anticlockwise in the northern hemisphere. Cyclones are referred to by several names, including cyclonic storm, tropical depression, hurricane and typhoon, according to their severity and location. Cyclones with winds above Force 11 (104 kmph; 65 mph) are referred to as hurricanes in the Atlantic and as typhoons in the Pacific. LV

How does Stephen Hawking’s voice synthesizer work?


The celebrated British physicist Stephen Hawking is restricted to communicating via small movements of his hand. His hand controller halts a cursor as it scans across letters on a screen. As he selects letters, the system forms words and sentences through an auto-complete algorithm. These are converted to speech via the voice synthesizer. GM


Why do we get migraines?


Migraines may be triggered by alcohol, foods, hormones or stress, but really they are a disease of the brain. The immediate cause sets off a chain reaction of neural and hormonal changes, causing blood vessels to expand and contract inappropriately, in turn causing inflammation and irritating nerves. Seventy-five per cent of sufferers are women and the condition can, in part, be inherited. LV

Cyclones with winds above 104 kmph are called hurricanes in the Atlantic

Do animals suffer from mental illness? If you include reactions to stress or loss, then yes. But they probably don’t suffer from mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. When rats are repeatedly shocked, they eat less and become less adventurous, while animals kept in zoos sometimes show repetitive, abnormal behaviours. Farm animals exhibit signs of distress too, such as when calves are taken from their mothers, or when sheep or cattle see others being slaughtered. Hormones such as adrenaline and corticosteroids are released, the animals’ emotions and behaviour become disturbed and their immune systems weakened. SB

Is it possible to live healthily on only a few types of food? Yes, but it gets harder the fewer foods you allow. To stay healthy you need carbohydrates, fats and proteins – and not just any proteins, but a mix containing all 22 amino acids from which your own proteins are built. You need trace elements, vitamins and minerals as well. Avocados reputedly include all these, but not in the right proportions, so you’d need to choose additional foods carefully. SB

April 2012


QA &

Your questions answered

Strange but true When a grub becomes grub

A female burying beetle feeds one of her grubs. She also feeds on her offspring

Burying beetles (Nicrophorus spp.) have a radical way of dealing with bickering offspring – just don’t expect to find it in any good parenting manual. These colourful insects are remarkably attentive parents. Mothers and fathers cooperate to build a nest from the corpse of a small mammal or bird, which they roll into a ball and bury in a subterranean crypt, a process that takes about eight hours. The female then lays her eggs in the soil near the crypt and they hatch a few days later. The parents work together to protect and feed their hungry larvae, which compete for attention by sitting up and begging like chicks. This scene of family bliss is only shattered when, instead of regurgitating partially digested mouse soup to the squabbling grubs, the mother seizes one of them in her jaws, chews it up and swallows it.

When the female lays her eggs, she doesn’t know how much of the carcass will be lost to microbes and scavengers. So it pays to lay an optimistically large clutch and then reduce the brood should food become

Great location, cracking views, possible subsidence


How long would it take the British Isles to erode away?

Per Terje Smiseth, superstock, dreamstime, eyevine


KNOW SPOT Swordfish can heat their eyes to up to 28ºC (82ºF) using special organs within their bodies. This improves their eyes’ efficiency in cold water and makes it easier for the swordfish to spot prey quickly.


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scarce. It’s all about maintaining a balance. The cannibalised larvae, on the other hand, might have preferred a stint on the naughty step. Stuart Blackman

The fastest-eroding coastline in Europe is at Holderness in Yorkshire, which loses 1.5m (4.9ft) a year as the North Sea eats into soft clay deposited during the last Ice Age. If this rate were uniform around the entire coastline, it would still take at least 50,000 years to completely sweep Britain into the sea. But it isn’t anything like uniform. Only about 28 per cent of England and Wales erodes faster than 10cm (4in) per year and the eroded material is usually just moved down the coast and deposited as sandbars and spits somewhere else.

Coastal erosion is a serious problem for certain local communities on the east coast. But, for Britain in general, rising sea levels and the downward tilting of southern England caused by Scotland springing back up after the last Ice Age, are both more significant factors. Rising sea levels pose a threat to Ireland, too. Over the next 30 years, the sea level around the coast of Ireland is predicted to rise by 17-31cm (6.712.2in), putting 176,000 hectares (435,000 acres) of coastal land at risk of erosion as a result. LV


What’s the biggest human-made hole made on the Earth’s surface?


It depends on how you measure it. The

Chuquicamata opencast copper mine in Chile has the greatest volume of excavated earth (roughly 9 billion cubic metres), but it’s a ditch 3km wide and 4km long (1.9 x 2.5 miles) rather than a hole. Bingham Canyon in Utah is the deepest at 1200m (3937ft), but it was a canyon to begin with so not all of it is humanmade. The Mir diamond mine in Siberia is the deepest ‘proper’ humanmade hole. It is 525m deep and 1200m across (1722 x 3937ft). There’s a no-fly zone above it because the downdraft created by the hole has caused several helicopters to crash. LV


Can ‘losing streaks’ be explained by maths?


Everyone who’s played games of chance experiences occasional losing streaks, when even something as simple as a coin-toss repeatedly goes

The Mir diamond mine in Siberia is the deepest hole yet dug into the Earth’s surface

QuicKFIRE What is the longest-living animal? If you include sponges, then the giant barrel sponge (Xestospongia muta) should win the prize – specimens have been estimated to have lived beyond the ripe old age of 2300 years. Other contenders include a North Atlantic clam (Arctica islandica) that can live for more than 400 years, and koi carp that can live over 200 years, although they more often die at about 20 years old. Among mammals, the longest-living are whales, especially bowhead whales. Their average lifespan was believed to be around 60-70 years, although there’s increasing evidence to suggest they can live beyond 100 years. SB

against them. In August 2001, England cricket captain Nasser Hussain made headlines after losing the toss for the 14th time in a row. On the face of it, this is staggeringly bad luck: the chances of losing a 50:50 bet 14 times is less than 1 in 16,000. That’s somewhat misleading, though, as it fails to take into account the fact that Hussain captained England in a total of 45 Test matches, not just the 14 in which he experienced his losing streak. Taking that larger number of opportunities into account increases his chances of running

into a losing streak of 14 to around 1 in 1200 – still an impressive amount of bad luck. RM

KNOW SPOT The blue goose (Dendragapus obscurus) has the shortest known journey of any migratory bird. It lives in the mountainous pine forests of North America during the winter, but when spring arrives, it descends 300m (984ft) to nest in deciduous woodlands.

Ask the Experts? VITAL STAT S



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Ever wondered… well, anything? Email and our team of experts will consider your question for our next available issue. We’re sorry, but we cannot reply to questions individually.

Do dyslexia rates vary between different written languages? In the UK, around 1 in 10 people are dyslexic to some degree. But the prevalence is much lower in other countries, such as Italy. Some researchers believe this may be linked to the fact that, in languages like Italian, letters largely have a unique sound, but in English, letters can have many different sounds, thus making reading and spelling more difficult. RM

What is the highest mountain on the ocean bed? That title goes to the Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii. Much of its base is on the ocean floor, nearly 6000m (19,685ft) below the surface. Its peak marks the highest point in the state of Hawaii, giving an overall height of 10,000m (32,808ft) above sea level. Using that measurement, Mauna Kea is significantly higher than Mount Everest’s 8840m (29,002ft). GM

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The light fantastic THE HIMALAYAS

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A stunning psychedelic cloud looms over Mount Thamserku in Nepal – a striking example of cloud iridescence. As light from the Sun enters the cloud, it encounters water droplets and ice crystals. “The different wavelengths, or colours, that make up this ‘white light’ are bent to varying degrees by the water and ice,” says Met office spokesperson Helen Chivers. “The constituent colours are split out and become visible through this process of diffraction.” The iridescence is only present at the edge of the cloud, where it is at its thinnest. Where it is thicker, light cannot pass though, so the effects of any diffraction are not visible.



A roaring success Filming the MGM lion


Shooting what is probably the most famous studio logo in history was a test of nerves for the camera and sound team at MGM. Leo, the Lion was actually a series of different big cats filmed at different points in the evolution of film. This particular lion is the second incarnation of Leo and went by the name of Jackie. He reigned from 1928 until 1956, although – as he was filmed in black and white – he wasn’t used on the studio’s Technicolor movies, the first of which was released in 1934. Perhaps Jackie’s most famous credit is a movie that combined the two formats – The Wizard of Oz (1939). The current Leo is the longest-serving of the logo lions, his image having been in use since 1957.


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The eyes have it jumping spiders

Walter Piorkowski / Nikkon small world

This is a close-up of two of the eight eyes of a jumping spider (Salticidae sp). Boasting very large anterior medial eyes, jumping spiders rely on their strong vision to catch their prey; they hunt and stalk their next meal, rather than catching it in a web. To shoot the image, photographer Walter Piorkowski used a technique known as reflected light microscopy. “I could never have imagined that those deep black eyes, properly illuminated, would reveal such a stunning blue/ white internal structure,” explains Piorkowski. “Or that they would appear almost human, with an iris and pupil-like centre.”


April 2012


The latest intelligence

P Unlocking the secrets of ancient silks p23 P Black Death linked to modern bubonic plague p24 P How do birds dart swiftly through narrow spaces? p24 P Were the oceans delivered by comets? p25

Allergy-blocking could bring relief to millions

ALAMy x2, thinkstock, nature production /, Smithsonian Institution

An end to allergies? New drug could block reactions to anything from pollen to penicillin ollen, dust and even certain kinds of foods, to name but a few, are all allergens, capable of inducing anything from an irritating rash to a lifethreatening reaction in the susceptible. Current treatments for allergies are often clumsy, tackling the symptoms rather than the cause and occasionally leaving the patient’s immune system compromised. Now biochemists in the US have created a drug designed to halt an allergy in its tracks, preventing the allergen from confusing the human immune system and causing a reaction. When an allergen such as pollen enters the body, the



April 2012

immune system recognises it as an invader and produces antibodies in response. These antibodies bind to cells that make up a different part of the immune system, called mast cells. If the allergen enters the body again, it binds with the

involved in the research. “The molecules end up hitting our own tissue. This results in all the symptoms we associate with an allergy.” The solution developed by the biochemists at the University of Notre Dame

HBL steps between the allergen and the immune system, preventing a response antibodies that are already linked to the mast cells. “The mast cells release molecules they think will destroy a pathogen – but there is no pathogen,” says Basar Bilgiçer of the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, who is

and at Harvard University is a substance they’ve called a heterobivalent ligand (HBL), which steps between the allergen and the immune system, preventing a response. It binds to the antibodies, thus preventing the allergen from

doing so, meaning the body does not produce the reactive symptoms experienced by allergy-sufferers. Human bodies contain billions of antibodies, each capable of responding to a specific invader. But HBL binds only to the antibodies produced in response to the allergen, so the rest of the immune system is unaffected. The scientists carried out their first tests using dinitrophenol – a chemical that has been used as a weight loss drug – as the allergen to be blocked. “The next step would be to do the same thing with penicillin, as it’s quite common to have an allergic reaction to it,” says Bilgiçer. Each allergen would need its own HBL to combat it, so it could take some time to develop treatments for several different allergies.

Mehdi Moini takes a sample from an Egyptian silk for dating

The dating game New method to authenticate ancient silks scientific technique has been developed that provides a fast and reliable way to date historical artefacts such as tapestries and carpets containing silk. Silk treasures have always been difficult to authenticate.


Carbon-14 dating, that mainstay of archaeology, would destroy a prohibitively large sample. Instead, experts use their judgement – which can be fallible – to look at characteristics such as the weave pattern to determine,

Goldilocks nectar drinkers

for instance, whether a tapestry really is consistent with others from the Fontainebleau series from the 1540s, or is simply a copy made last week. Now scientists at the US’s Smithsonian Institution, whose 19 museums house many silk-containing treasures, have developed a technique to analyse the deterioration of the proteins that make up silk to determine its age – and therefore authenticity. Silk fibres are obtained from cocoons created by silkworm larvae. The proteins that make up silk are themselves comprised of amino acids that can exist in two forms, or ‘isomers’ – L and D. The isomers are identical except for their 3D structure. Over time, the amino acids in silk gradually change from the L to D form; a transition that takes place at a regular rate. The Smithsonian Institution’s technique involves measuring the proportions of the L and D isomers to determine the silk’s age. A sample weighing just 20 micrograms (millionths

of a gram) is all that is needed. Scientists have found that analysing one specific amino acid, aspartic acid, is particularly effective with silks because it changes from the L to D form relatively quickly over a few thousand years – other amino acids take tens or even hundreds of thousands of years to change. “Silk work is a modern commodity compared with the Palaeolithic stuff: it’s only existed in the last 4000 years,” says Mehdi Moini, who led the research at the Smithsonian. “We use aspartic acid as it’s a fast clock.” The test has been tried out on American Civil War general Philip Sheridan’s red-andwhite flag, as well as a French Fontainebleau tapestry and ancient silks from China. The next step for the Smithsonian scientists is to look at how the deterioration of proteins in other natural materials can act as a similar biological clock. The team has already developed a technique that allows the dating of woollen materials.

For this butterfly, feeding on nectar from a flower is a smash-and-grab raid

Efficient feeding is crucial for bees, butterflies, birds and certain bats that feed on nectar who find themselves being eaten if they linger over their meals. By consolidating data from many previous studies, mathematicians at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have found that the creatures select flowers in a way that optimises their time at the ‘table’. The research revealed how animals such as bees and bats, which extract nectar by dipping their tongues into it, tend to choose thicker, more viscous solutions with a higher sugar concentration. Butterflies and moths that suck nectar through their long probosci prefer runnier nectar with a lower sugar concentration.

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The latest intelligence

EEE ROUND UP The top science, nature and history research from around the world

GENETICS The Black Death wiped out 30-50 per cent of Europe’s population in the 14th century. Now it has been revealed as strikingly similar to the bug that causes bubonic plague. Black Death was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Its DNA was extracted from bodies buried near the Tower of London. Of the 4.6 million letters that made up its genetic code, only 97 are different to that of bubonic plague. All the strains of Yersinia pestis that infect humans today can be traced to the one behind the Black Death


DNA extracted from these skeletal remains has helped identify the Black Death


Pythons can go for a year without a meal, but when they do eat their hearts can grow by 40 per cent or more within three days in order to cope with the strain. Biologists in the US have discovered that in Burmese pythons (Python molurus bivvitatus) three fatty acids in the blood appear to promote the heart growth. New drugs based on the actions of these molecules could improve the human heart’s performance after a heart attack or stroke. It has already been shown that injecting the fatty acids into mice caused their hearts to grow.



April 2012

Scientists have discovered just how birds dart through narrow spaces. When an animal moves forward, distant objects appear to move more slowly than closer objects, and it is this phenomenon that birds employ during their aerial antics. Using budgerigars trained to fly down corridors, Australian scientists found that if a bird spots one wall moving faster than the other it will adjust to balance the speed of both walls. The discovery could help with the design of unmanned aerial vehicles.


Whether the US would consult Britain before unleashing an atomic weapon on Russia or China was of increasing British concern as the Cold War grew frostier in the 1950s. The presence of US airbases on UK soil led to fears that, in the event of a general war triggered by a nuclear strike, Britain faced the prospect of annihilation by Soviet bombs. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee flew to the US in December 1950 to seek reassurance from President Truman that Britain would be consulted.

Research carried out during a Mount Everest expedition has provided new insight into how to treat intensive care patients suffering from hypoxia, or low oxygen levels. Scientists from University College London and the University of Warwick found that climbers developed increased levels of nitric oxide (NO) in their blood. NO is produced in cells and is involved in the regulation of blood pressure. The research suggests that intensive care treatments that elevate NO levels could make a patient more tolerant of low oxygen.


Could a computer replace a scientist? That’s the prospect opened up by a piece of software, Eureqa, developed at Cornell University, US. A team of scientists fed raw data relating to the muchstudied process of glycolysis – the primary process that produces energy in a cell – into Eureqa. The equations it generated describing the process were almost identical to known equations. ‘Lab on a chip’ technology is being developed for Eureqa so it can design and perform its own basic experiments from scratch.

in Brief Milestones

Is the comet Hartley 2 an ocean flying through space?

Shichi Yokoi was unaware that World War II had ended

40 years ago G 24 January 1972: Shoichi Yokoi, a sergeant in the Imperial Japanese Army, is discovered in a jungle on the island of Guam. He has been hiding for 27 years, thinking World War II was still going on around him. Yokoi went into hiding when US forces liberated the Pacific island in August 1944, living in a cave, hunting only at night and using plants to make clothes. He was eventually spotted by two local men who managed to surprise and subdue him, carrying him out of the jungle.

65 years ago H 25 February 1947: The first Volkswagen Beetle arrives in the United States. It was bought by John C Hennessy Jr. Hennessy, who went on to become a civil engineer, purchased the car from the US Army Post Exchange in Frankfurt, Germany, while serving in the army. Beetles went on sale in the US two years later. ‘Volkswagens’ were initially sold there as ‘Victory Wagons’.

Beetle-mania was first witnessed in the US in 1947

Comets brought water It wasn’t just asteroids that created the oceans hen Earth formed from clouds of gas and dust over four billion years ago, it was too close to the Sun for water to be part of the mixture, so it’s never been clear to astronomers precisely how its oceans formed. Asteroids, made up of metals and rocky material, are thought to have collided with Earth in its early days and been the source of much of its water. However, new research now indicates that comets, made up of ice, dust and rock, could also have brought water to Earth. An international astronomy team has discovered that ice on the comet Hartley 2 has the same chemical composition as our oceans. It’s the first time ocean-like water has been detected on a comet. Water molecules from different sources have a characteristic ratio of deuterium to hydrogen (D/H). Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen containing a neutron and a proton in its nucleus. Equipment on board the Hershel Space Observatory is able to detect the D/H ratios in water on distant bodies by analysing the characteristic spectra of light emitted by the different atoms. The D/H ratios on Hartley 2 and in our oceans are the same. The result surprised astronomers: six other comets have had their D/H ratios measured in recent years and none matched water on Earth. “Life would not exist on Earth without liquid water, so the question of where it came from is an important one,” says Ted Bergin, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Michigan, who was involved in the study. If a comet like Hartley 2 had collided with Earth, it may have seeded the atmosphere with water, which would have been released as rain. A proportion of the comet’s nucleus could also have reached the Earth’s surface and combined with our planet’s rocks. The water it contained would be released into the atmosphere by volcanic processes before also falling as rain. “We want to test more comets from the Kuiper belt [the part of the Solar System where Hartley 2 is thought to have formed] to know whether Hartley 2 is representative,” says Bergin.


ET Ozone A modest ozone layer has been discovered around Venus by the Venus Express satellite. Only Earth and Mars are also known to have one. Astrobiologists have said that the presence of oxygen, carbon dioxide and ozone around a planet is indicative of life but, as this discovery highlights, the amount of ozone is crucial. Scientists will be able to compare the properties of the three ozone layers to hone their searches for life elsewhere.

Earthquake predictors Buoys floating in the Mediterranean Sea have recorded seismic P-waves from an earthquake 16,100km (10,000 miles) away near Alaska. P-waves travel through the centre of the Earth and, by comparing the recordings from different buoys, researchers led by Yann Hello of the University of Nice hope to learn more about the Earth’s inner structure.

Miracle sweetener The ‘miracle fruit’ of the West African plant Synsepalum dulcificum tastes nondescript – but if you follow it with something bitter, the red berry causes the bitterness to transform into incredible sweetness. Biologists in Japan and France have now discovered a protein in the berry, miraculin, that binds with sweet taste receptors on the tongue and causes the receptors to activate when they are exposed to something acidic. These miraculous African berries make bitterness sweet

Museum Of London, Caudwell Xtreme Everest, thinkstock x2, Instituto dos Museus e da Conservação, dr ingo schiffner, jane burton / , nasa, hamale lyman / wikipedia, getty x2


Comment & Analysis

Dr Susan Blackmore deciphers the mysteries of consciousness in her talks organised by the British Council at TIFR, Mumbai and IISER, Pune

“With consciousness there is a mystery at play. We don’t know what we’re looking for”

In his theory of dualism, French philosopher Rene Descartes was of the opinion that the mental and physical states co-existed

here is no agreed definition of consciousness but we all feel we know what it is. One could explain it as me being, me, now… it is all that I am experiencing at the present moment. But the minute we try to find it, we don’t know it. One could say we are all made up of streams of consciousness. The brain can be examined from external sources but the big mystery remains. The so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’ is how emotions, perceiving colours, light can come about just from the physical, objective brain in the body. I would say it is mysterious because we don’t know what kind of answer we are looking for. Some might equate it with questions

Getty x2



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like ‘what is life’. A century ago, people were debating about what makes something alive. Is it some kind of breath, some kind of a living force? Then in the 1950s, came the learning from the selforganising principles, homeostatic mechanism and above all, the structure of DNA. Suddenly, there was no more mystery. But consciousness can’t still be explained because we still cannot decode the relationship between our subjective experiences and the objective brain. Our intuitions can be completely wrong. Most people feel as though they are some kind of a creature living in their body. They feel that they are not their body but ‘in’ their body. I am in here looking out through my eyes, I control my arms and legs, I see the world. But when you look into the brain you can’t find any self. You don’t find one thing that controls the arms and legs. You don’t find one thing that counts as a stream of consciousness. Since the advent of civilisation, people have also been trying to decipher consciousness through meditation and spiritual practice. Practitioners have gone deep into their minds and found that there is no self. Particularly in Buddhism, one finds the concept that ‘I’ is not separate; it is interwoven with the rest of the world. This brings us to an important point – is the God vs consciousness a valid debate? I

think we could have a scientific spirituality. But spirituality is such a difficult word because it implies spirits and I don’t think there could be spirits. This is the origin of intuition. Nearly everybody who has ever lived believes in some kind of spirits; that spirits survive death and carry on. It has taken modern science to break that down and realise that it can’t be true. But can we still have spirituality without believing in spirits? I think we can. Spirituality is about our relationship with the world. It is about letting go of unimportant, unseparate, unrelating to the world out there full of other people and having a different relationship with the world, which is intrinsic. There is definitely no God, no Creator. There are two routes to understanding the mind; one is to go deep into it and the other is to study it objectively. Both might lead us to the same place. But that gives rise to the problem of dualism. Descartes, in the 17th century, believed that there were two kinds of mind stuff and body stuff; physical and mental. Nearly all scientists and philosophers say that this is got to be wrong. But they can’t find a way to bring the two together and that really sums up the problem of consciousness. Which is why near death

Buddhism believes that ‘I’ is interwoven with the rest of the world

Principal Speak experiences are particularly interesting. People often believe that they go down the dark tunnel towards a bright light. Then they have an out of body experience and see their body down below. Such experience is an example of absolute dualism – because who is observing the body down there? All the evidence says that nothing leaves the body. We have to understand it in a different way, perhaps by combining science and spirituality. According to the philosopher, Daniel Dennett, nearly everybody rejects Cartesian Materialism, which says that there is a part in the physical brain, which stores all our experiences. But many scientists today don’t reject this enough. They still talk as though there is a mental show going on, a stream of consciousness in which, ‘I am experiencing this’. Also, do only humans experience consciousness? How could we ever know? I don’t even know if we are conscious. We don’t even know what we mean by ‘being conscious’. When I ask myself, “am I conscious now?”… the answer is always yes. But what if I ask myself, was I conscious a moment ago? There is no answer to that. It is only when I ask myself, “am I conscious now?” that I get a peculiar sense of ‘I am here’. The illusion is created by asking the question. Now if that is the case then animals don’t go around asking themselves that. But do they feel pain? Of course. This is part of the mystery, in the sense that with most questions you ask, you know what the answer would be and you would know if/when you had the answer. But if you ask if your cat is conscious, how do we ever know? Same with computers. We can’t know. That robot over there, is he conscious? How would we ever know? So I think that question is false. It comes out of our misunderstanding or illusions with conscious. Dr Susan Blackmore is a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster; and also a visiting faculty with the University of Plymouth. She has authored The Meme Machine, Conversations on Consciousness and Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences among others.

Lata Vaidyanathan, Principal of Modern School, Barakhamba Road, New Delhi explains why the 91 year-old school still ranks as one of the most prestigious in the country status quo is never our virtue. Changes will take place and the readiness for change is a very important aspect for current and futuristic thinking. Therefore, we make absolutely sure that we are abreast of our times - digitalisation of information, innovative communication methods etc. without removing the teacher from the frame.

Modern School has an illustrious list of alumni – from Khushwant Singh, Arun Shourie to Gautam Gambhir. What has been the institution’s legacy? Our school’s crest says naimatma balheenien labhya. It means that perfection cannot be achieved by the weak-willed. We feel that every child in the school needs to be given space to help groom a leader. Leadership is and will continue to be the vision of Modern School. And leadership is about equipping yourself with skill, knowledge, intellect and all those other characteristics that make you a leader. These need to be experienced by the individual first. Then go out and lead the others.

What programmes have been initiated for the students by the school? In all, we have over 15 clubs and societies for children to choose from – ranging from Chemistry Club to Physics, Photography etc. Then there is also the Community Development and Leadership Summit (CDLS). We do a number of activities in partnership with other organisations, such as SPIC MACAY and TERI. Also we are the only school in the country to have, for 30 continuous years, a blood donation camp. What is CDLS? We bring students from many countries together to participate in this. Every year, we examine important aspects - this year our theme was Future Societies - Challenge, Conflict and Change. Last year it was Ideas, Innovation and Design. So we explore concepts in which the students work through group interactions, debating, theatre, listening to points of views different from their own culture and being together as a family.

So the focus is on all-round development? It is not enough to be only bright in academics. It is equally important that the student is well endowed, which means that he should be able to take stress, be physically able to deal with any difficulty. Besides academics & co-curriculars, we emphasize on sports to help develop both physical fitness and mental tenacity. You don’t win sporting events just because you are physically fit, you also have to have the mental ability. Winning ultimately happens because of the mind not because of your physical prowess.

What stage of development would you like a student to be in when he/she leaves from here? It is a very interesting question. We have a very formal graduation day in this school and on that day I tell the parents to hold the hands of their children, as they had held when they had bought them to school for Junior KG. So now when they are leaving, I invite the parents to come and see who they are taking away from the school. I tell them that I am presenting you with a well-developed, wellmotivated, very inspired individual who will look after himself, his own home and therefore, the world at large. Leadership has to go hand-in-hand with the idea of service to the community.

Why the stress on leadership? Our school was established during the freedom struggle. So the need for leadership and independent thinking for the country and for the self was inbuilt into the whole fabric and DNA of the school. This school came up with a very Indian vision, with an Indian way of looking at education without compromising on being modern. However,

What subjects did you dislike when you were a child? Today, the subject I am most interested in is the subject I least liked. It was history. Also initially, Maths was a conflict subject for me because I always wanted to know why 3+5= 8 and if I got the numbers wrong, I was called admonished by the teacher.

World News in context A Greek tragedy unfolds

27 September 2011: Police guard the Greek parliament during protests against government austerity measures

An entire continent looks on with alarm as Greece is consumed by a growing financial crisis. David Keys examines the historical factors behind the country’s current woes reece is experiencing a financial catastrophe, while Europe as a whole is wrestling with how to cope with it. The source of the Greek economy’s woes is debt. Tax evasion has been running at 30 per cent. Six hundred professions have over the years been given early retirement/ early pension rights. Meanwhile, the public sector directly or indirectly employs up to 25 per cent of the labour force. These factors have helped catapult government debt to 170 per cent of GDP. The Greek disaster has huge implications for the financial future of Europe; but what are its historical origins? Greece’s current situation has its deepest roots in a surprisingly wide range of historical phenomena – hailing from the 19th and 20th centuries but also, arguably, from much earlier periods. Over the past


Istanbul (formerly Constantinople)



Aegean Sea Athens



Sea of Crete Ionian Sea Liberated from Ottoman rule by 1832; Ceded by Britain, 1864; Gained from the Ottomans, mostly in 1913; Ceded by Bulgaria, 1923; Ceded by Italy, 1947.


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185 years, modern Greece has defaulted on its sovereign debt no less than five times and has functioned in a state of default for 30 per cent of its history. Its current debt-ridden and bankrupt condition is a direct result of massively high borrowing over the past 30 years. And the need to borrow on such a grand scale was largely a product of Greece’s unique and dramatic history. Though a lack of natural resources, a relatively undeveloped economy and high levels of tax evasion have hamstrung it, Greece has always faced a need to maintain a large army, and unusually high pressures to placate sections of its population. Greece’s fraught relationship with its Turkish neighbours (it was occupied by the Ottoman Empire for 400 years and has been involved in a dozen crises and wars with the Turks over the past 190 years) lies behind its perception that it needs a large army. Relative to GDP, Greece’s annual military expenditure is the highest in the European Union. Greece’s fear of Turkey is reinforced by bitter memories of the tens of thousands of Greeks killed by the Turks during and after World War I, and of the population exchange of 1923. This saw 1.5 million Greeks having to leave Turkey, compared with 500,000 Turks who had to leave Greece. But it is successive Greek governments’ needs to reward their supporters and placate their opponents that has driven much of Greece’s borrowing phenomenon and ultimately bankrupted the country. At the core of the problem is the very specific relationship between the Greeks and their state. Although Greeks are extremely

patriotic, their relationship with authority – the state itself – is more problematic. Their attitude to state power is deeply ambivalent. Throughout most of the past century, Greek politics were so polarised between republicans and monarchists, and then between left and right, that most Greeks gave their loyalty to political parties rather than the state those parties sought to control. Significantly, they expected rewards from those parties – in recent decades that meant jobs in an everexpanding civil service. Protected status In a sense, political parties sought to control the state in order to have the resources to reward their supporters. But this ‘clientelist’ relationship was already deeply rooted in Greek society. Back in Ottoman times, Greek notables and land-owners protected their status within the Ottoman state structure by giving favours to their tenants in order to buy their good behaviour. Loyalty in Greece, whether bought or owed, has always been given to political or other ‘patrons’ rather than to the state itself. What’s more, in a bid to maintain social harmony in recent decades, Greek political parties, when in government, have sought to seduce their rivals’ supporters as well as reward their own. The financial cost of all this has been immense and has meant borrowing billions. Creating social harmony has been regarded as crucial in a country that has been plagued by unrest. Over the past century, Greece has been convulsed by numerous coups

Two centuries of instability 1821 Greek War of Independence starts 1826, 1843, 1860, 1893, 1932 Greece defaults 1832-1913 Foreign-born kings rule Greece

giving linguistic primacy to the language of the Greek peasantry. Indeed, ordinary Greek only became the official language of the nation in the last 35 years. Love of honour Perhaps the biggest reason for the lack of commitment to the organs of the state is the deeply rooted concept of Greek individualism. It’s a concept that forms a vital component of a uniquely Greek idea lying at the very heart of the people’s identity, an idea known as filotimo – literally ‘love of honour’. But it means much more than just that and symbolises the Greek love of personal individual freedom and dignity – especially duty to family and friends. So when many Greeks expect personal reward and recognition from their political patrons, and when some evade taxes and show scant regard for the viability of their state, they are expressing the supremacy of individual freedom of action – and duty to family and friends – over the interests of the state. As a concept, filotimo has its roots in Ancient Greece itself. The concept was first mentioned by the 5th-century BC playwright Aeschylus. Personal honour, together with associated concepts of independent freedom of action, was an important concept among elites in Ancient Greece. It certainly played an important part in maintaining the politically decentralised nature of Ancient Greek civilisation. The concept of filotimo survived the demise of Ancient Greece and existed as a subject of debate within the Byzantine Empire. It almost certainly clung to life within elite Greek families living in Constantinople through the Middle Ages. It then appears to have been revived as part of a new national Greek identity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when various exiled intellectuals and romantic secret societies, often in Russia and Paris, were plotting Greece’s war of liberation from Ottoman rule. Crucially, the concept also resonated with what, in the 19th and 20th centuries, became popular hero-worship of the free-booting, ‘freedom-loving’ bandits who upheld ‘Greek honour’ by robbing Ottoman oppressors and who then played a crucial role in the War of Independence. Kleftes, glorified in countless songs and ballads, are Greece’s Robin Hoods – only far more politically and ideologically important, helping to re-enforce modern Greeks’ sense of rebellious individualism.

1897 War with Ottomans over Crete 1912 Greece again at war with Ottomans 1915 Rival governments in North and South 1919-22 Greco-Turkish war 1923 Population exchange 1920s-30s Coups and counter-coups by republicans and monarchists 1936-41 Fascist-style rule 1941-44 Axis rule and famine 1946-49 Civil war 1967-74 Military dictatorship 1976 Ordinary Greek becomes official language 1981 Greece joins European Community 1981-2008 Very high borrowing 1996 Greco-Turkish crisis over disputed islands 1997-2008 Various anarchist terror groups formed 2001 Greece joins Euro 2008 World economic downturn 2011 Present economic crisis

These historically derived aspects of national character not only make running a modern, tax-paying, state-centred country remarkably challenging, they also make it very difficult for any Greek government to enforce the austerity measures that the EU is demanding. Indeed, earlier this year ordinary Greeks launched an initiative called den plirono (literally ‘I won’t pay’) – now a mass movement of citizens refusing to pay their road tolls, bus fares and even electricity bills. While the western world remained economically buoyant, Greek debt did not pose an insurmountable problem. But in the context of current low or zero economic growth in the West, it certainly does. In Greece itself, as EU pressure mounts and mass unemployment looms, it remains to be seen how long society can stay intact. rex, Corbis. illustration BY Sheu-KuEI Ho

d’état from both left and right: a pro-Axis collaborationist regime that presided over a famine (1941-43) that killed up to 500,000; a civil war (1946-49) that killed 55,000 and displaced a million; and a military dictatorship (1967-74) that killed dozens and saw thousands more locked up. But there are other deeply rooted historical reasons why the concept of the state itself and its demands has never attracted much affection. First of all, for two-thirds of the past 600 years the state was an occupying power – the Ottoman Empire – that was often relatively benign but sometimes, and more memorably, extremely oppressive. Even after the Greeks had liberated themselves from the Ottoman yoke, Britain and the other great powers foisted foreign kings onto Greece. The first was a Bavarian prince who ruled for 30 years, the second a Danish prince who reigned for a further 50. At best, these foreign monarchs were resented by some Greeks; at worst, they hindered the development of a closer relationship between ordinary Greeks and their newly independent state. Thirdly, the state was often weak or lacked legitimacy. It was as if it were a plaything for competing elites to struggle to control, rather than the embodiment of the nation, as was the case in many other European countries. This is reflected in the number of military and other coups d’état and attempted coups to which the modern Greek state has been subjected. Further distance between subjects and state was inadvertently created by a decision to make an upper-class version of Greek, based on Ancient Greek, the official language of newly independent Greece, as opposed to the modern version spoken by the bulk of the population. The elites, who masterminded the 1821 War of Independence against the Ottomans, believed that harking back to classical Athens was more important than

David Keys has worked on more than a dozen BBC TV history and archaeology documentaries and is a specialist correspondent for The Independent.

find out more E Modern Greece: a history since 1821 by John S Koliopoulos and Thanos M Veremis (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) E For the latest developments in the eurozone April 2012


Antar A century on from the first expeditions to the South Pole, scientists continue to explore this vast wilderness

rctica discovery Antarctica


100 th


A century of



ersar y

Lake invaders p32

race to the south Pole p36


Scientists have drilled through the 4km of ice to Lake Vostok, a freshwater lake that may contain clues to the origins of life.

How Norwegian Roald Amundsen beat Briton Robert F Scott to the South Pole by a matter of weeks, 100 years ago.

Over the century since his death, Scott’s legacy as a hero has gone in and out of fashion. Was he a hero, or more of a fool?

April 2012

Science photo library

One hundred years since the first explorers reached the South Pole, this issue celebrates humankind’s relationship with the largest desert on Earth: Antarctica





100rsary ive


Lake invaders

One hundred years after men first reached the South Pole, scientists have drilled down and recently reached the continent’s largest subglacial lake. Hannah Devlin reports t is colder than Mars, drier than the Sahara and with sunlight so intense that explorer Ernest Shackleton resorted to rubbing cocaine into his eyes for relief. Antarctica remains one of the most alien territories on Earth, and scientists there are about to cross a new frontier. Beneath 4km (2.5 miles) of densely compacted ice lies one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. Lake Vostok is rich in oxygen, warm enough for life, darker than the Mariana Trench and, like a pristine time capsule, has been sealed off from the outside world for more than 14 million years. The latest news reports according to scientific sources, state that on February 6, 2012, Russian scientists acheived the feat and pierced this capsule. They are presently exploring its contents. The lake offers records of past climates, unique marine chemistry and, most intriguingly, the possibility

Alexey EkayKin x2, science photo library. ILLUSTRAtion by Henning dalhoff


that unknown life forms have thrived in this isolated and unspoiled place. Valery Lukin, Director of the Russian Antarctic and Antarctic Research Institute team says, “No one has ever seen, touched or tasted this water till now. It is completely unknown. Asking what we’ll find there is similar to asking what you’d expect to find under the polar caps of the planet Mars.” Life on other planets In fact, strong similarities with the subsurface lakes – not on Mars, but on Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa – make Lake Vostok of significant interest for astrobiologists. After all, if life can exist in Lake Vostok, they argue, this would expand the range of possible extraterrestrial habitats. Lukin’s team was expected to race against time in the harshest of conditions. It was at their base, Vostok Station,

that the coldest temperature on Earth of -89ºC(-128ºF) was recorded in July 1983. At 3500m (11,483ft) above sea level, the scientists feel the effects of altitude. This was a race both against the elements – a working window of just three months is permitted by the brief Antarctic summer – and against other teams, who are planning to break through into other Antarctic lakes over the next few years. The Vostok project has divided the scientific community, with some arguing that there’s a serious risk of contaminating the lake and any ecosystem it might support. In 1998, drilling was halted by the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat, a body set up to protect the continent, over fears that the kerosene antifreeze being used to keep the borehole open could contaminate into the lake below. Drilling didn’t resume for almost eight years. Late last year, the final

Russia’s remote Vostok Station recorded the lowest natural temperature measured on Earth: -89ºC (-128ºF) 32

April 2012

Russian scientists extract the ice core from the drill core tube

stage of drilling was given the go-ahead thanks to a new anti-contamination strategy. A probe drill is used ahead of the main drill. As soon as it detects water, drilling will stop and the drills will be retracted, allowing water up into the borehole where it will freeze into a plug of frozen ice. The scientists will return in late 2012 to sample that frozen water. If there are free-floating bacteria in the lake, as the scientists suspect, they will have been suspended in the ice. Speculation has been mounting about what sort of microbial life might survive in this unusual environment. “We really don’t know,” says Christopher McKay, an astrobiologist at the NASA Ames Research Center, who has been investigating Antarctic lakes for 30 years. “I wouldn’t be surprised no matter what comes out of the lake. The only surprise would be if the water came up and E

Reaching lake vostok Mechanical drilling and heat will soon break through those final few metres

Lake Ellsworth

Lake Vostok is the largest of more than 145 subglacial lakes under Antarctica and, with a surface area of over 14,000 sq km (5405 sq mi), it’s one of the 15 largest lakes on Earth. Despite surface temperatures being far below freezing all

South Pole

Lake Vostok

year round, the tremendous pressure exerted by the mass of ice increases the temperature deep below the surface, so water can form. The average temperature in the lake is thought to be -3°C (27°F) and the possibility of

volcanic vents means it could contain warmer sections. As the borehole at Vostok has got deeper, biological specimens have been found at every layer of ice, strongly implying that life may be present in the lake.


The top section of the borehole has been filled with kerosene antifreeze to keep it open during the Antarctic winter. For the final stages of drilling, the scientists have switched from toxic antifreeze to an ‘ecologically neutral’ silicone-oil drilling fluid.


Melt Water


Ice around the edge of the sheet melts, feeding water into the lake.


Lake Sediment


Silicone oil is heavier than kerosene and lighter than water, so it acts as a buffer between them.

Once the mechanical drill bit is 20-30m (66-98ft) from Lake Vostok, it will be replaced by a thermal lance equipped with a camera.

LAKE water Possible Geothermal Vents

As the ice sheet moves above, water in the lake freezes on contact with it, forming new ice that is carried along.

On reaching the lake, the lance will retract. Water will rush upwards, pushing the oil and kerosene out of the way.

The lake water will be allowed to fill the bottom 30-40m (98-131ft) of the borehole. It will be left to freeze, creating a plug of ice that scientist will extract for analysis in the 2012-2013 Antarctic summer season.


Life on other worlds Scientists hope discoveries from Lake Vostok will provide clues about Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

neil Ross / University of Edinburgh, Science Photo Library, Nasa

Mars has long been seen as the most promising host for extraterrestrial life within the Solar System, but in recent years one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, has emerged as a good candidate. Scientists think that beneath its icy surface lies a liquid ocean that could be similar to Lake Vostok – dark, cold and isolated. Europa’s surface temperature is about -160ºC (-256ºF) at the equator, but beneath the surface the temperature rises, heated by seismic energy from its interior and the pressure of ice above. Several kilometres to several tens of kilometres of ice down, scientists believe there is liquid water. Life here could cling to the underside of the ice, like algae or bacteria in the Earth’s poles, or float in the ocean. It could be clustered around hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, or even beneath the ocean floor. The question of whether there is life on Europa and, if so, what it might look like is likely to remain unanswered for a while longer – at least until the proposed Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer mission that the European Space Agency (ESA) is considering and that, if approved, would lift off in 2021. In the short term, discoveries in Vostok will be the best next step.


April 2012

E it was completely sterile. So far, wherever we’ve looked on Earth, we’ve found life.” No light from the Sun penetrates right through the ice above Lake Vostok, which rules out the possibility of photosynthetic life. Even in deep ocean environments, bottom-dwelling fish rely indirectly on photosynthesis for energy, as they feed on organic detritus raining down from the surface. But the icy seal around Vostok makes even an indirect reliance on sunlight impossible, suggesting that any life there must use an entirely separate means of generating energy. There’s a precedent in the form of bacteria known as black smokers that live in total darkness around underwater volcanic vents. First discovered in the Galapagos Rift in the 1970s, these microbes generate sugars by oxidising chemicals such as hydrogen sulphide that can be found bubbling up through the Earth’s interior. Through this ‘chemosynthesis’, the bacteria support an entire independent food chain of tube worms, giant clams and eels, all of which live in total darkness. The idea that fish could be living in Vostok may sound preposterous but it has not been completely ruled out. Lukin’s team have already uncovered one suggestion that geothermal vents may be present in the bed of Lake

Vostok. Towards the bottom of the ice core, scientists have found Hydrogenophilus bacteria, a microorganism that normally lives around hot springs. Unlike the waters around black smokers, scientists predict Vostok will be supersaturated with nitrogen and oxygen. It’s thought that the water undergoes a melting and

will remain unknown for at least another year. There are other subglacial lake projects taking place on Antarctica. At around the same time that the Vostok team are extracting their lake water core at the end of 2012, the British Antarctic Survey will be investigating what lies beneath the surface of Lake Ellsworth,

“Wherever scientists have have looked on Earth, we’ve found life” freezing cycle whereby ice around the edges of the ice sheet melts into the lake while, at the same time, lake water freezes on contact with the moving ice sheet above. Since the melting ice sheet is formed from highly compacted snow, the meltwater contains tiny air bubbles that dissolve into the water. When the water refreezes onto the underside of the ice sheet, the gases are squeezed out as it crystallises, leaving behind the oxygen and nitrogen. “This would seem to predict that some sort of ultra-aerobic life may have evolved to be optimised for these conditions,” says McKay, although precisely what form such life might take

Black smokers give hope that Lake Vostok may support life

which is covered by 3.2km (2 miles) of ice in Western Antarctica. They will use hot water to penetrate the ice – a technique that sidesteps the issues of contamination but requires too much power to be used at Vostok, which is in an even less accessible location than Ellsworth. While the Russian project has taken more than a decade, the British team plan to be in and out within a week. “We’ll drill down at a rate of about 1m (3.3ft) per minute and should reach the lake within three days,” says Martin Siegert, the glaciologist at the University of Edinburgh who is leading the mission. The Ellsworth team plans to send a 6m (20ft)-long titanium probe into the lake, with sensors for pH, pressure, oxygen levels and temperature as well as a high-resolution camera. The probe will collect 24 water samples at different strata of the water and a core of sediment from the lake bed. There’s also a third project. In 2013 and 2014, US researchers plan to drill into the 800m (2624ft)-thick ice covering Lake Whillans, also under the

Antarctica British scientists plan to use hot water to drill through the ice to Lake Ellsworth

West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and send down a robot explorer. Unlike Lakes Vostok and Ellsworth, which are believed to be isolated, Lake Whillans is at the bottom of a subglacial drainage system and collects water from an extended network of other lakes and channels. Scientists hope that studying it will help them build up a picture of how quickly water drains from subglacial lakes and how the lakes contribute to the accumulation of ice sheets. Expect the unexpected “Whether it’s Vostok, Ellsworth or Europa, life will be living in the same way,” says Siegert. “If we did an experiment on Europa it would be very similar. We want to know if the conditions are just on the edge of survivability or whether life can thrive. The cameras will be on and we have no idea what to expect.” At the most speculative end of the spectrum, some believe that extreme environments such as those at Lake Vostok and Lake Ellsworth could yield evidence of a completely separate tree of bacterial life – a ‘shadow biosphere’. For now, the idea of a second genesis of life on Earth remains in the realms of science fiction, but it does highlight a crucial question in the discussion of extraterrestrial life: how likely is it that life emerges in the first place? Paul Davies, a cosmologist and astrobiologist at Arizona State University, believes this is the bigger question that Vostok might answer. “It is useful to know the limits of life as we know it, but when we think of Europa, we’re dealing with life as we don’t know it,” he says. “Supposing that the probability of life ever emerging is one in a trillion trillion, then finding that life can survive in water twice as cold or twice as salty doesn’t

really make a difference. But if you found life emerged twice on Earth, it suddenly becomes a lot more inevitable that it will have happened elsewhere. That would be the Holy Grail,” he adds. If they exist, such alternative life forms could still be based on DNA and RNA but with a slightly different genetic code. One of the elements used by life – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus – could be replaced by something else. Part of the challenge is devising a test that can filter out ordinary life and detect novel life forms. Whatever secrets Vostok may hold, Lukin’s team are on the edge of discovery. “I’m very excited this year – we all are,” says Lukin. “There is an old Russian tradition that when you break through the ice you dilute the water with a bit of alcohol and drink it to see if its seawater or fresh. This might not be possible for our drillers, but to mark the moment I will have a little vodka in St Petersburg to celebrate.” Hannah Devlin is a science correspondent for The Times. She has a PhD in brain imaging from the University of Oxford.

find out more E Research by Vostok field scientist Michael Studinger E Unmasking Europa: the search for life on Jupiter’s ocean moon by Richard Greenberg (Springer, 2008)

What do you think? Do the benefits to science of drilling Antarctica’s lakes outweigh the risks? email:

Valery Lukin is Director of the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St Petersburg and leader of the Lake Vostok drilling team How can the drillers be sure the kerosene won’t pollute the lake? We injected a layer of organic silicon into the lower part of the borehole, separating the kerosene from the lake water. After the contact with water by special cameras mounted on a drill head, the drill was raised up the borehole, sucking water from the lake’s upper layer up with it. Kerosene is hydrophobic, meaning it can’t mix with water, and so there was a clear interface between the two liquids.

How will you be sure the lake water samples are not exposed to light or contaminated while the ice core is awaiting sampling? The core will remain at the bottom section of the borehole beneath hundreds of metres of kerosene, and sealed off at the top by the drill. When the sample is finally extracted it will be brought out in a hermetically sealed container.

Has drilling so far yielded any answers about life in the lake? Below about 3000m (9843ft), we found thermophilic bacteria that normally live in environments of 60oC (140ºF). Their likely niche is the deep bedrock faults at the base of the lake. Seismic activity may have flushed some of the microbes from these veins into the lake and from there into the ice. But our results still leave open the question of whether life, and which forms, exist within the waters of Vostok.

April 2012





100rsary e

iv ann


In 1909, Ernest Shackleton got to within 156km (97 miles) of the South Pole. By 1911, two rival parties were aiming to complete the task: Robert Falcon Scott’s British expedition, and a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen, the first man to navigate the North West Passage. Pitted against each other were two very different leaders, with two contrasting cultures and approaches to Antarctic travel. KEY



AMUNDSEN: safely away 19 October 1911

After one abortive attempt that had led to a near-mutiny, Amundsen sets off from his base at Framheim, 97km (60 miles) closer to the Pole than Scott’s camp at Cape Evans. With him are four men, four sledges and 52 dogs. “I sat astride Wisting’s sledge and anyone who could have seen us would no doubt have thought a Polar journey looked very inviting,” Amundsen wrote.


Framheim 5


Safety! 16 January 1912

The returning Norwegians reach their food depot in 82° S the day before Scott’s party discovers that it has been beaten to the Pole. Amundsen, his four men and 11 surviving dogs are as good as safe. On 25 January they arrive at Framheim – “men and animals all hale and hearty”. Their journey had taken 99 days.

Amundsen’s outward journey Amundsen’s return journey Scott’s outward journey Scott’s return journey Scott’s food caches

Ross Ice Shelf

South Pole


Journey’s end 29 March 1912

“I do not think we can hope for any better things now,” wrote Scott. He, Bowers and Wilson leave behind their last letters, which are found with their frozen bodies by a search party the following November.


struggle to survive 16 March 1912

Oates stumbles out into the snow. Scott recorded his words: “‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since... We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.”





One Ton Depot 2 Robert Falcon Scott

At base camp, Scott helps prepare the ponies for the off


SCOTT: DELAYeD START 1 November 1911

Scott had been forced to delay his departure to protect his ponies from intense cold but, with Amundsen already past 81° S, Scott’s party of 15 at last sets out on the 2414km (1500 mile) journey to the Pole and back. “[Henry] Bowers was the last to leave,” recalled Thomas ‘Grif’ Taylor. “I ran to the end of the Cape and watched the little cavalcade – already strung out into remote units – rapidly fade into the lonely white waste to southward.”


82o S

1 Cape Evans

sledges break down 6 November 1911

Scott discovers that the second of his revolutionary mechanised sledges has broken down just 82km (51 miles) into the journey, reducing Teddy Evans’s party to “manhauling”.

Loading one of the flawed sledges


ponies are shot 4 December 1911

A “raging, howling blizzard” holds them up for four precious days, putting a dangerous strain on their rations. “Miserable, utterly miserable,” wrote Scott. “We have camped in the ‘Slough of Despond’. The tempest rages with unabated violence... The ponies look utterly desolate.” On 9 December, the party finally gets away. That night, the last of the ponies – the emaciated “crocks” that Laurence ‘Titus’ Oates had nursed through an Antarctic Winter – are shot.


A gruelling climb 11 December 1911

With the Beardmore Glacier ahead of them, Scott sends dog handler Cecil Meares and the dogs back. It is a 3000m (9800ft) climb to the summit and from now to the Pole and back it will be manhauling. Three days later, Bowers, the most indomitable of them all, wrote: “I have never pulled so hard – also nearly crushed my insides into my backbone by the everlasting jolting with all one’s strength in the canvas bound round my unfortunate tummy.”



great work from the dogs 17 November 1911


Amundsen begins his ascent of the Transantarctic Mountains. Four days later, after “a brilliant performance” from man and dog, he has pioneered a new route up to the Polar Plateau more than 3048m (10,000ft) above. Consequently, Norwegian and British tracks will not converge until the Pole and neither team knows how the other is doing.

“Butcher’s camp” 20 November 1911


From the start of the journey Amundsen had planned to feed the dogs on each other, and 24 of them are slaughtered for food in accordance with his schedule. Amundsen wrote: “It was hard, but it had to be so. We had agreed to shrink from nothing in order to reach our goal. Each man was to kill his own dogs to the number that had been fixed.” The Norwegians brought packs of dogs from Greenland

Amundsen’s crew deliver provisions to three depots en route to the Pole

victory for Amundsen 14 December 1911

Amundsen’s team ‘box’ the Pole on skis and take observations to calculate their position as exactly as possible. All five sign their names and letters are left for King Haakon of Norway and for Scott in a tent surmounted by the Norwegian flag. The race is won. “A cigar at the Pole,” Amundsen wrote with typical understatement. Roald Amundsen won the race to the South Pole

2 3

Amundsen (14 December 1911) 4 6

Scott (17 January 1912)

5 7


Beardmore Glacier 5

The final assault 3 January 1912


the pole 18 January 1912


Scientists to the end 8 February 1912

With less than 240km (150 miles) to go, Scott whittles the original party down to eight and sends back the last of the support parties, leaving a team of five – Scott himself, Edward Wilson, Bowers, Edgar Evans and Oates. “Teddy Evans is terribly disappointed but has taken it very well and behaved like a man,” Scott noted. “Poor old Crean wept and even Lashly was affected.”

The Pole, “but,” Scott wrote, “under very different circumstances from those expected.” Bowers sees what looks like a cairn. A flag soon appears, and with it the crushing truth that the Norwegians have beaten them. “This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority,” Scott wrote. “Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.”

Even with the Beardmore Glacier a difficult descent ahead, Scott is true to the scientific aims of the expedition. “We found ourselves under perpendicular cliffs of Beacon sandstone, weathering rapidly and carrying veritable coal seams. From the last, Wilson, with his sharp eyes, has picked several plant impressions, the last a piece of coal with beautifully traced leaves in layers.”

The five selected for the final assault were never to return

The Norwegian flag was waiting for the party at the South Pole

The explorers had to drag their heavy load to the bitter end

Evans (left) was the first to die, followed famously by Oates (right)


A terrible loss 17 February 1912

The condition of Oates and Evans has been of concern since the Pole, and at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier, Evans, one of the three men first to penetrate the Polar Plateau on Scott’s 1901-04 expedition, collapses and dies. “A very terrible day,” Scott wrote. “Wilson thinks it certain that he must have injured his brain by a fall. It is a terrible thing to lose a companion in this way, but calm reflection shows that there could not have been a better ending to the terrible anxieties of the past week.” David Crane’s book Scott of the Antarctic is republished by HarperPress in January 2012 April 2012


Alamy x5, Corbis x4, dreamstime, Getty, The Fram Museum x2


South Pole

Promotional Feature

BBC Entertainment brings the ultimate Polar expedition on Frozen Planet. The producers speak about their experiences filming this journey across the Polar regions, demystifying the habitat of the terrain.

Makers of the show Alastair Fothergill Executive Producer

Jeff Wilson, Chadden Hunter, Jason Roberts

Vanessa Berlowitz Series Producer Kathryn Jeffs Producer Miles Barton Producer Chadden Hunter Assistant Producer Fredi Devas Assistant Producer An Adélie male penguin builds a stone nest in anticipation of the females’ arrival. They compete over the precious stones, often resorting to stealing to get the best ones

Jeff Wilson Director Doug Anderson Cameraman

Why did you decide to film Frozen Planet? Alastair Fothergill: Frozen Planet actually emerged from the success of our previous show Planet Earth, where we found that people really enjoyed being taken to the habitats, the mountains, the deserts and the jungles. In Frozen Planet, we’ve winterised the helicopter camera, the cineflex and we’ve mounted it on a boat for the very first time. Time-lapse photography has been exploited to a far greater degree in the show. It follows the same basic principle as Planet Earth, where the power of the scenery and the place the animals have in it really engages the viewer in the storytelling. How many people were involved in the series? Vanessa Berlowitz: We had up to 50 camera persons working, under the ice, above the ice, in volcanoes and at the edge of the ice with Emperor Penguin colonies, across both the poles. We also had a core team of 25 people back in the office that was coordinating this entire activity; plus all the field assistants and scientists who were absolutely essential to help us get access to some very difficult places. Which international scientific bodies helped with the series? Jeff Wilson: When working in the Antarctic, you are clearly dependent on scientific bodies that are stationed there. I mean, this is a place where people don’t live. So the network of contacts that you have is crucial for getting around. We were very lucky with Frozen Planet to be able to cooperate with Antarctic bodies from across the world like the British Antarctic Survey, the Australian Antarctic Division, the New Zealand Antarctic Division and the US Antarctic Division, all of whom

were extremely cooperative. I think what’s underlying it is this enormous passion for the Antarctic and the poles in general. What was New Zealand’s role in the series? Chadden Hunter: A lot of our filming in Antarctica was done in the Ross Sea region and we had invaluable support from Scott Base - the main New Zealand base down there. They had a helicopter, skidoos and vehicles and they know the area very well. So a lot of the sites we visited; Mount Erebus, Scott and Shackleton’s old huts and some glaciers, would never have been possible without New Zealand’s expertise. What were the physical challenges? Kathryn Jeffs: One of the greatest limitations we had, technology aside, was actually our own inability to cope with the cold. We had all these layersthis incredible kit with us to try and keep us warm. But it was really difficult to stop the cold from eventually seeping in. While diving, we’d go in dressed like Michelin men; we’d have five layers of fleeces and thermals on underneath this thick neoprene. What are the safety measures required for ice diving? Chadden Hunter: When we went ice-diving on Frozen Planet, we really were pushing the very limits of what we are allowed to do safety-wise for the BBC. But the preparation of about 12 months that we put into it is incredible. Every member of the team is a qualified ice diver. Some of the cameramen that we would choose to go under the ice are probably among the most experienced ice divers in the world. What’s a Brinicle? Doug Anderson: One of the

The Sirius Patrol in Denmark consists of six sleds, each with 14 Greenlandic dogs and two men from the Danish Special Forces manning. The sleds travel for six months, from November to June, covering over 2000 kms

Pod of Orcas spyhopping amongst the breaking sea ice in Ross Sea, Antarctica. The Orcas spyhop through gaps in the ice to reach new fishing grounds

underwater sequences we filmed was on underwater brinicles killing invertebrates on the seabed. A brinicle is an underwater ice stalactite that grows real quick and normally grows when the sea ice freezes. It forms super saline brine, which wants to flow downhill and is heavier than sea water. As it flows out of the sea ice into the open water, it starts freezing the ice and forms a long tube that sometimes hits the seabed and forms a river of ice running down the slope.

What was the most dangerous sequence to film? Miles Barton: One of the most dangerous sequences was to film eider ducks hatching in Svalbard, in the Arctic Circle. In the poles, filming them is a challenge as Polar bears might come around the area. So my cameraman John would sit in a tiny little hide, about 3 ft high and 2 ft wide filming the ducks, with no visibility except out of the front due to which he couldn’t watch out for polar bears. Myself and my field assistant Steinar would position ourselves 100 yards on each side, watching out for them. Hours would go by and nothing would happen, no visits, the Eiders didn’t hatch, no polar bears visited. But you had to stay on your guard, because eventually the Polar bear did come visiting. So, Steinar called me out, I ran over to John, pulled him out of the hide and we just about had time to get the camera out, and run back to our

What do the scales of the poles feel like to be in? Fredi Devas: I think I really felt them while filming the Taiga forest, right in the northern parts of Finland, up on a high hill looking down over Russia. I could partly see this vast expansive forest stretching as far as the eye could see because everything around was covered in 2 mts of snow, it was very quiet and the forest was locked down in winter; it gave this

very peaceful feeling of a huge open space. What is your most memorable experience? Chadden Hunter: One of my most magical experiences on Frozen Planet was ice diving with Emperor Penguins. Now, I’d seen a lot of penguins on Frozen Planet but we’d never been in the water with them. What we had to do was find a small hole in the sea ice from where the Emperor Penguins were coming out, then put our tanks on and dive into this hole to scuba dive with them. With about 200 mts of clear visibility in the water, you are looking straight down at the inky blue water and above you is a beautiful ceiling of ice. Then you see penguins rocketing up from the depths of the water and then hundreds of them start swirling around you like spaceships. That was a real outof-space moment.

cabin which was about 250 yards away. We then sat and watched as John happily filmed the Polar bear approach his hide. First, it went round the front and peered in through the window, and then it went round the back, stood up and squashed the whole hide flat. Now, John had been there literally a minute earlier, so what would have happened to him if he’d been there, one can only guess. Why should people watch Frozen Planet? Alastair Fothergill: The world that we are going to take the viewers to is extraordinarily beautiful. The animals living there are the ultimate survivors. But more than anything else, it literally is a world beyond their imagination and I’m sure the journey will be unique. BBC Entertainment Show Timings

E Premieres February 27, 2012 E Airs every Monday, 9pm

Caption this & Win An exclusive hamper from BBC Entertainment could be yours! Give an interesting caption to this photograph (along with 5 additional ones on Facebook) from the latest Frozen Planet series. To participate, head to our page: Contest starts: February 27, 2012 • Contest closes: April 8, 2012

Every Monday morning, a new image from an upcoming episode will be uploaded on the page.

April 2012



April 2012

Science photo library

Catch a liar

Don’t even

think about it…

Could the brain scanner soon be the ultimate lie detector – your neurons revealing whether you’re telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Andy Ridgway finds out he classic Simpsons episode Who Shot Mr Burns? sees bar owner Moe hooked up to a polygraph lie detector machine as he answers a police officer’s questions. “Do you hold a grudge against Montgomery Burns?” “No,” says Moe. The polygraph machine lets out a loud BUZZ and a red light glows, indicating a lie. “All right maybe I did, but I didn’t shoot him.” PING – green light. “Checks out,” says the officer, rising. “OK, you’re free to go.” “Good, cos I got a hot date tonight,” says Moe. BUZZ. “A date.” BUZZ. “Dinner with friends.” BUZZ. “Dinner alone.” BUZZ. “Watching TV alone.” BUZZ. “All right,” says Moe, humiliated. “I’m going to sit at home and ogle the ladies in the Victoria’s Secret catalogue.” BUZZ. “Sears catalogue.” PING. “Now would you unhook this already please, I don’t deserve this kind of shabby treatment!” BUZZ.


Poor old Moe. The polygraph test cut through him like a knife. If only it were that simple. The truth of the matter is that it’s not. For most of the last century, the polygraph machine has been the main tool used to discern fact from fiction. It measures the response your body makes to the questions being asked – changes in things like blood pressure, body temperature and breathing rate. The idea is that your body will reveal the truth, even if you’re reluctant to. There are two main criticisms of polygraph machines. Firstly, they simply measure how stressed you are, and being nervous may not show that you’re lying. Secondly, they can be tricked. If a cunning interviewee pricks himself with a pin to boost his heart rate during the easy ‘control’ questions, for instance, his anxiety won’t be clear when the critical questions come along. E 41

Catch a liar

Could fMRI scanners replace the polygraph on Sach Ka Saamna?

E Advocates of polygraphy claim it’s accurate 90-95 per cent of the time. But in 2003, the National Academy of Sciences in the US issued a report into polygraph tests which was less positive. It said that when an incident is being investigated, polygraph tests “can discriminate lying from truth telling at rates well above chance, though well below perfection.” In spite of the concerns, polygraph tests are still very commonly used. Last April, the government launched a three-year trial of their use on sex offenders who have been released from prison on probation. Police forces and government agencies around the world still use them.

Sean Spence is one of the UK’s leading researchers in this field

The Pentagon also issued hand-held polygraph-like lie detectors to troops in Afghanistan to screen potential police officers and interpreters. But what if you could take a rather more direct route to spot a lie? Rather than monitoring how stressed someone is, we could look inside their head and see a lie forming in their brain? Mechanical mind-readers It’s a question that a lot of people want the answer to – not least the US government, which has pumped vast sums of money into brain imaging looking at deception since 9/11 – hoping to find another way to extract information from detainees. In spite of it being a relatively young field of research it’s already paying dividends. “What’s compelling about this is the extent to which we have studies that replicate each other because it’s a very young application of brain imaging,” says Sean Spence, a professor at the University of Sheffield’s Medical School and a British pioneer in the

Commercial lie hunters Joel Huizenga runs southern California’s No Lie MRI, which started offering commercial lie detection using fMRI in 2006 Who approaches you? They are the litigants in cases. Sex, power and money is kind of the route of testing, in that order. We’ve tested in cases that involve allegations of arson, rape, incest, murder and workers’ compensation.

University of Sheffield, alamy

Are you generally approached by people accused of something, who want to clear their name? Yes, they have the incentive. Liars aren’t going to approach us. How much does your service cost? Right now we’re charging $5000 a court case. If people are accused of a crime and come up ‘clean’ on your scan, what happens? The cases are dropped. The prosecution is only supposed to prosecute if they believe the person’s guilty. If you show the prosecutor and


April 2012

they’re convinced the person’s not, they’ll drop the case.

So you ask yes and no questions and see which part of the brain is active? We can compare people to controls of their own or we can compare them to all the other people who have gone through the system. Some researchers say the parts of the brain that light up in different people is not consistent. Do you have ways of countering that? Yes, we look at the individual and check to see how their brain works itself. At some stage would you need to get someone to voluntarily lie to know the pattern in their brain? That increases the accuracy. Remember this is a statistical thing.

Without doing that you can still do the test, but I think the accuracy is a little bit lower. But we did a comparison with polygraph – government CIA/FBI polygraphers – and we were 25 percentage points better.

So what level of accuracy do you get? It’s in the 90s. If you are talking to other researchers, they don’t have automated processes [No Lie MRI uses pattern recognition software to analyse each brain scan], which increase the accuracy by at least six per cent, we have shown. We’re working with a three Tesla [powerful] MRI system. About half the other researchers have worked with a 1.5 Tesla system, so the resolution is not quite as great there. Different researchers have asked their questions different ways. It’s very important to ask good questions.

field. He has been using a brain scanner, or a functional magnetic resonance imager (fMRI), to hunt for lies. The fMRI machine tracks the flow of blood in our brain. Areas that are working harder – perhaps because we’re telling a fib – will demand more blood and show up on the scan. After appearing on Channel 4 TV series Lie Lab, Spence has been contacted by prisoners hoping his scanner will prove their innocence, and by wives who want to find out if their husbands have been up to no good. “We stick to the research,” he says. One area of the brain Spence and other researchers have found to be active when volunteers lie in the lab is the prefrontal cortex (PFC), an area involved with decision making and working memory – memory you keep online when you’re performing a specific task. There’s also the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). One theory is that this area, towards the back of the head, is involved in error detection – it spots that there’s a difference between what you have just said and the truth, giving away your guilt (see ‘Your lying brain’, p44). But knowing our minds is never that simple. Lies come in many forms and it seems that each kind of deception creates its own pattern

Catch a liar


Professor Aldert Vrij at the University of Portsmouth says some techniques are better than others when you’re trying to get to the truth

Watch their body “There’s nothing like Pinocchio’s growing nose,” says Vrij. “That would be the ideal clue.” In the absence of such a mechanism, Vrij says liars sit more still. “It might be because lying is more difficult than telling the truth and when people have to think hard, they sit still. Another reason is that they may try to control themselves because they think, ‘If I start making all kinds of movements, fidgeting, then it will look suspicious’.”

Make the interview more difficult Look at their lids

of excitement in the brain: there are similarities, but there are lots of differences. In one study in the US, volunteers were asked to ‘steal’ a watch and then lie about it. Here most of the response was seen in the PFC. In another, volunteers had to fire a toy gun and lie about it. Now the ACC was the most active, as well as areas linked to vision. Added to that, different people’s brains behave in different ways. “Antisocial people have different structures in their frontal lobes,” says Spence. “But also if you look at people who are antisocial and pathological liars – people who have a history of malingering and fraud – they have structural differences.” Tricky questions So using fMRI to spot lies does have its difficulties – not least the differences caused by different kinds of lies and the variation seen between people. But what if there’s a more fundamental problem? Just because there are areas that happen to be active when someone is lying, it doesn’t mean this is the source of the lie – we could be seeing stress, for instance, just as we do with a polygraph test. But experiments carried out by Professor Julian Keenan at Montclair State University in New Jersey indicate that, in some cases at E

Liars blink less. “We did some research where we looked at suspects in police interviews – suspected killers, arsonists and rapists,” says Vrij. “You don’t get any higher stakes than real-life police interview. We are the only ones to have done that. We found that when people lied they moved less, they blinked less and they paused longer. The reduction in blinking rate isn’t down to nervousness – you blink more when you’re tense, the opposite of what was evident in the interviews we conducted.”

Ask the unexpected

Ask the interviewee to tell the story in reverse order, or maintain constant eye contact while telling the story. “It will also affect the truth-tellers but they are less affected, because telling the story is easier for them,” says Vrij. He compares it to asking two people on exercise bikes at the gym, pedalling at the same rate but at different resistances, to speed up – the person riding with greater resistance will find it harder.

Listen hard Many studies have shown that people talk more slowly when they’re telling porkies, probably because the grey matter is having to work harder.

Clever liars will have prepared themselves, and thought about the story they’re going to tell. But they’ll be thrown if you ask something they don’t anticipate. Where did you sit in the pub? Can you describe the layout? This works particularly well if you’re comparing two people’s stories. If they’re lying, these questions will produce inconsistencies.

Study their face Small movements in the face are often suggested as a route to lie detection. “The problem with this is, facial and emotional expressions may only occur with strongly felt emotions. With many lies that’s not the case, so you can’t use that approach. And if you do use this technique, you identify emotional expressions that people show or try to hide. But that’s not automatically linked to deception.”

Watch their eyes “The idea that liars look away is not true,” says Vrij. “Liars start observing the lie detector to see whether that person believes them, and that means they look them straight in the eyes. Also, when someone is trying to convince someone else about the story they are telling, again they look them in the eyes.” April 2012


Catch a liar

Polygraphs only reveal so much, and can be tricked

E least, we really are looking at lies being formed. He found that when a magnetic field was targeted at their PFC to temporarily stop it working – a procedure called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) – volunteers no longer talked up their own abilities when speaking about themselves. They didn’t ‘self embellish’ – a kind of self-deception – so were no longer able to lie. Damage to a specific part of the PFC produces similar results. “Patients with damage to the right PFC don’t lie any more. The other interesting thing is that they can’t detect lying, either.” Another of Britain’s leading researchers in the field of deception, Professor Aldert Vrij at the University of Portsmouth, says that getting useful information from any liedetecting device, whether it’s a polygraph machine or fMRI, depends to a large extent on whether

Your lying brain Inside a mind that’s out to deceive

Science Photo Library, tj rich/, julian keenan, alamy

Lying is a complex job – a lot more complex than telling the truth. Firstly you have to identify the truthful response and inhibit it – stop yourself from saying it. Then you need to select a response that’s at odds with the truth and make sure it’s consistent with any other answers you have given – or are about to give. The fact that your brain is having to work harder can be seen in a test called an electroencephelograph (EEG), which measures the electrical signals between your brain cells. Put simply, part of what can be measured using an EEG, known as the P300, indicates the amount of attention you are devoting to a task. When someone is lying they are having to multitask – the attention given to any one task drops and so does the strength of the P300 signal. The result is that the P300 can be used in lie detection. It’s this complexity – the number of steps involved – that makes working out what’s going on in your head a particularly difficult task. Researchers are still trying to plot what happens when you try to deceive and, to make things worse, it’s not the same in everyone. That said, several brain regions do consistently turn up in studies.


April 2012

Prefrontal cortex An area involved in decision making as well as working memory – the memory you need to keep switched on when you’re doing something

Anterior cingulate cortex This area of the brain spots errors, or ‘conflicts’ as they’re known. In the case of deception, it spots the conflict between the truth and what you’ve just said

Parietal cortex Several functions have been attributed to this area, including the manipulation of mental images

Catch a liar

LYING APES We’re not the only ones who practise deception you’re asking the right questions (see ‘Spot a liar’, p43). “With polygraphs there are two different tests. One is a concern- or arousal-based test. The idea is that there are certain questions liars are more nervous about answering – there is no support for that,” says Vrij. “The other is a concealed information test – you ask questions to which only the guilty person knows the answer. That works. You give a multiple choice with several options including the correct one and the guilty person will react to the correct one. An innocent person will not respond at all.” It’s the same with fMRI, says Vrij – the questions matter. Just asking “Did you murder your wife?” would get anyone’s neurons firing, innocent or not, but a multiple choice about where the body was buried might root out the culprit. Thought police It seems that the complexities of interpreting fMRI data means it will be a long time before brain scans start turning up as evidence at court. But could technology like fMRI and TMS eventually go one step further and root out criminals before they commit a crime, simply from what is going on in their head? “I say to my students, ‘No-one’s ever been put in jail for thinking crazy – only acting crazy’,” says Keenan. “But this technology could change that.”

Transcranial magnetic stimulation can impede a person’s ability to lie

Anyone who has owned a cat will know that they’re crafty little creatures. They’re adept at using their feline guile to get their own way. But are they really deceiving us in the same way that we humans do? Professor Richard Byrne, a psychologist at the University of St Andrews in Scotland has been studying deception in far closer relatives – the primates. He found an interesting pattern. The bigger the brain – or at least the bigger the neocortex (the bit that’s involved with ‘higher functions’ like language) – the more often the primate is deceptive. But, says Byrne, there’s a difference between learning some kind of trick that gets you what you want, be it a banana or a mate, and setting out to deceive, knowing the effect your actions will have on someone else. “You can learn from behaviour without understanding how it works,” says Byrne. Would he Byrne looked lie to you? at descriptions of primate behaviour in lots of studies and

It will be a long time before brain scans start turning up as evidence in court

found that in many cases, the animal could have just learned that doing X achieved their goal – it got them their food. But in a few cases it was hard to imagine that a trick had simply been learned. In those cases, the animals knew what they were doing – it appeared as if they knew they were being deceptive. All of those cases were confined to the great apes, like chimps and gorillas. “What is rather special about the apes is how clever they are with their hands,” says Byrne. “Apes can enlarge their repertoire of manual skills through experience, but also by observation. And they could infer another’s goals from what they can see. Once these apes have a way of inferring goals and intentions, they might later work out how to manipulate them.” So do cats know what they’re up to? “I did a broadcast on BBC radio and unwisely said to listeners, ‘You might look out for this sort of thing in your pets’. The radio station was deluged with people giving extremely detailed examples of deception by dogs and cats. But in all those cases you could see how the behaviour could be learnt. A cat or dog may do things that seem to be deceptive, but they don’t really understand what we’re thinking.”

Clearly, it would be a good thing if we could catch terrorists before they commit an atrocity, rather than after. And to get an insight into the minds of terrorists, Keenan turned to an unlikely group – baseball fans. “The allegiance is just the same,” says Keenan. “If anything wrong happens to the group they support, they turn it round to be good, and they have the motivation to do anything from cheer to beat someone up. The similarities far outweigh the differences.” In one of Keenan’s studies, Yankees and Red Sox fans were shown pictures of their own and the opposing team on a computer screen. When they were being deceptive, declaring an affiliation to the team they did not support, their left motor cortices became active. Replace the pictures of baseball teams with pictures of Osama bin Laden and Gordon Brown, and things could get interesting. So although there’s still some way to go, it seems we’re really getting into people’s heads – understanding what goes on when they lie and revealing their allegiances. Even Keenan recognises there’s an issue here. “I remember the first time I was in

an fMRI scanner, in 1995 or 1996,” he says. “When they were looking at the scan, they were pointing at a part of the motor cortex that involves genitals and laughing, saying, ‘What were you thinking about?’ Even if I wasn’t thinking about sex – and I don’t remember if I was or not – there’s the implication that you could be just thinking something wrong." Clearly Keenan, just like Moe in The Simpsons, felt somewhat exposed by this technology. And as the tools used to see into our minds advance, it’s likely that many of us will experience this feeling at some point – perhaps at an airport or even when we apply for a job. The question is, will we consider it “shabby treatment”, or a price worth paying? Andy Ridgway is the Deputy Editor of Focus Magazine.

find out more E National Academy of Science report on polygraphs and lie detection E No Lie MRI’s website April 2012





100rsary ive



SCOT T? In 1912, Captain Scott and his team failed to reach the South Pole first, then perished in the Antarctic conditions. Max Jones asks whether they are remembered as heroes or tragic adventurers

This photograph of Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova, is one of many taken by the expedition’s official photographer Herbert Ponting April 2012





othing in our own time,” proclaimed the Manchester Guardian, “[…]has touched the whole nation so instantly and so deeply as the loss of these men.” As the bells of St Paul’s Cathedral struck noon on 14 February 1913, 1.5 million children gathered in schools around Britain to hear the story of Scott of the Antarctic. The explorer and his four companions had been dead for nearly a year, but the tragic news had reached London via telegraph from New Zealand only at the start of the week. The Daily Mirror, which first published the photographs taken by the dead explorers at the South Pole, sold over 1.3 million copies, one of the best-selling issues of any daily paper before 1914. A fund would eventually raise close to `58 lakhs to provide for the bereaved and commemorate the dead – about `39 crores in today’s money. The great prizes of exploration had captivated the public since the mid-19th century, with the search for the sources of the Nile. Explorers provided an expression of national greatness in an era of imperial rivalry. The young naval officer Robert Falcon Scott, born in 1868,

getty x3, Alamy, Corbis


had achieved fame after leading a first expedition to the Antarctic in the ship Discovery in 1901-04. He had set a new ‘farthest south’ record, reaching 82°17´S – 300 miles (483km) further south than anyone before and only 480 miles (772km) from the Pole. That expedition made many important scientific discoveries and Scott was promoted to the rank of Captain on his return. The race for the Pole His second expedition – which aimed to be the first to reach the South Pole – had departed in the ship Terra Nova in 1910. The ‘camera-artist’ Herbert Ponting accompanied the expedition, chronicling the crew’s adventures and the dramatic Antarctic landscape. Ponting’s pioneering film footage was exhibited throughout Britain in 1911-12, while his compelling photographs illustrated press reports of Scott’s progress. But Scott lost the race for the South Pole, arriving on 17 January 1912, a month after the Norwegian expedition led by Roald Amundsen. After the disappointment of finding the Norwegian flag at the Pole, two members of Scott’s team, Edgar

Stocking up on supplies at the expedition’s base at Cape Evans on Ross Island, the planet’s southernmost island reachable by sea


April 2012

Evans and Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates, died on the return leg before Scott and his remaining comrades Henry Bowers and Dr Edward Wilson perished on the Great Ice Barrier. Why, then, was the disaster celebrated in Britain and around the world? The answer lies in Scott’s own words. A search party had found not only the bodies of Scott, Bowers and Wilson in November 1912, but also the letters and diaries that told their story. In his last journal, Scott had composed a ‘Message to the Public’, part apologia, part heroic testament, part plea for the bereaved. It claimed the tragedy was “not due to faulty organisation, but to misfortune in all risks which had to be undertaken”, turning defeat into noble sacrifice, a disaster redeemed by the exemplary conduct of the explorers in the face of death. The message gave voice to the heroic fantasies of Scott’s generation. A romantic language of sacrifice pervaded late-Victorian and Edwardian culture, lauding the endurance of hardship as the highest expression of manliness. Before 1914, Britons were preoccupied with the humiliations of the Boer War of 1899-1902 in South Africa, international competition, and the physical deterioration of the masses and decadence of the governing classes. Scott explicitly crafted his message as a retort to the prophets of national decline. Many commentators

Scott’s visibly dejected team plant their flags at the South Pole in January 1912


Herbert Ponting contributed greatly to the scientific aims of the expedition, here taking pictures of skua gulls

Captain Scott’s ‘Message to the Public” Written at the back of his journal as he waited to die on 25 March 1912, Scott’s message transformed disaster into heroic sacrifice. It concluded: “We are weak, writing is difficult, but, for my own sake, I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardship, help one another and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks – we knew we took them. Things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best till the last. But if we have been willing to give our lives to this enterprise, which is for the honour of our country, I appeal to our countrymen to see that those who depend on us are properly provided for.

Scott’s parting ‘Message to the Public’ turned defeat into noble sacrifice followed his lead. The founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert BadenPowell, praised Scott: “There is plenty of pluck and spirit left in the British race after all.” Socialists, Irish nationalists and militant suffragettes also joined the chorus of praise. “There is, indeed, nothing to match the spirit of the militants, unless it be the spirit shown by Captain Scott and his brave companions,” wrote suffragette Christabel Pankhurst. Inspirational figure The story of Scott of the Antarctic reverberated through World War I, when sacrifice became commonplace. The death of the explorers on a scientific quest offered a powerful model of Britishness, of idealism and honour, to set against Prussian militarism and brutality. On 5 May 1916, British Prime Minister Herbert

Asquith unveiled a memorial tablet to Scott in St Paul’s Cathedral. Less than two months before the slaughter of the Somme the same year, Asquith declared: “There is no figure of our time who holds and will retain the same enduring place in the admiration and gratitude of his countrymen [as Scott]”. Many believed Scott’s example had braced the nation for war. Nearly all the officers on his last expedition volunteered for service and many were decorated for acts of bravery. Scott’s widow Kathleen received hundreds of letters from soldiers testifying to the inspiration they had drawn from her late husband. Ponting’s films of the expedition were shown to over 100,000 officers and men of the British Army in France. The story of Captain Oates who, crippled by frostbite, walked into the snow to try to help his friends get through

Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.

Inspiration or failure? Opinion remains divided over Captain Scott’s legacy

These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale; but surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.”

proved particularly compelling. The films projected an example of comradeship and of men doing their duty to the end, themes that were all too relevant on the Western Front. Ponting’s efforts to create a commercial film hit after 1918 April 2012

E 49


Alamy, Getty, Corbis

Four of the five men who reached the Pole: (left to right) Evans, Oates, Wilson and Scott

E proved unsuccessful. He was hampered as he had shot almost no footage of the drama’s main action – the assault on the Pole. But accounts of the Antarctic disaster that proliferated after the war as words, rather than pictures, breathed new life into Scott’s story. Publisher John Murray’s cheap editions of Scott’s journals sold over 80,000 copies between 1923 and 1939, while biographies and memoirs kept the story very much in the public eye. Scott’s Antarctic disaster offered an epic of heroism for a generation tired of war. The establishment of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge with the balance of the memorial fund emphasised the expedition’s scientific aspirations, while BBC producers arguing over the most appropriate way to end their 1935 Armistice Day anniversary programming agreed to broadcast a play about Scott so as to promote the idea of “peace and comradeship”. By 1940, the Ministry of Information’s manifesto for film propaganda had singled out Scott as a national hero who should be readily used to promote “British life and character”. But, although numerous radio broadcasts retold Scott’s story during World War II, it wasn’t until 1948 that Ealing Studios 50

April 2012

released the movie Scott of the Antarctic, which starred John Mills in the title role. The public, however, were preoccupied with their own food shortages and did not flock to the cinemas to see it. Scott’s popularity began to wane in the 1950s. Mocked by comedians, including Peter Cook and the Monty Python team, he seemed to the new generation to be the

One biographer saw Scott as an emblem of amateurism and incompetence physical embodiment of stiff-upperlipped Englishness, increasingly out of step in an age that valued emotional expression above selfcontrol. Howard Brenton’s 1971 play Scott of the Antarctic presented the British explorers as upper-class fools stumbling around Bradford ice rink on foot while the Norwegians skated past. John Murray took heed of the public perception of Scott

and in 1978, after more than half a century in circulation, finally chose not to reprint Scott’s journals. Scott was already out of fashion when Roland Huntford published his debunking biography Scott and Amundsen the following year. The British explorer had been criticised since 1913, when many commentators acknowledged the superiority of Amundsen’s methods. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a young member of Scott’s team, had revealed Scott’s sensitive, brooding personality in 1922’s The Worst Journey in the World, a characterisation confirmed in Reginald Pound’s 1966 biography Scott of the Antarctic, the first to be written with full access to Scott’s unexpurgated journals. All, however, had paid tribute to the explorer’s heroism in the face of death. Huntford, in contrast, presented an arrogant fool who led his companions to their deaths. His Scott was a suitable hero for a nation in decline, an emblem of amateurism and incompetence. Although many were outraged, his seductive interpretation became the new orthodoxy, reinforced in 1985 through the television docudrama, The Last Place on Earth. Scott’s reputation suffered further with the resurgence of interest in


the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton at the end of the 1990s. Shackleton’s 1914 expedition aimed for the first crossing of the Antarctic on foot but his ship Endurance was crushed by ice – a drama captured on film by expedition photographer Frank Hurley. Thanks to Shackleton’s determined leadership, his party survived their 19-month ordeal. So, where Shackleton has been hailed as a model leader, dynamic and inspirational, Scott has been cast as his negative other; remote, capricious and indecisive. The principal complaint of many visitors to Britain’s National Maritime Museum’s ‘South: The Race to the Pole’ exhibition in 2000-2001 was that Scott had been portrayed too positively. Revived reputation Over the last 10 years or so, however, the revisionist cycle has turned again. The award-winning polar scientist Susan Solomon persuasively argued in 2001 that the British team had been the victims of unusually bad weather on their return from the Pole – as Scott himself had claimed in his ‘Message to the Public’. Sir Ranulph Fiennes harnessed the experience of a veteran polar traveller to mount a direct assault on Huntford’s interpretation in his own book – 2004’s Captain Scott. And, a year later, David Crane drew on a wealth of previously unused sources in his Scott of the Antarctic, the most balanced biography

The burial site of Scott, Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers, constructed the following spring

of Scott yet published. These works have helped rescue Scott’s reputation, while the research of Susan Solomon and others on climate change in Antarctica follows directly in the footsteps of Scott’s pioneering meteorologist, George Simpson. Scott must certainly shoulder his share of the blame for the Antarctic disaster, but the scientific legacy of his last expedition deserves acknowledgement and celebration. Max Jones lectures in modern British history at the University of Manchester, UK, with particular interest in the rise and fall of the imperial hero.

find out more E The Last Great Quest: Captain Scott’s Antarctic sacrifice by Max Jones (OUP, 2003) E Scott of the Antarctic: a life of courage and tragedy in the extreme south by David Crane (HarperPerennial, 2005, repub. 2012) E The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott by David M Wilson (Little, Brown, 2011) E The BBC’s Historic Figures page on Scott

What do you think? Was Scott’s adventure the ultimate failure or a triumph of scientific endeavour? email:

David Wilson is the greatnephew of Edward Wilson, who died alongside Scott. He has just published a remarkable collection of Scott’s photographs that have only recently come to light Why were Scott’s pictures forgotten, and how were they found? The expedition had copyright over the images for the first two years, after which all the photographs were returned to copyright-holders. Instead of Scott’s photos going back to his family, for some reason they were returned to Herbert Ponting, the expedition photographer. They seem to have languished, forgotten, in a photographic agency’s collection until they were sold off in 2001. Quite astonishing.

What did Scott want from the expedition? My great-uncle phrased it that they wanted to make the Pole “merely an item in the results”. So it would be one among many other scientific achievements of the expedition. Scott was always completely clear – the Pole was his promise to the country and the science was his passion. The race to the Pole was Amundsen’s agenda.

How thoroughly is Edward Wilson’s final expedition embedded in your family history? Hugely. His widow, my great-aunt, talked to my father about it quite a lot. We grew up with his paintings on the wall and relics from the expedition. They were just considered normal parts of the furniture. People sometimes ask what it was like growing up. It’s hard for me to explain – it was just normal. E Read more of this interview on the website

April 2012



Feature in here

Underwater habitats World-renowned underwater photographer David Doubilet dips beneath the surface to showcase the variety of life in our planet’s shallow waters

reef encounter For the underwater photographer, a coral reef offers innumerable opportunities to document the vivid, hyper-colourful habitats of the underwater residents. This coral-dwelling humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) was photographed near Lord Howe Island, part of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.


Feature Portfolio in here

Jan/Feb April 2012 2011


Feature in here

Feature Portfolio in here

up close and personal G Its environs look idyllic to us, but this baby green turtle (Chelonia mydas) isn’t just hanging around. It’s paddling towards the protection of the open seas surrounding Marutea Atoll, midway along the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia. Closer to shore, juveniles like this come under attack from a range of predators – crabs, small marine mammals and shorebirds such as gulls. Green turtles are also killed by humans for their meat and eggs.

nemo found


In the seas off Papua New Guinea, this spine-cheeked clownfish (Premnas biaculeatus) might lack effective camouflage in its natural habitat, but it still benefits from the shelter of this bubble-tipped anemone (Entacmaea quadricolor). Although the warm seas have stripped the anemone of the algae that provides colour, as well as energy from photosynthesis, it can still provide safe harbour for the clownfish. In return, its stripy friend protects it from polyp-eating predators like butterflyfish.

Jan/Feb April 2012 2011


Feature in here

Feature Portfolio in here

leader of the pack


These Australian sea lions (Neophoca cinerea) are frolicking in their verdant habitat off the coast of Little Hopkins Island, South Australia. But the frolicking did not last long. “The Australian sea lion is one of the rarest and most endangered pinnipeds in the world,” says Doubilet. “While I was photographing them, the leader of the group stood up, looked around and then swam straight and fast for the beach with the entire group following. Something told us that maybe we should leave too. We climbed into our boat just as a great white shark came into view.”

Jan/Feb April 2012 2011


Feature in here Portfolio

Schools out F This school of blackfin barracuda (Sphyraena qenie), photographed off the island of Sipadan in Malaysian Borneo, swarmed up from the ocean floor to protect their surroundings by forming a defensive circle around one of Doubilet’s fellow divers. “I am constantly surprised by the geometric patterns formed under the waves,” says Doubillet. But these patterns can be fleeting. “This living sculpture lasted for about three seconds – just five frames – before the fish dispersed and disappeared.”

The photographer Heavily decorated with prestigious awards, former dive instructor David Doubilet is widely considered to be the leading underwater photographer in the world. His 40-year career has taken him across the globe in search of undersea adventures, often in the service of National Geographic, for whom he has undertaken more than 60 assignments.

find out more E David Doubilet’s official website 58

Jan/Feb April 2012 2011


The hoatzin, seen here in Peru’s Tambopata National Reserve, is a misfit that has ripped up the evolutionary rule book

Animal Behaviour

bird that cow

The thinks it’s a

Birds don’t normally graze leaves in herds, digest for hours and emit a smell of fresh manure. James Parry finds out more about the hoatzin – South America’s most extraordinary bird

April 2012



addling along a tributary of Ecuador’s Napo River shortly after dawn, I felt closer to the rainforest than on any of my previous visits to this glorious region. A tangled mesh of vegetation cascaded down from the canopy above and trailed in the water next to my canoe. Iridescent blue Morpho butterflies the size of dinner plates sailed past, almost within touching distance, and squirrel monkeys cavorted in the waterside trees. I thought I heard the yelp of a giant otter, while closer to hand the sirenlike call of a screaming piha – surely the noisiest bird in the rainforest – reverberated through the understorey. It was all stirring stuff, but something was missing. Hoatzins (Opisthocomus hoazin), those zoological curiosities, were what had lured me here. I didn’t want to leave without seeing – or smelling – them. A gang of the unusual birds had been here the previous day, but they had moved on. The reason why was clear – the tree in which they had been spotted was stripped bare. Uniquely among birds, hoatzins are folivores, or leaf-eaters. They’d simply scoffed the lot and gone to find more. Hoatzins are often said to smell of fresh cow manure or sweet-smelling hay as a by-product of their unconventional diet. While wondering if the legend of their scent had any basis in fact or belonged in the realms of folklore, I rounded a bend in


the river and there they were: half a dozen gawky-looking birds draped over a shrub, busily tucking in. A couple of the group flapped about clumsily to find a new sprig on which to gorge themselves. One wasn’t eating at all, instead perching almost motionless in a shaft of early morning sunshine. That’s another thing about hoatzins – nothing they do is ever in a hurry.

Blundering inelegantly through the foliage, the hoatzin has the air of someone who has just been rudely awoken

Fashion statement By no stretch of the imagination could they be described as beautiful – a few assorted handsome features, to be sure, but the sum total of these parts almost borders on the grotesque. Yet I’ve always found a quirky charm in the species’ eclectic appearance. A funky mohican crest and neon-blue facial skin surrounding a beady red eye are accessorised by dramatic, cape-like wings and an extravagant fanshaped tail used to maintain balance while scrambling around in vegetation. The black, russet and cream plumage has a hint of the Georgian gentleman. But the elegance stops there. Hoatzins are awkward birds who spend most of their time scrambling round on bushes surrounding South American waterways. Their flight is laboured, with many a comical crash-landing, and their flouncing gait probably gave rise to one of their local Brazilian names: cigana, meaning gypsy.

FLPA x5, photolibrary, Thinkstock x3

A canny escape Hoatzin chicks have a cunning way of escaping danger





Predators such as the Great Black Hawk (Buteogallus urubitinga) sometimes attack hoatzin colonies. While the adults squawk and flutter to distract the hawk, the chicks jump out of the nest and into the water below.

The scrawny-looking chick flaps and paddles underwater until it has reached a safe distance from the colony. It needs to remain alert, as the water is full of other threats, including cayman and snakes.

The chick uses its wing claws to haul itself out of the water and onto a tree branch. Once it reaches adulthood it will lose this adaptation and use its fully grown wings to aid its climbing instead.

April 2012

Animal Behaviour

Digestive magic How does the hoatzin do it?

Typical bird



Most birds, such as this starling, have a crop that allows them to gobble far more food than their stomachs can hold before darting back to safety. The crop stores the excess food and passes it into the two-chambered stomach as needed. The first chamber holds acid to break the food down. The second, the gizzard, has powerful muscles, and holds swallowed grit and small stones for grinding.

Cows have four enlarged stomach chambers containing anaerobic microbes and enzymes to break down plant matter. The fermentation and digestion process begins in the rumen. When the rumen contracts, its contents either move on for next-step processing or return to the mouth. ‘Chewing the cud’ adds more saliva and breaks food down further before it advances through the system.

Like cows, the hoatzin needs to digest large amounts of plant matter – in particular, the cellulose cell walls of leaves. It is the only bird known to have a fully functional foregut fermentation system, in the form of an unusually large crop, folded into two chambers, and a large, multi-chambered lower oesophagus. Its stomach chamber and gizzard are much smaller than in other birds and it takes many hours to digest.

Hoatzins have intrigued and befuddled scientists ever since they were first described by German zoologist Statius Müller in 1776. Taxonomists have spent decades deciding how to categorise these unusual birds, originally placing them with pheasants, then moving them around the avian family tree from pigeons to cuckoos and rails to turacos. The use of DNA analysis seems to have made things more, rather than less, complicated – while it has ruled out some relationships, scientists still cannot identify a close relative. Today, the hoatzin genome is part-way through being sequenced and in the meantime it has been given its own family, Opisthocomidae (from the Greek for ‘those with long hair behind’). The hoatzin split from other bird groups a long time ago, though precisely how and when remains unclear since there is only one undisputable related fossil – part of a skull that was found in Magdalena Valley, Colombia, and described in 1953. This has not stopped scientists from speculating on the bird’s primitive status, with one describing the hoatzin as long ago as 1898 as “living evidence of the transition between reptiles and birds.” The claim was largely due to the wing claws of young hoatzins, which they use to help scramble

Hoatzins loaf around for up to 80 per cent of their time chewing the cud out of the water and in the trees before their adult wings are fully developed. It is now thought that this trait evolved separately in hoatzins, rather than being inherited directly from Archaeopteryx and other early birds. Branching out Whatever the truth about the hoatzins’ past, their diet makes them unique. They are the only birds known to possess a foregut fermentation system. This highly specialised arrangement equips them to process the huge quantity of foliage they need to provide enough energy to survive, since the leaves that form the bulk of their diet are low in nutrients. The hoatzins’ oesophagus and enlarged crop serve as fermentation chambers. Inside are anaerobic bacteria that secrete enzymes able to break down the otherwise indigestible cellulose present in plant tissue. The birds ‘chew’ the leaves before swallowing, and ridges inside their crops

help to break down the leaf bulk further so it can be processed more easily. In digestive matters, hoatzins have more in common with cattle and sheep than with their feathered relatives. Hoatzins digest their food very, very slowly. A meal can take as long as 45 hours to pass from bill to cloaca. This is why these birds loaf around for up to 80 per cent of their time – they are effectively chewing the cud. There is a downside to having such a supersized crop. Hoatzins only have enough space left inside their bodies for a simple, reduced sternum (breast bone) and puny flight muscles. Small wonder then that they are such weak flyers. I have seen birds so engorged that they can’t take off and simply sit for hours, beaks gaping and wings drooping, until they have at last processed their meal. Besides their reputed odour and their cow-like eating habits, hoatzins are endowed with another typically bovine E April 2012


Animal Behaviour

FACTSHEET Hoatzins sit for hours digesting the leaves that form the bulk of their diet

Opisthocomus hoatzin Latin name: Opisthocomus hoazin Common name: Hoatzin (aka ‘stink bird’) Size: length 62-70cm (24-28in), weight 700-900g (25-32oz). Diet: Hoatzins eat leaves and buds of over 50 species of plants, including several toxic to other birds. A 1996 study in Venezuela found their diet consisted of 82 per cent leaves, 10 per cent flowers and 8 per cent fruit.

getty, alamy, illustration by sheu-kuEI ho

E characteristic: they are highly social. The birds form family flocks of up to a dozen or so individuals. Colonies of 40 or more birds have been recorded – and they are noisy. An entire family may engage in a cacophony of grunts, squawks and hisses, often delivered in unison. The birds are usually set off by one particularly enthusiastic individual, who leads the rest of the ensemble in a bizarre chorus.

Tourist threat Because their meat is generally regarded as unpalatable, hoatzins are rarely hunted and the principal threat to them comes from disturbance and habitat destruction. They are often tame and seemingly tolerant of humans, but research in tourist areas has indicated a more worrying picture. In 2004, researchers placed microphones in hoatzin nests at Cuyabeno in Ecuador both in tourist areas and undisturbed nesting sites. They discovered that in the tourist sites the heart rates and stress levels of the juvenile birds soared, their body mass was up to 50 per cent lower, and mortality was significantly higher. Repeated visits from tourists may therefore adversely affect hoatzin populations near lodges and camps. Hoatzins are an icon of tropical lowland 64

April 2012

rainforest and don’t do well in captivity. The first birds were brought to London Zoo in 1931, but died soon after arrival. More recently the Bronx Zoo housed a small group in the 1990s, feeding them on locally grown vegetation and even successfully hatching chicks, but the birds did not survive. In contrast to jaguars, toucans and macaws, hoatzins are somewhat unconventional icons of the Amazon jungle. For the record, I couldn’t detect any smell from the birds I saw during my trip, but I found all the other specialised characteristics of this remarkable bird exactly as promised. Rest assured, this avian enigma will continue to defy the norms of the natural world.

BREEDING: They breed during the rainy season, often with several pairs nesting in close proximity. The female lays two to four eggs on a simple twig platform in a tree overhanging water; usually only one chick fledges about 60 days after hatching. A co-operative breeder, up to six ‘helpers’, including the previous years’ offspring, may help breeding pairs to rear their young. LongEvity: Up to about 10 years in the wild. HABITAT and Range: Waterside mangroves and other trees and bushes beside lakes, rivers and swamps. Main threats: Loss of habitat and disturbance by humans, particularly tourists getting too close. Conservation status: Common, but with a patchy distribution across its range.


James Parry is a British wildlife journalist and author of a number of books on natural history, including Rainforest Safari (Carlton Books, 2008)

find out more E The status of the Hoatzin Genome Project E An extract from the BBC’s Life of Birds showing how a hoatzin chick uses its wing claws to escape danger


French Guiana


North Atlantic Ocean

Colombia Ecuador R. Napo


Brazil Bolivia

Hoatzin range

South Pacific Ocean


Human Limits

Pushed to the

EXTREME What are the physical limits of the human body? How fast is it possible to run? How hard can you punch? And what’s the hottest curry your intestines can endure? Luis Villazon has the last word bones shatter. To this end, we have devised a series of tests that each look at a different area of physical capacity. Standard International Olympic Committee rules apply: no drugs, gene therapy or bionic implants are allowed. Of course, actually performing these tests would be tricky. If we studied real people, our tests would, in most cases, result in the death or serious injury of the subject, so it’s not the sort of research you find written up in Nature very often. Instead, we have talked

to a lot of experts, done a pile of calculations and come up with a number. The results are our best estimates for the absolute ceiling of human endeavour. We’ll also see what the current record is, and gauge how close a normal, healthy adult would come, as a percentage of the theoretical maximum. So turn the page and find out the records that even the most perfect athletes could never better. April 2012

illustration by bryan christie

ust how far can the human body be pushed? We’re going to discover the theoretical limits of the envelope. In other words, how far could the human species ever go? At this rarefied height of achievement, we are beyond the point at which mere training or willpower are sufficient – or even especially relevant. We want to know the point at which the laws of physics step in and take precedence over those of biology. This is the point where sinew snaps and



Human Limits

TEST 1: The Cooler

TEST 2: The Punchbag

What is the lowest core body temperature you can survive?

Just how hard can a human punch before your bones shatter? Muscle tissue generates about 0.3 micronewtons of force per muscle fibre. This translates into about 100 Newtons (roughly 10kg) for each square centimetre of cross-sectional area in your muscle. But the bones in your forearm will shatter above 200 megapascals of compression, roughly equivalent to 50kN of force. If we assume that the arm muscles contribute half of the force of the punch (with the rest coming from the legs, hips and shoulder acting in concert), you’d need a tricep with a circumference of around 55cm to reach this limit, as well as lots of training to maximize the efficiency of your technique.

If core temperature drops to 30°C, most people will fall unconscious

Theoretical limit: 50kN Current record: 3kN (estimated) In 1931, boxer Max Baer landed what’s regarded as the hardest punch ever – in a fight with Ernie Shaff, who never fully recovered and died six months on.

How close could you come? 0.2% 100N

getty x3, illustration by bryan christie

of limit

Normal body temperature varies from individual to individual but is typically just over 37°C. Should this drop by even a small amount, then hypothermia sets in. At 36°C, your reaction times and judgement become impaired, and at 35°C, you will be unable to write your own name and even walking is very difficult. At 33°C, you may become completely irrational, throwing away survival gear and stripping off your clothing. At 32°C, most people will collapse, slipping unconscious when their core temperature drops to around 30°C. At this point, the body has given up trying to maintain core temperature. Breathing drops to just one or two breaths a minute. By 28°C, cardiac arrhythmia (an irregular heartbeat) sets in and by the time you have cooled to 20°C, your heart will have stopped beating altogether. However, doctors have a saying: “You aren’t dead until you are warm and dead.” This is because extreme cold slows down the cellular breakdown that causes irreversible damage. You can improve your chances of survival by being warmed up very gently and having paramedics on hand with a defibrillator. It helps if you’re young, too, because children’s organs are more resilient. The theoretical absolute lower limit however, is zero degrees centigrade. At this temperature, ice crystals would form in your tissues, destroying all cells.

TEST 3: The Needle How much blood has to pour out of you before your body stops working? A healthy adult has between 3.8 and 5.6 litres of blood. You can lose up to 15 per cent of your total volume rapidly without any immediate effects. Above this your pulse will become more rapid and you may feel dizzy, irritable or cold. At around 40 per cent loss, your blood pressure is too low to refill the heart chambers and the heart goes into ventricular tachycardia (a fast rhythm that can be fatal). Good cardiovascular fitness improves your chances and it also helps to be large, as you can lose a greater volume for the same percentage loss. Lying still and keeping calm will also delay the onset of shock by reducing adrenalin levels.

Theoretical limit: 0°C Current record: 16°C In 2001, a toddler was revived after wandering out in -20°C weather. Her heart had stopped for two hours and her core temperature was 16°C.

Theoretical limit: 1.9–2.8 litres, 50% Current record: 75% How close could you come? 24% 28°C of limit


April 2012

In 1987, cancer patient Melissa Koslosky was found with just 0.9 litres (25 per cent) of blood in her system. But the blood was lost slowly over weeks.

How close could you come? 1.8 litres 64% of limit

Body Facts How many balls can you juggle? Only a handful of people have ever managed to juggle 11 or 12 balls and no one has done 13. The problem is that the more balls are in the air at once, the faster your hands need to move to keep them from falling. A 1997 study using accelerometers attached to the hands of some of the best jugglers in the world showed that, with perfect technique, it might be possible to juggle 16 balls at once. But for this to happen, every ball would have to be thrown to exactly the same height and land in exactly the same location. There is no margin of error to reach even a few centimetres for a misplaced ball, because the forces required would exceed human limits.

TEST 4: THE CURRY HOUSE What is the hottest curry your pain receptors can bear?

The active ingredient in curry or chilli is capsaicin (or 8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide). This chemical binds to the nerve receptor VR1 that is normally responsible for sensing heat or physical abrasion. The more capsaicin is present, the hotter the curry. Ordinary Tabasco sauce is about 260 parts per million capsaicin. A habanero chilli contains about 17,000ppm. Theoretically, the hottest curry you could concoct would just be a bowl of pure capsaicin crystals. Such a dish would be 10,000 times hotter than a vindaloo. Although capsaicin does not actually cause a chemical burn or any direct tissue damage itself, the effect on the nervous system of such powerful stimulation is similar to an allergic reaction. As well as incredible pain, you could expect uncontrollably streaming eyes and nose, upper body spasms and severe difficulty in breathing for 30 to 45 minutes. In fact, our

ultimate curry would be five times stronger than the pepper spray used by police for riot control, and could be highly dangerous. Despite this, in 2005, extreme food specialist Blair Lazar managed to refine 500g of pure capsaicin from several tonnes of chilli peppers to create the “16 Million Reserve” sauce. Provided that you are fit and healthy with no history of heart conditions or asthma, it might be possible to survive a teaspoon of pure capsaicin – about 5 grams. But it would be quite impossible to eat anything after that for several hours. Theoretical limit: 5g capsaicin Current record: 0.1g Blair Lazar tried a single crystal on his tongue. “It was like having your tongue hit with a hammer,” he said, “and hurt like hell for days.”

How close could you come? Vindaloo 0.01% of limit

April 2012


Human Limits

TEST 5: The Treadmill How fast can your legs carry you before the muscles tear apart? The question of how fast it is possible for a human to run is actually much more complicated than it sounds. Even deciding who is currently the fastest human is tricky. The current world record for the 100m sprint is held by Asafa Powell of Jamaica who clocked a time of 9.74s in 2007. This gives an average speed of 36.96km/h, but since the runners must begin from a standstill, this value includes the time taken to accelerate. Sprinters running a 200m race will actually complete their second 100m in a shorter time than the first because they are already running at full speed as they cross the 100m mark. The difference is enough that Michael Johnson’s record for the 200m, set in Atlanta in 1996, actually gives him an average speed of 37.27km/h for the race – faster than the best average for the 100m. Since the advent of electronic timing in 1968, the men’s world record for the 100m has been beaten 11 times, never by more than 0.05s at a time. It is very doubtful that any significant portion of the 0.21s shaved off the record since then is a result of greater athletic prowess, as opposed to improvements in track

and running shoe technology, or the effects of wind and altitude. Mathematical projections for sprinting times have suggested ultimate limits as low as 9.37s for the 100m but these take no account of the constraints of biology. Most of the forward force in each running stride is supplied by the quadriceps muscle group. These muscles are all attached to the knee by the quadriceps tendon. Work done by Dr Gideon B Ariel in the late 1970s suggested that any time faster than 9.60s would require forces high enough to rupture this tendon from its attachment point. Taking this as the fastest possible time for the 100m would give an average speed of 37.5km/h. Graphs of 10m split times for Olympic sprinters show that speed peaks around the 80m mark. Taking this as a guide it’s possible to estimate our runner’s maximum speed, which turns out to be 11.96m/s or 43.06km/h. Theoretical limit: 43.06km/h Current record: 42.52km/h In 2007, Asafa Powell ran with a 1.7m/s tailwind. Despite this advantage, he only improved on Maurice Greene’s 1999 record by 0.05s.

How close could you come? 65% 28km/h of limit


TEST 6: The Generator How much electricity can pass through the body without destroying it?

getty, science photo library, alamy

In classic electrocution, the heart is shocked out of its beating rhythm in a process called ventricular fibrillation. It’s not voltage that kills but electrical current, measured in amps. The threshold of sensation for humans is one milliamp (1mA), while a sustained current of 200mA is fatal – able to stop a typical human heart weighing around 300g. According to Ohm’s Law, current passing through a conductor is given by voltage divided by electrical resistance, measured in ohms. Since the resistance of human skin varies between 1000 ohms for wet skin to 100,000 when dry, the lethal voltages are 200V and 20,000V respectively. The most a healthy heart can weigh is around 400g, with the extra muscle mass suggesting a survivable limit of 27,000V. At high voltages, such as in lightning, extra physics comes into play. Despite their power, only 10 per cent of lightning strikes are fatal. Most injuries result from arc flash – the intense heat, light and pressure from the sudden heating effect of powerful electrical currents. Yet given lightning’s inherent unpredictability, there is scant data available. Nine out of 10 people struck by lightning survive

Theoretical limit: 27,000V* Current record: n/a US Park Ranger Roy Sullivan was struck by lightning seven times between 1942 and 1977 and survived each time.

How close could you come? 74% 20,000V of limit

*estimate for dry skin; with wet skin a tenth of this would be fatal, as water is a better conductor


April 2012

How hard can you get struck by a car and live? Cars are mostly designed to protect the occupants, not pedestrians. The impact energy rises with the square of the impact speed. If a car hits you at 30 to 45km/h (~23mph) you have an 87 per cent chance of survival. At 45 to 50km/h (~30mph) that chance falls to 27 per cent. At speeds above 60km/h (~38mph), you have less than a one per cent chance of surviving.

Human Limits

TEST 7: The Loudspeaker When it comes to your eardrums, how loud is too loud? Sound volume is measured in decibels, a dimensionless, logarithmic scale where an increase of 3dB corresponds to a doubling in power. At 125dB (a jet taking off 50m away), sound becomes painfully loud. The loudest sound you can safely hear is 160dB because above that there is a chance your eardrums will rupture. But sound is just a pressure wave and there is almost no theoretical upper limit to its intensity. The existence of a ‘brown note’, that resonates to cause victims to lose control of their bowels, has been postulated but never demonstrated in tests. But internal organ damage from very loud sounds is perfectly possible. The loudest sound ever recorded was the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, which measured 180dB, 160km away. Anyone closer than 20km would have experienced sound levels of 200dB and, at this volume, the pressure wave would rupture their lungs. This would cause air to enter the bloodstream causing a fatal pulmonary embolism. Theoretical limit: 200dB Current record: 175dB at 2m The T-429 stun grenade produces a 175dB bang at 2m. At point blank range, this would rise to 186dB, which is enough to trigger cardiac arrest.

How close could you come? 197dB 50%

Extreme sound waves could cause organ damage

of limit

April 2012


Human Limits

Water 10 litres: the most water you can drink in an hour without diluting your electrolyte levels, resulting in seizure or death

The limits Your body will never take more than this...

The cold 20°C: the minimum core body temperature before your heart will stop beating.

Punching 50kN: the hardest punching force possible without shattering all the bones in your arm.

Electricity 27,000V: the most powerful electric shock that you could survive with dry skin. On wet skin, a tenth of this would be fatal.

Hairball 5kg: the largest hairball. This was removed by surgeons from the stomach of an 18-year-old girl who had been compulsively eating her own hair for five months.

Thin air 8.0kPa (60mmHg): the lowest survivable oxygen partial pressure without suffering progressive, irreversible brain damage. Partial pressure at the top of Everest, in the ‘Death Zone’, is 6.65kPa.

Booze 0.4 per cent: this blood alcohol level would be lethal for 50 per cent of the population. This is equivalent to nine or 10 drinks in an hour.

Sprinting 43.06km/h (26.9mph): the fastest speed you could run without ripping your quadriceps tendon from your knee.

Blood loss 50 per cent: proportion of your blood you can lose in one go without going into hypovolemic shock. April 2012

illustration by bryan christie

Radiation 7 sieverts: the highest survivable radiation dose. Almost all victims die within 14 days from acute intestinal bleeding.

Bee stings 2243: the greatest number of bee stings ever survived. The theoretical dose needed to give a 50 per cent chance of death is 600 stings.


Curry 5g of pure capsaicin: the most you could eat without risking cardiac arrest. This is equal to 100 portions of vindaloo.

School in Focus

Parachute Regiment Training Centre (Army Public School) J C Nagar, Bangalore

Established in 1992 as the Parachute Regiment School, the school was renamed as the Army Public School Parachute Regiment Training Centre in July 2011. The institute ensures a judicious mix of academic competence, physical fitness, discipline and social awareness to mould future citizens of India. The CBSE-affiliated school is open to the children of both defence and civilian families, providing education to students from Nursery to Standard 10th.

Investiture Ceremony: Student Council Members along with the dignitaries

Annual Day: Budding dancers

Investiture Ceremony: Future leaders taking responsibilities on their young shoulders

showcase their talents on the occasion of Annual Day

Annual Day: An ethereal performance by the girls of the primary school on Annual Day

Sports Day: Union of Body and Mind - Yoga in action

Science Day:

Principal Mousumi Dutta inaugurates the exhibition - ‘Science in Action’

Science Day: An exhibit projecting modern methods of Transport and

Communication by Manas P S and Deepesh from Class VI & VII respectively

BBC Knowledge recently organised an event at the Army Public School Parachute Regiment Training Centre. If you would like us to visit your school and have it featured on this page, write in to us at

The Harappan Legacy




The Indus and the Gangetic civilisations did not exist in isolation but have harmoniously laid the foundation of present India. Michel Danino explains he dawn of Indian civilisation never fails to fascinate. What prompted people to build cities in the Indus plains in the 3rd millennium BCE (Before Common Era) or in the Gangetic plains from about 800 BCE? Why did the Indus cities collapse around 1900 BCE? Are there any connections between those two civilisations, the second of which has come to be regarded as India’s classical civilisation? Answers to those questions remain tentative; despite the mass of material available, numerous sites remain unexcavated and many excavation reports unpublished. Also, in the Indian environment, the passage of time destroys most objects of wood, cloth or bark, so that the archaeological record is necessarily incomplete — gone are ceremonies, processions, songs or stories. Finally, in the case of the Indus civilisation, the writing system used on thousands of small seals or pottery pieces remains undeciphered, leaving an important aspect of its culture mute. Initially, the connection with the Indus (or Harappan) and Gangetic civilisations was regarded as virtually nonexistent: in the 1940s, Mortimer Wheeler, a director general

ASI, Michel Danino



April 2012

of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), proclaimed, on the basis of a few skeletons found in Mohenjo-daro’s streets, that the city had been destroyed by invading Aryans. The Harappan civilisation was thus ‘pre-Aryan’, while the Gangetic one was ‘Aryan’, i.e. founded on Vedic culture. But there was a few centuries’ gap between Mohenjo-daro’s collapse and the supposed arrival of the said Aryans around 1500 BCE, and in any case no archaeological evidence has been found for such an arrival; today, the Aryans have quietly disappeared from the technical literature: they are not needed to explain the evolution of India’s protohistory. Current thinking among archaeologists is that the Indus cities disappeared not because of any onslaught by barbarian invaders, but largely owing to environmental factors, such as droughts, increasing aridity, deforestation, shifts in the Indus or the loss of the Sarasvati river (the Sarasvati, a river flowing parallel to the Indus, was another major lifeline of the Harappan civilisation, which is why the latter is sometimes also called ‘Indus–Sarasvati civilisation’). Nevertheless, the dogma somehow survived that the Indus civilisation was a

Plan of Mohenjo-daro’s acropolis

“college” “great bath” “granary” “stupa”

“pillared hall” “fortifications”

The Harappan Legacy

sort of island in time and space, a brilliant realisation with no sequel or legacy: a millennium-long ‘Dark Age’ was said to separate it from the historical phase. However, in the last two or three decades the picture has drastically changed. Numerous points of contact between the Indus and Gangetic civilisations, or between Harappan and Vedic cultures, have come to light. Town-planning and construction One of the most striking features of the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation is the

care it lavished on town-planning, water management, sanitation and civic administration. Cities of the Ganges civilisation, although not so geometrically laid down as, say, Mohenjo-daro’s acropolis, still share some of those characteristics: a general orientation along the cardinal directions, an internal grid plan, and the use of enclosing fortifications as a symbol of authority. Garbage bins lined Mohenjo-daro’s main streets, but also those of the historical city of Taxila (in today’s northwestern Pakistan). Some sanitation E system also emerged at Taxila and in

Current thinking is that the Indus cities disappeared not because of any onslaught by barbarian invaders but largely owing to environmental factors

Map of the Indus–Sarasvati civilisation

Punjab : Indian State Baroda : Present-day city • Ropar : Harappan site Lothal : major site – – – – – – : international border : dry bed of the Sarasvati

April 2012


The Harappan Legacy

Comparison between Harappan and traditional Indian weights Harappan weights Unit Value in grams

1 0.8525

2 1.705

4 3.41

8 6.82

16 32 13.64 27.28

64 54.56

128 256 4 8 13.40 26.80

512 16 53.60

Traditional Indian weights ‘Rattis’ 8 16 ‘Karshas’ Value in grams 0.8375 1.675 A part of the Harappan weight system

32 1 3.35

64 2 6.70

(adapted from John E. Mitchiner)

ASI X10, Michel Danino

Typical Harappan house plans have survived in rural parts of northwest India to this day E Gangetic cities, such as Hastinapur, Kaushambi or Mathura. Architecturally, both civilisations erected pillars and pillared halls. Scholars have shown that the typical Harappan house plans (with a central courtyard and rooms on the sides) have survived in rural parts of northwest India to this day. Apsidal (or semi-circular) temples found at several historical sites, from Taxila to Atranjikhera, find an antecedent in a structure at Banawali (Haryana), which was most probably used for fire rituals. Even some building techniques have been preserved to the last detail: the trademark Harappan circular well with trapezoid bricks, whose shape prevents inward collapse in case of strong pressure of the subsoil, has been found at historical sites all the way to south India. Archaeologists excavating at Kalibangan found floors laid by mixing terracotta nodules with charcoal — a formula still in use in nearby villages some 4,500 years later. Harappan town planning made systematic use of auspicious or sacred proportions; they are especially visible at Dholavira, but also in large structures elsewhere. As it happens, these ratios are the same as those mentioned in the classical literature on Hindu architecture. For example, the ratio 5: 4 (or 1.25) is that of Dholavira’s outer fortifications as well as ‘Castle’ (a heavily fortified part of the upper city where the rulers must have lived); it also applies to the overall dimensions of the port-town of Lothal (near Ahmedabad), to Harappa’s so-called ‘granary’ (a huge building measuring 50 m x 40 m), and to a large house in Mohenjo-daro’s lower city. But it also dictates the proportions of a major Vedic altar (the mahavedi), and the 76

April 2012

classical literature describes it as the ideal ratio for a king’s palace; the same ratio is present in Ashoka’s columns and in Delhi’s Iron Pillar. Other technologies Connections between Harappan and classical linear units have come to light, especially as regards the angula or digit. The survival is even more striking with the standardised Harappan weight system, which resurfaced in the Gangetic kingdoms and ultimately formed the basis of India’s traditional weight system. Dancing Girl Metallurgy is an important part of the Harappan technological legacy: the famous ‘Dancing Girl’ bronze figurine was cast by a method known as ‘lost wax’ or ‘cire perdue’, which spread to the rest of India and is still in use by traditional bronze casters. As regards to agriculture, ox-carts have changed little in shape or size, and even some ploughing techniques have survived, as BB Lal, the doyen of Indian archaeologists, demonstrated at Kalibangan. Irrigation Methods Objects of daily use have survived with little change, as also illustrated by BB Lal. A traditional Indian villager would readily identify toiletry articles,

the frying pan, the humble kamandalu (a small water pot with a handle), or the wooden writing tablet (the takhti) found in Indus cities. Till recently, just like their Harappan predecessors, children of north India and Pakistan used to play with rattles, whistles, spinning tops and flat pottery disks. The Indus dice could easily be mistaken for modern ones. Harappans apparently loved board games, and a set of terracotta pieces found at Lothal does evoke the modern game of chess, as Lothal’s excavator SR Rao pointed out, or at least an ancestor of it. Ornaments, too, speak of continuity. India’s love affair with bangles certainly has Harappan roots; even the manner of wearing it — fully over the left arm, for instance, as with the ‘Dancing Girl’ — can still be seen in the rural and tribal parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Anklets and nose or ear studs, documented at Mohenjodaro and other sites, remain part of the finery of today’s Indian woman. Even the married Hindu woman’s custom of applying vermilion at the parting of the hair has Harappan origins. Figurines found at Nausharo and elsewhere show traces of red pigment at the

The famous ‘Dancing Girl’ bronze figurine was created using the ‘lost wax’ method

The Harappan Legacy

same spot. And whether we look at bead and bangle making, gold and bronze working, shell and ivory carving, traditional techniques in today’s India have remained virtually unchanged since Harappan times. Faience craft included blue-glazed ceramics produced with the same copper oxide pigments that is used today. Indeed, to understand the Harappan techniques, archaeologists have often turned to local craftsmen. Culture and religion The Harappan legacy extends to less material aspects. The ‘endless knot’ and the swastika, both classical Indian symbols, have Harappan origins, and parallels between the animal motifs depicted on the Indus seals and those on silver punchmarked coins of the early historical era are striking. The linga and the trishula (trident) are both present, though rare so far, in Harappan culture. Fire altars and the worship of a mother-goddess have also been documented at some sites. The pipal tree (Ficus religiosa), one of the most sacred Indian trees, was revered by Harappans. As early as in 1931, John Marshall, who directed excavations at Mohenjo-daro, could not help remark: “Taken as a whole, [the Harappan] religion is so characteristically Indian as hardly to be distinguished from still living Hinduism.” Iconography is another rich field for studies in continuity, with gods of both epochs sharing multiple faces, yogic postures or ornamental arches. A few figurines shown in various seated postures sometimes join their hands in a namaste. SR Rao showed how some traditional Indian folktales are already depicted on pottery from Lothal. Examples could easily be multiplied.

The apsidal temple at Banawali, Haryana (left) constructed in the 3rd millennium BCE finds an echo in the one in Atranjikhera (right) of the 1st millennium BCE

Harappan dices resemble the ones that exist today

Terracotta pieces found at Lothal (Gujarat) are similar to the ones used in the modern game of chess

A Harappan god (left) under an arch of pipal leaves resembles the statue of Shiva (right) worshipped today under an arch of fire

The ‘endless knot’ and the swastika, both classical Indian symbols, have Harappan origins As archaeologist DP Agrawal puts it, “The Harappans’ cultural and religious traditions provide the substratum for the latter-day Indian civilisation.” Or as U.S. archaeologist JM Kenoyer says, “There is really no Dark Age isolating the protohistoric period from the historic period.” The urban collapse did not cause a cultural

break, although of course there were considerable changes in people’s lifestyles and techniques as they went about in quest of greener pastures. Some of the Late Harappans, as they are called, crossed the Yamuna and the Ganges, carrying with them seeds that were to produce the tree called India’s classical civilisation.

One of the many Harappan tablets depicting a swastika

French-born Michel Danino lectures on Indian civilization at renowned higher educational institutions. He studies India’s culture and ancient history and some of his written works include The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati and Indian Culture and India’s Future.

find out more E The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati (Penguin India, 2010) E Revisiting the role of climate in the collapse of the Indus-Sarasvati Civilisation April 2012


The Art Archive, getty x 2, Thinkstock

fall of the aztecs

MOCTEZUMA c o l l ab o r a t o r o r v i c t i m ? Caroline Dodds Pennock challenges the view that the Aztec ruler surrendered his empire to the Spanish conquistadors


April 2012

From the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma led a lavish, gold-encrusted life

fall of the aztecs

he news was carried by an unlikely messenger. A peasant with no ears and no toes arrived at Moctezuma’s palace to report that he had seen a great mountain floating in the sea a couple of hundred miles to the east. The Aztec ruler’s first reaction was to send a priest to investigate this curious story. When the priest returned to Tenochtitlan, the great capital of the Aztec Empire now known as Mexico City, he bore tales of vast towers in the ocean inhabited by white-skinned strangers. Moctezuma had no way of knowing that this unusual sighting marked the beginning of a shattering series of events that would ultimately lead to the collapse of the empire he ruled, as well as bringing about his own premature death. Moctezuma II, the ninth huey tlatoani (great speaker) of the Aztecs of Mexico, came to power in 1502 at a time of both triumph and danger for the Aztec realm. The empire had never been larger, and


Moctezuma himself was one of the most powerful and intriguing figures in its history. The Spanish conquistadors were astonished by his lifestyle. Thousands of servants, all nobles, provided the emperor with vast meals on gleaming gold platters. He wore new clothes every day, was entertained by dwarfs, freaks and his own zoo, and it was said that 150 of his wives were pregnant at the same time. But this magnificence was brought to an abrupt and violent end in 1521, when the Aztec capital was destroyed by the famous Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernán Cortés. Cowed collaborator? If the 16th‑century sources are to be believed, Moctezuma played an inglorious role in the defeat of his people. Instead of mobilising his forces against the heavilyoutnumbered invaders, the tlatoani was paralysed with fear as the conquistadors approached, terrified by a series of omens and believing

Cortés to be the reincarnation of the great god Quetzalcoatl. As an unseen woman wailed in the night and a comet blazed in the skies, Moctezuma sought to appease the Spanish and bribe them away from his city with elaborate gifts of gold. When the conquistadors arrived at the city, he welcomed them and submitted to Spanish rule, before being seized by Cortés and forced to act as a puppet ruler until his eventual death, either at the hands of the Spanish or his own disgruntled subjects. This tempting picture of a cowed collaborator has dominated traditional narratives of the Spanish conquest, one early writer explicitly contrasting the “timorous, cowardly” Moctezuma with the “noble, valiant Cortés”. The convenient juxtaposition of hero and villain has recently been challenged, however, and if Moctezuma’s actions are judged in the light of indigenous expectations rather than by the standards of history then the

The Aztec Empire: culture and sacrifice A sophisticated civilisation that embraced violence

Bridgeman art library, Corbis, Thinkstock x2

Between about 1350 and the 1520s, the Aztecs flourished on the site of modern-day Mexico City. They rose from humble beginnings as migrants from the north through a combination of military and diplomatic tactics to become the dominant force in the region. Originally founded on inhospitable marshland and small islands in Lake Texcoco, by the 16th century their great island capital of Tenochtitlan had grown into a spectacular metropolis, linked to the mainland by three tremendous causeways, and the heart of a network of nearly 400 subject and allied cities.


April 2012

A huge marketplace drew thousands of people every day from all over the region and a ceremonial precinct lay at the centre of the city, from which the pyramid of the Great Temple towered over the grid of canals and streets. The city was clean and well-ordered, with strong laws and political administration, but the Aztecs have often been regarded as brutal and even evil people because they practised human sacrifice. The Aztec gods required human blood – let from living bodies, as well as through the death of sacrificial victims – to nourish them and sustain the world. It was believed that sacrifice led to a privileged afterlife and some Aztecs themselves became victims, but

An illustration from an Aztec Codex of prisoners of war being sacrificed

captives were most commonly used for the purpose. It was believed that the gods had destined the Aztecs to be a warrior people – they became focused on warfare and military achievement, even waging wars specifically for the purpose of securing victims.

But the Aztecs were not dehumanised by this bloodshed. They were a sophisticated civilisation that valued poetry, art and family. To them, sacrifice was a privilege and violent death a necessary part of life.

fall of the aztecs

Moctezuma and Cortés share a tentative first handshake in November 1518

tlatoani appears in a different light. The reality is that Moctezuma was a victim of both the Spanish tendency to romanticise their victory and the Aztecs’ wish to excuse their defeat. As Cortés attempted to justify and glorify his legally dubious conquest, it was in his interests to suggest that the tlatoani voluntarily yielded to Spanish rule and supported the conquistadors’ enterprise. So Moctezuma’s welcoming address, ambiguously couched in the elaborate language of Aztec courtly speech, was transformed in the histories into a deferent surrender of all his powers. The gifts, sent by the tlatoani as a demonstration of his wealth and largesse, became a concession to Spanish superiority. And Moctezuma’s invitation to the Spanish to enter the city, intended as an opportunity to exhibit his magnificence and power, became the fatal mistake that led to the destruction of the Aztec Empire. The Spanish focus on Moctezuma’s role in the conquest has also suited indigenous historians. As a nation of proud warriors, it was difficult for the Aztecs to accept the ignominy of defeat. The vacillations of a weak and credulous ruler were the perfect explanation for their downfall. But there is no real evidence to support indigenous claims that portents of doom were recognised prior to the conquest, or that

He had seen a great mountain floating in the sea Moctezuma was paralysed by fear in the face of the Spanish advance. Omens were part of Mesoamerican ideology and, with their cyclical understanding of time, it suited Aztecs to believe that their defeat was preordained, absolving them of guilt and encouraging the myth of Moctezuma’s psychological collapse when faced with his impending downfall. With God on their side Furthermore, the idea of divine intervention suited the Spanish missionaries who wrote many of the early accounts, as it supported the providential and godly nature of the conquest. Cortés’s identification with Quetzalcoatl appears to have been a combination of mistranslation and later invention, but this too fitted neatly with both Spanish and indigenous desires to portray the conquest as an inevitability. Despite his subsequent criticism by Spanish and Aztec historians,

Moctezuma was no coward. In fact, he was one of the most belligerent and successful rulers in Aztec history. For this seasoned general and veteran campaigner, the decision to welcome the Spanish certainly proved a tactical error, but it is entirely comprehensible within the context of Mexican warfare. The Spanish introduced an entirely new form of conflict to Mexico that the Aztecs saw as both unfair and dishonourable: fighting to kill (rather than capture), attacking without warning, firing from a distance and besieging Tenochtitlan. Moctezuma could not have been prepared for either the conquistadors’ weaponry or their tactics, and he seriously underestimated the threat that they posed. But Moctezuma had no way of knowing that the conquistadors would prove such intransigent opponents. Most adversaries could be bribed or terrified into becoming part of the Aztec Empire, but the Spanish neither honoured traditions of warfare nor understood Mesoamerican diplomacy. However, there can be little doubt that the Aztec leader’s decision to let the Spanish enter E the Aztec capital city was a

An engraving showing the 1521 Spanish capture of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan

April 2012



From the coast to the capital: the capture and execution of Moctezuma sparked the battle for Tenochtitlan and victory over the Aztecs

Hernán Cortés was born in Extremadura, Spain, in the mid-1480s. He was of respectable but undistinguished hidalgo (minor noble) birth. In 1506, he sailed to the Indies where he helped in the conquest of Cuba and married a relative of its first governor. In 1518, he set out on his expedition to the American mainland. Four years later, after conquering the Aztecs, Cortés was appointed Captain-General and Governor of ‘New Spain’ (Mexico), granting him great property and influence. But Cortés spent much of his life struggling to assert his rights and preserve his reputation, having met with considerable political opposition and been accused of murdering his first wife. After returning to Spain in 1540 to plead his cause he died, disillusioned, in Seville in 1547.

Tiatlauhquitepec Altotonga Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz







TLAXCALA Iztaccihuati



Corbis x4, Dreamstime, Thinkstock x6, Alamy x2

Modern-day Veracruz, known to Cortés as Villa Rica de Vera Cruz

1 8 August 1519

G The march to Tenochtitlan begins Having skirmished their way along the coast and met with Moctezuma’s emissaries, Cortés and the conquistadors set out for Tenochtitlan from their settlement of Villa Rica de Vera Cruz.

2 23 September 1519

An alliance is forged After several weeks of outright confrontation, the conquistadors make peace with the Aztecs’ Tlaxcalan enemies and they enter the city of Tlaxcala, marking the beginning of the alliance between them.


2 Tlaxcala



Gulf of Mexico

Nauhcampantepti (Cofre de Perote)






Atlitzin (Sierra Negra) Citlaltepeti (Pico de Orizaba)

3 8 November 1519

Cortés faces Moctezuma Cortés faces Moctezuma on the great causeway leading to Tenochtitlan. Initially he is peacefully received by the Aztec ruler. However, within a week, Cortés seizes the Emperor and takes control of the city. Moctezuma is killed the following year. Reports vary as to whether it was the Spanish or his own countrymen who killed him. He is succeeded first by Cuitlahuac, who soon dies of smallpox – a disease brought to South America by the invaders – and then Cuauhtémoc.

5 28 April 1521

Start of the battle for Tenochtitlan Having fought their way back to the lake, the conquistadors launch their brigantines, besiege the city and the great battle for Tenochtitlan begins.

4 30 June 1520

H Spaniards flee Tenochtitlan The Spaniards flee Tenochtitlan on the ‘Night of Tears’, when Cortés lost more than half of his company during uprisings following Moctezuma’s death. The Spanish and their allies rally at Tlacopan before retreating to Tlaxcala. A model of how the Aztec capital looked

Cuauhtémoc is captured on Lake Texcoco

6 13 August 1521

G Aztecs surrender After months of fierce fighting, leaving Tenochtitlan in ruins, the last tlatoani Cuauhtémoc is captured in a canoe on the lake and the Aztecs finally surrender.

fall of the aztecs

ARE WE THERE YET? The other great explorers who mapped the world during the Age of Discovery Christopher columbus

Does this scene really show Moctezuma calling for an Aztec surrender?

The irresistible Spanish force could be delayed but not dismissed E

calculated risk – designed to demonstrate his own authority – that spectacularly backfired. Once Cortés had seized Moctezuma, his mantle of mystical authority was shattered. Successors had been appointed even before he died: first Cuitlahuac, then Cuauhtémoc, the valiant warrior who is heralded in modern Mexico as the last true tlatoani. Replacing of a living ruler was unprecedented and indicated the spiritual demise of Moctezuma’s authority long before his physical death. From this point onwards, his reputation as a coward who abandoned his people was sealed. Yet Moctezuma found himself in an impossible situation, facing a well-equipped and ingenious enemy who organised discontented tributaries against him and didn’t fight fairly. In response, he sought to publicly appease the conquistadors, while secretly marshalling all his practical and spiritual resources against them – including spying and casting spells. Although the Aztecs may not have surrendered to fate, there is a

sense in which they were doomed to defeat. The Spanish desire for gold and territory was an irresistible force that might have been delayed but could not be dismissed. Moctezuma was not a passive and cowardly victim of the conquistadors, but he has certainly been a victim of history, an unfortunate ruler whose defeat has tainted him irretrievably as traitor, collaborator and scapegoat. Caroline Dodds Pennock is author of Bonds of Blood: Gender, Lifecycle and Sacrifice in Aztec Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

find out more E Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest by Matthew Restall (OUP, 2003) E In Our Time: the Siege of Tenochtitlan

What do you think? Has history been unkind to the legacy of Moctezuma? email:

1451-1506 Sailing under the authority of the Catholic monarchs of Spain, the Italian made four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean and ‘discovered’ the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Trinidad, as well as the coast of present-day Venezuela. The colonies he established made Spain immensely wealthy.

vasco dA gama 1460 or 1469-1524 Da Gama was charged with reaching the lucrative markets of India by sea via South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. The Portuguese sailor successfully made the voyage three times, opening up a key trade route. He was about to be appointed as Viceroy of India when he contracted malaria in Goa and died.

francisco pizarro 1471 or 1476-1541 Second cousin once removed of Hernán Cortés, Pizarro was another conquistador who made notable expeditions into the western part of latter-day Latin America. He led the conquest of the Incan Empire and founded the Peruvian capital of Lima.

ferdinand magellan c. 1480-1521 The Treaty of Tresidillas gave Portugal exclusive rights over Da Gama’s easterly route to Asia, so Spain commissioned his compatriot Magellan to find a passage via the Americas. He was killed en route, but the Magellan Strait, near the southern tip of South America, bears his name.

francis drake 1540-1596 The English tormentor of the Spanish Armada successfully completed the second circumnavigation of the globe, more than 50 years after Magellan’s expedition. The body of water just south of South America’s Cape Horn is known as Drake’s Passage.

April 2012


Bharati - the Indian research station in Antarctica will also focus on the ocean’s vulnerability to climate change.

Frozen laboratory baltimore ATCM by US antarctic program, Rakesh ncaor Rao (ncaor), ralph J. Scotese

With its unique geographic location, Antarctica sits rich with clues to our past, present and future, says geologist Rasik Ravindra

ecember 14, 2011 and January 18, 2012 marked the centenary celebrations of the two greatest explorers’, Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott, journey to the Antarctic. They were pioneers who were the first to reach the South Pole. Separately undertaking the treacherous journey, one that has been described as one of the worst in the world, Amundsen and Scott exhibited rare grit that challenged limits of human endurance. Scott and the members of his assault party lost their lives on the return journey under the most tragic circumstances. The 100-year celebrations saw a worldwide participation with several groups and nations retracing the path of Scott and Amundsen on skies, foot and snow vehicles to reach the Pole. This included the Norwegian Prime Minister, Steltenberg, and the Director of Polar Institute who skied the last few kilometres to South Pole on December 14 to mark the jubilee.



April 2012

India spearheaded the celebrations by bringing together its own scientific team for the South Pole for the first time under my leadership. Though Antarctica still remains an enigma – from the point of being isolated, mysterious and inhospitable, there is, however, greater accessibility through air and sea facilities, ice runways etc. being offered by various science programmes and the adventure tourism industry. Man’s foray into the exploration of terra

in the 4th Century. The thick sea ice surrounding Antarctica also foiled Captain James Cook’s several attempts to locate the continent while circumnavigating it in the ships named, Resolution, Adventure and Endeavour, between 1768 and 1776 only to remark that “if such a land existed at all, it is unlikely to be of much use to anybody”. It was only in 1820 when Bellingshausen first sighted the continent that interest in Antartica was renewed again. Apart from Amundsen and Scott’s

Antarctica is key to the concept of Gondwanaland, the super continent incognita or Antarctica dates back to 1578 when Captain Drake reached up to 570 only to turn back without establishing existence of ‘Antarktikos’ – the southern land mass promised by Aristotle way back

expeditions, some of the leading expeditions to this land mass in the 20th century were that of Erich Von Drygalski (1901-03), Otto Nordenskjold (1901-04), William Bruce and Jean-Baptise Charcot


(1904-05), Ernest Shackleton (1907-09 to 1921-22), Wilhelm Filchner (1911-12) and Douglas Mawson (1911-12). The air route introduced over Antarctica in 1928 by Wilkeins, followed by Byrd in 1929-46 and Lincoln Ellsworth in 1935 added new dimension to the continent’s exploration. Overland traverses gained prominence by late 1950s and were well established by the time of Vivian Fuchs and Edmund Hillary’s transantarctic expeditions. The turning point in Antarctica’s scientific exploration was the International Geophysical Year in 1957-58 when well coordinated scientific traverses were launched by several nations to unravel the unresolved scientific questions, putting political differences in cold storage. This was the setting ground for the Antarctic Treaty (of 1959), which is heralded as one of the best examples of international cooperation and understanding. Starting with the 12 original signatories, today the Antarctic Treaty has 49 signatories, a number of observers and several other non-governmental bodies that are associated with it. India in Antarctica Antarctica is key to the concept of Gondwanaland, the super continent made up of India along with Australia, Africa, South America, Madagascar and Sri Lanka, and offers vital links to its assembly/reconstruction. The Supercontinent began splitting about 183 million years ago, during the Jurassic period. The violent volcanic eruptions swept past the land and ocean beds and caused extinction of many species including

The twelve original signatories of the Antarctic Treaty of December 1, 1959 at Washington: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, UK, USA and USSR. The treaty enshrines that Antarctica will be used for peaceful purposes only

About 100 million years ago, the Indian plate moved northwards ever since it broke free from Antarctica

dinosaurs. India separated from Antarctica about 100 million years ago, Australia about 40 million years ago and South America was the last to break loose around 23 million years before present, which opened up the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica, isolating the latter and ushering the initiation of ice sheet on it. The geological evidences have conclusively demonstrated that the Mahanadi Graben of Eastern India and the Prydz Bay region of eastern Antarctica were juxtaposed with each other prior to the breakup of Gondwanaland about 100 million years ago. The similarities of lithological and structural elements of the rock types, their ages and some sedimentary rocks occurring on either side, lend credence to the theory. Antarctica is a storehouse of 98 percent of the ice on Earth, and plays a significant role in influencing the global climate. Its polar position makes it a unique laboratory to study the space weather, astronomy and solid earth geophysical phenomenon. The Southern Ocean that surrounds it is a great sink of CO2 and an ideal place to understand the land-ocean-atmosphere coupled systems. The cold loving or psychrophilic bacteria found here have great potential for societal use. Indian endeavour in Antarctica started in 1981-82 with the launch of its first scientific expedition to the icy land under the leadership of Dr SZ Quasim. By the third expedition in 1983-84, a permanent research station Dakshin Gangotri was established that enabled India to get a consultative status in the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties. The excessive snow accumulation on the ice shelf where the station was located took its toll and by 1988-89, the station was totally buried

under the snow and ice. The planning for an alternative site on an ice free location about hundred kms from the previous place had already begun in 1987-88 enabling the decommissioning of Dakshin Gangotri in 1989-90 and shifting to a new research station Maitri on Schirmacher Oasis during the ninth expedition. The Indian Antarctic research base Maitri is one of the few active permanent research stations in the Central Donning Maud land (cDML) of East Antarctica from where systematic scientific experiments in the field of climate change, geomagnetism and seismology are being conducted on year-round basis. The geological similarities and the need to make the data truly representative of a larger area in Antarctica weighed heavily in shortlisting and finally selecting the Larsemann Hills as the site for the third Indian station in Antarctica. The station named Bharati is likely to be fully operational and occupied in March 2012. Initial geological mapping of the areas from the 1980’s-90’s will continue to provide new linkages to understand the crustal evolution and tectonics in cDML. The new themes procured from Bharati will provide linkages to the assembly and breaking of Gondwanaland. Geologist Rasik Ravindra is the Director of National Centre for Antarctica and Ocean Research, (Ministry of Earth Sciences) in Goa. He was part of the first national expedition team to unfurl the tricolour at the South Pole on November 22, 2010.

find out more E For further information on India’s scientific sojourn in Antarctica. April 2012


The Big Idea exploring life’s great mysteries Robert Matthews investigates

Nature vs Nurture It is one of the oldest and most controversial of all scientific debates: are humans born with certain traits or do we acquire them in later life? The arguments over the role of nature and nurture have raged for centuries, but now hard science is beginning to reveal the fascinating reality. or the media, the story was irresistible: the discovery of a link between genes and political allegiance. “Left-wing liberals are born not bred”, declared the headlines, over reports that scientists in the US had revealed that people with a specific gene were more likely to hold liberal political views. On the face of it, the finding was just the latest contribution to the nature versus nurture debate – the question of whether we’re born with traits instilled in us by our genes or acquire them in later life. Behind all the media coverage lies an unnerving implication: just as we have no choice over our eye colour, who we become in life is dictated by our DNA.

Mixed message But the truth behind the ‘liberal gene’ story is rather different. It builds on growing research that is blowing apart the supposed dichotomy between nature and nurture. It points to a new, more nuanced view of human traits that reveals them to be the product of an often startling mix of the two. James Fowler, the professor in the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, who led the study, tried to make this clear by explaining how the gene at the centre of the claim, known as DRD4, only revealed its connection to liberal views in people who also had an active social life. “It is the crucial interaction of two factors – the

thinkstock, Rex


How much does parenting influence personality traits and behaviour in life? 86

April 2012

genetic predisposition and the environmental condition of having many friends in adolescence – that is associated with being more liberal,” he says. It made no difference. Much of the media put the claim squarely into the nature ‘box’ of the debate and moved on, waiting for the next ‘born, not made’ story. The resilience of the debate is astonishing – and also disturbing. The belief in the primacy of genes has underpinned such outrages as the forcible sterilisation of ‘feeble-minded’ people in 1930s America and the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans of the 1990s. Blank slates Meanwhile, the reaction against genetic determinism has produced its own excesses. The belief that humans are ‘blank slates’ whose future is determined entirely by their environment has led to bizarre theories of child-rearing and untold guilt among parents who blame themselves for the failings of their offspring. Ironically, the pioneers of the nature versus nurture debate saw themselves as having anything other than the best intentions for society. When the 17th century English philosopher John Locke stated the case for the ‘blank slate’

view of human behaviour in his celebrated 1690 work An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, he believed he was striking a blow against such repressive concepts as original sin and the divine right of kings. If humans were all born equal, he argued, then everyone could – and should – have as much right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as anyone else. It was a view that impressed Thomas Jefferson, principle architect of the US Declaration of Independence. In the same way, when

Are we hard-wired to be the people we become or are we entirely the result of our upbringing?

the Victorian intellectuals Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton tied Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to the study of human society, they believed they were acting in the public good. But even though genes had yet to be identified, Darwin himself had a more sophisticated view of inheritance than many of his supporters. Indeed, he believed human speech was a possible example of what he called “an instinct to acquire an art”. Some of Darwin’s contemporaries did see dangers lurking in Spencer’s famous

summation of evolution as the survival of the fittest and Galton’s concept of eugenics – the systematic ‘improvement’ of the human race through selective breeding. Even so, many intellectuals brushed aside such qualms, believing that the facts spoke for themselves. As early as 1865, Galton had published a study of the eminence of children from notable families, concluding that their success rate was 240 times that of the offspring of the general public. A decade later, Galton followed this up with the first of what became

a staple of the nature versus nurture debate: a comparison of identical twins. Finding so many similarities between such twins throughout their lives, Galton believed there was no debate to be had: nature clearly prevailed over nurture and so selective breeding was the way forward for society. It was a view shared by many who attended the First International Congress of Eugenics in London in 1912 – including Leonard Darwin, son of Charles. As President of the Eugenics Society, he warned of the threat to future generations

of allowing the “unfit amongst men” to breed. Yet even at the conference, dissenting voices could be heard. In his address to the Congress, former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour expressed his concern that the whole question of heredity was far more complex than scientists believed, and warned of the hijacking of eugenics by zealots keen to foist their own views on society. Selective breeding Balfour’s views proved all too prescient in both respects. E In the United States, April 2012


The Big Idea

Florida state university libraries, rex, Thinkstock x2, Corbis, Science Photo Library x2, Getty

exploring life’s great mysteries

E the concept of eugenics spread like wildfire. A year after Leonard Darwin’s speech, many states had laws permitting compulsory sterilisation of the ‘feebleminded’. The campaign was watched by eugenicists in Germany, whose policies were introduced within months of the Nazis coming to power in 1933. They began with the sterilisation of thousands with traits like schizophrenia and ended with the slaughter of millions in death camps like that at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The defeat of the Nazis in 1945 led the nature versus nurture debate to lurch back to the ‘blank slate’ view of human behaviour. Once again, proponents were able to call on apparently solid scientific research to back their views. During the 1920s, the American psychologist John B Watson had proclaimed all talk of traits and instincts as beyond quantification and thus meaningless. Instead, he called for a focus on how humans behave in response to the world around them. This, he argued, would prove that all humans have the capacity to achieve anything. Watson and his acolytes gathered a wealth of evidence to back their claims – some of it decidedly eccentric. More bizarre still was the failure of behaviourists to accept that, while their research was consistent with the importance of nurture, it did nothing to rule out a role for other factors, including genetics. Just how important these other factors could be was graphically demonstrated in controversial experiments performed in the late 1950s at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Psychologist Harry

TIMELINE Nature vs nurture

Harlow separated baby monkeys from their mothers and put them in cages containing two artificial mothers. One was just a wire-frame model fitted with a feeding bottle and milk, while the other was more life-like and cuddly but unable to supply milk. According to the behaviourists, the monkeys should have quickly learned to ignore the coldness of the wire mother and got on with the vital business of taking her milk. Yet Harlow found that the monkeys spent most time with the cuddly but milkless mother, making only brief dashes to the wire version when hungry. Harlow had demonstrated what most people – except behaviourists – would regard as obvious: behaviour is shaped by more than just the environment. The monkeys had an in-built instinct for what to expect from a nurturing parent and sought it out. Harlow’s evidence for innate behavioural traits came at a time when both sides of the nature versus nurture debate were having profound effects on parents and children. Behaviourists wrote childcare manuals that insisted children would become ‘soft’ if kissed goodnight or cuddled excessively. At the same time, evidence for the influence of genetics was influencing educational policy. Studies of identical twins were said to show that intelligence is largely inherited, prompting claims that educational resources should be focused on children who showed early promise. Years later, the twins studies behind this policy came under suspicion, but by then the claim that genes are destiny had already lost much of its power – at least

The Nazis promoted the idea of an Aryan master race through the Hitler Youth programme

outside of academia. Parents had long recognised that despite their best efforts their offspring often ended up with wildly different personalities that showed little sign of being determined either by nature or nurture. Among academics, however, the debate rumbled on. In 1975, the Harvard ant expert Edward O Wilson published Sociobiology, in which he argued that genes alone can produce spectacularly complex behaviour. But he also attempted to extend his arguments to human behaviour, and provoked a storm of controversy – not least because it seemed to resurrect genetic determinism, with its eugenicist overtones. Meanwhile, scientists continued to claim evidence for genetic influence on everything from sexual orientation to career choice. Inconclusive proof By the mid-1990s, the academic world finally appeared to be coming round to the same conclusion as the public:





H English philosopher John Locke publishes An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, in which he argues that every human is born a ‘blank slate’ and acquires characteristics through life experience.

English polymath Francis Galton publishes the first study of twins to assess relative balance of nature and nurture. He later coins the term ‘eugenics’, from the Greek for ‘good’ and ‘born’.

American psychologist Winthrop Kellogg raises a chimp alongside his son in order to study the effects of genes and environment on behaviour. He stops the experiment when their son starts to imitate the chimp.

H Cyril Burt, a British educational psychologist, publishes evidence from his study of twins that intelligence is largely determined by genes, prompting changes in the UK education system. He is later suspected of misconduct.

1924 G American psychologist John B Watson launches ‘behaviorism’, which focuses on the links between human abilities and environmental factors rather than innate traits.

Question Time that human behaviour is a mix of nature, nurture and simple happenstance. In 1998, the American psychologist Judith Rich Harris published The Nurture Assumption (The Free Press), a bestselling book that gave scientific backing for what parents had always suspected: that their parenting skills have relatively little effect on how children turn out. At the same time, genetic studies revealed increasing evidence of how genes and the environment interact with each other, making a mockery of the standard dichotomy between them. Increasingly, studies are revealing that it’s not merely the existence of a gene that matters, but how it is expressed – and that is open to a host of influences. For example, the monogamous behaviour of prairie voles has been found to be linked to a genetic ‘switch’ that makes their brains sensitive to vasopressin, a hormone that is released during sex. It seems that they stay with their sexual partners because of a gene that is expressed so that they become addicted to the vasopressin release. The way that genes are expressed can also be affected by outside influences. In experiments with rats, researchers at McGill University, Canada, showed that the hormone levels of young rats who receive lots of attention from their mothers are less affected by stress than those who are neglected. In other words, the expression of the same hormone-related genes has been changed by upbringing. By biochemically changing the way the gene was expressed, the team then succeeded in making laid-back rats stressed and vice versa. That raises the intriguing

possibility of undoing the effects of poor upbringing in later life. Language link Such so-called epigenetic connections have also been found in humans with a host of traits, from depression and schizophrenia to political and even sexual orientation. Perhaps most impressively, scientists have now found evidence to back Darwin’s belief about the role of both nature and nurture in speech. Researchers have found that a gene called FOXP2 is linked to the ability to acquire language. Having the gene alone is not enough – it must be the right variant and expressed in the right way. But humans have it, and it’s vital to acquiring languages from other humans. It has taken well over a century, but the nature versus nurture debate may finally be recognised for what it really appears to be: a false dichotomy. If it has any benefit, it may be in highlighting the danger of thinking any one side of a scientific debate has a monopoly on the truth. Robert Matthews is a science journalist and Visiting Reader in Science at Aston University, UK.

find out more E The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker (Allen Lane, 2011) E Nature via Nurture by Matt Ridley (4th Estate, 2003) E The Dependent Gene by David S Moore (Holt, 2001)

Steven Pinker is a Canadian-American psychologist, author and professor at Harvard University

Why is the nature vs nurture debate important? When transformed from a debate into a scientific question – what are the innate mechanisms that allow people to learn in particular ways? – it’s nothing less than the quest for explanatory theories in psychology.

What do you think has kept the debate alive for so long? There are three things. One is a history of sloppy formulations of the issues, including false dichotomies – is it innate or learned? – and lazy compromises – everything is a mixture. Next is the politicisation of the scientific issues by activists and ideologues on the right and left. And third is the absence, until recently, of scientific methodologies that clarify the interaction, including large-scale twin and adoption studies and genome association methods.

What’s your take on the debate? Nature and nurture are not a spectrum in which a scientific theory consists of, say, the number 37 on a scale of 0 to 100. For one thing, there are several conceptually distinct nature-nurture questions whose answers are independent – such as what makes humans different from other species, what makes men different from women, and what makes one individual different from another.

What’s the thesis of your new book?





H The results of American psychologist Harry Harlow’s controversial experiments with young monkeys are published.

A controversial study of 114 families of gay men by Dean Hamer of the US National Cancer Institute suggests that a section on the X-chromosome influences sexual orientation.

Support emerges for the 130-year old claim by Charles Darwin that learning to speak is influenced by inheritance as well as environment, with research linking speech to the FOXP2 gene.

H Researchers at McGill University show the link between maternal care styles and the activation of genes in rats, with young rats who receive more grooming being less fearful under stress.

If human nature comprises several systems, then historical changes in violence reveal how different environments engage a fixed set of mechanisms in different ways. On one side, we have innate motives like rage and vengeance, while on the other we have ‘better angels’, such as self-control and empathy. All of them are sensitive to information from the environment, but without characterising the operation of each it would be impossible to explain why humans have been violent in some eras and peaceable in others.

April 2012


Buzz We have always tried to make BBC Knowledge an interactive read. Here’s just a snippet of what we’ve been upto.

Pansophy Quiz Festival Vellore Institute of Technology’s (VIT) annual four-day cultural festival, Riviera, was held from February 2-5, 2012. The cultural extravaganza played host to students from across the country as they congregated at VIT to share, explore and express ideas with their peers. This year at Riviera 2012, BBC Knowledge sponsored ‘Pansophy’ a two-day Quiz Festival held during the event. Over 600 teams from various colleges across the country participated in Pansophy. The quiz format consisted of four genres Buzzer Quiz,

SpEnt (Sports and Entertainment) Quiz, 1337 Quiz (Video Games Quiz) and the Main Quiz (General Quiz). The Main Quiz was hosted by quiz master Tarun Ruchandani. A record number of 156 teams participated, battling through the preliminary rounds and then the special rounds; Long Visual Connect, Urban Dictionary, Bhojpuri Minimalist and the BBC Knowledge 6By9 round. Winners were awarded a total cash prize of ` 50,000 and BBC Knowledge magazines and vouchers.

Pansophy Winners: 1st Place: Aaslesh Yerrapatni (SVCE Chennai) Aravindh Ravi (VIT University) Ravikiran Ramaswamy (NIT Trichy) 2nd Place: Visaka Jayaraman (SASTRA University) S. Aravind (SASTRA University) Venkata Subramaniam (SASTRA University) 3rd Place: Prateek Vijayavargia (IIT Madras) Meenakshi Sundareswaran (RKM Vivekanada, Chennai) Shreyas Bhat (RKM Vivekanada, Chennai)

IIT Bombay Techfest BBC Knowledge partnered with IIT Bombay to celebrate its annual Techfest which was held from the January 6-8, 2012.

The audience, meanwhile, had a chance to answer some quick questions to win a free copy of BBC Knowledge.

BBC Knowledge was associated with the remote control car racing event ‘Full Throttle’, wherein contestants had to make a wireless remote controlled machine, powered only by an IC engine. The contestants then had to race their opponents on an off-road dirt track filled with obstacles.

Drishti Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, Mumbai recently concluded its management festival Drishti, which was held from January 29-February 1, 2012. Management students from all over the country participated in the event. The festival exclusively plays host to Business at Campus (B@C), an IIM Ahmedabad patented event. The B@C event spread over three days consists of three stages: planning, production and marketing, giving the participants the opportunities to display their expertise in management.The theme this year was Relics of Arabia and students in groups of 10 participated in this exciting event. BBC Knowledge was a partner for B@C and had set up a stall for students for the duration of the festival. The festival also included a mix of cultural and sporting events, with musical performances by singers Lucky Ali & his band and Kailash Kher.

Pick up your brush U/A FUNDAYS is a truly multi-faceted programme for both the mother and the child. Initiated by a group of mothers, U/A ensures that mothers and their children spend time and bond with each other away from the responsibilities of daily life. On January 26, 2012, BBC Knowledge magazine and U/A FUNDAYS celebrated India’s Republic Day by organising a wall painting programme for the families in Mumbai. With nearly 200 participants, each group and family was encouraged to create a piece of art, expressing their joys on celebrating 62 years of India as a Republic nation.



BBC Knowledge and BNHS organise nature trails All aboard for Elephanta Island

Flamingo Watch

Winter is the opportune season to observe birds in their environment. Taking advantage of the good January weather, BBC Knowledge along with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) coordinated a Bird Watch Trail for bird watching enthusiasts and participants at Elephanta Island in the outskirts of Mumbai. Birds like the Asian Paradiseflycatcher, Brown, the largest Great Black-headed Gull, Gullbilled Tern, Orange Minivet, Little Grebe and Brahminy Kite were observed during the trail.

Vandan Jhaveri, Asif Khan, Nikhil Bhopale

And to the delight of the participants, a flock of flamingos flew past the boat as they made their way back to Gateway of India.

The annual arrival of flamingos at the Sewri mudflats, created a flutter among bird lovers in the city. BBC Knowledge along with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) organised the Flamingo Watch held in February. The event saw bird enthusiasts and participants group together and observe the migratory flamingos that flew in from Gujarat to Mumbai during the winter season. During the visit, birds like Blacktailed Godwit, Lesser and Greater Sand Plover, Little Stint, Black-headed Ibis and Indian Pond Heron were spotted. Participants also engaged in a discussion about the importance of conservation of the Sewri mudflats to ensure the protection and survival of the flamingos.

If your college or club is organising an exciting event that you would like BBC Knowledge to partner with, write in to us at


A feast for the mind

Happy campers Is it dangerous to do what your brain wants?

What Makes Your Brain Happy And Why You Should Do The Opposite By David DiSalvo Prometheus, 288 pages, `1,028

Even when we know the lines are the same length, we still see one as longer

Speed of thought How the brain works in two very different ways Thinking, Fast and Slow

Alamy, christian ziegler

By Daniel Kahneman Allen Lane/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 512 pages, ` 499

K The best experimental psychologists come across as part scientist/ part conjurer, and their demonstrations wwinduce sudden and surprising self-revelation. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman treats readers to his best tricks. Kahneman himself calls the phenomena he studies ‘cognitive illusions’ and the aim of this book is to give away how it’s all done. We are invited to perform simple experiments on our own minds, then offered unnerving explanations for the frailties that these demonstrations expose. For Kahneman, the experiments show how the mind is best thought of as two systems with distinct personalities. ‘System 1’ is like a computer – an automatic, subconscious processor of unimaginable breadth and speed. 94

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Enter System 2, the laborious, conscious mind that you and I feel we occupy. Kahneman mobilises experimental science to help our System 2 to understand and, ultimately, learn to live with our primitive yet essential System 1. While it’s enlightening and, in places, brilliant stuff, Kahneman is old-school. The language is testimony to trained precision and an appreciation of fine distinctions. Criticisms of the author’s view of an error-strewn, dual-system mind (and there are good ones) are mostly relegated to dismissive footnotes, 30 pages of which follow 38 chapters. This is not modern, condensed popular science – it’s the career thoughts of a top-class researcher whose subject is fun but whose intent is serious. Time to engage System 2. Pete Lunn is the author of Basic Instincts: human nature and the new economics

K Brains like to be happy. And what makes them happy is certainty, a sense of control and the notion that everything happens for a reason. Another thing that seems to make brains happy is reading about this very thing, for What Makes Your Brain Happy And Why You Should Do The Opposite is the latest of several books and hundreds of articles that show how glitches in our cerebral software distort our thinking. Such psychological quirks include confirmation bias (preferring evidence that supports our beliefs), framing (the narrow viewfinder through which we look at the world) and the illusion of agency (seeing intent behind accidental events). They evolved because in general they help us survive and the contentedness they engender reflects this. What David DiSalvo makes clear is how they can also put us at risk. DiSalvo employs the engaging writing style you would expect from a regular contributor to Scientific American and Psychology Today. He peppers the text with cautionary anecdotes, while providing study references at the back of the book. There is little here that will be new to regular readers of popular psychology, but that shouldn’t stop your enjoyment. Rita Carter is a broadcaster and the author of The Brain Book Your brain can be quick to apportion blame for events that are mere accidents

Simplify the equation Adam Hart-Davis, author and scientist talks about the importance of experiments in daily life, and his recently published The Book of Time. Organised by the British Council, his talk was held at TIFR, Mumbai

Get your clicks Our pick of internet highlights to explore


Measuring your mind

Why is it important to have a hands-on approach to science? It is really very important to do experiments, to get a feel of science. If you don’t, you may not understand the answers. People think that they have an idea about things, but getting your hands dirty makes all the difference.

What fascinates you about science? It is such a huge question. At the moment what excites me the most is the very recent result where Italian scientists found a bunch of neutrinos apparently travelling faster than light. They published the results on the same day that my new book The Book of Time, was published. In my book, I say that nothing travels faster than light and on the same day they say that neutrinos travel faster than light. There could still be some error in there somewhere because its only 16th nano second of a difference.

What is The Book of Time about?

Aristotle, Newton and thousands of philosophers wrote about time. Some people say that time can’t exist and others say it does. In the book, I dwell into how we perceive time and how it seems that in emergency, time seems to move slowly. There is a professor in Texas called David Eagleman, of Baylor College of Medicine, who built a tower 150 ft high and from the top he drops his students. They are in free fall for three seconds before they land in the net below. He has built a special wrist watch and has a random number say like 37 flashing about ten times a second, going light and dark alternately, so you can’t see the number.

He thought if you really perceive things differently, then maybe while falling they would be able to see the number, but they couldn’t. So he says time is not changing, it is all psychology. There is a little area in the middle of the brain called the amygdale, which takes in a lot more information and you believe a second to be a long time. There is also a bit about time travel and about measuring time from ancients up to the atomic clocks. The book covers all these topics and it is not very deep; it is quite simple and can be read by any five-year-old. I keep the words and sentences short and try to keep it simple because I can’t see why everyone shouldn’t understand science. Think you can spot a fake smile? Compelled to double check that you’ve locked the door? Constantly forgetting where you left your car keys? Help is at hand. Whether you believe yourself to be sharp-witted or absent-minded, you can explore your brain and body with these online BBC Science games, tests and explanations. On top of being both interesting and fun, this site will help you better understand your emotions, memory and personality.


Huntington gardens

Is time travel possible? Yes. You are travelling into the future one second every second. Sergei Krikalev, a Russian cosmonaut (who resided in the International Space Station for two years), is travelling into the future. He is 27 seconds younger than he should be and has travelled 27 million seconds into the future.

And into the past? Well, that’s probably not possible. There are lots of arguments about it, but there are two reasons; first have you met anyone from the future? It would seem likely that if you could travel in the past, somebody could have come back here. There is the grandmother paradox, where you might accidently end up killing your mother and then you can’t exist. So probably it is impossible, but then some say it is not only possible until we built a time machine. That is another circular argument. This site showcases images and descriptions of the themed botanical gardens of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California – full of life and colour since 1903. Step back in time to a Shakespearean garden with the poppies, pansies, primroses, daffodils and marigolds that are featured in his plays; travel to a Japanese garden with ornamental trellises, water lilies, weeping willows, iris, bamboo and bonsai trees; or into the desert, with cacti, thistles, aloes and agaves. If you have a favourite website, blog or podcast that you’d like to share with other readers, please email April 2012


Gadgets New Tech

The latest gizmos and apps creating buzz in the market  Clip and hook Designed by Nendo, the Data Clip fashioned to look like a paper clip, allows the user to attach USB data with business cards, office documents etc. The Data Hook takes its inspiration from the carabineer used by mountaineers. Easy to attach to totes, bags or other data hooks for easy portability; both devices come with 4GB memory and are available in five colours. Price: Data Clip `1,799 and Data Hook `1,849 •

Cannon, Quirky, breffo, hiroshi iwasaki, Yanko Design, Sony Ericsson, apple

 Meet Sony’s SmartWatch Discover the SmartWatch with its ultra-responsive touch display to access calls, SMS, music and supported apps on its detachable 1.3-inch OLED display. An Android watch, this is the latest accessory to go with Sony’s smartphone range. You can connect it to your phone via Bluetooth and customise the strap to suit your style. Price: `7,450 approx •

5Free appsapps to conserve, discover, explore to discover, learn and shareand survive the wildlife 3D Brain


Discover how the different regions of your brain function and react when you are injured or ill. Using the touch interface function, zoom in on the 29 interactive areas and learn more about the functions of the brain, disorders, modern case studies with links provided to academic research.

Skitch by Evernote allows you to scribble on photos, images, screenshots of web page and anotate them or you can just draw on a blank canvas. Your creations can then be shared or tweeted with your friends and family.

Users: iPhone and iPad

Users: iPhone and iPad

Users: iPad and Android

Have suggestions for any gadget/application? Share with other readers, please email



The GoSkyWatch is your personal telescope for the night sky. When pointed towards the sky, the app displays the orientation and position of the heavenly bodies in the sky thanks to its built-in extensive database on stars and planets visible to the naked eye.

April 2012

 Spiderpodium This portable stand with its quirky design and flexibility is a universal multi-purpose holster and podium display that can be used for devices, such as a smartphones, portable movie player, mp3 players etc. The bendable legs can also be used to attach the device to bicycle handles, in a car or a stand. Lightweight and compact, the spiderpodium device is also a great travel companion. Price: `1,095 approx •

 The Mantis The Mantis is a portable battery lamp with 11 LED lights and is energy efficient; switching itself off after two hours of usage incase you forget to. The Mantis comes with two rubber tipped legs which can be folded out to use it as a table lamp and an attachable clip making it easy to clip onto laptops. Price: `1,469 approx •

 Swipe and Save The Erascan is an intelligent gadget capable of scanning written content from a whiteboard as it slides off the surface. Designed with an integrated chip, the information scanned while erasing the whiteboard is stored in the chip for later use. An LCD screen shows the data being swiped and a simple menu function beneath it, allows for easy access to stored information. Price: To be announced •

 The Canon Powershot The Elph 530 HS and the Elph 320 HS will be the first cameras in line from Canon with built-in Wi-Fi capabilities. This allows you to wirelessly upload your images to Canon Image Gateway via a wireless network connected to the internet, from where you can organise and share them on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Price: Elph 530 HS ` 17,121 approx and Elph 320 HS ` 13, 697 approx •


last word

Bachendri Pal recalls her pathbreaking climb to Mount Everest

“Every step was a struggle. But turning back was the last thing on my mind” he ice avalanche at C – III (23000 ft) at Lhotse Face of Mt. Everest nearly took my life. The male members injured chose to return to the base camp. I did not inform my team of my head injury and when the leader enquired about my willingness to climb again, I said yes. I remained positive as I thought that the worst was over. This decision was the turning point of my success story. It was a late start (by Everest standards) from South Col 26000 ft, the 4th Camp. Other expedition climbers usually set out for the summit on the previous night itself i.e. by 11:30 pm. We started out at 6:20 am on the morning of May 23, 1984. Late Ang Dorjee, the Sherpa Sirdar was with me and we climbed unroped. This was dangerous, but circumstances made me take this decision. Dorjee was also prone to getting cold attacks on his feet at high altitude and on a previous occasion, he had to turn back from near the summit due to this. There was a possibility that this could happen again. But my team’s attitude strengthened my resolve to carry on. As we continued on our climb, the weather, though good intially, was increasingly becoming windy. Slowly, the strong wind started to push the powdered snow around and it

tata steel adventure foundation



April 2012

Bachendri Pal along with her team after reaching the peak of Mt. Everest

soon turned into a blizzard. I was nervous, because we were climbing unroped. To protect myself from the force of the blizzard, I had to often sit down with my back against the strong winds, shielding myself from the wind and fighting the height, the cold, the blizzard and the slippery ground conditions due to hard ice. Every step from then was a struggle, but crucial. Inspite of all this, turning back was the last thing I had in mind. I trudged on, steadily, reaching Hillary Step, the final challenge before reaching the Everest summit. As I was negotiating my way to climb this vertical rock face of 40ft in height, Dorjee gestured from top, drawing my attention towards him. My pulse raced. I was thrilled to know that the goal was near. In seconds, I was on top of

the Step and continued steadily for sometime using the ice axe, kicking into the frozen slope – hard and brittle as sheets of glass. A few steps later I saw that after only a couple of metres, there was no upward climb. The slope plunged steeply down. My heart stood still. It dawned on me that success was within reach. At 1:07 pm in the afternoon, I stood on top of Mt. Everest. There was hardly enough place for a second person to stand alongside on the Everest cone. Photographs were taken and I collected rock samples to show to my family. I was so pre-occupied with the climb and reaching the top that, the significance of the climb itself was lost on me. I did not even make a conscious effort to look all round from the top. Rather my thoughts went on to the climb down… the steep

slippery descent on ice. These thoughts were broken by the voice of our leader Brig. D K Khullar coming from the walkietalkie. After congratulating me, he said, “I would also like to congratulate your parents for your unique achievement.” He added that the country was proud of me and that I would return to a world which would be quite different from the one I had left behind. It took nine years, since my ascent of Everest, to finally plan for an All Women Team for Mt. Everest. I led the two pre-Everest selection expeditions conducted in 1991 and 1992, from where the final team was chosen. The team led by me, gave a world class performance during the 1993 Indo-Nepalese Women’s Everest Expedition. The success gave India the highest number of women Everest Summiteers’ i.e. eight in all, the highest number from any nation. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change you want to see in this world”. This is my dream for Indian women that they should become the ornament that they adorn on their bodies. Women should develop qualities that that evoke admiration in others. Women can excel in all fields and carve out a place for themselves. Bachendri Pal is the first Indian woman mountaineer to climb Mount Everest.