Page 1

Big mouth strikes again An insight into the elusive Bryde’s whale p46

Volume 2 Issue 6 October 2012 ` 100


Unlocking secrets of the

Earth’s Core p30

Plus: THE REBEL IN ALL OF US - Why do only some choose to take a stand?


FREE! Sept-Oct Calendar Inside

R.N.I. MAHENG/2010/35422

Celebrating Hubble’s greatest hits p54

Find out how illusions deceive us p61

Do animals have feelings too? p74



Nature Science

october 2012

An insight into the elusive Bryde’s whale p46

BIG MOUTH Barely 2m away from the photographer’s camera, a Bryde’s whale opens its cavernous jaws to engulf some sardines 42

Photos by Doug Perrine and Brandon Cole




Charging at a baitball is the mother-of-all-mouths: a Bryde’s whale on the rampage. DOUG PERRINE gets up close and personal with one of the world’s most spectacular, but least-known, marine animals.

October 2012


October 2012

46 Big Mouth Strikes Again

Rarely seen and even less photographed, meet the Bryde’s whale




Volume 2 Issue 6 October 2012 ` 100




PLUS: THE REBEL IN ALL OF US - Why do only some choose to take a stand?

Hubble’s Greatest Hits



To celebrate the Hubble Telescope’s 22nd anniversary Stuart Clark looks back at the most amazing and important images it’s captured


This giant dusty cloud stretches across four light-years of space. To give you an idea of just how vast that is, if you placed our Sun on the tip of this cloud (far right), the other end of it would reach all the way to our nearest star, Proxima Centauri. Unlike the empty expanse of space that exists between these two suns, this image shows the multitude of forming stars packed into the Eagle Nebula. Each young stellar object is a condensing cloud of gas and dust, busily pulling itself together to build up enough mass to spark nuclear fusion and become a star. Hundreds of thousands of years from now they will all blow away the remaining dust from their birth cloud and shine as a brilliant star cluster.


October 2012

54 Portfolio: Hubble’s Greatest Hits We celebrate the Hubble’s 22nd year of photographing the Universe



R.N.I. MAHENG/2010/35422

Just an


Celebrating Hubble’s greatest hits p54

Find out how illusions deceive us p61

Do animals have feelings too? p74

Seeing doesn’t necessarily mean believing. Paul Parsons examines the science of how illusions deceive us

umans have an odd fascination with being deceived. From the conjuring tricks of magicians to mind-bending optical illusions, our love of being shown the impossible keeps us coming back for more – even though we know, deep down, that it’s all nothing but a clever trick. It’s long been this way. Before Derren Brown and David Blaine, Harry Houdini amazed onlookers with his death-defying stunts. And the power of illusions is even mentioned in the writings of ancient Greek scholar Epicharmus. Now modern-day researchers are subjecting illusions to rigorous scientific scrutiny to unpick the workings of the human mind. “Scientists are using illusions to understand more about how our senses work,” says BBC producer Naomi Austin, whose forthcoming Horizon fi lm Is Seeing Believing? reveals how illusions shape our feelings and emotions – and even save our lives. “This has opened up


new theories about how our brains are wired.” Scientists are discovering that illusions are in fact an essential consequence of the mental machinery through which we see the world. They’re partly responsible for our success as a species and they could even help explain the very nature of consciousness. Indeed, rather than pulling the wool over our eyes, illusions help us perceive the world more efficiently. That’s because the brain simply doesn’t have the power to analyse every single scrap of information that’s available to our senses. Instead, it picks out what it thinks are the important bits from the torrent of information coming in – and then uses its expectations about how the world works to fi ll in all the gaps. “Only 10 per cent of what we think we see comes from our eyes,” says Austin. “The other 90 per cent comes from other parts of the brain.” Illusions are what happens in the small number of cases when the brain’s assumptions get it October 2012


61 Just An Illusion?

Now you see it, now you don’t! Unravel the science behind illusions with Paul Parsons


Earth’s Core What does the core do for us? Aidan Laverty explores the least known part of our planet p30



A female orangutan can raise only three or four young in her lifetime, developing an extremely close bond with her infants. Are her tender caresses and fond looks evidence of maternal love, comparable to the attachment a human mother has for her child?

October 2012

74 Do Animals Have Feelings Too? A growing body of evidence suggests that humans aren’t the only species with feelings

EARTH’S CORE the centre Changes taking place at all our lives. of the Earth could affect the part of Aidan Laverty looks into least about our planet we know the in ate one Friday afternoon March 1997, NASA satellite engineer Ken LaBel received the a call from the team running was There Hubble Space Telescope. recently a problem with the most installed equipment. the coast As Hubble passed over dangerous of Brazil, a potentially through spike of current was passing to cause the electronics, threatening engineers NASA irrevocable damage. didn’t noticed that the problem the telescope’s occur anywhere else in over South orbit, only when it passed seeing about America. “They were a week and two problems like this to see any,” they weren’t expecting says LaBel. the Astronauts had just installed included new equipment, which the a spectrometer for measuring light and incoming the of properties was part of an an infrared camera. It designed important NASA experiment clouds to peer through the interstellar the secrets of of gas and dust to reveal Universe. The the earliest days of the agency space equipment had cost the $136 million (£85 million). years For the team who’d spent these designing and building



Professor Additional reporting: of the Benfield Bill McGuire, Director Centre UCL Hazard Research October 2012

October 2012

October 2012







A growing body of evidence suggests we aren’t the only species with feelings. HENRY NICHOLLS asks whether animals also experience emotions such as love, grief, fear and envy



Do animals have feelings too? MITSUAKI IWAGO/MINDEN/FLPA

on the cover: Marcin Molski/Ars Thanea, Martin Camm/, Dough perrine/brandon cole



october 2012



30 Unlocking Secrets Of The Earth’s Core

Aidan Laverty journeys to the centre of the Earth and learns how the core affects us all

Rebellion is alive and kicking, yet only some of us choose to take a stand. Lousie Ridley explores the psychology behind being rebellious



46 Big Mouth Strikes Again

Doug Perrine introduces the most spectacular yet least known species - the Bryde’s whale



54 Portfolio: Hubble’s Greatest Hits

A pictorial celebration of 22 years of the Hubble the photographer of the Universe



61 Just An Illusion?

30 Earth’s Core

How close are we to understanding the Earth’s core?

Visual phenomenon or just a distortion? Paul Parsons examines the science behind illusions

38 The Rebel


70 The Undaunted Wilderness

In All of Us

What is it that makes the Western Ghats of India one of the world’s hottest biodiversity hotspots?

Are you a rebel or a mere spectator?



74 Do Animals Have Feelings Too? Henry Nicholls asks whether animals too experience a similar gamut of human emotions


82 Higgs Don’t Lie

The discovery of the Higgs boson particle will change the way we understand the Universe

61 Just An Illusion? Mysterious workings or a scientific actuality?

86 The Big Idea: The Placebo Effect


science photo library, Akiyoshi KITAOKA, Mitsuaki Iwago/Minden/FLPA, Mitsuaki Iwago/Minden/FLPA, nasa, getty,, corbis


38 The Rebel In All Of Us


Does replacing a proven treatment with a harmless alternative genuinely have an effect? And, if so, how does it actually work?

The Western Ghats

STRIKES AGAIN BIG MOUTH p46 the elusive Bryde’s whale An insight into

2012 Volume 2 Issue 6 October ` 100





68 Subscribe today Every issue delivered direct to your door


PLUS: THE REBEL IN ALL OF US - Why do only some choose to take a stand?



R.N.I. MAHENG/2010/35422

Celebrating Hubble’s greatest hits p54

Find out how illusions deceive us p61

Do animals have feelings too? p74


Do Animals Have Feelings Too? Find out if they feel what we feel

Unlock the natural secrets of the Sahyadris

54 Portfolio


Iconic images that capture the Universe through the lens of the Hubble

6 Inbox

Read what’s on the editor’s mind and a selection of your letters on topics covered in our recent issues

10 Think n Win

Challenge your brain and use your coffee break by solving this issue’s Olympics themed crossword

12 Q&A

24 Update

Are scientists closer to finding the cure for cancer?

12 Q&A

How high can helicopters fly?

Allow our BBC Knowledge expert panel to solve the questions that boggle your mind to the point of annoyance

18 Snapshot

A trio of outstanding and arresting images from the worlds of science, nature and history to entertain and educate

96 Gadgets

Update your tech-quotient as we explore the latest innovations in the world of gadgets and apps

UPDATE 24 The Latest Intelligence

A breakthrough in cancer treatment and a supersized dinosaur that wore a fuzzy coat

46 Big Mouth Strikes Again How have the Bryde’s whale managed to remain elusive for so long?

26 Insights

Mathematician and educationist Anand Kumar talks about his Super 30 programme

28 Comment & Analysis

Herpetologist Romulus Whitaker believes it is time we paid attention to the neglected bite

29 Principal Speak

Abha Sahgal of Sanskriti School, talks about the need for equity in the education sector

98 Last Word

Vivek Menon lauds the recognition given to the Western Ghats as a World Heritage Site

October 2012


inbox From the editor Did you know that the north and south magnetic poles swap positions periodically? Okay, okay, every 300,000 years on average but it is still a very cool fact. If it weren’t for the Earth’s inscrutable core, ships wouldn’t have sailed, animals wouldn’t have minutely-detailed migratory routes and our atmosphere may not have been the star performer that it is. It is oft said, and rightly so, that we know much more about what lies beyond our planet than we know what lies under. And there is a possibility that this mysterious place includes a ‘forest’ made of 10km long crystals. Read more in our cover story on page 30. Talking of what lies beneath – check out our story on The Rebel In All Of Us on page 38. It is an insightful view into why some of us choose to go against the tide and stand against what we perceive as injustice and the rest of us don’t. Does it boil down to nature and our genetic makeup or nurture and our environment? Find out. New strides in science are increasingly addressing issues that have traditionally been the playing field of psychologists and sociologists. Doesn’t it beg the knowledgemagazineindia

question – if subtleties in our behavior are proved to be governed largely by our biology, then what about free will? There are more introspective and thought provoking features, such as Do Animals Have Feelings Too, and how illusions deceive us. Also a must-read is renowned herpetologist Romulus Whitaker’s article on the neglected problem of snakebites in India as well as Vivek Menon’s Last Word on challenges faced before the Western Ghats could be anointed as a World Heritage Site. Enjoy.

Preeti Singh


Download this current issue from •

Experts this issue

Mrigank sharma (India Sutra)

Doug Perrine is a marine and wildlife photographer whose photographs have been carried in renowned publications. A recipient of a number of awards including the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the Nature’s Best/ Cemex competition in the Professional Marine Wildlife category. In this issue, he introduces us to the elusive Bryde’s whale. See page 46


October 2012

Vivek Menon is the founder, Executive Director and CEO of the Wildlife Trust of India and an Advisor and Director for International Fund for Animal Welfare. He is a wildlife conservationist, environmental commentator and photographer and author of eight wildlife books including the bestselling Field Guide to Mammals of India. In this issue, he gives his Last Word on the Western Ghats of India. See page 98

Henry Nicholls has a PhD in evolutionary biology and is a freelance science journalist whose work regularly appears in publications such as Nature, PLoS Biology and New Scientist. In this issue, he looks into the growing body of evidence that suggests that animals too experience feelings similar to the human spectrum of emotions. See page 74

Enjoy your favourite magazine wherever you are India • Editor: Preeti Singh • UK/USA/Canada • Editor: Sally Palmer • Asia • Editor: Ben Poon • Brazil • Editor: Cáren Nakashima • Bulgaria • Editor: Hristo Dimitrov • Sweden • Editor: Jonas Berg • Taiwan • Editor: Hui-Wen Lan


CorrespondencE Star LETTER

Write in and you have a chance to win a UCB wristwatch worth `4499. Congratulations, Ketan K Shah, winner of this issue’s star prize.

 Chanakya: a political and economic thinker

I was very glad to find an article featured on Chanakya by Himanshu Prabha Ray in the latest issue of the BBC Knowledge magazine. Whatever he may have been, Chanakya, the kingmaker or Kautilya and the author of Arthashastra, deserves a prominent place in the annals of Indian history. He built the Mauryan empire (uniting India for the first time) which lasted for more than 130 years. Although scores of researchers are quick to acknowledge that the Arthashastra is basically a political treatise advising the king on the matters of administration, what has gone almost neglected is a vast treasure trove of principles in economics embedded in it. There are startling similarities between modern day economics attributed to Adam Smith and the one given by Kautilya. More importantly, the type of economics embedded in his scheme of things adopts a heterodox and multidisciplinary approach to which contemporary economists are now turning to, in order to make the discipline illustrate lucidly real world economic events. It was some 2,300 years ago that Kautilya strictly advocated a mixed economic system for efficient management of scare resources making him a memorable figure. Ketan K Shah, Ahmedabad




Ruskin Bond

last word

writes about Charles

Dickens, the purveyour


of great storytellin g








VOL 56” (1870),





or me, Charles Dickens was, and will be, the greatest always English language, novelist in the and for one simple reason. When I was twelve, I discovered David Copperfield, read it and unabridged) right through (complete whenever the routine life of boarding school a permitted, and decided I was going to be a writer. And in a single-minded, determined, Dickensian sort of way, I became one. Not a major writer, but one literature was for whom religion. Before I was fi fteen I’d read Oliver Pickwick Papers, A Tale of Two Cities, Twist, Nickleby, Sketches By Boz, and the Nicholas Barnaby Rudge. unfashionable I still dip into Pickwick Papers time to time; it’s from an antidote for various other ailments. depression and I have read Copperfi eld several times. the sheer joy of its youthful exuberance. For recently I read And Our London’s dockland Mutual Friend for the fi rst time. came I don’t think Dickens to life again for me. ever wrote a bad certainly not a novel; dull one. He was brilliant, from consistently the time he took up his pen to create Mr. Pickwick and friends to his fi fties when the time in he writing The Mysterycollapsed in the middle of of Edwin Drood. His greatest 



Ruskin Bond August 2012

When I was twelve, I discovered David Copperfield... and was going to be decided I a writer

Mr. Charles Dickens’s last reading

Oliver Twist and his companions of slow starvation suffered for three the tortures so voracious months; was tall for and wild with hunger, at last they got his age, and that one thing (for boy, who hadn’t been his father used to that had kept darkly to sort of a small cook-shop), his basin of gruelcompanions, that hinted unless he had another night happen per diem, he was afraid he to eat the might some happened boy who to slept next wild, hungry be a weakly youth him, who of tender age. He had council was eye; and they implicitly a held; lots believed the master were cast him. A who should after supper and it fell walk up that evening, to Oliver and ask for to Twist. The evening more; arrived; The master, the boys took their in his cook’s the copper; places. his pauper uniform, stationed behind him; assistants himself ranged themselves at the gruel grace was was served said over out; and a long the short disappeared commons. ; the boys The gruel winked at whispered Oliver; while each other, him. Child his next as neighbours and and reckless he was, he was desperate nudged with hunger, advancing with misery. He rose to the master, from the somewhat table; and basin and alarmed spoon in at his own hand, said, “Please, Sir, temerity: I The master want some more.” was a fat, very pale. healthy He gazed man; but in stupefi the small he turned ed rebel for some seconds,astonishment on support to the and with wonder; copper. The assistants then clung for the were paralysed “What!” said boys with fear. “Please, Sir,” the master at length, in a faint The master replied Oliver, “I voice. want some ladle; pinioned aimed a blow at Oliver’s head more.” him in his the beadle. with the arms; and shrieked The board aloud for were sitting Bumble rushed in into the roomsolemn conclave, addressing when Mr. in great excitement, the gentleman “Mr. Limbkins, in the high and chair, said, I beg your has asked pardon, Sir! for more!” Oliver Twist

August 2012


 Thought for food As a student of the 11th grade from Vidya Mandir School, Chennai, I am relatively interested in literature and history and articles regarding biochemistry and genetics. Could you publish articles regarding genetics more often? Human chimerism is astonishing and I think it would grab a million hearts with its sheer wow factor. Your recent article on Charles Dickens was interesting, as it showed the personal life of a man whose works I admire. I never knew Ruskin Bond was a fan of Dickens. It is interesting because I can now trace the similarities in their writing styles. Another story that I found interesting was on Chanakya, which gave me an insight into the mind of a man, who continues

to mesmerise me with his meticulousness and diplomacy.

‘Chanakya: The man behind the empire’ from the August 2012 issue.

Aswitha, Chennai

Gaurav Oberoi, via email

 Knowledge to keep you glued

 Ancient India way ahead of times

In today’s world, where we are constantly bombarded with loads of information, BBC Knowledge magazine hands us a basketful of facts and an assortment of carefully picked articles. I would like to thank the entire team of BBC Knowledge for designing a magazine that is full of intellectual insights on various topics ranging from different fields of science, history and nature that it will keep you glued to your seat, be it the article ‘How to make anything invisible’ from the June 2012 issue or the one on

I find a slight contradiction in the feature stories of this issue.You mention Chanakya and the Aryans as great examples, but do not include India among ‘The 10 Greatest Cities of All time.’ India can be mentioned on top in the earliest and the final category (3000 BC and 2020 respectively). In ancient times, India was way ahead in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and engineering. The Vedas are a very accurate and advanced scientific treatise. Arjun, Delhi

 Send us your letters Has something you’ve read in BBC Knowledge Magazine intrigued or excited you? Write in and share it with us. We’d love to hear from you and we’ll publish a selection of your comments in the forthcoming issues.

Email us at : We welcome your letters, while reserving the right to edit them for length and clarity. By sending us your letter you permit us to publish it in the magazine. We regret that we cannot always reply personally to letters.

October 2012


Here’s how to get in touch Team India Chief Executive Officer Tarun Rai Editor Preeti Singh Assistant Editor Nayantara Som Senior Features Writer Kamna Malik Consulting Writer Moshita Prajapati Art Director Suneela Phatak Senior Graphic Designer Navin Mohit Digital Imaging Editor Shailesh Salvi Senior Editorial Coordinator Harshal Wesavkar Brand Publisher Soela Joshi Brand Manager Komal Puri Marketing Assistant Dipti Satwani Chief Financial Officer Subramaniam S. Publisher, Print & Production Controller Joji Varghese

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Printed and published by Joji Varghese for and on behalf of Worldwide Media Pvt. Ltd., The Times of India Building, 4th floor, Dr. D. N. Road, Mumbai 400001 and printed at Rajhans Enterprises, No. 134, 4th Main Road, Industrial Town, Rajajinagar, Bangalore 560044, India. Editor- Preeti Singh. The publisher makes every effort to ensure that the magazine’s contents are correct. However, we accept no responsibility for any errors or omissions. Unsolicited material, including photographs and transparencies, is submitted entirely at the owner’s risk and the publisher accepts no responsibility for its loss or damage. All material published in BBC Knowledge is protected by copyright and unauthorized reproduction in part or full is prohibited. BBC Knowledge is published by Worldwide Media Pvt. Ltd. under licence from Immediate Media Company Bristol Limited. Copyright © Immediate Media Company Bristol Limited. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or part prohibited without permission. The BBC logo is a trade mark of the British Broadcasting Corporation and is used under licence. © British Broadcasting Corporation 1996

Think & win Solve this Olympics themed crossword to win fabulous prizes from the British Council

Crossword NO.12 

Your Details Name: Age: Address:



E Across

2 The Olympics are hosted once every ___ years (4) 5 Olympic shooting event where one shoots a clay pigeon (4) 7 Ac & 23 Dn Indian boxer who won a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics (8,5) 10 See 30 Down 11 He won a bronze medal for India in the 10m Air Rifle event (5,6) 14 The Ancient Olympic Games were hosted in the honour of this Greek God (4) 15 City which will host the 2016 Olympic Games (3,2,7) 19 Leander Paes won a bronze medal at the 1994 Olympic Games hosted in ____ (7) 20 The Soviet invasion of this country led to a boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games by the United States and some of its allies (11) 22 The 1940 and 1944 editions of the Olympic Games were cancelled on account of World War ____ (3) 24 City which hosted the first ever Winter Olympics (8) 26 Country which topped the medals tally at the 2008 Beijing Olympics (5) 28 The number of medals India has won in hockey over the years (6) 29 City which hosted the first ever Summer Olympics (6) 31 Ac & 12 Dn Indian wrestler who won a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics (6,5) 32 Boxer Muhammad ___ won a boxing gold medal as Cassius Clay (3) 33 Ancient Olympic Games venue (7)

H Down

1 & 27 Indian badminton star who won a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics (5,6) 3 & 9 First Indian (post independence) to win an individual silver at the Olympic Games (12,7) 4 ___ Spitz: American swimmer who won seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics (4) 6 See 21 Down 8 Indian shooter who won a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics (5,5) 9 See 3 Down 11 Sport scheduled to make a comeback at the 2016 Olympics (4) 12 See 31 Across 13 See 25 Down 16 American athlete who made history at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (5,5) 17 City which has hosted the Olympics thrice (6) 18 Over the years this country has won the maximum number of medals at the Olympic Games (3) 21 & 6 He holds the all-time record for the maximum number of gold medals at the Olympics (7,6) 23 See 7 Across 25 & 13 In 2008 he became the first Indian to win an individual gold medal at the Olympic Games (7,6) 26 Along with croquet this popular game only featured in the 1900 Olympics (7) 27 See 1 Down 28 Continent which has hosted the Olympics the most (6) 30 & 10 Ac First gymnast to score a perfect 10 at the Olympics (5,8)


Announcing the winners of Crossword No. 11


How to enter: Post your entries to BBC Knowledge Editorial, Crossword No. 11, Worldwide Media, The Times of India Bldg, 4th floor, Dr Dadabhai Navroji. Road, Mumbai 400001 or email by October 10, 2012. Entrants must supply their name, address and phone number. How it’s done: The puzzle will be


familiar to crossword enthusiasts already, although the British style may be unusual as crossword grids vary in appearance from country to country. Novices should note that the idea is to fill the white squares with letters to make words determined by the sometimes cryptic clues to the right. The numbers after each clue tell you

October 2012

how many letters are in the answer. All spellings are UK. Good luck! Terms and conditions: Only residents of India are eligible to participate. Employees of Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd. are not eligible to participate. The winners will be selected in a lucky draw. The decision of the judges will be final.

Harini U.B. Chennai Rudrakshi kesarwani Kolkata Ahalya P. Rajesh Haryana

Solution NO. 11

10 Reason 1


reasons to see sabah i

f you’re looking for a reason to have a good time, look at Sabah. With its stunning beaches, verdant rainforest, rich heritage and gastronomic delights, Sabah gives you 10 compelling reasons to enjoy a great time!

Reason 2

Shop at the ‘Tamu’: gle with the Hunt for bargains and min rket or ‘Tamu’. al ma locals at an open-air loc ade crafts, crystals, Browse through handm freshest seafood, the up k pic and es, antiqu exotic fruits. and s ble eta veg local cakes,

with the thrilling Explore Mount Kinabalu system of routes, per pro a h Wit : rata Fer Via trainer to guide d nce erie exp an devices and or ‘Iron Road’ ata’ Ferr you, experience the ‘Via llenge of this sport cha iting exc the y enjo and ns. under the safest of conditio


Reason 3

Hot Springs: a Soak in a hot bath at Poring these scenic springs. Soak in erience nature’s marvels at exp to lore ily exp fam also with can trip a You . Take perties antage of its skin curative pro -watching. hot sulphur bath and take adv landscapes and indulge in bird ning stun the ugh thro s various nature trail

Reason 4 Get up close with the Orang Utan at the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary: Enjoy the thrilling opportunity to see an orang utan up close at this sanctuary, which rehabilitates orphaned orang utans. A boardwalk leads to a viewing gallery, from where you can see the orang utans being fed by the rangers.

Reason 8 Park : nku Abdul Rahman Island Hopping at Turk, a cluster of islands pa e rin m Visit this ma by speedboat fro just 10-20 minutes e sure to be u’r Yo . alu Kota Kinab shallow waters, mesmerised by its rdens and ga ral co magnificent white beaches.



tK oun



F Via


Reason 9

Reason 5 Tea Organic Tea at Sabah Tea Garden: aficionados should not miss this the one-of-its-kind tea garden. Savour and freshly brewed tea at Tea House, one experience that extra ‘kick’ which usually gets from coffee. Reason 6 at Sipadan Island: Explore stunning seascapes ionally famous rnat inte this at er und n dow Go its abundant paradise for divers and explore n sea fans, onia gorg of st mid the in life marine tree corals. soft ntic giga and s nge spo barrel

Reason 7 Take a warm mud bath at ‘Pulau Tiga’: Visit this secluded group of islands made famous by the television series ‘Survivor’. Dive, snorkel and discover the rich and fascinating marine life. Enjoy a warm mud bath in the bubbling mud pools and explore the varied species of wildlife unique to this region.

Madai Cave: Bird Nest harvesting at most the of one to Plan a trip al sites of important archaeologic ruary - April Sabah. Visit between Feb the caves en or July - September, wh of the come alive, as members to harvest her Idahan community gat icacy - Bird’s nests for that famed del Nest Soup.


t Sprin

Ho Poring

Reason 10 Lowland Rainfor es Valley: Put this co t of Danum nservation area on your must-se e list of the last remain , for this is one ing primary lowland rainfores ts Here, you’ll enjoy in Asia. rar glimpses of plant e an species found on d animal ly in Borneo.

u ula





an Isl




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Your Questions Answered

HIGHLIGHTS E How often do the planets in our Solar System line up? p13 E Are toeprints unique, like fingerprints? p14 E What is the future of the Internet? p15 E What is the noisiest animal in the world? p16 E How do we know that plastic bags take 500 years to decompose? p16

Expert PANEL Stuart Blackman

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

Susan Blackmore (SB)

A visiting professor at the University of Plymouth, UK, Susan is an expert on psychology and evolution.

How high can helicopters fly? Helicopter flight at high altitudes is problematic, as rotors produce less lift than at lower levels where the air is thicker. Conventional engines also become inefficient, so gas turbines are used instead. Most helicopters can fly to about 5000m (16,400ft), but in 2005, French pilot Didier Delsalle landed a helicopter on the summit of Mount Everest at 8850m (29,000ft). GM

Alastair Gunn

Alastair is a radio astronomer at Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Manchester, UK.

Robert Matthews

Robert is a writer and researcher. He is a Visiting Reader in Science at Aston University, UK.

Gareth Mitchell

As well as lecturing at Imperial College London, Gareth is a presenter of Click on the BBC World Service.

Nick Rennison

An editor and writer based in the UK, Nick is also a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine.

Luis Villazon

Getty, corbis, dreamstime, thinkstock

Luis has an MSc in zoology from the University of Oxford. He is a freelance science journalist living in England.

Ask the Experts Email your queries to We’re sorry, but we cannot answer questions individually.


October 2012


The summit of Mount Everest marks the highest altitude yet achieved by a helicopter

,000 0 0 8 , 9 69

3 km me, in te volu e Pacific a im x 3 f th ppro is the a ,948 miles ) o Atlantic’s 0 (167,89 , dwarfing the 0km3 ,00 3 Ocean 10,400 mere 3 ,920 miles ) 8 6 ,4 4 (7


The real Solar System is, of course, somewhat larger than this fountain in Poland

Hayden’s bonecrushing dog (Epicyon haydeni) roamed the plains of North America 10 million years ago. Weighing up to 170kg (375lb), it is the largest species of wild dog so far discovered.

How often do the planets in our Solar System line up?

Why do we say ‘Ow!’?

The answer to this question depends on how we define ‘line up’. Because the planets orbit the Sun with slightly different orbital inclinations, it is extremely unlikely they will ever align perfectly – the odds of this happening are something like one in 86 billion trillion trillion trillion years! However, if by ‘line up’ we just mean that some of the planets appear close together in the sky, then this occurs fairly regularly. For example, the five planets visible to the naked eye cluster within 25 degrees or less of each other once every 57 years, on average. The last time this happened was on 5 May 2000; before that it was 4 February 1962 and it will happen next on 8 September 2040. But these are not true planetary ‘alignments’. They are simply interesting and beautiful groupings of the planets in the sky. AG

The semi-involuntary sound we make when we stub a toe or burn a finger is surprisingly constant across languages and cultures. The Spanish say ‘Ay!’, the Germans ‘Ach!’, the Chinese ‘Aiya!’, the Norwegians ‘Au!’. In each case, it’s a wide-open mouth with a short breath. This is the fastest and simplest way to make a loud noise and it probably evolved as an alarm call to the tribe that danger was nearby. In case that danger is a wild animal, saying ‘Ow!’ also has the effect of baring your teeth threateningly. LV

Why is water so essential to supporting life? We don’t know for certain that it is. There may be life on other planets based around the chemistry of liquid methane, or even creatures inside stars, powered by fusion. But on Earth, water definitely is a prerequisite. Water is a polar molecule, with positively charged hydrogen atoms and a negative oxygen atom. This makes it a good solvent of other polar compounds. It also creates hydrophobic interactions that make oily compounds form into bubbles, which helps materials self-assemble into cells. The electrostatic bonds formed by water molecules help to stabilise the shape of large proteins, but aren’t so strong that they prevent chemical reactions. Water covers around 70 per cent of Earth’s surface and has the unusual properties of remaining liquid over a large temperature range and floating when it freezes. Both of these properties help to prevent our oceans and seas from freezing over. LV


Your questions Answered

Why do many girls prefer the colour pink?

alamy, dreamstime, getty, Illustration by Jonty clark, thinkstock x2

The obvious explanation is that it’s just a cultural quirk – baby girls happen to be dressed in pink and the preference develops from there. But recent research hints at a deeper reason. Anya Hurlbert of Newcastle University, UK, asked adults from different cultures to choose their preferred colour from pairs of coloured rectangles. This revealed that females do have a natural preference for redder colours – prompting Hurlbert to speculate that evolution may have led females to prefer reddish colours. This would give advantages in many areas of life, from selecting riper reddish fruits when gathering food, to finding healthy pink faces more attractive when choosing a mate. RM

Are toeprints unique, like fingerprints? Yes they are. The whorls and ridges that make up a footprint develop uniquely in each person and are not genetically determined.There are a few famous cases in which criminals have been caught by using toeprints, such as at a Scottish bakery in 1952 when a safe-cracker was identified by the footprints he left in flour. Toeprints were even suggested as biometric data to be included in the now-abandoned UK identity card scheme. SB

Why are people less likely to enter an art gallery if nobody else is there?

KNOW SPOT The oldest message in a bottle was released on 25 April 1914 from Aberdeen, Scotland, and recovered in the Shetland Islands 92 years later, on 10 December 2006.


October 2012

There are probably two factors at work. It may be that a gallery is initially empty because it’s a quiet time of day. As each potential visitor stands outside and considers whether to enter or not, he uses the same criteria as every other visitor. Whatever it was that made the gallery empty up to that point continues to hold true and it stays empty. But we are social animals and an additional discouragement comes simply from the fact that the gallery is empty, which creates an alarm signal. What’s wrong with it? Is there a danger we can’t see? This primitive unease evolved as a predator avoidance tactic – the deserted waterhole may have a leopard hiding nearby, whereas the crowded one is presumably safe. Leopard attacks in art galleries are fairly rare, but primitive fears are replaced with more complex ones – perhaps we will be pressured into buying something, or maybe the art isn’t critically acclaimed. LV


Did you know? General incompetence


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One of the Duke of Wellington’s senior commanders in the 19th-century Peninsular War – fought between various European powers for control of the Iberian Peninsula – had twice been confined in an asylum for the insane before being despatched to Portugal. The Iron Duke was a little worried that Sir William Erskine was on the way to join him. “I generally understood him to be a madman,” he wrote to the authorities in London. “No doubt he is sometimes a little mad,” came the less-than-reassuring reply, “but in his lucid intervals, he is an uncommonly clever fellow, and I trust he will have no fit during the campaign, though he looked a little wild when he embarked.” The appointment proved a disaster, not because Erskine suffered any recurrence of his mental illness, but for the simpler reason that he was militarily incompetent. NR

Why do cats like boxes? 
 Because they feel warm and safe. Cats have few predators but still prefer to sleep somewhere they cannot easily be seen. They use ambush tactics when hunting and a box is a good place from which to spring out. They also seek warmth, and cardboard, a good insulator, feels nice and warm to sit on. SB

Why do your ears sometimes ‘ring’?

What is the future of the internet? We are heading towards the ‘internet of things’, with everything from your washing machine to the central heating networked. To make these billions of devices identifiable, we are migrating to a new incarnation of the internet protocol (IP). IPv6 is a supercharged version of the existing IPv4, allowing billions of new addresses. But there are also trends away from global interconnectivity. Iran is creating its own internet, corralling its citizens’ data onto servers solely within its borders alone. Iran is unlikely to be alone for long, as nations and major corporations grapple with threats from activism to cyber-terrorism. At the device level, our refrigerators may well be networked, but at the macro level, perhaps the internet will fragment into myriad digital islands. GM

Loud noises – including music, fireworks and machinery – can damage hair cells in your inner ear. These transform sound into neural impulses that travel to the brain and loud noise can literally break their ends. They usually grow back in about 24 hours but, while broken, they send false signals to the brain. Tinnitus (Latin for ‘ringing’) can also be caused by ear infections, certain medications and gradual impairment due to ageing. SB


Your questions Answered

How do we know that plastic bags take 500 years to decompose?



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Why doesn’t all food stay fresher in the refrigerator In general, low temperatures will slow bacterial reproduction and the chemical reactions associated with spoilage. But for some foods, other processes are accelerated. The cell membranes in banana skin become unstable at low temperatures and release the enzyme polyphenyl oxidase, which makes them turn black. Bread goes stale fastest at 4°C (39°F) because of reactions between amylose, amylopectin, gluten and water. LV

What is the noisiest animal in the world? Plastic bags have only been around since 1957 so this is obviously just an estimate. Polythene is degraded fairly effectively by ultra-violet light, but plastic bags in landfill are quickly buried and so don’t get much light. Bacteria and fungi have a much harder time digesting it. Polythene doesn’t exist in nature so soil microorganisms that are well adapted to breaking it down haven’t yet had time to evolve. In 2008, Daniel Burd, a high-school student from Canada, found that a brew of Pseudomonas and Sphingomonas bacteria, together with yeast and sodium acetate, could digest 43 per cent of a plastic bag in six weeks. But this culture needs to be kept at 37°C (99ºF), so it would probably need to be used in an industrial reprocessing plant rather than an ordinary landfill. LV

alamy, superstock, flpa

KNOW SPOT The only scientist to win both Nobel and Ig Nobel prizes is Russia’s Andre Geim. In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work in developing graphene – 10 years after a project that levitated a frog using magnets had earned him an Ig Nobel, the annual prize awarded for ‘improbable research’.


October 2012

That depends what you mean by noisiest, but if you mean loudest then the Smithsonian National Zoo in the US reckons that the blue whale’s low-frequency pulses win. At up to 188 decibels (dB), they are louder than a jet engine and can be detected more than 800km (497 miles) away. On land, the loudest animals are probably howler monkeys, which can be heard 4.8km (3 miles) away. The loudest amphibian, at 100dB, is the common coqui frog native to Puerto Rico. Similarly loud among birds are oil birds, which live in caves and, like bats, use echolocation. Their clicks and squawks can reach 100dB; as thousands of them nest together, that’s quite a cacophony. One species of water boatman, the size of a grain of rice, can ‘sing’ at 103dB by rubbing his penis against his belly in a process similar to how crickets chirp. This is the loudest known sound relative to the animal’s size. SB



Fantasy island Krausnick, Germany

What do you do with an airship hanger when you no longer build airships? One solution is to turn it into a tropical island – and that’s exactly what has happened inside this vast building located between the German cities of Berlin and Dresden. Big enough to accommodate eight football pitches, the Statue of Liberty could stand up within its walls and the Eiffel Tower could lie across it. This unique 24/7 holiday resort offers perpetual 26ºC (79ºF) heat and is home to the world’s biggest indoor rainforest, Europe’s largest tropical sauna and spa complex, a tropical sea with a 200m (656ft)-long sandy beach, and a host of other attractions, making this the ultimate in recycled resorts.

October May/Jun 2012 2012



Smoke on the water? lake malawi, africa

Roland Ellis

Rising hundreds of metres into the air above Lake Malawi in southeast Africa, these tornado-like plumes consist of millions of phantom midges – Nematocera flies of the species Chaoborus edulis – recently grown from larvae just below the water’s surface. This phenomenon happens on a monthly basis around the time of a new moon. The temperature of the lake is perfect for the flies’ development, while the waters are rich in minerals from volcanic rocks deposited on the lakebed. These minerals support vast quantities of plankton, which in turn provide food for the developing larvae. Thanks to these excellent breeding conditions, nowhere else on Earth are these flies found in such vast numbers.


October 2012


High flyers early rollercoaster

Rex Features

Neither manned flight nor the automobile had been around for long when this picture was taken around 100 years ago. Despite appearances, the scene isn’t an early attempt to combine these new modes of transportation. Rather, the assembled group are witnessing the testing of a potential new attraction at a French amusement park. Nowadays, fairground rides are engineered to be millimetre-perfect, using the most sophisticated software. This scene looks somewhat less precise. Fortunately for all concerned, the passengers aren’t human – they’re primitive crash test dummies.


October 2012


The latest intelligence

P Will DNA tests help cure cancer? p24 P How are pigeons able to navigate while flying? p25 P The giant dinosaur that was covered in feathers p25 P Is our body ready to face chemical attacks? p26

Corbis, Sam Ogden / Dana-Farber, Alamy, Dr. Brian choo, Cranfield University, Getty, Anna Mayall / university of manchester, Thinkstock

Could the future of cancer treatment rely on tailormade therapies?

“Each individual tumour will have a unique genetic code,” says Levi Garraway

Cancer treatment revolution Genetic tests on tumour cells bring personalised therapy closer ew research provides the clearest picture yet of why specific cancer drugs combat some tumours and are ineffective against others. Two studies, carried out by separate teams, have revealed the extent to which the genetic material inside cancers determines how they will respond to treatment. The findings could revolutionise cancer therapy. Drug companies are already tailoring their cancer treatments to forms of the disease with specific combinations of genes. But information about the interplay between genes and drugs has been limited. Now,



October 2012

these two studies provide a much more detailed picture, paving the way for an era of mainstream personal genomics – the study of the genomes of organisms – in which a patient has a DNA test to determine the individual treatment they should receive.

“Cancer cells are derived from the host’s cells, so each individual tumour will have a unique genetic code,” says Levi Garraway at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “But it’s clear that there are recurrent characteristic changes

Cancer patients may have DNA tests to determine their individual treatment In one of the investigations, scientists in the US carried out genetic tests on several different forms of cancer cell from many different patients before assessing the effectiveness of 24 anti-cancer drugs on them.

to the genes that one can see across many tumours from different individuals.” It is these changes – or mutations – that doctors could test for to see which drug is most likely to be effective.

In a separate study, scientists led by Matthew Garnett at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the UK tested 130 drugs on different cancer cells. “Genetic testing will give many patients an opportunity to get a treatment that would not normally have been considered,” says Garraway. “It also means you will not give patients futile treatments that will only cause toxicity when patients have a few months to live. I would bet that within the next 10-15 years there will be whole cancer types for which genetic testing is routine.” Cancer therapy is likely to be among the first fields in which routine genetic testing is adopted. “There are several disease areas where genomics can have an impact,” says Garraway, “but I think cancer is special because there are large numbers of gene alterations that can impact on the likelihood of a response to treatment.”

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

ASTRONOMY A dying star produces a stream of gas and dust, which removes as much as half of its mass. It was thought this ‘superwind’ included minute dust particles, but models show these would have evaporated. Now, using the Very Large Telescope in Chile, astronomers have spotted that the dust grains grow larger than thought and act like mirrors rather than absorbing the heat. This means the dust grains can be pushed out by the starlight, eventually forming new stars.


The dust grains of a dying star are actually larger than thought


A food scarcity causes a rise in the proportion of newborn babies being girls rather than boys – or at least that’s what happened during the Great Leap Forward famine in China in the 1950s and 1960s, a tragedy prompted by a Communist Party policy of shifting workers from the land into industry. The recent discovery supports the sex-ratio adjustment hypothesis that suggests mothers in good condition are more likely to give birth to sons, whereas mothers in poorer health are more likely to give birth to daughters.


The gene responsible for the distinctive sunflowers immortalised in Vincent van Gogh’s paintings – the flowers lack a large dark centre and feature a mass of golden petals – has been discovered. Sunflower heads are actually made up of many tiny flowers, or florets. Typically, there are golden ray florets at the rim, which resemble long petals, and disc florets at the centre. In van Gogh’s sunflowers, a chunk of DNA would have been added to one gene so the central florets took on the appearance of golden rays.


A chemical analysis of the bones of 19th-century British sailors who served under Admiral Nelson has shone fresh light on their diets. Archaeologists analysed the isotopes discovered in the remains of 80 sailors buried in southern England and found that sailors ate more heartily than many of their contemporaries. But a comparison with a previous analysis of the bones of sailors aboard the 16th-century ship the Mary Rose show the naval diet had changed little in the subsequent 200 years.

A carnivorous dinosaur that was 9m (30ft) long would have sported a fuzzy down of feathers, palaeontologists have discovered. Weighing 1.5 tonnes, Yutyrannus huali, which means ‘beautiful feathered tyrant’, was 40 times larger than any previously known feathered dinosaur. The feathers were spotted in fossils found in northeastern China and were probably an adaptation to the cool climate at the time when Yutyrannus, an ancient relative of Tyrannosaurus rex, was alive in the early Cretaceous period.

WILDLIFE Exactly how the humble pigeon can navigate hundreds of miles is a question that remains up in the air. Pigeons are able to detect the Earth’s magnetic field – useful for navigation – and it had been thought that this ability was down to nerve cells in the bird’s beak containing the iron-rich mineral magnetite. But advanced imaging techniques show that this iron is actually contained inside white blood cells called macrophages, which are involved in defending against infection rather than relaying information to the brain.

October 2012





130 million

HEALTH A modified version of an enzyme produced in our bodies could provide a new form of defence against chemical weapons such as sarin, used in the Tokyo subway attack in 1995. Paraoxonase 1 was known to break down ‘G-type’ nerve agents like sarin, although it doesn’t do so particularly effectively. Now, scientists in Israel have modified Paraoxonase 1 genes to produce new forms of the enzyme that are up to 3400 times more efficient at breaking down the three most toxic G-type nerve agents.


years ago is when the first known case of osteoarthritis occurred – in a peacocksized dinosaur bird called Caudipteryx. The characteristic degeneration of bone and cartilage joints was spotted in fossils in Chinese museums.

1 million years ago is when one of humankind’s ancestors, possibly Homo erectus, is now known to have been using fire. The revelation came after the discovery of ash at the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa. The earliest known use had been less than 400,000 years.

3862 km (2400) miles is how far some golden-crowned sparrows are now known to migrate from California to breeding sites in Alaska. Before the birds were tagged, it had been a mystery where they disappeared to each year.

Alamy, press association


Methane has been discovered rising from the waters of the Arctic Ocean, far away from previously known sources of the greenhouse gas in the region. The methane was recorded either close to cracks in sea ice or where the ice had broken up, and so could be another ‘positive feedback’ mechanism accelerating global warming. It is thought that the methane is generated by marine bacteria and, because the water in the Arctic does not mix well, the gas is trapped near the surface. 26

October 2012

per cent more brainteasers were solved by volunteers who had drunk the equivalent of two pints of beer compared with those who had not. It is thought that a little tipple aided creative problem-solving in the study conducted by the University of Illinois.

5.56 kilojoules per square metre is the amount of energy required to rip apart cuticle taken from the hind legs of locusts. This means the insect’s skeletons require more energy to tear than cast iron.


Anand kumar

“The challenge came from the coaching Mafiosi, who did not like me educating the poor students” What inspired you to start the Super 30 educational programme? Why was it named so? My dream was to study in the best institutions of the world, but I did not have the finances to afford it. So, when I got an opportunity to study at Cambridge University, I was thrilled. Unfortunately, the untimely demise of my father, who was the sole breadwinner of the family, halted my plans. This event still continues to act as a big motivation for me. I want to help the poor students who have the talent but not the resources at their disposal. It is named Super 30 because my first batch of students numbered 30. What challenges do you face? One is to run Super 30 smoothly. We do not accept any donation from any agency – government or private. I fund the programme with the income generated from the tuition classes I run for intermediate-level students. The bigger challenge however, came later from the coaching Mafiosi, who did not like me educating the poor students and I have been physically attacked by them for the same. What according to you is essential for your work? Teaching poor students is not only about books and infrastructure; it is about building their confidence to unravel their true potential, which requires 100 per cent devotion and passion from us. What do you hope for the future? I hope that my small effort makes a big difference to the lives of students from the poorer section. Lack of resources should not come in the way of any student wanting to pursue education. It is my great dream that in the future, no one should be deprived of education due to lack of money. Anand Kumar is an Indian mathematician and educationist. He founded the Ramanujan School of Mathematics in Bihar, under which, the Super 30 educational programme coaches economically backward students for IITJEE, the entrance examination for the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). He has been awarded the Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad Shiksha Puraskar by the Bihar Government for his efforts in education.

October 2012


Comment & Analysis Romulus Whitaker believes it is time we paid attention to the neglected bite

“...the upper estimate for snakebite deaths in India is a staggering 50,000 per year” One of the Big Four: The saw-scaled viper

n 1883, there were a reported 19,060 deaths by snakebites in India when the population was less than half of what it is today. Reliable statistics are only now available, thanks to the Million Death Study, an initiative of the RegistrarGeneral of India (RGI) and the Centre for Global Health Research (CGHR) at St. Michael’s Hospital and the University of Toronto, Canada. Based on this study, the upper estimate for snakebite deaths in India is a staggering 50,000 per year. The primary victims of snakebites are farmers, rural labourers and their families. Most bites are on the feet and legs and occur after sunset. There are four snakes that are held responsible for most of the serious snakebites: the spectacled cobra, common krait, Russell’s viper and sawscaled viper, popularly known as the Big Four. Complicating the issue is the fact that India has three other species of cobras,

Romulus whitaker



October 2012

seven other species of kraits and two subspecies of saw-scaled viper, besides a number of other venomous species. Let’s be quite clear: snakes are not ‘out to get us’; they are normally shy, retiring animals, who are more than happy to steer clear of humans. However, they will defend themselves when they feel threatened (like when stepped upon). But let’s also be clear that snakes are indeed common in some parts of the country, particularly during the rainy months. One reason is our propensity to encourage and tolerate rats and mice to live in our homes and fields, a sure attractant to hungry snakes. The only treatment for venomous snakebite that has any value (despite what you might hear) is an injection of antivenom. Antivenom is derived by immunising horses with snake venom in gradually increasing doses until the horse reaches a high degree of immunity to the

venom. The horse’s hyper-immune serum is then refined into antivenom. In the case of all Indian antivenoms, it is polyvalent, that is, it is effective against all the Big Four. Unfortunately, Indian antivenom is woefully low in potency. For example, a 10 milliliter vial of antivenom typically can neutralize 6 milligrams of cobra venom. However, one study showed that cobras may inject 58 to as much as 742 milligrams of venom at a time. A 10 ml vial of antivenom costs about ` 500 and though Indian antivenom manufacturers have managed to produce what is probably the cheapest snakebite cure in the world, it is not up to par. For example, considering the above quoted dosages of cobra venom, it might take 165 vials of antivenom to neutralize a bite, for a cost of `82, 500. This would be way beyond the means of a farm labourer, and may explain part of the reason why India’s snakebite mortality is the highest in the world. That’s certainly one reason victims are more likely to seek cheaper but spurious cures provided by witch doctors, snakestones and other mumbo-jumbo. Though none of these are effective in the case of a real venomous bite, there are enough non-venomous bites, ‘dry’ bites and bites with sub-lethal doses to provide an illusion of success. Interestingly, cobra antivenom of the 1950s was six times more potent at 4 mg/ml than the current potency of 0.6 mg/ml! Inexplicably, the efficacy of antivenom has been greatly reduced in recent years and something must be done to remedy this sad situation. Since there are several different kinds of cobras and kraits in the country, it would make more sense to use a mixture of their venoms to make sure we are covering all possible venom components. Venoms even from the same species may vary from place to place. Though few adequate studies have been done, it has become apparent

Principal Speak that there are problems with the available antivenom. Some doctors speak of giving close to 100 vials of antivenom when a mere 10 or 20 should be sufficient for any bite. Part of the reason could be that the main source for venoms is the Irula Snake-catchers Industrial Cooperative Society which collects snakes from two districts in Tamil Nadu. Ideally, venom should be collected from the ‘four corners’ of India to make sure that the antivenom is effective throughout the country. Other venomous snakes that can cause serious, even fatal bites are some of the 23 species of sea snakes, the king cobra and perhaps a few of the 20 species of pit viper. There is no antivenom in India for the bites of any of these. Today, there are eight or more pharmaceutical companies in India producing a total of close to two million vials of antivenom each year. Published results of snakebite and venom studies indicate that there is plenty that can be done to improve the potency of antivenom and reduce the reportedly high incidence of feverish and anaphylactic reactions to antivenom. Recently, a venom study has been started by the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology in collaboration with toxinologists at the Indian Institute of Science and National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. In this first phase, their mandate is to test the efficacy of Indian antivenoms against the venom of one snake in particular, the Russell’s viper, the snake that is responsible for a high percentage of serious bites. The objective is to collect Russell’s viper venom samples to see if the antivenom (mainly from Tamil Nadu) neutralizes the effects of the venom no matter in which part of the country the bite occurs. Romulus Whitaker is a world-renowned herpetologist. He is the founder and the Managing Trustee of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology.

What do you think? Do you think the issue of snakebites has been adequately addressed in India? Email:

Abha Sahgal, Principal of Sanskriti School, New Delhi, says equity is the need of the hour and schools have to adapt to it Sanskriti School has already implemented the new diktat, that the Right to Education Act (RTE) is currently proposing. Can you elaborate further? We have students from all strata of society studying in our school. There is a Civil Service category, a general category, which means students from families with professional backgrounds and the marginalised category. However, I guarantee that you will not be able to tell the difference between our students. They are all confident and comfortable in school. As far as the academics of the latter students is concerned, we provide them with a lot of aid and don’t charge a penny from them for anything. Books and uniforms are all provided free of charge. It may be a huge expenditure but it is our way of giving back to the society. Apart from the regular students, we also have a large number of children with Learning Disabilities (LD); these are on the wheelchair and some with severe LD. We have atleast 15 special educators who take care of such children. But there has been quite a bit of opposition. Equity is the need of the hour. It has to happen. If you look at your own homes, today we treat our household help in a way that maybe our mothers would have never thought about. So equity has to happen. Society is moving towards it and schools have to adapt to it. We have to now look at pedagogy - we have to look at how we deliver our lessons because now we have a wide range of experiences. For example, when we are talking about an airport, we cannot take things for granted because there are students who have no idea of who an airhostess is or what a baggage trolley is all about. So there is a need for teachers to un-learn and re-learn. What is the school’s vision? To put it in one sentence - it is to celebrate every child. In whatever way their minds are wired, wherever they come from, whatever their abilities are, whatever their talents are - we celebrate every child the way he/she is.

Your views on the current standard of education, and what is the need of the hour? Education at this moment is at its dynamic best. It’s changing rapidly and there are a lot of changes happening so it’s a little unnerving at times. But this needs to happen. I think the curriculum framers are really looking at enhancing creativity, lateral and logical thinking and application-based learning, which is good. What are the strengths of education in the West? When you and I were studying, we did very well in our academics but under-scored where creativity and leadership were concerned. We never really became leaders. That is probably because our schools did not create those traits in children. In the West, the children are brought up to be confident about themselves. It’s like saying if you want to paint the sky red, then do it! They are never stopped from doing anything. Let the child think and imagine in the way he/she wants to. That gives the child the confidence and the ability to say that he/she has their own way of thinking or an individual perspective. What, according to you, is good education? The learning process should really excite the child. That is what I call good education. What is the role of schools? Schools should provide a safe and secure environment. The child should be emotionally, physically and even intellectually safe. October 2012


Earth's Core


EARTH’s CORE Changes taking place at the centre of the Earth could affect all our lives. Aidan Laverty looks into the part of our planet we know the least about

ate one Friday afternoon in March 1997, NASA satellite engineer Ken LaBel received a call from the team running the Hubble Space Telescope. There was a problem with the most recently installed equipment. As Hubble passed over the coast of Brazil, a potentially dangerous spike of current was passing through the electronics, threatening to cause irrevocable damage. NASA engineers noticed that the problem didn’t occur anywhere else in the telescope’s orbit, only when it passed over South America. “They were seeing about two problems like this a week and they weren’t expecting to see any,” says LaBel. Astronauts had just installed the new equipment, which included a spectrometer for measuring the properties of the incoming light and an infrared camera. It was part of an important NASA experiment designed to peer through the interstellar clouds of gas and dust to reveal the secrets of the earliest days of the Universe. The equipment had cost the space agency $136 million (£85 million). For the team who’d spent years designing and building these

Marcin Molski/Ars Thanea



October 2012

October 2012



Additional reporting: Professor Bill McGuire, Director of the Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre

Earth's Core

Prof Rick Aster and his team study seismic waves to gain an insight into the composition of the Earth’s core

instruments, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. “The issue for these devices was that the problem could be deadly; it could take out the systems,” says LaBel. So figuring out what was happening was vital and the explanation would involve extraordinary changes happening not in space but deep within the Earth’s core. That explanation not only saved these instruments but also provided a new insight into the core itself. Navigation and protection We know more about the distant planets in our Solar System than we do about the centre of the Earth. From space, our planet may appear to be a tranquil blue marble, yet volcanoes and earthquakes have long hinted that a region of great turbulence and violence lies beneath the Earth’s crust. And this hidden world has a powerful effect on all our lives. The core is responsible for generating Earth’s magnetic field, establishing the north and south magnetic poles. This magnetic flux has allowed sailors to cross the oceans and help animals to migrate.

But its effect is far greater than just navigation. The magnetic field acts as a giant shield for our planet, deflecting charged particles from the Sun. If it wasn’t there, we’d all be hit by much higher levels of radiation and our atmosphere would be eroded by the Sun’s particles (see ‘What does the core do for us’, p34). Life on Earth depends on the magnetic field generated at the core.

A reversal of Earth’s magnetic field, simulated here, could be caused by changes in the core

Core knowledge Earth’s core has long fascinated scientists but there has been one rather obvious, and seemingly insurmountable, problem with studying it: direct observation is impossible. The extremes of heat and pressure make getting close enough to the core to take a look at it impossible. (see ‘Could we ever journey to the Earth’s core?’, on p37). But now scientists around the world are starting to unlock the core’s secrets thanks to some ambitious experiments and new techniques. And in fact, the Earth itself has provided a useful tool: earthquakes. “Seismology really is the best tool for studying the inside of the planet,” says seismologist Professor Rick Aster at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro. “It’s the only method we have to remotely study the deep interior of the Earth with any kind of resolution. If it wasn’t for seismology, we wouldn’t know much about the detailed internal structure of the Earth,” says Aster.

The seismic waves produced by earthquakes come in different forms. There are surface waves, which travel along the planet’s surface, and body waves, which travel right through the centre of the Earth and out the other side. Body waves are the type of most interest to anyone attempting to study the Earth’s core and they also come in different types. Primary, or ‘P’, body waves travel quickly, compressing and releasing any rock particles in the direction the wave is travelling. The slowermoving secondary, or ‘S’, waves push rock particles perpendicular to their direction of travel. Crucially, the S waves only travel through solid material, unlike P waves. The two waves also move through materials of varying densities at different speeds, just like light. And like light waves, they can also be

Readings taken after earthquakes show how seismic waves travel at different speeds through different layers of the Earth

Earth's core

Earth’s layers Exploring the inner structure of our planet Like an onion, our world has distinct layers that formed mostly during the Earth’s early history, when its interior was hot enough to melt iron. Gravity caused much of the iron, along with other heavy elements like nickel, to sink to the centre of our planet to form the core.

Recreating the core Professor Kei Hirose at the Tokyo Institute of Technology reckons that if you can’t travel to the Earth’s core, then the next best thing is to try and simulate it somewhere more

Crust The crust is built from lowdensity minerals that are rich in silica. It’s much thicker under land than the oceans. Lithosphere The crust and the uppermost mantle form the lithosphere. This brittle shell is made up of tectonic plates.

Crust 0-35km



MANTLE 35-2,900km

Asthenosphere The area in the upper mantle where rock melts to form magma. The tectonic plates ‘float’ on this hot, plastic layer. Mantle The mantle is hot silica rock, rich in iron and magnesium. Slow convection here is part of what makes the tectonic plates move. Outer core Convection in this layer of liquid iron and nickel generates Earth’s magnetic field, without which life here would be very different. Inner core Despite incredible temperatures, pressures here are so high that the iron and nickel aren’t molten but compressed into a solid ball.

Outer CORE 2,900-5,100km

New Mexico Tech, science photo library x3, corbis

reflected at the boundaries between materials. “It only takes about 22 minutes for the fastest type of seismic wave to travel from pole to pole on our planet, right through the core of the Earth,” says Aster. The passage of these waves through the planet has enabled scientists to create a sort of X-ray image of the inner Earth. Among the most intriguing findings is that body waves travel at different speeds depending on the direction they’re travelling through the planet: they travel faster going north-south than they do going east-west. To be more exact, measurements have shown that the speed of seismic waves is three per cent faster pole-to-pole than across the equator. This evidence suggests that the core isn’t a simple sphere of metal but that it has a directional quality, like the grain in a piece of wood. It’s ‘anisotropic’ in other words. In fact, Earth’s core is turning out to be a very strange place indeed.

Inner CORE 5,100-6,378km

Ocotber 2012


Earth's Core

What does the core do for us? The centre of the Earth has a huge influence on our lives – but it’s also unpredictable It seems extraordinary that something almost 3,000km (1,864 miles) beneath our feet, can affect every aspect of our lives. Without the core, however, it’s doubtful that we – and perhaps any life – would be here at all. Heat from the inner core, in combination with the Earth’s rotation,

drives eddies in the ocean of liquid metal that forms the outer core. Like a dynamo, this generates a powerful magnetic field that protects our planet from the bombardment of charged particles from the Sun. The field also helps keep our atmosphere in place and enables navigation.

The protective bubble, or magnetosphere, created by the Earth’s magnetic field helps to prevent the never-ending storm of particles from the Sun from gradually eroding away our world’s atmosphere. Without it, the fast-moving charged particles making up the ‘solar wind’ would be free to knock atmospheric particles into space. Ultimately, we could be left with a much thinner atmospheric envelope less able to sustain life.

science photo library, University of Maryland

If no magnetic field existed, neither would compasses. The effect of the field is comparable to having a bar-magnet at the Earth’s centre, with one end roughly aligned north and the other south. It’s this field that a compass’s needle responds to. This bar magnet doesn’t run exactly along Earth’s rotational axis, it’s skewed off-centre.

convenient to study. “We can’t go to the centre of the Earth, of course, but we can recreate the conditions corresponding to it in my laboratory,” says Hirose. “Doing this is a kind of journey to the centre of the Earth, and I was trying to be the first person to reach there.” Making a duplicate core was a formidable challenge. Hirose needed to build a machine that could sustain pressures three million times greater than the Earth’s atmosphere and temperatures in excess of 4,700°C. His aim was to take a sample of iron and nickel with 34

October 2012

Prof Kei Hirose’s laser-heated, diamond anvil is used to recreate conditions at the centre of the Earth

the same chemical composition as the core and see how it changed in these extreme conditions. “It’s a big challenge. Actually, it’s more like a crazy challenge but it’s obviously worth doing,” says Hirose. He set up his experiment at the SPring-8 synchrotron in Hyogo, Japan, where there’s an advanced X-ray facility that can observe any changes in the crystal structure of the metal. To generate the pressure, he created a tool out of the hardest natural material known to man:

Earth's core

Core facts 5,500°C

Super-computer modelling at the University of California has revealed that, as the poles flip, new magnetic poles can pop up anywhere, causing navigational chaos. The protection provided by our world’s magnetic field could also be erratic.

diamond. The sample of iron and nickel was placed between two diamonds in a ‘diamond anvil’ and squeezed to the intense pressure found at the core. It was careful, meticulous work and in the early days there were numerous failures as the diamond tips broke. To recreate core-like temperatures, a laser was used to heat the metal. But it was a long process. “It took more than 10 years,” says Hirose. “Increasing temperature in particular is very, very difficult. We prepare the sample for a long time but

360 gigapascals is how high the pressure in the inner core can reach – almost 3.5 million times the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere


of the Earth’s volume is made up of the core, but it makes up 30 per cent of the planet’s mass


Every 300,000 years, on average, the north and south magnetic poles swap positions – although the last flip was nearly 800,000 years ago. This flip happens because of changes in the chaotic flow of hot metal in the outer core but nobody knows why or when such flips are likely to happen. Some core researchers, such as Professor Dan Lathrop at the University of Maryland, believe the process has already started.

is the temperature of the Earth’s inner core – about as hot as the Sun’s surface

the most exciting moment only lasts for a few minutes.” In those minutes, Hirose had succeeded in recreating the conditions at Earth’s core. And the X-ray images revealed a remarkable change in the crystal structure of the metal. In one experiment, the crystals increased in size by 1,000 times. Just as importantly, they remained stable. It helped Hirose to draw a striking conclusion about the structure of the core. “There’s an inner core in which we have a small number of very, very big crystals.” He thinks each crystal could be 10km (six miles) long, existing in what he describes as a “forest-like structure” in the Earth’s inner core, running from north to south. “It was just wonderful. We tried many, many times and we always failed. But, in the end, we tried a new type of diamond shape and we made it,” says Hirose. This crystal structure offers an explanation for the seismic anomalies that show earthquake waves moving faster north to south than across the equator. The waves are likely to be travelling faster along the grain of the crystals than across them. This is just the beginning of

Hirose’s work. With his diamond anvil, he now has the ability to create almost any material that resides near the centre of the Earth. It marks a real milestone in our understanding of the hidden world deep within our planet. Magnetic tests Seven thousand miles away at the University of Maryland in the US, Professor Dan Lathrop is another scientist working to create a model of the core in his lab. Not quite life size but an impressive 3m tall and weighing in at 22 tonnes. His intention is to use it to study how the core affects the Earth’s magnetic field. Scientists understand the creation of the magnetic field in terms of millions of tonnes of liquid metal in the outer core moving over the solid inner core, behaving like a dynamo. But the magnetic field it creates is far from simple. “People think of the magnetic field as just being a simple north and south,” says Lathrop. “It’s really very complicated. That’s the overall big pattern. But there are patches of weaker field and patches of stronger field. And all those are moving around the planet, some

Prof Dan Lathrop has built a scale model of the Earth’s core to study its effect on magnetic fields

or 4,350 miles is roughly the diameter of the Earth’s core: about the same size as Mars Ocotber 2012


Earth's Core

What lives beneath? The creatures thriving in the depths of the Earth Prairie dogs, large rodents living in the grasslands of North America, burrow as deep as five metres beneath the surface – making them the deepestliving mammal. In the most suitable soil conditions, earthworms can dig down to at least five metres and possibly even beyond eight metres.

Microbes living in oil reservoirs hundreds of metres beneath the surface play a critical role in converting crude oil into natural gas (methane).

Bacteria have been discovered 1.4km beneath the North Atlantic sea floor. Cracks in the rock allow water to circulate in the crust, providing warmth and nutrients.

Earlier this year Halicephalobus mephisto and Plectus aquatillis, roundworms were found more than 1.5km underground in South African gold mines.


October 2012

The South Atlantic Anomaly has caused malfunctions in satellites

becoming weaker, some becoming stronger, in a very complex way.” The reason the Earth’s magnetic field is changing is because of changes in the flow of the liquid metal thousands of kilometres beneath it, around the inner core (see ‘Earth’s layers’, on p33). You can’t create a computer model of these flows in the outer core, even with a supercomputer. You have to study something physical. That’s why Lathrop is developing his machine. It’s a sphere filled with 12 tonnes of liquid sodium that spins at 140km/h (90mph) to examine the complex patterns in the flow of a liquid metal and the resulting changes in the magnetic field that’s created. This summer, the machine will be filled with liquid sodium, with the first spin later in the year. “The changes we’re seeing in the Earth’s magnetic field suggest stormy, turbulent weather within the core,” says Lathrop. “When I say this, I mean there are more rapid changes now than perhaps the Earth typically experiences.” It’s an eerie thought that thousands of miles beneath us there are storms in the vast sea of liquid metal in the Earth’s core. It’s these changes that are responsible for the threats to Hubble’s infrared telescope that LaBel was called to deal with on that Friday afternoon in 1997.

Mysteries within The Hubble team had spotted that each of the current spikes took place in an area of space known as the South Atlantic Anomaly. In the world of space science, the anomaly is a region of great significance. It’s an area approximately 500km above Earth, stretching from the coast of South Africa to the far side of the South American continent and has been likened to the Bermuda Triangle because of some strange occurrences. But unlike the Bermuda Triangle, there is a convincing pattern of events. Several satellites that have passed through the anomaly have malfunctioned. Computer equipment on Space Shuttles has crashed. Oddest

Equipment fitted to Hubble was endangered by the South Atlantic Anomaly

Earth's core

Going down Would it ever be possible to take a journey to the centre of the Earth?

Vehicles capable of tunnelling deep into the Earth are common in science fiction

of all, astronauts passing through it have reported seeing shooting stars, even when their eyes are closed. Two weeks after the call, LaBel and his team gathered at the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory at the University of California, Davis. They brought test equipment to simulate the conditions over the South Atlantic Anomaly and watch its effects on the electronics seen on Hubble. Observations have established that the magnetic field in the South Atlantic Anomaly is much weaker than anywhere else above our planet. The reason this is so potentially harmful for spacecraft electronics is that the weakened magnetic field allows harmful radiation to reach lower into the Earth’s atmosphere. This brings more subatomic particles (protons) right into the path of the satellites. LaBel set out to discover if Hubble’s electronics were sensitive to these protons and he found a problem with the telescope’s optocoupler – a device supposed to prevent high or rapidly changing voltages being

“The changes we’re seeing in the Earth’s magnetic field suggest stormy, turbulent weather within the core”

transferred between bits of electronic circuitry. “Data shows that this part has a susceptibility to protons and it’s actually quite sensitive, probably even more so than we would have anticipated,” says LaBel. Armed with that understanding, NASA now powers down several highvoltage instruments as Hubble enters the anomaly. For scientists, the weak magnetic field in the South Atlantic Anomaly is an important window into what’s happening in the Earth’s core. “The South Atlantic Anomaly is a place where the Earth’s magnetic field is especially weak and has been becoming weaker over the last few decades,” says Lathrop. These changes at the surface must be caused by changes in the flow of liquid metal in the core – changes happening in the area of the core beneath the anomaly. “That spot, if you look deep within the Earth at the edge of the core boundary, is a place where the Earth’s magnetic field is already reversed,” says Lathrop. So there’s a full-scale reversal at the core,

charges and would be contained in a flood of dense, molten iron poured into the gap. Problems with the plan abound, however, not least of which is the fact that no material in existence comes anywhere close to being able to cope with the staggering temperatures and pressures the probe would encounter. Even keeping the crack open long enough in the plastic mantle is likely to be impossible. There’s also the astronomical cost of the project and the environmental impact of the nuclear blasts to consider. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a human will stand on the surface of an extrasolar planet long before any artificial device reaches the centre of our world.

which manifests itself as a weakened magnetic field at the surface. The pressing question is whether this local reversal of the magnetic field is likely to cause an overall reversal, where the north and south magnetic poles flip. It’s happened many times in the past, the last time being a little less than 800,000 years ago. Like Lathrop, some scientists have a hunch that it may already be happening, but nobody is sure. The other uncertainty is how the reversal will affect us as there hasn’t been one in living memory. But as the magnetosphere changes, satellites and other electronic gear here on Earth are bound to feel the effects. In recent years, we’ve come a long way in our understanding of the core and its influence on our lives. But we’ve still got a long way to go and the more we learn, the clearer it becomes that we need to get to the bottom of what’s going on at the centre of the Earth. Aidan Laverty is editor of BBC Two’s Horizon programmes. Ocotber 2012


thinkstock x2, horsepower films/kobal, nasa, science photo library x2, university of gent

In the mind of a Hollywood producer, and with the help of spectacular CGI, a journey to the Earth’s core is a piece of cake – as demonstrated in the 2003 film The Core. The reality, though, is that such an excursion would be mind-bogglingly difficult, if not downright impossible. To begin with, for any given distance, it would take billions of times more energy to penetrate the Earth than to hurl a rocket into space. This drawback has not, however, prevented Professor David Stevenson, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology, sketching out a somewhat tongue-in-cheek plan to send a grapefruit-sized probe to the core. The probe would make the week-long journey down a crack blasted open by nuclear

why do we rebel?


rebel in all of us Student protests, rioting, Twitter revolutions‌ Rebellion is alive and kicking. But why do only some of us choose to take a stand? Louise Ridley finds out


October 2012

Why do we rebel?

f you were ordered to give someone a fatal electric shock, statistically you’d probably do it. If you find that hard to believe, you haven’t heard of a French TV game show called Le Jeu de la Mort, or the Game of Death. Encouraged by a glamorous hostess and a lively audience who ‘oohed’ and clapped on cue, the show’s participants pulled levers to shock a man hooked up to electrodes in a futuristic capsule while he screamed for mercy. Astonishingly, 80 per cent of the contestants continued to electrocute the man to his apparent death. The contestants were later to discover that the man was an actor and that the shocks and his eventual ‘death’ were faked. But they weren’t to know this as they pulled the levers. The French experiment was a 21stcentury makeover of social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s infamous studies that began in 1961 at Yale University in the US. Here participants were instructed by a scientist to shock ‘learners’ with increasing voltage if they gave incorrect answers to memory questions. Sixty three per cent of participants administered what they thought was the maximum 450v shock, just because they were told to by someone in a white coat. Today, Milgram’s experiments are still used as the textbook example of how we unquestioningly obey authority, even if it involves going against our own sense of what’s right or wrong. But some of Milgram’s volunteers refused to do as told, as did participants in the French game show. They rebelled against the pressure put on them. “People often want to tell these stories about blind conformity and our natural instinct to follow orders,” says Alex Haslam, Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter. “But if you look closely at the studies that supposedly E


October 2012


why do we rebel?

The shocking truth: the original Milgram experiments in the ’60s

E provide evidence of that, you also see evidence of the opposing process.”

Mutinous minds So why do some of us choose to rebel? It’s a question we haven’t had many answers to. Milgram’s experiments are a classic example of how researchers have concentrated their attention on those who conform – in a documentary about his studies, Milgram even chose not to include footage of anyone rebelling. Those who said no were confined to the cutting-room floor. But new research is putting rebels firmly into the spotlight. There’s never been a better time to look at the issue of rebellion. From student protests over tuition fees in the UK to riots in Bangkok, Iran’s ‘Twitter revolution’

during the disputed election in 2009 and the 2011 political revolution in Egypt, the spirit of mutiny is very much alive. One thing’s become clear: there’s certainly not a single gene for rebellion. That said, some variants of one gene, 5-HTT, are thought to influence impulsiveness, which could have a bearing on whether you take action if you disagree with the status quo. It’s hardly surprising that there’s not a rebel gene as most of our actions are the result of several elements of our personality. As well as being impulsive, psychologists would say that rebellious people tend to be extroverted and less empathetic than others. So multiple genes will play a part. And to fog the issue further, our personalities aren’t simply the result of something from within. They’re also heavily influenced by our upbringing. And when it comes to rebelliousness, nurture is clearly a factor. For instance, younger siblings are much more likely to turn convention on its head in an attempt to win parental attention from their older brothers and sisters (see ‘Born to be wild’, below). But Alex Haslam says that just focusing on personality alone is far too simple. “As well as personality, there’s also the

The tuition fees issue has seen rebellion returning to the streets

situationalist perspective that some contexts will make anyone rebel. Most psychologists would argue that it’s a product of the two: the interaction between an individual and the situation.” Citizen to anarchist Haslam and his colleague Steve Reicher, a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, have recently set about reanalysing data from classic studies like that of Milgram, as well as an investigation they


getty x5, rex x2,, Dreamstime X2

Older brother? Little sister? How family dynamics turn us into rebels


October 2012

What did the supporters of Darwin’s theory of evolution have in common? Dr Frank Sulloway at the University of California analysed data on more than 6500 revolutionary people and found a common factor close to home – those who rebelled against convention were usually a younger sibling or ‘laterborn’. Laterborns were 4.6 times more likely to support Darwin’s radical theory than firstborns. And Darwin’s theory was certainly radical when first published. In our evolutionary past, our distant descendents would have struggled for resources within the family. The way to guarantee food and shelter would have been by attracting parental attention. This is less likely to be a factor today, but we retain the instinct to win attention. “Firstborns try to conform to their parents’ ideals as that’s the most obvious

way to get attention,” says clinical psychologist Linda Blair. “They’re very conventional in general. But a second- or third-born child has to find another way to get noticed. It might be being good at music or sport, or ‘acting out’ and rebelling. The further down the line of kids you go, the more rebellious things you have to do to get attention.” A 2009 study in the journal Child Development took saliva samples from children between the ages of seven and 19 to measure testosterone, which is associated with rebellious personality traits. They also asked the children to keep a diary of their activities. Second-born children showed an increase in testosterone as well as adventurousness and independence as they grew, whereas firstborns didn’t change much over time.

Why do we rebel?

Figures of rebellion

221,744 tweets were posted on Twitter mentioning ‘Iran’ in one single hour during the protests about the country’s 2009 election


themselves carried out in 2001 with the BBC, known as the Prison Study. Haslam and Reicher set up a prison simulation and assigned 15 participants to be either prisoners or guards. At the beginning of the experiment, the prisoners were told that some of them would be selected, based on trustworthiness and initiative, to be promoted to guard status. For the first few days, tests showed that the prisoners were unhappy with their inferior conditions but content to work towards making the prison system run smoothly. But on day three, the prisoners were told they could no longer be promoted. Almost immediately, their behaviour altered; inmates in one cell moved from discussing how to behave well to plotting to kidnap one of the guards. They realised the only way to improve their position was to rebel and change the system, which they soon overthrew. What had happened? In one psychometric test on the volunteers, Haslam and Reicher saw a huge drop in ‘citizenship’ among the prisoners – a measure of willingness to do whatever it took to make the system run smoothly. Citizenship had been measured as constant, but fell from 5.2 to 3.9 out of seven between days two and five when the promotion option was removed. “It shows that there are conditions under which people can move from being model citizens to potential rebels,” says Haslam. “It was the structural change E



Rebellion can go hand in hand with success. These mavericks made it into the mainstream Stephen Fry

backbench rebellions took place in the first 110 votes of the current parliament, the most rebellious parliamentary period since World War II

“For colossal nerve, for sheer, ruddy cheek, I have never met anyone to match you,” said one of Stephen Fry’s teachers at school. The king of Twitter was expelled from two boarding schools and indulged in swiping sweets and pocket money. More serious was an extravagant spending spree using a credit card stolen from a family friend, which landed the 18-year-old Fry in prison for three months. Fry is adamant that his bad experiences at school – he was beaten by teachers – weren’t responsible: he would have misbehaved regardless.


person out of 9 refused to obey and administer the maximum electric shock when illusionist Derren Brown recreated the Milgram experiment in 2006. The one rebel had heard of the experiment before


volts is the charge at which participants in the Milgram experiment were most likely to rebel and refuse to shock the ‘learner’ any further

Barack Obama Growing up with eight half-siblings, evolutionary psychology suggests the young Barack Obama had to do something unconventional to get the attention of his single mother. The president of the USA partied hard and studied the bare minimum at college in Los Angeles, feeling that “hard work and responsibility were old-fashioned conventions that didn’t pertain to me.” In the run-up to his presidential campaign he discussed using marijuana and cocaine, a rebellious admission in itself for a man courting votes.

Bill Gates The war that the teenage Bill Gates waged against his parents was so intense that they went to family therapy for two years. His father allowed his headstrong son to rebel which he says improved their relationship and contributed to his son’s success as a revolutionary entrepreneur. Gates Jr dropped out of Harvard in 1975 and here appears in his mugshot from a traffic violation in 1977. He has said that he wants to be an example of the fact that “a very energetic kid who’s pushing hard on the boundaries might turn out OK.”

October 2012


why do we rebel?

Teenage rebellion

How the adolescent brain is hard-wired to lash out Frontal cortex The pruning of connections between neurons here in the teen brain gradually improves judgement Amygdala Teens tend to use this – the reactive, emotional part of the brain – to a greater extent than adults when they are asked to interpret emotional information

Parents might think their wayward teenagers are at the mercy of raging hormones, but it seems that their brain structure might encourage them to break the rules. A long-term study by researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health in the US that began in 1989 has started to reveal crucial changes in the brain during adolescence. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they tracked brain development in children from as young as three years old and found that the teen brain undergoes a frenzied remodelling. Two key findings have emerged. Firstly, the frontal cortex, the part of the brain just behind the forehead that takes care of planning and judgement, grows just before puberty before the

BBC, science photo library, dreamstime

E that brought it about. If you tell people that they can’t progress within a given system, then they are much more likely to collectively challenge that system.” The BBC Prison Study suggests that even when we are unhappy with a situation, it’s only when the hope of progressing in a social system is removed that we are likely to break the current rules and set up our own.

Mutinous connections Another test showed that the prisoners increasingly saw themselves as a separate group opposed to the guards. The measure of ‘social identification’ – the extent to which they identified with other prisoners – soared from an average of 0.5 out of seven on the first two days to 2.1 after the promotion option was withdrawn. Identifying with each other gave them the confidence and support to challenge 42

October 2012

links between nerve cells, or neurons, are pruned between the ages of 13 and 18. Although it may seem that losing these links, or synapses, is a bad thing, it works like pruning a tree. Getting rid of weak links allows others to flourish. Secondly, when asked to interpret emotional information, teenagers tend to use the reactive part of the brain, the amygdala, rather than the frontal cortex. This means they interpret the world around them differently from adults, which could contribute the heated miscommunications between parents and their teenage kids. Taken together these two factors are likely to explain why teenagers are more impulsive – and therefore more likely to rebel – than adults.

the guards, as they shifted to an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. “When we did the BBC study,” says Haslam, “it really demonstrated that the big thing everybody had missed was resistance. That motivated us to go back to Milgram and say ‘Look, the resistance is

just as real here as the conformity’.” Some data from Milgram’s experiments was never released and won’t be until at least 2038 because of the test’s sensitive nature. But Haslam and Reicher say that recent evidence suggests that when the experimenter phrased the instructions as an order, saying ‘you must continue’ rather than ‘please continue’, every participant rebelled to an extent. So again, circumstance played a big part. Psychologists note that individual rebellious acts like spraying graffiti or writing an angry letter to a newspaper are also acts of communication – speaking out in the hope to reach that group of people in the wider world who will agree with you. Connecting with each other through social networks and blogs has been a key part of many rebellions making the news recently – Iran even shut down internet access in the country for 45 minutes to prevent action against the 2009 elections. “With a more complex society connected by the internet, people seek out the groups they want to belong to,” says psychology professor Jolanda Jetten at The University of Queensland. “There may then be greater opportunity to express individuality because of the opportunities to communicate that have expanded over the last decade.” We’re just a click away from nearly a third of the world’s population who have online access. So as the means to connect with like-minded individuals grows, it seems that the rebel inside all of us is more likely to emerge. Louise Ridley is a web editor and writer at BBC Focus magazine.

find out more E Rebels in Groups: Dissent, Deviance, Difference and Defiance Jolanda Jetten and Matthew J Hornsey (eds) (WileyBlackwell, 2010) E Find out more about the BBC Prison Study

Prisoners’ solidarity gives them the confidence to challenge authority

E Birth Order: What Your Position in the Family Really Tells You About Your Character Linda Blair (Piatkus Books, 2011)

Doug Perrine

Barely 2m away from the photographer’s camera, a Bryde’s whale opens its cavernous jaws to engulf some sardines 46

October 2012

bryde’s whale

big mouth strikes again Photos by Doug Perrine and Brandon Cole


Charging at a baitball is the mother-of-all-mouths: a Bryde’s whale on the rampage. doug perrine gets up close and personal with one of the world’s most spectacular, but least-known, marine animals.

bryde’s whale

Marlin forced this shoal of sardines to the surface, but fled moments before the photo was taken as a Bryde’s whale charges headlong towards its quarry

ilvery scales sparkled in the water all around me like the facets of a disco mirror ball – dazzling but not defeating the myriad predators intent on converting the little bundles of energy-rich Omega 3 oils into fuel for another day’s hunting. Striped marlin dashed through the ball of schooling sardines, whipping their 50cm-long bills from side to side to bat fish out of the seething mass, or slice them in two. Sometimes one shot into the baitball with such speed that it emerged with a sardine skewered on its beak like a shish kebab. My heart pounded as their rapiers passed within centimetres of vital body parts. California sealions sauntered through this battle zone off the coast of Mexico

All photos by Brandon Cole



October 2012

as if feigning nonchalance, occasionally snapping to the left or right to seize a sardine frightened out of formation or wounded by the marlins’ charge. Every now and again, the mammals would assert their dominance by bellowing, blowing bubbles or baring their teeth at a marlin – or me. Despite their terror, the sardines played a brave, tightly organised game – pulsing in and out and twisting their shoal into countless shapes and sizes designed to prevent their attackers from locking onto a single individual. Thousands of organisms worked together as if controlled by a single mind, easily overwhelming my own senses. Yet the school continued to dwindle inexorably under the sustained onslaught from all sides.

Out of the blue Beyond the frenzy, a limitless expanse of cerulean blue was pierced by dancing shafts of sunlight that converged in the depths. Suddenly, a dark blot appeared. It expanded in size faster than I could comprehend, transforming itself into a giant gaping maw bristling with strands of baleen. The sardines scattered – and so did I, pumping my legs as hard as I could to get out of the way. Fortunately, the owner of the mother-ofall-mouths seemed to sense my presence and it closed just enough for my rubber fins to bounce off its lower jaw, before reopening wide enough to engulf a Mini. I bounced down the animal’s 10m-long flank, its throat pleats ballooning against my body like a car’s airbag in a crash. I saw massive tail flukes

bryde’s whale

The whale gulps fish and seawater in one almighty mouthful

As the predator clamps its mouth shut, terrified fish flee in all directions

Its manoeuvre over, the whale turns, expelling waste water as it dives

approach at lethal velocity, then sweep past. I had just survived a surprise encounter with one of the least-known large mammals on the planet. My photos clearly showed three ridges on top of the upper jaw that, according to skipper Mike McGettigan’s cetacean field guide, pegged the creature as a Bryde’s whale. A mention of this name rarely elicits recognition – especially if it is correctly pronounced ‘BREEdahs’, after the surname of the Norwegian who pioneered the whaling industry in South Africa.Yet, among the filter-feeding baleen whales, Bryde’s may

I bounced down the animal’s 10m long flank, its throat pleats ballooning against me like a car’s airbag in a crash be second in numbers only to minkes. Their worldwide population is thought to be about 100,000 – slightly higher than estimates for the much more familiar humpbacks, which have starred in countless documentaries and support a global whale-watching industry. Granted, this figure may only match the human population of a small city, but when you consider that a Bryde’s whale can exceed a length of 15 metres and a weight of 15 tonnes, that’s a lot of sentient flesh existing outside our collective consciousness. Recent studies have demonstrated how limited our knowledge of these animals really is. The group of whales with three-ridged E

keep your distance Encounters with whales should be left to the professionals, for the animals’ sake and also for ours, Doug explains Though popularly known as ‘gentle giants’, whales are considered by professional divers to be among the most dangerous of all marine wildlife. Filmmaker Howard Hall ranks them as more hazardous than great white sharks; during one dive with a grey whale he was knocked unconscious and suffered two broken ribs, while on another occasion he was bowled along the seabed. When I unexpectedly found myself in the path of a feeding Bryde’s whale, these and other incidents sprang to mind. I had only a splitsecond to swim out of its way. But you don’t even have to make contact to get in trouble

– once, a Bryde’s whale appeared below me and kicked its fluke up so powerfully that I was thrown through the water and the protective shade was ripped off my camera’s lens port. I soon learned to keep an eye out beyond the periphery of the baitballs I was photographing, and to move away from the action if I glimpsed a whale lurking in the big blue. Whale-inflicted injuries on humans are seldom deliberate, however, but rather a consequence of the immense size of these creatures, which can behave unpredictably, like any wild species. Filming whales underwater is best left to experienced pros willing to take the risk, whose in-depth knowledge of the animals enables them to keep disturbance to a minimum.

Getting this close to a Bryde’s whale is extremely risky

October 2012


bryde’s whale

jaws that traditionally go by the name Bryde’s whale may actually prove to be several species that are not necessarily more closely related to each other than to other rorquals – the baleen whales with dorsal fins and throat grooves (see box, p52). There appear to be numerous separate breeding populations with little gene flow between them: researchers have already identified three distinct populations off the coast of South Africa alone.


Warmth-loving whales So what exactly do we know about the lifestyle and behaviour of these mysterious leviathans? Perhaps the most significant fact is that they do not hide in remote polar regions nor lurk at great depths. They prefer the same temperate to tropical latitudes as us – though they have been recorded in waters as cool as 15°C, they favour a sea temperature of at least 20°C. There are both offshore and coastal populations, which may often be found

Doug Perrine

How have these ‘stealth whales’ managed to snatch fish from under our noses for so long, virtually undetected? within sight of land. Though Bryde’s whales sometimes dive to 300m, they spend much of their time in surface waters. Here, they hoover up krill, copepods and other planktonic crustaceans – as do right, sei and blue whales – but their main prey are small schooling fish such as sardines, anchovies and mackerel. We harvest the same species in vast quantities: how on Earth have these ‘stealth whales’ managed to snatch fish from under our noses for so long, virtually undetected? For one thing, Bryde’s whales rarely engage in aerobatics like the breaching and finslapping displays that endear humpbacks to boatloads of tourists. They do not perform sustained, bewitching songs either (though they do make powerful low-frequency calls). In addition, they are highly nomadic, appearing in an area unannounced when there is an abundance of food near the surface, then disappearing again as fast as the resource is depleted. Another factor that has helped to keep Bryde’s whales under the radar (or should E that be sonar?) is that they are of little 50

October 2012

bryde’s whale


A striped marlin and California sealion round up a shoal of sardines – precisely the situation that might tempt a Bryde’s whale to make an appearance

October 2012


bryde’s whale

dough perrine, Illustrations by Martin Camm/

rorqual whales: how they compare The genus Balaenoptera, or rorquals, contains at least nine species of filter-feeding whale, including the two largest animals alive today – the blue and fin whale. Rorquals have slim, streamlined bodies with narrow pectoral fins and a small dorsal fin at the rear, but their most distinctive feature is the numerous deep grooves along the lower jaw. These flexible folds of skin expand enormously as the whales feed.


October 2012

blue whale balaenoptera musculus


fin whale balaenoptera physalus


sei whale balaenoptera borealis


bryde’s whale balaenoptera borealis

minke whale balaenoptera acutorostrata



E commercial value. They were targeted by whalers only from the late 1970s, when larger species had been mostly depleted, until the whaling ban took effect in 1986. Whalers did not distinguish them from sei whales, and records for both species were lumped together, resulting in an almost complete lack of reliable historical biological and catch data for Bryde’s whales. Most recent data about the abundance of Bryde’s whales derive from Japanese studies in the western North Pacific. They found that this population had rebounded in the decade after the commercial-whaling moratorium, to an estimated 57–81 per cent of its level in the early 20th century.The lethal research methodology results in the death of about 50 Bryde’s whales a year, which end up in everything from pet food to school lunches. Fortunately, recreational scuba divers are proving to be a welcome new source of information about these low-status cetaceans. Offshore diving in exciting environments,

Factsheet Bubbles stream from the jaws of a Bryde’s whale as it dives after a feeding strike. The parallel pleats in its throat have stretched to accommodate the enormous mouthful of seawater and prey

bryde’s whale

Balaenoptera edeni*

the basics  length Up to 14.5m (male); up to 15.5m (female).  weight Up to 11.3 tonnes (male); up to 16.2 tonnes (female).  coloration Grey; paler below. Distinguished from fin whale by the lack of a white patch on the right cheek, and from minke whale by the absence of a white band on the pectoral fin.  Diet Small fish, krill, copepods, squid and crabs. Takes mostly schooling fish, but opportunistic: the species may feed mainly on fish in one area or year, and on invertebrates in another location or year.  breeding Reaches maturity when 11–12m long, at about 7 years old. Females give birth at 2-year intervals, after a gestation of 11–12 months. May breed all year, but in temperate waters reproduction could be linked to a seasonal migration to warmer areas.  HABITAT Open ocean.  Lifespan Not known.  status Listed as “Data Deficient” by IUCN, but generally thought to be fairly abundant: global numbers may approach 100,000.

such as southern Africa’s ‘Sardine Run’ that occurs between May and July, is growing in popularity. Divers drop into the middle of multi-species feeding frenzies, during which the appearance of one or more Bryde’s whales has been known to cause a rash of soiled wetsuits. It’s a very risky pastime (see box, p49). Down in one One of my first encounters with a Bryde’s whale also took place in South African waters. I was photographing a ball of sardines being attacked by sharks and gannets when a whale surged vertically up from the depths like a missile, punching a giant hole through the school of fish (Charles Maxwell, with whom I was diving, captured the action on video for the BBC’s Blue Planet series). More recent tv footage shows a Bryde’s whale nearly catching a shark in its mouth, and I have frequently seen the species swerve

to avoid sealions, marlins and humans – all of which might fit into its jaws but would never pass down its throat. Everything in the path of a charging whale scatters in all directions, and I was amazed by how often most of the sardines managed to elude the predator. Time and again, a whale would blast through a school and be rewarded with only a few fish, or even none. Could a handful of fish possibly replace the energy burned during repeated high-speed charges? Perhaps the whales were distracted by our presence, which affected their ability to hunt. Or were they merely using small baitballs at the surface as target practice and feeding mainly in deeper water, out of sight? It might be years before we begin to unravel the hidden lives of these majestic creatures.

* Some scientists recognise several species and call this form B. brydei.

Distribution Bryde’s whale range This species is found worldwide in warm waters. Some populations migrate, but others appear to be resident.

After studying marine biology and fisheries science, Doug Perrine took a detour into photojournalism. He has been a professional marine wildlife photographer for 25 years. October 2012



Hubble’s Greatest Hits To celebrate the Hubble Telescope’s 22nd anniversary Stuart Clark looks back at the most amazing and important images it’s captured

The Eagle Nebula

Stellar nursery This giant dusty cloud stretches across four light-years of space. To give you an idea of just how vast that is, if you placed our Sun on the tip of this cloud (far right), the other end of it would reach all the way to our nearest star, Proxima Centauri. Unlike the empty expanse of space that exists between these two suns, this image shows the multitude of forming stars packed into the Eagle Nebula. Each young stellar object is a condensing cloud of gas and dust, busily pulling itself together to build up enough mass to spark nuclear fusion and become a star. Hundreds of thousands of years from now they will all blow away the remaining dust from their birth cloud and shine as a brilliant star cluster.

22 years of hubble

October 2012


Cone Nebula (NGC 2264)

Gas stream The evaporating pillar in this image is being whittled away by the fierce ultraviolet radiation from a quadruple star system known as S Monocerotis. The four stars are out of shot at the top, but their effects are clearly seen. The red gas streaming away from the pillar is hydrogen – the raw material from which stars are made – and the stars nestled in the top of the pillar are newly minted creations, shining their own starlight onto the scene. The fringe of blue-white light at the top of the pillar is starlight reflected from dust clouds.

22 years of hubble

Cat’s Eye Nebula

Stellar death throes E As Europe began its climb out of the Dark Ages, towards the Enlightenment that would give rise to the Scientific Revolution, so this star began to die. Originally this flower of gas was inside the star, helping it create starlight – perhaps even illuminating nearby planets. Then the hydrogen fuel ran out and the star began to die. Around 1000 years ago, the star became so unstable that it puffed its outer layers into space, revealing the tiny white point of light in the centre of the image. Once the burning nuclear furnace of the star, it is now a dormant, though still hot, white dwarf.

Orion Nebula

Cave of glowing gas E The Orion Nebula is the closest region of massive star formation to Earth. You can even see it with the naked eye; it’s the fuzzy pink blob that’s the second star in Orion’s Belt. Through the Hubble Space Telescope it resolves into a sweeping cavern of gas and new stars – 3000 of them in this image alone. Some are giants containing dozens of times more mass than the Sun. They light up the surrounding gas, blowing a cavern to reveal smaller stars more like the size of the Sun. Eventually this wave of star formation will transform the entire constellation of Orion into stars.

October 2012


Eagle Nebula Pillars

Gone, but not forgotten Before Hubble, these dark pillars were the talons of the Eagle Nebula to countless astronomers. The telescope identified them as incubators of newborn stars, hiding away inside dusty wombs. Now we know an exploding star may have wiped them out. Infrared observations reveal a scorched cloud of hot dust just behind the pillars, indicative of a stellar blast wave. In the time it has taken for the light from this dust to reach Earth, the rolling shockwave may have ploughed through and destroyed the pillars. Astronomers will need patience to test this hypothesis: the light from the destruction won’t arrive until well into the next millennium.


Sept/Oct 2012

22 years of hubble

Hubble Deep Field

Galaxy 3C321

 Of all the images that Hubble has taken, this one ushered in a revolution of thought. Until then, astronomers knew of no celestial objects in this patch of sky – it appeared totally empty. Yet, after 10 days of continuous observation, Hubble revealed thousands of galaxies, each containing millions or billions of stars. It took an exponential leap into the distant Universe, showing astronomers almost the very first galaxies to form. It opened up the study of ‘deep’ (distant and faint) celestial objects, and illustrated just how much galaxies have changed their shapes over the last 10-12 billion years.

 Not everything disappears down a black hole. The blue jet is a stream of escaping gas blasting out across hundreds of thousands of light-years. It comes from the vicinity of the supermassive black hole in the heart of the galaxy 3C321, the angry pink blob in the corner, and is blasting through a smaller galaxy that’s falling into the bigger one. No-one knows exactly how such a jet is launched from so close to a black hole, though magnetic fields are probably involved. Because of the catastrophic effect the larger galaxy’s jet is having on its neighbour, astronomers have dubbed it the Death Star galaxy.

As far as Hubble can see

Death Star galaxy

Sombrero Galaxy


F It hides in plain sight, around one-fifth the width of the full Moon, yet too faint for our eyes to see: the Sombrero Galaxy. Resembling a South American hat, the dark band circling its centre is a vast river of dust; the white glow is the combined light of billions of stars. It lacks spiral arms and there’s little star formation taking place in the dust lanes. Astronomers call such a galaxy ‘lenticular’. The Sombrero Galaxy is an outlying member of the Virgo cluster, a huge family of 2000 galaxies, whose combined gravitational pull is felt even by our galaxy, the Milky Way.

Galactic Centre (Full field)

Into the maelstrom  If our eyes could see infrared radiation, this is how the centre of our galaxy would look. Ordinary wavelengths of light can’t penetrate the thick banks of dust that separate us from the central maelstrom, but infrared light travels through with relative ease. Revealing objects over 26,000 light-years away, this image spans the central 300 lightyears of the galaxy. Swirls and bubbles of gas loop and thread through thousands of stars. The most massive stars known in the galaxy reside in this region of space. Some contain 150 times the mass of the Sun, glimpsed here during their brief few million years of blazing life.

October 2012


22 years of hubble

Red Supergiant Star V838 Monocerotis

Cosmic smash-up

F What happens when two stars collide? Or when a star swallows a mighty planet? This. V838 Monocerotis brightened dramatically in January 2002. At first it was thought to be an ordinary erupting star, but then it got weird. It changed colour to a deep red, it didn’t fade away and astronomers began to think it was the result of a galactic smash-up. They’re not sure what has crashed into what here, though they lean more towards a pair of stars colliding than the planetmunching hypothesis. Shrouds of expelled gas now surround the star, painting a beautiful, if mysterious, sight.

Hubble Space telescope

Earth’s eye

F The Hubble Space Telescope has revolutionised astronomy and captured the public’s attention. In May 2009, partly due to public demand, astronauts visited the space telescope for the fifth and final time since its deployment, in order to refurbish it. It’s hoped they have given the aging telescope an additional five years or so of useful life, but it’s borrowed time. When Hubble breaks again, there will be no further rescue: it will bring this astonishing mission to an end. Attention is switching to its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch during 2014 from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana.

Dr Stuart Clark is a widely read astronomy journalist and an award-winning author. Stuart Clark’s books include Deep Space and Galaxy.

find out more E Stuart Clark’s official webiste 60

October 2012

The science of illusion

Just an

ILLUSION? Seeing doesn’t necessarily mean believing. Paul Parsons examines the science of how illusions deceive us

umans have an odd fascination with being deceived. From the conjuring tricks of magicians to mind-bending optical illusions, our love of being shown the impossible keeps us coming back for more – even though we know, deep down, that it’s all nothing but a clever trick. It’s long been this way. Before Derren Brown and David Blaine, Harry Houdini amazed onlookers with his death-defying stunts. And the power of illusions is even mentioned in the writings of ancient Greek scholar Epicharmus. Now modern-day researchers are subjecting illusions to rigorous scientific scrutiny to unpick the workings of the human mind. “Scientists are using illusions to understand more about how our senses work,” says BBC producer Naomi Austin, whose has made a film on this subject. It reveals how illusions shape our feelings and emotions – and even save our lives. “This has opened up new


theories about how our brains are wired.” Scientists are discovering that illusions are in fact an essential consequence of the mental machinery through which we see the world. They’re partly responsible for our success as a species and they could even help explain the very nature of consciousness. Indeed, rather than pulling the wool over our eyes, illusions help us perceive the world more efficiently. That’s because the brain simply doesn’t have the power to analyse every single scrap of information that’s available to our senses. Instead, it picks out what it thinks are the important bits from the torrent of information coming in – and then uses its expectations about how the world works to fill in all the gaps. “Only 10 per cent of what we think we see comes from our eyes,” says Austin. “The other 90 per cent comes from other parts of the brain.” Illusions are what happens in the small number of cases when the brain’s assumptions get it October 2012


The science of illusion

DECEIVING THE SENSES How illusions beguile the faculties Taste

Fictitious tastes are a rare kind of illusion. One substance that can produce such ‘gustatory illusions’ is ‘miraculin’, a protein extracted from the berries of the plant Synsepalum dulcificum and related species. Miraculin itself is relatively tasteless, but it has the power to distort our perception of other tastes – in particular making acidic flavours, such as those of citrus fruits, taste sweet. This has prompted suggestions that miraculin could form the basis for an effective artificial sweetener, replacing the calorie-rich sugar in sharp-tasting drinks such as lemonade. However, when they tried to bring the plan to market in 1974, the US Food and Drug Administration blocked miraculin as a food additive. Many believe this was the result of pressure from the sugar industry, though it seems more likely that poor understanding of the mechanism by which miraculin operates was the true culprit. Miraculin is, however, approved for use as an additive in Japan, where researchers have used genetic modification techniques to massproduce the protein inside lettuce leaves.


In 1990, charges were brought against rock band Judas Priest that a subliminal ‘backwards’ message in their song Better By You, Better Than Me had led two youths in Nevada to kill themselves. After over a month in court, the case was dismissed. Professor Chris French, a psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, says backwards messages like this aren’t real at all, but are examples of auditory illusions caused by ‘top-down processing’, where our perception can be shaped by our expectations. He points to another famous example said to exist in Led Zeppelin’s (left) song Stairway To Heaven. You can hear a clip of the song and the version you’re supposed to hear at – first listen to the backwards version without reading the message (you might at best pick out a few words), then read the message and listen again. “You now hear the message absolutely clear as a bell, and you don’t know how you missed it the first time,” says French. “The point is that until you’re told what to hear, you don’t hear it.”


alamy, rex, x2, Akiyoshi KITAOKA, science photo library

Tactile illusions exist too. A simple one you can try for yourself happens when you get off a moving treadmill – the ground feels like it’s moving under your feet in the opposite direction, causing you to lose your balance. A more serious kind of example affects as many as 90 per cent of amputees – phantom limb pain, where the brain registers a lasting pain response in the amputated limb. It’s thought to be caused by cross-wiring of the neurons in the brain’s somatosensory cortex, where the body’s sensory inputs are processed. Different regions of the somatosensory cortex deal with the input from specific parts of the body. But when a limb is removed, the corresponding region of the cortex becomes subsumed by nearby regions linked to other limbs. This leads to a kind of cross-wiring effect that causes phantom sensations which, unsurprisingly, can be painful.


Illusions of the olfactory (smell) system are unusual, but they can occur due to certain brain conditions, such as migraines. Migraine sufferers have reported all kinds of olfactory distortions during an attack – bananas smelling like rotting flesh and even body odour smelling like beer. Prof Giorgio Zanchin, of the University of Padua Medical School, says this distorted smell perception, known as ‘osmophobia’, is so unique to migraine, compared to other headaches, that it can even be used to diagnose them. In one study, he found that 42 per cent of the sufferers in his sample displayed some kind of osmophobia, compared with just 1.5 per cent of other headache sufferers. “Osmophobia during a headache attack is a very specific clinical marker of migraine,” says Zanchin. The precise neurological cause of osmophobia remains unknown. 62

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The science of illusion

wrong. So, when we see 12 lines arranged to look like a cube, the brain recognises the familiar cube shape and decides in an instant that what it’s looking at really is a cube before moving on to the next thing. Most of the time it’s correct. But very occasionally, it’s not (see firecube), and that’s when we see an illusion. Information overload To analyse every piece of data coming in, our brains would have to be so big that our bones would literally give out under the weight. Instead, our brains have stayed a more manageable size by evolving this ability to make assumptions about the world. And it’s served us well – in fact, we’d be lost without it. “If you tried to analyse every little thing that’s happening to you, you wouldn’t make it across the room when you get out of bed in the morning,” says Prof Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire and onetime professional magician. “Optical illusions reflect our sophistication, not our idiocy. Without them we wouldn’t be where we are today because we

Sight Optical illusions, which work their magic on the visual system, are perhaps the most powerful of all. Now researchers are using sophisticated brain imaging techniques to figure out how they work. Scientists in Japan, led by psychologist and illusion designer Prof Akiyoshi Kitaoka of Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study the brain activity of participants while they looked at one of Kitaoka’s ‘rotating snakes’ illusion (seen here). The stationary snake-like patterns appear to rotate because of a phenomenon called the ‘peripheral drift illusion’, where carefully chosen brightness gradients create the illusion of motion in our periphery vision. The scientists had expected motion illusions such as this to only affect the higher brain processes connected with imagination and visual trickery. However, much to their surprise, the scientists saw activity in the motion-sensing areas of the visual cortex instead. “This is the part of the brain that processes real physical movement,” says team member Ichiro Kuriki of Tohoku University. “The visual motion perception is not just the observer’s imagination.” That could explain why powerful optical illusions can trigger real sensations of motion sickness in some people.

wouldn’t have made so many correct assumptions. You’re a more effective information processor for making those assumptions.” It turns out that a good deal of our reaction to an illusion is shaped by our expectations about what it is we’re going to see. Psychologists refer to this as ‘top-down processing’. It happens when our acquired knowledge – the ‘top down’ brain functions – influences and sometimes overrides the ‘bottom-up’ functions, which deal with the data stream coming in from our senses. One of the most striking demonstrations of this is an illusion known as the ‘Ames room’, named after American eye specialist Adelbert Ames Jr, who invented it in 1934. The walls, ceiling and floor of the Ames room are inclined to one another at extreme angles, either much bigger or much smaller than 90°. You can look into the room through a peephole in one wall, but because you’re so used to seeing rooms with the walls, ceiling and floor assembled at more or less rightangles your brain assumes this is what you’re going to see. So much so that it’s what you actually end up seeing. Even when there are Ames rooms exploit our assumptions about coventional architecture

October 2012


The science of illusion


ALAMY, corbis

A watched pot never boils…

people standing in the room, the observer’s visual system distorts their sizes grossly out of proportion in order to make the room’s architecture fit their expectation (see The Ames room is an example of how top-down processing can kick in naturally. But it can be invoked artificially, through a psychological technique known as ‘priming’. Using priming, it’s possible to deliberately influence someone’s top-down brain functions – either by talking to them or showing them images that are going to sway their thinking. “If I prime you by showing you two human faces and then give you an ambiguous image that could be a face, but could be something else, then – because you’re interpreting the third image within the context of the prime of a human face – you’ll see a face in the third image,” says Wiseman. Magicians sometimes use priming to make their audience see exactly what it is they want them to. Our reliance on illusions also means that anyone trying to make themselves less susceptible to them, believing this will somehow strengthen their grasp on reality, is deeply misguided. Studies have even shown that difficulty seeing illusions 64

October 2012

“Only 10 per cent of what we think we see comes from our eyes. The other 90 per cent comes from other parts of the brain.”

Albert Einstein reportedly once said: “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.” His point was that time is subjective – time spent having fun appears to pass much quicker than when it’s endured in less-than-pleasant circumstances. Psychologists have found hard evidence for the subjective nature of time, in a phenomenon known as the ‘Kappa effect’. This tends to make journeys that cover greater distance appear to take longer. Imagine you are making a long motorway journey with a single stop, splitting the journey into two parts. For the first part you encounter a lot

of roadworks so you travel slower and make little headway, but during the second part, the road is clear and you can travel faster and cover much more ground. Even if each portion of the journey takes equal time, as measured on your watch, the second half appears to take much longer because you travel further. There’s even a school of thought among physicists that the entire notion of time could be an illusion. These researchers think that what we perceive as time emerges from some deeper physical process – in much the same way that large-scale quantities like temperature and pressure emerge as a result of the collisions between tiny atoms and molecules.

is a symptom of mental illnesses, including autism and schizophrenia. Some less-serious brain conditions, however, can actually make us more prone to illusions. Anyone who suffers from migraine headaches ‘with aura’ will be all too familiar with the flashing zig-zag patterns they see before the headache itself strikes. Some migraine sufferers also report fictitious smells – olfactory illusions (see ‘Deceiving the senses’ on p62). Evidence from MRI scans suggests these symptoms may be caused by a brain phenomenon called ‘cortical wave depression’, where a wave of heightened activity sweeps slowly through the brain’s visual cortex, followed almost immediately by a wave of diminished activity. Other conditions can form lesions (areas of damaged tissue) in the brain that can cause so-called ‘agnosias’, where sufferers find it difficult to recognise particular objects such as faces, words, even things as specific as fruit and veg. Sometimes different people can have radically different perceptions of the exact same illusion, as Wiseman’s research has revealed. In one recent study he looked at an optical illusion called ‘rabbit-duck’ (p65). This is a drawing that was first

made in the late 19th century by American psychologist Joseph Jastrow. It can resemble either a rabbit or a duck – depending how you look at it and how your brain interprets what it sees. Wiseman found that while some test subjects could only see the duck and others could only see the rabbit, a small proportion could see both very easily. Further tests revealed that the subjects in this latter group also tended to be highly creative. “They can’t stop flipping between the two images,” says Wiseman. “Because what they’re doing is continuously reorganising the stimuli in their minds, they turn out to be far more creative people.” The art of illusion It seems true to say that pictures are the simplest yet most effective kind of illusion. After all, paintings are all about creating the illusion of reality using a pattern of lines and colours on a canvas or a sheet of paper. Perhaps one of the greatest illusions ever achieved in a work of art is the Mona Lisa’s unfathomable smile. Look directly at her face and she hardly seems to be smiling at all. Yet look into her eyes instead and suddenly she’s beaming back at you.


The science of illusion


The 'rabbit-duck' optical illusion as drawn by American psychologist Joseph Jastrow

combining the images from both eyes – to gauge depth. If you want to flatten a 3D scene into a 2D picture, then you need to inhibit that depth perception, so you blank out one of the two images by covering an eye. Many great artists, including Picasso and Rembrandt, are believed to have had naturally impaired stereoscopic vision, as evidenced by portraits of them that suggest they were cross-eyed. You can actually use the same technique to enhance the 3D effect of some paintings – especially those where the artist has tried to incorporate a lot of depth. Stand close enough to the painting so that it fills your visual field and then cover one eye while you look at it. “That shuts off your stereo system,” says Livingstone. “It will feel like you’re inside that painting and it will feel vividly three-dimensional.” Meanwhile, other scientists have discovered that the part of the brain that tracks the position of objects – known as the ‘where system’, which extends from the primary visual cortex to the parietal lobe – is largely colour blind. Instead of using colour, it distinguishes the positions of different objects through differences in brightness. This is another fact artists have been exploiting for many years – by painting objects at equal

30m The 2009 earnings in US dollars of illusionist David Copperfield, the world’s highest-paid magician


Some have speculated that this is because da Vinci painted the expression of a smile into her eyes. But Prof Margaret Livingstone, a neuroscientist at the Harvard Medical School, argues that the true answer lies in the way our eyes work. The centre of your field of vision, where you focus your attention, has very high resolution – it’s optimised for seeing small, detailed objects. On the other hand your outer, or ‘peripheral’, vision can only see at low resolution (or low ‘spatial frequency’ as it’s called). That is, it’s optimised for looking at big, blurry objects. “The Mona Lisa’s smile is all in the low-spatial-frequency components,” says Livingstone. “It’s blurry. And that’s why it changes as you move your eye over the painting – because you see it differently with your central and your peripheral vision.” Da Vinci would have known very little about the neurology of vision. But the insights he and other artists have since gleaned about how we perceive fine and course detail, light and shadow, and colour, have given neurologists some big clues into how our brains and visual systems work. For example, one of the first things you’re taught in art class is to close one eye while you draw. The reason, we now know, is that the brain uses a process called ‘stereopsis’ –

The amount in US dollars fetched on eBay by a toasted cheese sandwich bearing an (illusory) image of the Virgin Mary

The amount of what we perceive as taste that actually comes from our sense of smell



The time it takes for an image to get from the eye to the brain. A lot can happen in that time

36,000 The amount of information, measured in binary digits, or bits, that a human eye can process per hour

Now you see it, now you don’t: Mona Lisa’s smile

brightness so as to fox the ‘where system’, and create the illusion of movement in their work. Some magazines use the same principle by printing garish headlines at equal brightness to the background, forcing you to stare harder at the page in order to stop the words jumping around. Dyslexics suffer with a brain abnormality that creates much the same effect when they look at text presented in ordinary black and white. It’s all in your head Amazingly, researchers are now also using illusions to shed light on one of the greatest mysteries of all: consciousness. Despite years of research, neuroscientists still seem as far as ever from pinning down the brain processes that give us that all-important sense of selfawareness that lies at the core of our conscious experience. Quite how all the data entering our heads is combined into a consistent picture of reality and our place within it remains unknown. Dr Henrik Ehrsson, of the October 2012


The science of illusion

Don't believe your eyes Seeing flickering dots when you look at the grid? Don’t worry, you’re not going mad. But no-one can truly tell why it happens

Trying to count the number of white dots in this image is impossible because the dots flicker from black to white as you move your eye, which is what gives the illusion its name: ‘scintillating grid’. But how does it work? The short answer is no-one knows. Experts suspect it’s to do with ‘centre-surround antagonism’ – where bright stimulae in the area surrounding a photoreceptor cell on the retina actually darken the stimulus perceived by the cell. This improves the contrast of the images we see and helps sharpen our perception of edges. Centre-surround antagonism certainly explains a simpler grid illusion, called the ‘Hermann grid’ (see below). Here the grid lines and intersections are a uniform white, rather than the grey and white of the main image. Centre-surround antagonism then makes the intersections, with their excess of bright surrounds, appear darker than the lines. In 2006, neuroscientists from Texas A&M University and MIT tried to explain the scintillating grid by constructing a mathematical model of vision that built in two additional effects of the retina – known as ‘self-inhibition’ and ‘disinhibition’. These effects essentially reduce the degree to which stimulae surrounding photoreceptors get darkened under certain conditions. The effects are sensitive to changes in retinal stimulation – of exactly the sort produced as you scan your eye between dark and light areas of an image.

When the researchers applied their model to the scintillating grid pattern it yielded predictions for the perceived brightness that were in good agreement with what’s actually seen.


October 2012




The science of illusion


You’ll like this, but not a lot… 2a a card disappear 2b Make This trick takes practice but once you’ve got it down pat, it’ll look like you’ve made a playing card vanish into thin air and then reappear. 1. Take an ordinary playing card and grip it length-ways between your index and little fingers.












2. Grip the card fairly tightly and practice extending your middle two fingers while gripping firmly with the index and little fingers so that the card pivots round to the back of your hand. 3. If you wave your hand up and down while you perform the move, it will make it very hard for your audience to see the tips of the card protruding through your fingers. 4. For the finale, grip the top corner of the hidden card tightly between your first and second fingers and then relax your little finger so the card springs up into view.





Mind reading and telekinesis Convince a volunteer not only that you can tell what 3 4 card they’ve picked at random from the pack, but also turn that card upside down without touching it. 1. Before performing the trick, turn the bottom card of the deck upside down so that both the top and bottom of the deck look the same.

1 5

2 6

2. Hold the deck so most of the cards are facing down and fan it, but keep the bottom card hidden. 3. Ask someone to pick a card. Gather the cards back together and then ask your volunteer to memorise their card. As they do this, turn the deck upside down.



4. Ask them to slot the card back into the deck. Take care not to reveal that most of the cards are actually face-up at this point.



5. Wave the deck about and say magic words, so they don’t notice as you flip the deck back over. 6. Now skim through the deck and to their amazement their card will be the only one face-up.

The vanishing coin Watch as money disappears in front of your very eyes – and there’s not a taxman in sight.







1. With your audience in front of you (not to the side), hold an ordinary coin between your thumb and first finger with the palm of your hand facing upwards.



2. Now go to grab the coin with your other hand, fingers together and palm facing downwards. 3. With the thumb of your empty hand, push back the thumb that’s holding the coin, so the coin drops into your upturned palm. 4. Then close your upper hand into a fist and move it away. Don’t close up the thumb and first finger of the hand that was holding the coin – this will create the illusion that it’s been snatched away.



5. Now turn your hand over and open it. While the audience is distracted looking where it thinks the coin will be you can clasp the fingers of your upturned hand around where the coin really is and then use it to point at your empty palm. Amazing!




Dr Paul Parsons is the author of Science 1001: Absolutely Everything That Matters In Science (Quercus, 2010).

find out more

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Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, decided to investigate this using an illusion that could shift our perception of self by simulating an out-of-body experience. It works by placing a small video display over each of the subject’s eyes, linked to two cameras positioned 1.5m behind them – so they see a realistic, stereoscopic image of the back of their own head. Next, Ehrsson takes a plastic rod and, out of view of the camera, pokes the participant in the chest. At the same time, he uses a second rod to – visibly – poke where the chest of the illusory body would be, just below the two cameras. Participants confirmed genuinely feeling as if they were looking at their physical bodies from an outside perspective. Many even reported that they believed their body to belong to someone else. “This illusion is important because it reveals the basic mechanism that produces the feeling of being inside the physical body,” says Ehrsson. “This represents a significant advance because the experience of one’s own body as the centre of awareness is a fundamental aspect of self-consciousness.” Ehrsson is now combining this illusion and others with brain scanner studies to find out what’s actually going on inside a participant’s head as their sense of self is radically disrupted. If he’s successful it could help to lay bare the very secret of consciousness, the biggest mystery in neuroscience – and perhaps the grandest illusion of all.


Sleights Of Mind: What The Neuroscience Of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions Stephen L Macknik and Susana MartinezConde (Profile Books, 2010) October 2012


The U Wild ndau erne nted ss

Western Ghats

lder than the Himalayan range, this 1600-km-long range of hills and dales, called Western Ghats, runs parallel to the enchanting west coast of India. Starting from the southern tip of Gujarat, traversing through the states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala and ending at the southern tip of Tamil Nadu, the Ghats, is one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world and one of the 10 global hottest biodiversity hotspots. The Western Ghats aren’t true mountains but rather faults of the Deccan Plateau formed about 200 million years ago. Their formation, according to geologist and senior scientist, Ashok Sahni, of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), can be advocated to the theory of the break up of the super continent, Gondwanaland. “The western margin of India was attached to the eastern margin of Madagascar when they started to drift northwards after they broke away from Gondwanaland. Then around 88 million years ago, the west coast of India came into existence after it broke away from the east coast of Madagascar,” he explains. Around 65 million years ago, as the Indian continent continued to drift northwards, it passed over the Renuion hotspot, a volcanic hotspot, which lies in the Indian Ocean. As Prof Madhav Gadgil, an ecologist and the head of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, (WGEEP) further explains, “The huge volcanic eruption that occurred during this period and the imminent flow of lava resulted in the formation of a vast bed of basalt lava called the Deccan Traps. The


Deccan Traps constitute the Deccan part of the Western Ghats known as the Deccan Plateau, which covers parts of central India. These volcanic upthrusts led to the formation of the Ghats.” The Western Ghats comprise of nine geological landscapes with 11 distinct types of evergreen vegetation spanning myriad ecosystems, such as Myristica swamps-a primitive family of flowering plants, sholagrasslands; and the hill plateaus of the northern Western Ghats. The imposing Western Ghats extend from the north all the way through Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and through Kerala, where between the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, a gap known as the Palakkad Gap exists, before continuing its run into the state of Tamil Nadu. Geologists are still trying to decipher the reason for this natural occurring disruption in the range, measuring 40km wide, of which there is no geological explanation till now. Rich biodiversity The Western Ghats have a genetic biodiversity tracing back to 500 million years. Gadgil cites that the plants and animals that were a part of the ecosystem during the period when India as an island was part of the Gondwanaland migrated to the Indian peninsula after the break up. “The biodiversity that was present during the continental break up can still be traced in the lineages of the species found in the regions today. Yes, there have been evolutionary changes, but only on the species level. There are different species but at the higher consomic level. At the October 2012


Karunakar Rayker,

UNESCO recently anointed the Western Ghats of India as a World Heritage Site. Moshita Prajapati traces its roots to find out what makes the Ghats one of the country’s most talked about biodiversity hotspots

The Ghats is home to some of the world’s most endemic species. A preview of them as they exist in the three natural elements

The Palani Laughingthrush (top) and the Nilgiri Laughinthrush (above)

The Garra bicornuta with its two distinct horn like structures

A genetic difference exists amongst the elephant population in the Western Ghats




There are 508 species of birds found in the Western Ghats, out of which 16 species are endemic to the region. The Laughingthrush are amongst the most prolific ones sighted here. The two main species of the Laughingthrush found in the region are the Kerala Laughingthrush and the Black-chinned Laughingthrush; the former found principally in the region south of the Palakkad Gap whereas the population of the latter is confined to the Nilgiri region in the Ghats. Dr P O Nameer of the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Kerala, adds that species differ morphologically and are allopatric in their distribution, meaning that their ranges do not overlap each other ensuring that each species have their distinctive characteristics preserved. “While the two species may share their home in the high altitude regions of the southern Western Ghats, their behavioural activities are different,” he says. The bird calls of the Kerala Laughingthrush consists of high-pitched series of steeply ascending notes ‘pee-koko... pee-koko’ while the Black-chinned resort to making birds calls in ascending and descending sounds of ‘kek’, heard during early morning and afternoon periods. Another distinction between the species is their diet preferences. With the species in the Nilgiri region feast on flowers, fruits and insects, their counterparts in the south of the Palakkad Gap remain steadfastly vegetarian by feasting on fruits and flowers. Within the regions of the Palakkad Gap, home to the Kerala Laughingthrush, there are two distinct zones. Here the sub-species of the Kerala Laughingthrush - the Palani Laughingthrush is found to the south - and the Banasura Laughingthrush is found in Coorg and Wayanad region, which lies W? to the north of the Gap. OU KNO


f the igins o The or ap remains y ad G parit Palakk genetic dis s ry. A specie te s n y e e m a this d betw is foun site sides of o p p p a o G n e o wid 40km

Almost all the rivers in the southern part of India have their origins in the Western Ghats. A total number of 102 species of fishes reside in these rivers and hill streams of the Ghats, of which 11 species belonging to the Garra genus are endemic in various isolated areas of the southern Western Ghats. As majority of the rivers of the Western Ghats empty out into the sea, these fresh water fish have developed a peculiar characteristic to help adapt to the conditions. “The fishes of this genus have a disc protruding on the ventral side near its mouth. It is known as a sucker and is used by the species to attach their bodies physically to either the roots of the trees, small tennis sized pebbles or boulders and rocks near the river banks,” elaborates Dr M Arunachalam, professor at the Sri Paramakalyani Centre for Environmental Sciences, Tamil Nadu. This, he states, “allows the fish to avoid getting washed out into the sea while maintaining their velocity in the rapid river current.” The Garra gotyla stenorhynchus belonging to this genus is found, thanks to its limited distribution pattern, only in the tributaries of the Kaveri basin. Another species called the Tunga Garra (Garra bicornuta), found only in the Tunga River in Karnataka, has two distinct horn like structures on the dorsal side of its head, near its mouth, which are made of keratin and in some cases are often used as a defence mechanism by them,” says Arunachalam. The Kalakad Garra (Garra kalakadensis), found in the Pachayar River in Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve region is characterised and identified by its physical appearance. “In order to survive in the cold waters of the Western Ghats, the Kalakad Garra, has undergone an evolutionary adaption, thereby ridding its body of scales and having a naked ventral side.”

The elephant population is focused mainly in the Nilgiri, Anamalai Hills and the Periyar regions in southern Western Ghats. There are a number of elephant corridors in the Ghats including the Nilgiri-Mysore-Wyanad Elephant Reserves that are spread over Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. Another critical corridor lies in the Tirunelli region of Kerala that links the elephant population of Wyanad and Nagarahole with the Brahmagiri hills. A third critical corridor is in the Kollegal region, near the settlement of Bailur in Karnataka. Recent studies have discovered a genetic differentiation in the elephants found in north and south of the Palakkad Gap based on analysis of their mitochondrial DNA. “The elephant population found in the Nilgiri region, which is spread over 15,000 sq km, north of the Gap, can be traced to a single matriarchal lineage,” says Prof Raman Sukumar, an ecologist from the Centre of Ecological Studies at the Indian Institute of Sciences, Tamil Nadu. On the other hand, research further showed the Nilgiri population of elephants to be genetically distinct from those found in the Anamalai Hills and Periyar regions, separated by the 40 km Palakkad Gap. “Here, three mitochondrial haplotypes (which in genetics is a combination of alleles (DNA sequences) at adjacent locations (loci) on the chromosome that are transmitted together) have been discovered among the elephants living in the south of the Gap. Though these differences among these haplotypes maybe small, as they all belong to the Beta elephant clade common in southern and east-central India,” he concludes. While the reason behind this genetic disparity is still elusive, it is indicative of the Gap acting as a biogeographic barrier in the past.

Western Ghats

Point of origin “A peculiar feature of the region is that majority of the South Indian rivers originate from the Western Ghats.Their point of origin is very close to the western coast but they flow inwards, towards the east. This occurs because of the high altitude of certain hills in the region, the highest being 2600mts high or so. This peculiar topography and the fact that the mountain ranges are able to trap moisture-laden clouds makes it the ideal setting for a tropical rain forest,” he explains. The region receives the highest rainfall

The Western Ghats forests are home to 5,000 flowering plants, 139 mammals, 508 birds and 179 amphibian species in the Indian peninsular, similar only to the tropical rain forest areas of the North Eastern India and the islands of Andaman and Nicobar. “Further, unlike the forest regions of North India, where there are extreme seasons, the Western Ghats have a high precipitation level and low seasonality changes and dense soil, thereby lending stability to the biodiversity in the region,” adds Sahni. Gene pool Today, these unique forests typical of the tropics are a ‘gene pool’, harbouring millions of species of animals, plants and the microbial world. Gadgil points out that the high endemic rate is one of the reasons why the species found here are unique. “From the research collected over the years, the Western Ghats is home to 11 per cent species of ants Between the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, there exists a 40km gap in the Western Ghats range known as the Palakkad Gap

that are endemic along with 40 per cent of the butterflies and some 76 per cent of dragonflies in the region. While upto 10 per cent of the species of fishes found here are endemic, the amphibians, frogs and other related groups, of which 78 per cent are endemic, is a very high number. In reptiles, 62 per cent of the species found and identified here are endemic,” he states. Another unique aspect of the Western Ghats is of the genetic diversity, which refers to the genetic variation within a population of species, particularly those that are found near the Palakkad Gap. The Palakkad Gap, 40km wide, has been recognised by biologists as a line dividing various animal and plant populations, acting as a biogeographic barrier since the past. Scientists and researchers are carrying out studies to help understand the disparity within the species attributing it to either a migration movement or the after effects of a catastrophic natural disaster. World Heritage Site Global authorities have designated the Western Ghats of India with the tag of a World Heritage Site, which carries significant implications for the future. As Sahni concludes, “When it’s a World Heritage Site, it means that it is unique and therefor it depends on us to preserve this uniqueness.” Moshita Prajapati is a writer for BBC Knowledge Magazine India.

October 2012


DR. M ARUNACHALAM, Sandeep Das X2, John Foxx,

family level, they continue to live with the Gondwanaland lineage,” says Gadgil. The Western Ghats forests are home to 5,000 flowering plants, 139 mammals, 508 birds and 179 amphibian species.The region’s forests were formed many million years ago but the biodiversity that existed then due to subsequent climatic changes have altered, but the climate hasn’t changed much. According to Sahni, the hypothesis for this, can be attributed to the climate the region has retained to maintain its rainforestlike climatic characteristics.

A female orangutan can raise only three or four young in her lifetime, developing an extremely close bond with her infants. Are her tender caresses and fond looks evidence of maternal love, comparable to the attachment a human mother has for her child?

Mitsuaki Iwago/Minden/FLPA

Do animals have feelings too?

A growing body of evidence suggests we aren’t the only species with feelings. Henry nicholls asks whether animals also experience emotions such as love, grief, fear and envy 74

October 2012

Animal Einsteins

Animal Einsteins

A pair of giant panda cubs frolic at the Wolong panda-breeding facility in Sichuan Province. It’s hard to deny that they are delighting in simply being pandas

igh in the inhospitable, snow-clad mountains of Sichuan Province in China, two giant pandas sit on their ample bottoms and toboggan down a slope. They could be trying to get from one stand of bamboo to another with as little effort as possible. Then again, they might simply be indulging themselves with some adrenalinfuelled fun. Thousands of observations like this suggest that we aren’t the only beings with feelings. We all know that elephants appear to mourn the loss of one of their kind, gathering round in silent vigil, ears limp and trunks exploring the corpse with tenderness. But there are many, many other examples of animal emotion as well. Take the female humpback whale that swam in circles of joy when freed from fishing lines in which she was ensnared, and turned to the human divers who rescued her with gentle nudges of gratitude. Or the male rhesus macaque that seemed embarrassed by falling in a ditch – he quickly got up, looked around nervously to check if he’d been spotted by a fellow monkey, then recovered from his humiliation and carried on with what he was doing. Even that most complex of emotions – love – is unlikely

Keren Su/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images, Sophie Lanfear



October 2012

to be unique to humans. The courtship dance of great crested grebes is choreographed with such extraordinary passion that it would be odd to suggest there’s nothing going on in the dancers’ minds. The same goes for female emperor penguins reunited with their partners and meeting their chicks for the first time after an Antarctic winter spent at sea. And what about the intimate glances and touches shared by a mother orangutan and her infant? These are compelling stories – but are they anything more than that? After all, you can’t ask an animal how it’s feeling. Or – if you do – you’re unlikely to get a sensible answer. The Nobel-prize-winning ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen summed up this problem in his 1951 book The Study of Instinct. “Because subjective phenomena cannot be observed objectively in animals, it is idle to claim or deny their existence,” he pointed out. You often come across this view today. If researchers attempt to delve into the minds of other species, they are likely to be accused of anthropomorphism – the act of projecting human qualities onto animals, something that’s frowned upon by many scientists.

Animal Einsteins

Basic instinct Increasingly, though, there are biologists who have made animal emotions their life’s work. “I’m happy to sacrifice my career for the sake of reality,” admits Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University. For Panksepp, the evidence that humans aren’t the only animals with emotions is overwhelming. He explains that we have more neocortex (part of the brain involved with thought, communication and sensory perception) than any other mammal. “But there’s not a shred of evidence that the neocortex can generate feelings on its own.” Feelings, he continues, are formed by activity in the reward and punishment pathways located deep within the brain, a region that’s remarkably similar in all mammals. Numerous experiments have shown that an electrode placed in various regions of this core bit of brain is able to trigger a range of basic emotions in animals, including rage, fear, lust and grief. If the architecture of this brain region, the neurotransmitters and the suite of emotional behaviour they generate are all shared between humans and animals, why can’t feelings be similar, too? It’s basic Darwinian logic. ‘‘There can be no doubt that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense,” Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man in 1871. “Nevertheless the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.’’ At the level of DNA sequence, cell metabolism, anatomy or behaviour, the similarities between apes and humans are hard to ignore. “The same will apply for emotions,” says Panksepp. In 2009, researchers took this kind of reasoning to its logical conclusion, creating a taxonomy of the

Director’s notes Imaginative bonobos Is it possible for us to connect with – maybe even talk to – other animals? With the distinction between human and non-human minds becoming increasingly blurred, the Animal Einsteins production team wanted to see if presenter Liz Bonnin could possibly share a moment of true understanding with another species. If there’s one place where that might be possible, it’s the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa. Here, primatologist Sue Savage- Rumbaugh is on a mission to communicate with bonobos using a lexigram board that

features nearly 400 abstract symbols, each representing an English word. Liz had a couple of hours to immerse herself in this non-verbal language before she met the Trust’s apes, rehearsing key phrases that she hoped would break the ice. When Liz and the BBC crew met the bonobo superstars, there was a genuine sense of apprehension. We’d been asked to keep an open mind, but still weren’t prepared for the surreal experience that followed. Kanzi, a rather forward 31-year-old male, used the lexigrams to invite Liz for a game

Liz Bonnin uses a lexigram board to ‘talk’ to Kanzi the bonobo at the Great Ape Trust

of chase and tickle. He even seemed to enjoy pretend-tickling through the glass of his enclosure. Was he imagining what it would feel like for real? It certainly looked like it. Kanzi’s half-sister Panbanisha had more refined tastes. She invited Liz on a ‘date’ – a spin around the grounds

with her in the Trust’s 4WD, followed by a picnic tea. Simon Bell, series director, Animal Einsteins Try mastering the bonobo’s language for yourself: visit the interactive lexigram board at history-of-ape-language October 2012


Flip Nicklin/Minden/FLPA, Tony Heald/, Cyril Ruoso/Minden/FLPA, Karl Terblanche/, BBC

higher primates based solely on the way they laugh. A comparison of the tickle-induced chortling sounds made by young orangutans, gorillas, chimps, bonobos and humans should reflect their evolutionary relationships, the scientists reasoned. This turned out to be the case, with human laughter most like that of chimps and bonobos and least like that of orangutans. From this, they concluded that the origins of human laughter can be traced back at least 10 million years, to a time when the last common ancestor of humans and apes walked the Earth. In fact, laughter and the warm feelings it produces are likely to have an even more ancient origin, according to 78

October 2012

Panksepp’s studies of laughter in rats. He confesses that this line of enquiry is frequently “the butt of bad jokes� made by some of his neuroscientist colleagues. But it does show how, with a bit of creative thinking, it is possible to get a glimpse inside animal minds. Previous work on rat communication revealed that these rodents use different kinds of ultrasonic call in different social settings. For instance, they utter a characteristic squeak when playing and also, Panksepp noticed, when he gave them a tickle, as if they were giggling. He found that animals caged alone were particularly keen on being stroked, and giggled far more often than animals able to

Animal Einsteins

Not only do bottlenose dolphins have feelings, they also possess personalities, which some researchers have dubbed ‘dolphinalities’

Director’s notes mind-reading capuchins You can perhaps see why people stranded on an island a long way from home might succumb to the temptations of alcohol – but monkeys? Yet this is the fate that befell many of the vervet monkeys taken from Africa to St Kitts in the Caribbean in the 1600s. With no natural predators to worry about, they acquired a taste for the fermenting sugar cane available on this rum-producing isle – and, more recently, for cocktails served in beachfront bars. This unhealthy habit presented the Animal Einsteins crew with an opportunity to investigate a skill that only humans were thought to possess: seeing the world from another’s point of view. It’s a trait that gives us a big advantage – it helps us to predict another’s actions, second-guess our opponents and outwit our enemies. To find out if monkeys share this capability,

presenter Liz Bonnin placed two non-alcoholic fruit punches on a bar table and blocked her view of one of them with a wooden board. Could a monkey hoping to take advantage of the situation put itself in Liz’s shoes and only approach the drink that it knows she can’t see? Sure enough, that’s what the cheeky primate did. Though not rigorously scientific, our simple experiment does seem to add yet more credence to the research suggesting that ‘mind-reading’ isn’t confined to humans. Simon Bell

Monkey business: Liz discovers that some bars have a sneaky clientele

Elephants show signs of distress when a family member dies

Corvids have an aptitude for problem-solving, and complex emotional lives

play with others. What’s more, an isolated rat given a drug known to interfere with the reward pathway in its brain chuckled much less. In short, a tickled rat is a happy rat. Other studies reveal that animals can also exhibit more sophisticated emotional responses. Capuchin monkeys, for example, are smart, highly social animals and experiments carried out over the past decade suggest that they are capable of something like envy. Capuchins learned that handing a token to a researcher would lead to a reward. If, however, a monkey received a piece of cucumber while one of its fellows got a more desirable grape, it sensed the injustice and responded by sulking. Sometimes a disgruntled monkey refused to eat the cucumber; at other times it stopped playing the game, or flung the token or cucumber from the test chamber in a fit of pique. Chimps and even dogs can be similarly sulky if they feel hard done by. Such studies are all very well, but they only get us so far, says Panksepp. “You haven’t looked at the brain – you still have to infer the emotional feeling.” There are, however, ways to study both animal behaviour and which parts of the brain are active. Several years ago, John Marzluff, a behavioural ecologist at the University

Lovebirds live up to their name, nestling up close to their partners and displaying great affection for one another

Animal Einsteins

Director’s notes Self-aware elephants Elephants possess the largest brains of any land animals, yet little is known about their intelligence. One reason for this is that they’re potentially dangerous and devour a tonne of food every week, making them more challenging research subjects than your average lab rat. But biologist Josh Plotnik of Cambridge University was undeterred. The Animal Einsteins crew met him at an Asian elephant sanctuary in Thailand, where he is probing the true extent of the pachyderms’ intellect by giving them a mental workout. Josh has found that elephants are able to co-operate in tasks beyond most primates and, amazingly, can even recognise themselves in a mirror. This sophisticated ability, once considered unique to dolphins, humans and other apes, is thought to be a sign of self-awareness, linked to empathy and altruism. To investigate this further, we shipped a 2.5m-tall mirror halfway around the world so that Josh could undertake a special study. It was a tense moment when Puki, a huge bull elephant, was confronted with his own reflection. Would he charge the

We are not the only species to enjoy a laugh, as this young bonobo’s gleeful facial expression demonstrates

Puki examines himself in an elephant-sized mirror

image – seeing it as a rival – or revel in his sense of self? Luckily, the tusked, four-tonne beast proved to be incredibly vain. Instead of running amok, he admired himself, thus passing our mirror test. Simon Bell

of Washington in Seattle, began to study whether American crows could recognise and remember human faces. He pulled on a rubber mask (it happened to be that of a caveman) and set off to catch and ring some crows. Though that was over six years ago, the campus corvids still remember the mask. What’s more, birds that were never caught – and their offspring that have since hatched – also fear the caveman, says Marzluff. “If one bird scolds us, the others come and scold us as well,” he tells me. (In case you’re wondering, the crows completely ignore his ‘control’ mask, that of former US vice president Dick Cheney.) Not-so birdbrained crows Next, Marzluff investigated how fear was playing out in the crows’ brains.Wearing masks that had not been encountered before, he and his colleagues captured birds and took them to the lab. Once a crow had acclimatised to its caged surroundings, the researchers gave it an injection of radioactively labelled glucose and exposed it to its captor wearing the fear-inducing mask.The crow was then anaesthetised and its brain scanned, the glucose revealing the regions that had been most recently active.


The similarities with the human brain’s fear response were remarkable. Had there been obvious differences, one might have dismissed the crows as bird-brained simpletons. “But there aren’t and we can’t,” Marzluff says. “It doesn’t look like the crows are experiencing a simple fight-or-flight response.They’re thinking about it a lot, too.” Marzluff hopes to use the same technique to investigate more nuanced emotions in his study subjects. It has been suggested, for example, that corvids mark the demise of one of their own by giving it a raucous funereal sendoff.With the help of anaesthetics to turn a live crow into one that appears to be dead, Marzluff believes it will be possible to find out if a feathered observer is feeling sad. As persuasive as such experiments might be, Marc Bekoff, a former evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado and author of many books on animal emotions, is content to look for answers by observing animal behaviour and applying some straightforward logic. If you ask any dog owner if their pet feels sad when they leave for work and happy when they return, and

Animal Einsteins

whether it would grieve for the loss of a canine companion, the answer will almost invariably be affirmative. “Well, why not a wolf or a chimp? Why not another animal?” Bekoff asks. “What happens in a herd of elephants when its matriarch dies?” he continues. “What happens in a troop of chimps when it loses one of its members? What happens in a wolf pack, a coyote pack, a family of bears, mongooses, meerkats? There’s a radical change in behaviour – the animals go through what we call mourning.We just need to use field studies to get a handle on what’s going on.” Bekoff has been doing just that, devoting several decades and thousands of hours to watching coyotes. “There’s no way that they could function in the wild as a cohesive group without having and sharing emotions.” He is unruffled by the suggestion that his argument is based on little more than an anthropomorphic gut feeling. “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is ‘data’. If you have a hundred observations you’ve got to do something with it,” he says. Bekoff sums up his thinking in a sentence he has stamped

Elephant: Mark Yates; lions: Yva Momatiuk & John Eastcott/Minden/FLPA; bonobo: Frans Lanting/FLPA

Many animals, such as this lioness and her pride’s top male, appear to derive pleasure from physical contact

onto a bumper sticker on the back of his car: “If we have something, other animals have it, too.” Ask who, not what, you eat Where does this leave us? For Panksepp, the growing body of research suggesting that the way animals feel is not so far removed from how we feel has big implications. It may not mean we stop eating them – “we have always been top predators” – but we do have a duty to do a lot more to look after the emotional wellbeing of our fellow creatures. Bekoff, a long-time vegetarian, goes further. “As we’re learning more about animals’ emotional lives, it’s a matter not of what we eat and what we wear but of who we eat and who we wear. Ask who’s for dinner, not what’s for dinner,” he says. “We’re going to have to change how we live.” Henry Nicholls is a science journalist, author and editor. His most recent book is The Way of the Panda (Profile, 2010).

October 2012


Higgs Don’t Lie Dr Sunil Mukhi traces the history and discovery of the Higgs boson particle, and throws light on how it will change the way we understand the universe

f elementary particles had will power, one might almost have accused the Higgs particle of hiding on purpose. As Lewis Carroll wrote about a different hunt: “they sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care, they pursued it with forks and hope”. Unfortunately, the theory that predicted its existence could not say much about its mass so the experimental scientists had to scour entire ranges of mass for signs of the little beast. Each time the search failed to turn up anything, they were able to rule out the corresponding interval and we became wiser about the mass values where the Higgs definitely did not exist. Finally, a few weeks ago on July 4, 2012, its discovery was announced. The Higgs particle has a history of half a century and is associated to a key theoretical result in particle physics, the Higgs mechanism. This originated in the work of a noted condensed-matter theorist, Nobel Laureate Phil Anderson. Through subsequent

william, patrick chappatte, Sunil mukhi



October 2012

research, particle physicists have learned that the vacuum, which one usually thinks of as “empty”, is a more interesting place than it might seem, exhibiting the behaviour analogous to that of a superconducting medium. Electromagnetic vs nuclear forces At the root of this discussion is the behaviour of particles like the photon that are responsible for communicating forces. A key property of the photon is that it has

“The vacuum, which one usually thinks of as ‘empty’ is a more interesting place than it might seem, exhibiting the behaviour of a superconducting medium”

no mass and travels at the speed of light (it is the quantum of light, after all!) and in consequence, the force that it carries – electromagnetism – is long-range. We know this directly from experience: the earth’s magnetic field can be sensed even thousands of kilometres away from the poles. Besides electromagnetism, there are other basic forces in nature called nuclear forces. These are short-ranged and are effective only within the tiny atomic nucleus. The carriers of this force must therefore have a non-zero mass and travel more slowly than light. In the 1960s, scientists were seeking a theory to describe the carrier of the “weak nuclear” force, and came upon an interesting theoretical candidate. This was a new type of particle similar in many ways to the photon, but occurring in groups of at least three. These seemed eminently suitable to describe the weak nuclear force, except for one problem: the symmetries of their equations do not allow us to assign them a

Particle Physics

What’s Next: mass. Hence, they would be massless like the photon and the forces they communicate would be long-range, rendering them useless to describe short-range forces. Schwinger first pointed out in 1962 that there can be a distinction between the mass appearing in the equations and the mass of the physically observed particles. He argued that even when the former is forced to be zero, the latter could in some situations turn out to be non-zero. Following up on this idea, Anderson observed that the phenomenon envisioned by Schwinger could occur if the vacuum had properties analogous to an electrically charged plasma – a gas of free electrons. In the latter system, a sea of charged particles “condenses” (fills up the space) and thereby restrains the propagation of forces to a limited range. This is tantamount to giving the force carrier an effective mass inside the plasma. Introducing... the Higgs particle Two years later Englert and Brout, Higgs, and Hagen, Guralnik and Kibble, three groups working independently of each other, went back to the original context: to find a way for photon-like particles to acquire mass in the vacuum, rather than inside some medium. Each group demonstrated, in varying degrees of detail, a mechanism – related to older ideas on “symmetry breaking” – by which such fields can acquire a mass. For this they had to introduce a new type of particle that would condense in the vacuum rather than in a plasma. This would then cause the photon-like particles to have a mass and, as Peter Higgs stressed, the new particle would also be directly observable. It came to be called the Higgs boson. Despite this important conceptual pro-

gress, the work of Higgs and others in 1964 did not lead to concrete predictions that experimenters could try to test. They provided what scientists call “toy models”, exhibiting a proof of the concept, rather than realistic models of the world. The latter emerged somewhat later in 1967-68 when Weinberg and Salam, building on earlier work of Glashow as well as Higgs et al, produced the Standard Model: a precise theory unifying electromagnetism and the weak nuclear interaction in which carriers of the latter acquired a mass by the Higgs mechanism. The force carriers were named W+, W- and Z particles, and there was an additional particle, the Higgs. Now the hunt was on in earnest. The existence of the Z boson was indirectly verified in 1973 with the detection of “weak neutral currents”, the technical name for the process mediated by this charge-less particle. But it was only ten years later, at the Super Proton Synchrotron at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), Geneva, that the Z boson as well as the Ws were seen in isolation and their masses determined with accuracy. At 91 Giga-electron-Volts (GeV), the Z is nearly a hundred times heavier than a proton. Indirect confirmation has existed for the Higgs boson too, though it is less convincing. It arises from studying certain parameters of the theory with very high precision and noting tiny effects that must be due to the existence of such a particle. A related fact is that without a Higgs, it is hard to understand how the rest of the Standard Model could work so well! But none of these bits of evidence could substitute for the real thing. Construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Geneva started nearly 15 years ago and the first among its many goals

In “beta decay” (a weak nuclear interaction) a neutron decays into a proton and a W boson. The latter immediately decays into an electron and neutrino, which we observe.

The Higgs particle is just the beginning. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is expected to discover more new elementary particles.  A proposed symmetry called “supersymmetry” may exist in nature, and new “superparticles” could be found.  There may be more than one Higgs particle.  LHC might find the mysterious “dark matter” particles that are believed to pervade the universe.  It will be most thrilling if superparticles are themselves the dark matter!

A computer reconstruction of particle tracks that arise from the simulated decay of a Higgs particle

was the Higgs discovery. Today, this phenomenal machine is running beautifully and seems to have found it, at a mass of about 126 GeV (about 135 times the mass of the proton). The properties of the new particle have yet to be fully determined to verify that it is indeed the anticipated particle. So the story is not over. More exciting will be the discovery of other new particles at the LHC. Several proposals have been put forward for such particles, even though no unique, sharp prediction exists. The story is too long to recount here but some of the buzzwords are “supersymmetry” and “dark matter”, and we will probably hear more about these by 2015. Dr Sunil Mukhi is a Senior Professor and Chair, Department of Theoretical Physics, at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.

During its short life, the W travels in a “condensate” or “sea” created by the Higgs particle (blue dots). This gives it a mass and thereby renders the weak interaction short-ranged.

find out more E For the latest developments at CERN October 2012


Is it a stimulant? A relaxant? Or does it have no medical properties at all?

The Big Idea

exploring life’s great mysteries Robert Matthews investigates

the Placebo effect Doctors have long believed in the power of the placebo effect – swapping a genuine treatment for a harmless substitute that still cures patients. But just how powerful is the effect? How does it work? And can it, as new research suggests, actually improve the effectiveness of proven therapies?

Mind games Far from revealing the powers of new drugs, the study had highlighted something much more intriguing: the astonishing power of the mind to affect the body. Carried out by Barry Blackwell and his colleagues at the University of Cincinnati in 1972, it’s become a classic study of the placebo

effect – from the Latin for “I will please” – in which the mere belief that a therapy is beneficial can be enough to make people well. Since then, the placebo effect has been seen at work right across the medical spectrum. Patients with depression or pain have been shown to respond especially well to the placebo effect, with harmless therapies often producing improvements as good as those from ‘real’ medicines. But it’s not only mind-related conditions that respond to the effect. Asthma sufferers find breathing easier

after using mock inhalers containing no active ingredient – their bronchial tubes actually expanding just as if they had been exposed to a genuine medication. Controversial conundrums How powerful is the placebo effect? How does it work? And should doctors make more use of it? Such questions are among the most controversial in medicine, the answers promising to cast light on a host of issues, from the effectiveness of complementary therapies like homeopathy to the role E of trust in medical care.

Corbis x2, Thinkstock, Science Photo Library

he experiment could not have been simpler: a straight comparison of the effectiveness of a sedative and a stimulant. The researchers recruited over 50 volunteers to get either a single or double dose of the test compounds. And when the results were analysed, the conclusion was clear: those taking the sedative were more than twice as likely to feel drowsy than those given the stimulant, with the double dose producing a stronger effect. No surprise there – except the volunteers hadn’t been given either a sedative or a stimulant. All of them had received the same harmless compound, the only difference being that the ‘sedative’ pills were a relaxing shade of blue, while the stimulant came in perky pink. And those getting two pills were getting a double dose of nothing.


Do they know what they’re taking? A clinical trial of Omega-3 supplements October 2012


The Big Idea

exploring life’s great mysteries

E Until recently, the placebo effect has largely been seen in a negative light, its exploitation deemed ethically dubious. Yet according to historians, it played a key role in the emergence of the medical profession. Ancient documents, such as the 3500-year-old Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, describe many treatments based on potentially effective substances, such as honey and poppy seeds. But alongside these are a host of therapies based on everything from lead ore to animal dung, whose efficacy most likely came from the placebo effect triggered by knowledge of the success of the genuine remedies. By the 18th century, physicians had started to distinguish between the direct impact of therapies and their placebo effect. Yet the latter was not always dismissed as quackery: the term itself was

defined as “a commonplace method of medicine” in contemporary texts. That began to change with the publication in 1800 of a study by the English physician John Haygarth. At the time, great claims were being made for the curative properties of special metal rods applied to the afflicted part of the patient. Known as Perkins Tractors (after their American inventor Elisha Perkins), they were claimed to work via a mysterious ‘electrophysical force’ emitted by their metal. Haygarth decided to compare their effectiveness to that of dummy wooden sticks – and found that the results were identical: four out of five of his patients benefited, regardless of the sticks used. Haygarth himself regarded the results as proof of the “wonderful effect the passions of hope and faith, excited by mere

The appliance of science By the mid-20th century, medical researchers were moving towards ever more scientific methods of assessing the effectiveness of new therapies. Socalled randomised double-blind clinical trials emerged, in which patients were randomly assigned to receive either the new treatment or the ‘useless’ placebo – with neither they nor the researchers knowing who received exactly what. Only treatments that did significantly better than a placebo in treating patients were deemed medically acceptable. But as the results from such trials came in, researchers were stunned to discover just how many patients appeared to benefit from getting just a placebo. In 1955, the American medical researcher

Alamy x2, Bridgeman art library, Science photo library, getty, the national library of medicine, wikipedia

The unsavoury application of metal rods known as Perkins Tractors

TIMELINE The Placebo Effect


October 2012

imagination, can produce on disease.” Not everyone was so delighted, however. Physicians in the US regarded Perkins Tractors as bogus medicine; the idea they might work through suggestion was taken as a black mark against the placebo effect, rather than as an alternative route to a cure. Others took a more measured view and regarded Haygarth’s study as a demonstration of the need to take account of the placebo effect when assessing any new therapy. Among the pioneers of this view were doctors using the increasingly popular techniques of homeopathy E. Ironically, despite setting up some of the first ‘placebocontrolled’ trials to test their remedies, homeopaths have since become the prime targets of criticism that any efficacy is ‘merely’ the result of the placebo effect.





H In the Ebers Papyrus, Egyptian physicians describe bizarre medicines, including crocodile dung and lizard’s blood, whose restorative effect is now ascribed to the placebo effect.

H English physician John Haygarth reports on an experiment debunking the use of expensive medical equipment, showing that the benefits could be attributed entirely to the patients’ belief.

American physician Oliver Wendell Holmes attacks the growing popularity of homeopathic medicine. He maintains that those who claim to benefit do so “through the influence exerted upon their imaginations.”

E Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov publishes a study of ‘conditioning’, showing that responses can be triggered by stimuli with no ability to cause such responses – like dogs salivating after hearing a bell.

1859 G US healer Phineas Quimby argues that the claims of physicians to cure “does not depend on any drug but simply on the patient’s belief in the doctor or the medicine.”

Homeopathic treatments continue to divide the medical community

alternative medicine

Homeopathy Invented 200 years ago by a German physician, homeopathy claims to treat medical disorders by giving patients dilute solutions of substances that would trigger similar symptoms in healthy people. Controversy surrounds the claim that the solutions are effective even when they are so dilute that not a single molecule of the original substance remains in them. Many mainstream scientists insist that patients taking homeopathic remedies often ‘think themselves well’ via the placebo effect. It is a view apparently backed by a 2005 study comparing over 100 trials of homeopathic remedies with a

Henry Beecher published a landmark paper entitled ‘The Powerful Placebo’, which reviewed the outcome of 15 placebocontrolled trials. It concluded that the proportion of patients who improved after being given only a placebo was typically around 35 per cent. It’s a result that has hardened into a widely accepted rule stating that around 1 in 3 patients can be cured using nothing but sugar pills. Inevitably, things aren’t that simple. For a start, Beecher had made a fatal blunder in his analysis, having assumed the placebo effect explained all the improvements in patients not receiving the real therapy. In reality, there’s a host of alternatives. Many medical conditions – for

similar number of trials of conventional treatments. This found that positive results from homeopathic trials could be explained by the placebo effect. At the time, the study was hailed by skeptics as a knock-out blow

against homeopathy. However, the homeopathic community insisted that the trials had been specially chosen and analysed by skeptical doctors, undermining the study’s conclusions. The controversy continues.

example, the common cold – are ‘selflimiting’, meaning they get better of their own accord. Patients involved in trials also tend to have extreme symptoms that become more typical over time, which can again fool doctors into crediting benefit to the placebo effect. But if the 1-in-3 figure is a myth, what is the true figure? In 2001, two researchers at the University of Copenhagen published a study aimed at revealing the real power of the placebo. Asbjorn Hrobjartsson and Peter Gotzsche examined the outcome of over 100 clinical trials where a genuine therapy had been compared to giving no treatment at all, as well as to a placebo. If the placebo effect is real, then it

should benefit more patients than giving absolutely nothing at all. What Hrobjartsson and Gotzsche found still provokes controversy. Far from benefiting 1 in 3 patients, the placebo effect appeared to be medically useless. Apart from some evidence of small benefits for some conditions such as pain, placebos appeared to be no more effective than doing nothing at all. The results made headlines around the world, the media seizing on them as proof that the whole idea of a placebo effect was a myth. In reality, Hrobjartsson and Gotzsche did not dispute the existence of the effect – simply that it is too small to be medically useful. But other researchers insist even this goes too far, arguing that the entire study was fundamentally flawed (see Question Time, page 91).





American researcher Henry Beecher publishes his famous study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study’s results suggest that in the region of 35 per cent of patients benefit from the placebo alone.

Walter Kennedy, a US-based physician, coins the term ‘nocebo’ – from the Latin “I will harm” – for the harmful effects that beliefs and expectation can have on otherwise healthy patients, who could be led to believe that they were seriously ill.

Asbjorn Hrobjartsson and Peter Gotzsche at the University of Copenhagen publish a study of over 100 clinical trials that compares genuine therapies to no treatment. The results found no placebo benefit.

H Researchers at the Philipps University, Marburg, argue for the use of the placebo effect to reduce the amount of an active drug needed to benefit patients on long-term medication.

Clinical criticism Most of the criticism has focused on the way the study tried to find a ‘typical’ placebo response rate by lumping together studies of everything from cold cures to Alzheimer’s disease to marital disharmony. Critics pointed out that studies have found strong placebo effects in disorders like depression, weaker but still substantial effects in others like pain, and virtually none in conditions such as diabetes. Other researchers have criticised the use of evidence extracted from clinical trials. They point out that in such trials E October 2012


The Big Idea

exploring life’s great mysteries

E patients know they have only a 50 per cent chance of getting the placebo or the active drug, so they aren’t sure which they’ve received. In contrast, laboratory studies of the placebo effect involve volunteers who, unlike genuinely ill patients, can be deliberately and clearly

neurological changes

How placebos affect brain activity

Science photo library x2, Getty

The idea that the placebo effect is ‘all in the mind’ has been given a new twist by research involving brain-imaging technology, allowing researchers to compare the effect of placebos with those produced by active compounds. For example, a team led by Martin Ingvar at the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, used so-called Positron Emission Tomography (PET) to examine the areas of the brain affected by remifentanil, a powerful opioid drug used for pain relief during surgery. They found that the so-called rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) region of the brain was affected by the drug – and that the same area was also affected when patients were given a placebo they believed would also dull pain. Similar findings have been made in scans of patients with depression, with changes in brain activity following an antidepressant appearing in the same areas if the patients are given a placebo instead.


October 2012

misled into thinking they have been given an active compound even when this isn’t true. And these kinds of studies have found compelling evidence of the reality of the placebo effect – including its ability to mimic the effect of active compounds on the human nervous system, as revealed through medical scanning methods. F Other studies have focused on revealing how the placebo effect physically affects the body. For example, a study by Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin and colleagues gave volunteers injections of capsaicin, the natural substance that produces the burning-like sensation of chilli peppers, before administering a cream said to act as a powerful painkiller. In reality, the cream had no active ingredients at all – but the volunteers reported that it had eased their pain at just the place where the injection had taken place. The researchers then gave the volunteers naloxone, a compound that blocks the action of the body’s own painkilling compounds, known as endogenous opioids. The pain returned – suggesting the placebo effect can bring the body’s painkillers to bear precisely where required. Extra benefits Such findings raise the intriguing possibility of using the placebo effect to ‘turbo-charge’ the effectiveness of conventional therapies. Researchers at the Philipps University at Marburg, Germany, have recently argued for using the placebo effect to allow drugs to give the same benefit at lower dosages. Known as Placebo-Controlled Dose Reduction (PCDR), the technique involves using placebos instead of the real drug in, say, half of the tablets given to patients. In principle, this could help increase the margin of safety of many drugs, which are

a matter of interpretation

The nocebo effect Just as sick people can be led to feel better by placebos, healthy people can be persuaded to believe they are very ill indeed. Dubbed the ‘nocebo effect’ (from the Latin for “I will harm”) in 1961 by an American physician called Walter Kennedy, it can be extraordinarily powerful. In 2007, doctors in Mississippi described a case of a 26-year old man rushed to hospital after taking an overdose. After telling doctors the pills came from a clinical trial of a new type of anti-depressant, he collapsed, his blood pressure plunging while his heart-rate soared. Medical staff set to work, treating the low blood pressure with a saline drip. Four hours later, he was still lethargic with a stubbornly low blood pressure. Then a clinician involved in the drug trial arrived on the scene and realised that the man had been part of the group secretly given a harmless dummy substance routinely

frequently associated with powerful and even lethal side effects. PCDR has already been shown to produce benefits in conditions ranging from asthma to multiple sclerosis. Research by Benedetti and his colleagues has also shown that the dosage of a powerful painkilling drug given to patients following surgery can be reduced by over one-third without loss of effectiveness. Now, researchers are studying the fine detail of placebo responses to maximise their effectiveness and are finding many subtleties. For example, the way they are administered can be crucial, with injections having more impact than pills. And it can also work in reverse, via the so-called ‘nocebo effect’ G , in which negative beliefs of patients increase the risk of negative experiences. The mounting interest in


Question Time Does the placebo effect have medical value? Asbjorn Hrobjartsson Nordic Cochrane Centre, Copenhagen, Denmark

NO The ‘nocebo effect’ can be far more powerful than mere hypochondria

used in trials to gauge the effectiveness of the real drug. Informed of the true nature of the ‘antidepressants’, the patient suddenly began to recover. Within 15 minutes, he was fully alert, his blood pressure and heart-rate completely normal. As with the placebo effect, researchers have attempted to link the nocebo effect to biochemical reactions linked to human responses. In 2006, researchers at the University of Turin found a link between

the nocebo effect and a neurotransmitter called cholecystokinin, which is associated with feelings of anxiety. Brain scans have also revealed that patients fearful of entirely harmless treatments have increased activity in regions associated with real harm. But perhaps the most worrying parallel centres on the attitudes of physicians. If positive attitudes can benefit patients, the nocebo effect may lead to downbeat diagnoses harming patients.

exploiting the placebo effect raises questions about whether the benefits can justify the blurring of trust between doctors and patients. This trust is already being stretched: surveys show around half of doctors already give placebo treatments to a significant number of their patients.

got better, compared to just 39 per cent of those getting the downbeat version. In other words, the attitude of the physicians emerged as far more important in treating the patient than the medicines they were handing out. For over a century, the placebo effect has been regarded with suspicion, seen by some as the last refuge of the medical scoundrel. Yet that perception now seems to be changing, with results that could transform the practice of medicine.

Doctoring doctors Ironically, the doctors themselves may be the most potent source of a placebo effect. In a study carried out at the University of Southampton, one group of patients was given a clear, firm diagnosis and told they would soon be better – with some being given no treatment at all. Meanwhile another group received a vague diagnosis and no assurance about recovery, regardless of whether they received treatment or not. The results were spectacular. Patients who receive treatment proved no more likely to recover than those given nothing. But 64 per cent of those patients given a positive consultation

Robert Matthews is a science journalist and holds the position of Visiting Reader in Science at Aston University, UK.

find out more E Placebo Effects by Fabrizio Benedetti (Oxford University Press, 2008) E Placebo: the belief effect by Dylan Evans (HarperCollins, 2003) E An online review of placebos in history

The classical conception of the placebo effect that grew out of Harry Beecher’s work in the 1950s was that a large number of patients in a large number of clinical conditions improved drastically because of a placebo treatment. Despite the lack of reliable evidence, many commentators continued to believe in dramatic effects of placebos. This opinion was challenged in 2001, when we published a systematic review of 114 randomised clinical trials that compared placebotreated with untreated patients. Our research clearly shows that there is no evidence to support such a position. However, we did find an average small-to-moderate difference between those receiving placebo therapy and those receiving no treatment for patient-reported outcomes, like pain. It is difficult to clearly differentiate between a real effect of placebo and experimental bias – such as patients reporting what they think the researchers want them to report. Furthermore, effects of placebo could be larger under special circumstances – for example, depending on how patients have been informed.

Bruce Wampold University of WisconsinMadison, USA


The evidence for the placebo effect is very strong in experimental studies designed to detect it. Hrobjartsson and Gotzsche’s studies include clinical trials not designed to detect placebo effects. For example, one of the placebos included in their study was an injection of saline solution into new-born babies. No-one would expect to see a placebo effect in a neonate who does not have the cognitive capacity to create the expectations necessary to see these effects. When my laboratory examined the same studies as Hrobjartsson and Gotzsche, but restricted them to ones where placebo action was theoretically possible and the design was adequate to detect it, we found a robust placebo effect. In fact, the placebo effect approached the treatment effect – that is the placebo created benefit for the patients equivalent to the active treatment. Placebo researchers do not consider Hrobjartsson and Gotzsche’s study to be a reliable estimate of placebo effects. May/Jun 2012


A campaign for a noble cause on social media Knowledge Magazine India

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

Do your bit to save the Asiatic Lion. Share this with your friends and educate them about the conservation of the majestic beast!

Save the

BBC Knowledge conducted an extensive campaign on its Facebook page, propagating the cause of the Asiatic Lions in India. The objective of this activity was to spread awareness amongst Facebook users, about the dwindling population of these species. A letter posted by the BBC Knowledge team went viral, with fans sharing it with their friends. Interactive activities were chalked by the team to keep members engaged and this included quiz contests, trivia and facts about the Asiatic Lions.

Do your Bit There are campaigns, there are pledges, and there are organisations that inform you that a mere 411 Asiatic lions survive in India and that you should help save them. But haven’t you wondered, inspite of empathising with the cause- what is it that YOU can do? After all, you’re not the poacher or the consumer of products derived from the animal. So what can you REALLY do to save the lions?

Do This: 1. Google the Asiatic lion. 2. Understand Wildlife Protection laws better- 3. Find ways to get involved with the local lion sanctuary, zoo or wildlife governing bodies. Pledge your support. Ask questions. 4. Then. Spread the word. Start the conversation.

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 31

38 people like this

India Olympics-themed Quiz cil un Co h itis Br ge led ow Kn BBC Knowledge Magazine India

Usain Bolt put up a stunning performance to successfully defend his 100 meter title at the Olympics! Can you tell us what country Bolt hails from? a. United States b. Trinidad and Tobago c. Jamaica

Keeping pace with the Olympics fever, BBC Knowledge India partnered with the British Council India to conduct an Olympics-themed quiz on Facebook. A tab was created, where a new question was posted everyday, and a daily winner was announced from amongst the participants with the correct answers. The initiative was well received by fans and in a span of just one week, more than 500 entries were recorded for the contest.

Like • Comment • Share 59 people like this Write a comment....

Winners of the Olympics Quiz 

Q1 - Rohit Sharda Q2 - Preksha Modi Q3 - Amarish Nagori Q4 - Aman Khanjanchi Q5 - Yasser Jehangir Q6 - Nishigandha Dande Q7 - Atanu Banerjee

SCHOOL s u c o f in

The Bishop’s School, Pune

Established in the year 1864, The Bishop’s School, Pune was registered as a Public Trust in 1950. The school today has three branches in Pune: Camp, Kalyani Nagar and Undri. In addition to being a day school, The Bishop’s School also has a boarding facility available for its students in Camp and Kalyani Nagar. Students are prepared for examinations conducted by the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (ICSE), New Delhi.

1 1. The Annual Speech and Prize Distribution Day at The Bishop’s School, Camp. 2. Inaugural Ceremony of The Bishop’s Invitational Football Tournament (BIFT) 2012, at The Bishop’s School, Camp.



3. The Senior School Annual Concert at The Bishop’s School, Camp where the musical stage adaptation of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was staged. 4. Students from The Bishop’s School, Camp, participated in a student exchange programme with Neungin Middle School in Daegu, South Korea. 5. The 7th edition of the BIFT inaugarated by Principal Frank Freese. 6. The Annual Speech Day and Prize Distribution for the Bishop’s Co-Ed School, Undri.




If you would like us to visit your school and have it featured on this page, write in to us at

Gadgets New Tech

The latest gizmos and apps creating buzz in the market  Backpack on wheels

 Touch-free sound

The Bergmönch, designed by Koga, is an innovative folding mountain bike that can be strapped on like a backpack. The integrated rucksack system allows mountain climbers and bikers to trek rugged, uphill terrains, unrestricted and handsfree. The small wheels and the short wheel-base makes the ride downhill a rather adventurous one. However, this pedal-free bike is strictly for travelling downhill only and might just be termed the first Downhill Bike in the truest sense.

Japanese group, E-Revolution has come up with a pair of motion-sensing speakers. A lift and fall of your hand is all it takes to operate this portable device, be it changing the volume or searching for your favourite song through different radio channels. Powered by a USB, 4 x AA batteries or a traditional AC power supply, these speakers can be connected to your iPod or iPad, thanks to its 3.5mm jack Price: ` 5,540 •

 Metal free binding

Price: ` 83,044 •

Free apps to discover, learn and share 96

October 2012

Running out of staple pins can now very well become a thing of the past. The Staple-less staplers, as the name suggests, is a fine little device that has no need for pins. These innovative machines fuse your paper by punching a small, neat hole in your documents and folding the remaining flaps together for secure binding. Stapling documents is now a metal free affair. Price: ` 886 for two •

The Dino Files! Dinosaurs Unleashed! is a fun new app for all your iOS gadgets. It is an interactive and informative tool to learn about these prehistoric creatures. The app comes with audio flash cards that not only have an anatomically accurate rendition of the creatures but also imitate the perfect growl and squeak of each. The accompanying dino-quizzes are a good way to test your newly acquired knowledge about fossilised history. Users: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad

 MONSTER CAM This Digital Video Camcorder by Chinavasion, comes with a power packed zoom. This 12 megapixel camera can be everything that your everyday camcorder is, but it turns into the big boss of zoom cameras once the screw-on optical telescope zoom lens is attached to it. Take videos of ferocious wildlife without disturbing their peace or shots of your loved ones seeing you off on a cruise. Combine the telescope lens with the camera’s native 4x digital zoom and you have a monster of a zoom camcorder. Price: ` 4,432 approx •

 Intelligent biking What if your scooter could be the perfect mobile hotspot just like your new-age car and be connected to all your smart gadgets? The Yamaha EC-Miu e-bike is a new concept that does just this thing! This rechargeable electric scooter can be connected to your smart phone, iPod and tablet. Pair it with any security app and you can monitor every move of your ride sitting on your sofa or office chair! Equipped with a 50cc engine, this ‘intelligent’ scooter is powered by a 0.6kW lithium-ion battery and has a unique-clean design windshield. This ‘intelligent’ scooter is expected to zoom into markets in 2013. Price: To be announced •

Samsung’s new smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy Beam is the perfect low-maintenance gadget to show off. Point it to a wall, a screen or even your palm and this smartphone is transformed into a competent projector. Weighing a mere 145g, it comes with a built-in 15 lumens projector along with an SD slot. It features a bright 4-inch WVGA touch screen and a 5 megapixel camera, doubling up its cool-quotient! For a phone that packs in so much, it is a sleek and sporty-looking number, thanks to the yellow body colour and thin chrome speakers along with the rubberised battery panel on the back. Price: ` 22,160 •

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

A Hubble view!

Alchemists Inc

HubbleSite, the online quarters of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, allows you to select your favourite Hubble wallpaper images from its 20-year image archives along with interesting tidbits about Hubble’s history. What’s best is that this app has been specifically optimised for iPhone and iPod Touch’s Retina display. Users: iPhone, iPad, iPod

The Alchemy Classic is an innovative new app for all those alchemy-enthusiasts out there. Begin with the four basic elementsAir, Earth, Water and Fire, combine these in a variety of ways and voila!- a completely new element emerges in your inventory. Combine Air with Fire to get Lightning or mix Earth with Water and you have Swamp. Users: iPhone, iPad, Android

October 2012


Nokia,,,,,, apple

 Projecting the future


last word

Western Ghats as a World Heritage Site has been long time coming, says Vivek Menon

“The world had miscalculated and only a few in the delegation were privy to the drama” he Sahyadris is one of the 10 ‘hottest of hot’ biodiversity sites of the world. It is one of the 25 hotspots globally and constitutes up to half of the planet’s biodiversity in just under one per cent of its land area. These are treasure chests, that to qualify as a hotspot need to harbour at least 1500 species of vascular plants that are endemic and should have lost at least 70 per cent of their primary vegetation, i.e. these are those natural jewels that have been polished by a lethal cocktail of endemism and endangerment. In Norman Myers’ words, they are one of “Earth’s biologically richest and most endangered terrestrial eco-regions.” In the above lines, lies my genetic and scientific rationale for firmly believing the Western Ghats to be a World Heritage Site. It was thus a privilege to serve as an advisor to the Indian Government in its delegation to the 36th session of the World Heritage Committee of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) at St. Petersburg, bringing to India the world heritage tag for the Ghats. I wish it were as easy as it sounds. To think that India had not proposed this magnificent mountain chain as a heritage site till a few years back is itself a historical oversight. To know that we had only 28 sites tagged as heritage on the list,

mark read, m ramith



October 2012

while Italy has 49 or China 43, was galling enough. But the hardest nut to swallow was the national and international opposition to the Ghats being listed on the world heritage list. Even before we landed in St. Petersburg, leading Indian dailies were carrying articles on the improbability of the Ghats making it to the list, quoting eminent scientists, conservationists and social workers while doing so. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had twice deemed India’s proposal too far reaching and ambitious which required more work. A spokesperson for indigenous people took the floor just before the motion was tabled, seeking that the proposal be rejected as his constituency was not consulted in the deliberations, or so he claimed. But the world had miscalculated and only a few of us in the delegation were privy

to the drama that ensued. To understand this, one must know something of the politics of heritage listings. Why did Karnataka, one of the four states that had some of the 39 sites that were being proposed in the combined listing, object vociferously instead of being happy to having a natural heritage site to match that of Hampi? Follow national dailies and it is no secret that the mining lobby of the state controls most of the agitations and much of the politics and they had obvious concerns about international recognition for their raw material backyard. Why are the locals up in arms against this? Or are they really? My only supposition is that they are, if at all they are, misguided by coteries who tell them that such listings will deprive them of their rights. But all the areas declared are national parks, sanctuaries and reserve forests, where rights have either been settled or if not, would be so under Indian law. The recently passed Forest Rights Act would doubly ensure that they would. Even if skeptics believe that Acts are pieces of paper only with no ground level implementation, some of which I can sympathise with, this condition would not change for better or worse with a World Heritage Site listing. Finally, why were natural history advisors, such as the IUCN against India pressing for inscription? Some suggest petty

box filling bureacracy, waiting for all the tick marks to appear while overlooking the urgency to list what they themselves have claimed as an acclaimed gap in world heritage sites, a place of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV). Others attribute even complicated sinister conspiracy theories. Some countries have used the ‘heritage’ tag for enhanced tourism revenues (Machu Pichu in Peru is a classic example), others for political reasons (the Palestinian proposal to list the birthplace of Jesus Christ which incidentally also got through). Sometimes, it is indeed helpful to have it in the list of World Heritage if, God forbid, the site is threatened by destruction (such as Timbuktoo in Mali that is today threatened by the Taliban) to garner world support and resources to protect it. So the only people to worry about a World Heritage listing are those that have interests in destroying it. What we make now of the 39 gems set in the necklace of Western Ghats is what the Indian polity will be remembered for. We must ensure the people living in and around the heritage, want it and treat it like a heritage and that their stake is assured. Vivek Menon is the founder and CEO of the Wildlife Trust of India and Director of International Fund for Animal Welfare. He is also a wildlife conservationist, author and photographer.

August 2012