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POLE ALONE The search for a north without a south

WEEKLY 16 August 2014



A new answer to the riddle of our ultimate origins


Deciphering the secret history of an ancient comet UNLIKELY GLADIATORS Video games jump from couch to stadium Y SIZE DOESN’T MATTER Big role for a tiny chromosome

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BLOOD INTO BRAIN Making neurons the crayfish way DAYDREAM BELIEVER The importance of not paying attention


Volume 223 No 2982

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News 6

UPFRONT Why Ebola is so lethal. Beijing’s plan to ban coal. Aid drops in Iraq. First woman to win “mathematics Nobel” 8 THIS WEEK Climate impact of Keystone oil pipeline. Heavy weather for early life. Blood transformed into brain cells. Last chance in war on drug-resistant malaria? Chile megaquake forecast 14 IN BRIEF Targeted clot-buster produces no unwanted bleeding. Silky brains. Neanderthals hunted pigeons. Tornadoes now come in gangs

8 Rosetta to test origin of oceans


Orbiting the comet was just a start – now we must unlock its secrets

Technology On the cover 10 Keystone knock-out? Pipeline analysis puts Obama on the spot 8 Rosetta’s stone Secret history of a comet 17 Unlikely gladiators From couch to stadium 42 Y size doesn’t matter The big tiny chromosome 34 Pole alone A north without a south

30 When Earth burst into life A new answer to the riddle of our ultimate origins

Cover image Aixsponza

17 Esports special Professional video gaming explodes. Boot camp for winners. Is doping an issue? Q&A with pro gamer “Grubby”. Live at the world’s biggest esports event. Speedrunning and Spelunky

Aperture 22 California’s wildfires create otherworldly view

Opinion 24 Hear no climate evil George Marshall on the real route to tackling climate change 25 One minute with… Manjul Bhargava How a moment of visual inspiration led to winning mathematics’ most prestigious prize 26 All too much Daniel Levitin knows how to fight increasing information overload 28 LETTERS Fat lot of good. Alzheimer’s drug




30 When Earth burst into life (see above left) 34 Pole alone The search for a north without a south 38 From toilet to tap (see left) 42 Y size doesn’t matter Big role for the tiny chromosome

Making waste water work for us


From toilet to tap

CultureLab 44 Down and very dirty The internet’s seedy side is just an extension of ourselves 45 Ordinary miracles Even if the evolution of life on Earth is not unique, it may be special


Coming next week… Race to the bottom Is humanity getting more stupid?


LEADER The answer to the puzzle of terrestrial life may not actually be on Earth 56 FEEDBACK Five-dimensional architecture 57 THE LAST WORD Upside-down moon 46 JOBS & CAREERS

Meet the lodgers Intriguing ecosystems in your home

16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 3



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Space is the place The answer to the riddle of life on Earth may lie elsewhere

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HOW did early Earth’s inert matter give rise to its teeming life today? That’s one of the biggest questions in science – and has long been one of the hardest to answer. We’ve known for 60 years that life’s most basic building blocks can form spontaneously, given the right conditions. But how did they assemble into complex organisms? Hard evidence to help us answer that question is lacking. There is plenty of soft evidence, though. Every cell alive today bears traces of “the last universal common ancestor” from which all terrestrial life descends. Thanks to huge advances in analytical tools, notably genome sequencing, we can now reconstruct LUCA in quite astonishing detail.

Knowing what LUCA was like helps us work out how it evolved. One approach is to look for ways of making its component parts. Another is to look for places they might have arisen and combined. Possible scenarios abound, but one that has been fleshed out over the past 15 years not only explains how under-sea hydrothermal vents might have spawned LUCA, but also why today’s life has some of the puzzling features it does (see page 30). Is it correct, though? Lab experiments might show that the vent scenario is feasible. But they can’t prove that it actually played out that way billions of years ago. Perhaps we will find that other scenarios are feasible, too.

Would that be an anticlimax? Not a bit of it: it would be thrilling. The more ways life can get started, the more places we may find it, or its ingredients – including places far beyond our own planet. We’ve started looking: one key aim of the Rosetta space probe, recently arrived at the far-flung comet 67P, is to obtain a “clean” sample of primordial soup (see page 8). Ultimately nothing would provide more insight than direct comparisons. So to address one big question, we may have to answer an even bigger one: is there life out there? Again, we’ve started looking for it, everywhere from Mars to exoplanets. It might take a while to find any. But to borrow a phrase – watch this space. ■

Rushing out the Ebola experiment IT SEEMS like a no-brainer. If people are deathly ill, give them any drug that shows the slightest sign of working – never mind if it has passed the usual tests. Such “compassionate use” has been the norm for years when it comes to experimental cancer drugs. But there are fewer precedents for the World Health Organization’s decision to use unproven drugs to tackle the

current Ebola outbreak, following bioethicists’ advice that this is justified if as much clinical data is gathered as possible. It was a tricky decision. Some cried foul when Western doctors were first to get the experimental drug ZMapp; now two Liberian medics will get it as well (see page 6). Conversely, the charge that Africans are being used as guinea pigs has already been rehearsed.

It must be said that Ebola, while horrific, was not a major health concern until recently. But we have long understood that forprofit businesses cannot fully test treatments for a sporadic disease. We should have prepared for this eventuality long ago, rather than scrambling to do so now. More novel, and more dangerous, diseases are out there. We must be better prepared next time. ■ 16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 5


UPFRONT First female Fields A WOMAN has won the maths world’s “Nobel prize” for the first time. Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford University received the Fields medal at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul, South Korea, on 13 August. The medal is awarded once every four years to at most four people. All previous 52 Fields medallists, dating back to 1936, have been male. Mirzakhani studies “moduli space”, an entity that might be described as a universe in which every point is itself a universe. Her work describes new ways to navigate these spaces. “This will lay to rest the oftenquoted fact that a woman has never won,” says Ingrid Daubechies, the president of the International Mathematics Union.

“This will lay to rest the often-quoted fact that a woman has never won the Fields medal”

State of emergency DEATHS in Africa from Ebola reached 1013 earlier this week, with 1848 cases reported. The World Health Organization, which had declared the outbreak a global health emergency, gave ethical clearance to treat patients with the untested drug ZMapp. With all the activity on the ground in Africa – not to mention the amount of media coverage – it was something of a surprise to find that the way Ebola actually kills has only just been discovered. US researchers published a paper on Wednesday outlining why Ebola is so lethal. In essence, the virus blocks what would usually be an instant response to infection, paralysing the body’s entire immune system. Gaya Amarasinghe of the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Missouri, and colleagues say

6 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014

the breakthrough could guide the development of new treatments. There are no vaccines and until recently ZMapp had only been tested in monkeys. Normally, the body responds to infections by fasttracking a message to white blood cells to mobilise genes and proteins. Amarasinghe’s team found that the Ebola virus produces a substance called VP24 which blocks the channel through which this message usually travels, paralysing the immune system (Cell Host & Microbe, DOI: 10.1016/j.chom.2014.07.008). Options for treatments are now urgently needed. Liberia this week received a small amount of ZMapp, a mixture of three monoclonal antibodies, but only enough to treat two people. The company that makes the drug, Mapp Biopharmaceutical in

San Diego, California, says only very limited supplies of ZMapp are available. So far it has been used on two infected US aid workers, who both showed signs of improvement. But on Tuesday it emerged that it had failed to save the life of a Spanish priest, Miguel Pajares, who was infected in Liberia. The WHO declares a Public Health Emergency of International Concern when an outbreak crosses borders and poses an unusual threat. It has made such a declaration only twice before: for swine flu in 2009 and the polio resurgence in Pakistan earlier this year. The Ebola declaration asserts that “a coordinated international response” is required to stop further spread, because of “weak health systems in the most at-risk countries”.

The other three winners are Artur Avila at Denis Diderot University, Paris, who studies how systems evolve when constrained by certain rules; Manjul Bhargava, a number theorist at Princeton University (see page 25); and Martin Hairer, who works on partial differential equations at the University of Warwick, UK.

Going up in smoke THE heat is well and truly on for coal. Despite rising demand in the last decade, the world could be approaching peak production of the black stuff after China’s capital Beijing decided to ban coal use in six central districts from 2020. China accounts for half the world’s coal burning. If the country backs away, the end of the world’s dirtiest fuel may be nigh. Beijing’s plan was announced last week. It is no pipe dream. The first of four big coal-fired power

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Fruity proof

stations, Gaojing, shut last month. The city plans to turn off the rest by the end of 2016. Four natural gas-fired plants are being built, along with pipelines to bring more gas to the city. The tide is turning against coal in China due to concern over smog. Coal use in China as a whole will probably drop after peaking in 2020, says energy researcher Nan Zhou of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. Peak coal in China could mean peak coal globally. A 2013 report by Citi Research in New York says the global coal boom could turn to bust if Chinese demand declines.

proof was so long that human reviewers couldn’t fully verify it. Now he has used computerised formal-proof assistants that build on a small kernel of logic to check logical statements to verify that his proof was correct. “This

WHAT is the best way to stack a collection of spheres? This age-old problem, known by fruit sellers everywhere, now has a computerverified proof. It could herald a new era of mathematics in which “This could herald an era machines check proofs, leaving in which machines check humans free for deeper thinking. proofs, leaving humans Johannes Kepler suggested in free for deeper thinking” 1611 that a pyramid was the most space-saving arrangement for stacking spheres, but couldn’t technology cuts the mathematical prove it. In 1998, Thomas Hales at referees out of the verification the University of Pittsburgh in process,” says Hales. “Their Pennsylvania used software to try opinions about the correctness to show Kepler was right, but his of the proof no longer matter.”

Grog shock

Life-saving tech dropped on Iraq


IF FINGER-WAGGING doesn’t put HELP is finally arriving for the Yazidi people of northern Iraq. Emergency you off drinking, maybe a photo supplies are being airdropped across of a diseased liver will, or of a the Sinjar mountains, where up to bulging beer belly. Putting 40,000 Yazidi are taking refuge after warnings on alcoholic drinks being driven from their homes. has been proposed by a group “Airdropping is the most expensive of British parliamentarians as part of a manifesto of 10 measures way to deliver resources, so it’s a last to reduce alcohol misuse in the UK. resort,” says Mike Goodhand, head of international logistics at the British “We’re really not in the stages Red Cross. of knowing what the labels would The first packages were dropped look like yet,” says Cara Barrett of from Royal Air Force aircraft on Alcohol Concern, the charity that Saturday night. The packages helped to launch the manifesto. included 1200 “Lifesaver cubes” – “At the moment it’s a call to water-filtration devices that remove display the nutritional content, viruses, parasites and bacteria. One including the calories and sugar, cube can filter a litre of water in as well as the alcohol units, so about 80 seconds, and can hold people are aware of what they 5 litres. Also in the dropped packages are consuming.” The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Misuse wants evidence-based health warnings on all alcohol labels, but whether they deter drinkers may depend on how grim they are. Research into tobacco warnings shows that the most gruesome images have a greater deterrent effect on smokers than written warnings. The manifesto states that liver disease in those under 30 has more than doubled over the past 20 years, and puts the annual cost of alcohol to the UK economy due to accidents and ill health at –Night-time aid airdrop– £21 billion.

were 240 solar lanterns. These combine a portable light source with a phone charger. A day in the sun provides enough power to use the light for about 15 hours and a phone for 2 hours. The US is providing food packages in the form of military pre-cooked meal rations and had also dropped more than 68,000 litres of water as New Scientist went to press. Emergency aid is only the beginning. So far 4000 Yazidi have crossed the Iraq border, according to the International Rescue Committee, which is providing assistance to refugees who reach Syria. “Those arriving are extremely dehydrated, and some have war wounds,” says Paul Donohoe of the IRC.

D for dementia A lack of vitamin D may put elderly people at increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, a study of 1658 US adults concludes (Neurology, The finding adds to a growing body of evidence for the multiple benefits of vitamin D, including lowering the risks of developing autoimmune diseases and cancer.

Pluto rocks The solar system’s most distant world has come dancing into view. New images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, due to fly past Pluto next year, show the dwarf planet and its largest moon, Charon. The moon’s gravity is strong enough that, as it orbits, it causes Pluto to visibly rock back and forth.

Chilled superfly The Antarctic midge, Antarctica’s only native insect, has the smallest genome of any insect sequenced to date: its DNA stretches for just 99 million base pairs. The minigenome may be the result of strong natural selection that has helped the midge survive in the harsh cold (Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/ncomms5611).

Google wire Google is funding the construction of a new underwater internet cable across the Pacific Ocean. The search giant, alongside five Asian telecoms firms, will invest $300 million in the cable, which will be a major link in the physical backbone of the net. Able to carry 60 terabits per second, it will begin piping data between the US and Japan in 2016.

Can’t keep this up Young male red deer with large harems age faster than those that don’t, a 40-year study has found. Maintaining a big harem takes a toll on males, ageing them, so in the end the females readily abandon them (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.0792).

16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 7


To touch and taste a comet The Rosetta probe is poised to test the origin of Earth’s oceans. Jacob Aron reports

“If Earth’s water came from comets, what we’ve got is a sample of frozen primordial soup” camera, based at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany. But what we can’t see will be just as revealing, as Rosetta increases its detailed observations of the comet’s molecular composition, internal structure and more. These details could tell us how Earth got its water. About 4.6 billion years ago, a cloud of dust and gas began clumping together to form the sun and planets of our solar system. Planets have churned and reprocessed that original material, but the unused bits became asteroids and comets, which are essentially pristine planetary building blocks. “If you want to know what was there to start with, you’ve got to go and study these things which were there at the time,” says Rosetta team member Ian Wright 8 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014

of the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK. “You cannot address that question by studying the Earth, because anything that went together to make the Earth has been mixed up.” Comets may have brought water and the carbon-based molecules necessary for life as they rained down on the early Earth’s molten surface. But other theories suggest the oceans formed in situ on Earth as the planet’s atmosphere evolved. Results from previous comet-fly-by missions – which have snapped photos and even grabbed particles from a comet’s tail – have proved inconclusive, but Rosetta’s extended stay and carefully chosen toolkit mean it is well placed to provide answers. As you read this, Rosetta will be training its array of instruments on 67P. One can grab dust ejected from the comet and place it under an on-board microscope to see what it’s made of. Others will eyeball the gas tail streaming from the comet, while yet more investigate its magnetic and electrical properties. But our closest look at 67P will come in November, when Rosetta’s Philae lander will physically dig into the comet’s history. Getting the washingmachine-sized lander to the surface will be tricky. From the moment Rosetta arrived on 6 August, ESA researchers have been gathering data to select a place to touch down. The comet’s bulbous shape and resulting strange gravity field rule out some areas, but a number of feasible landing spots have presented themselves (see illustration, right).


THE Rosetta spacecraft made history last week when it became the first to orbit a comet, but it has no time to rest on its laurels. It must now get to work on its main mission: unlocking the secrets of comet 67P/ChuryumovGerasimenko and its links with life on Earth. The European Space Agency (ESA) probe has already beamed back incredible pictures of a wildly alien landscape. “We’ve never seen a comet that close, that high-res – it’s an all-new world,” says Holger Sierks, the lead researcher for Rosetta’s main

Would-be asteroid-mining firms such as Planetary Resources of Redmond, Washington, have plans to extract water and valuable metals from space rocks, and so are watching Rosetta with interest. “Comets and asteroids have the same properties for rendezvous and exploration,” says company president Chris Lewicki. “This is potentially educational for asteroid miners.” Comets contain more water than asteroids and have

different solar orbits, but missions to both kinds of bodies face similar challenges. Technology like the Rosetta probe’s radio scanner and its lander’s harpoon (see main story) could aid bids to grab hold of asteroids and hunt for buried treasure, says Wlodek Kofman of IPAG in Grenoble, France, who is on the Rosetta team. “It’s really the first experiment of this kind,” he says. “If everything works, we will prove the technique.”

In this section ■ Heavy weather for early life, page 11 ■ Blood transformed into brain cells, page 12 ■ Professional video gaming explodes, page 17

Incoming data on the comet’s mass, density and surface will help ESA narrow the choice to as many as five possible zones, each 600 metres across. The smallest details will be considered: if one of the lander’s feet settles on a stone just 30 centimetres high, for example, it could tip over. “This is the difficult part, to find a sufficiently large area that is sufficiently flat,” says Jens Biele of the German space agency DLR, which built the lander.

Harpoon anchor

GREEN MARKS THE SPOT Comet 67P’s bulbous shape, which has been likened to a rubber duck, means only a few spots are suitable for landing. Those highlighted in green are probably safe places for a lander to touch down. The other colours mark where sunlight falls – blue for always dark, red for always light, and the rest in between.

On 11 November, Rosetta will dive from 30 kilometres above 67P’s surface to 10 kilometres, fast enough to ensure it will pass over the comet rather than crash should anything go wrong. At the right moment, Philae will be ejected backwards, allowing it to gently fall to the comet’s surface, which could take as long as 12 hours. At touchdown, the lander will deploy a harpoon to anchor itself. Philae will only be able to communicate with Earth at certain points during the descent. “It will be nervewracking,” says Biele. The forces Philae records as it touches down will tell researchers whether the surface is like fresh powdered snow, hard ice or something in between. It will then drill up to 23 centimetres into the comet to take samples, untouched since the solar system formed, and identify the molecules inside. “We will really touch and taste the comet,” says Biele. One instrument will measure water isotopes in the comet. If they match the isotopes on Earth, it will suggest that comets brought our planet’s water. “If it came from comets, what you’ve got is a sample of frozen primordial soup,” says Wright. Philae will also look at complex organic molecules thought to be precursors to life, particularly whether their form is the lefthanded or right-handed mirror image. Inorganic processes

STAY TUNED Mark your calendar for highlights of Rosetta’s mission at comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko 22-24 August European Space Agency will use data from Rosetta to choose up to five possible landing sites on the comet 13-14 September ESA will select a primary and backup landing site 11 November Rosetta’s lander craft, called Philae, will touch down on the comet and begin science operations, including drilling 18 November Philae may only survive a week on the surface, but could last up to three months 13 August 2015 ChuryumovGerasimenko makes its closest approach to the sun. Rosetta will watch from now until then as the icy comet heats up and becomes more active

produce both kinds of molecule in equal measure, but for some reason life on Earth is only lefthanded. It is possible that this handedness is produced by the interaction of ultraviolet radiation with icebound organic molecules in a vacuum. In other words, sunshine on comets in space produced a plethora of lefthanded molecules which could then have crashed into early Earth. “It would help to solve the enigma of why life took one side and not the other,” says Biele. Philae and Rosetta will work together to scan the comet’s interior using radio waves, to reveal whether it is solid or more of a rubble pile inside – a technique that could prove useful for future asteroid miners (see “Asteroid education”, left). “The team was so fortunate to pick such a great comet,” says Donald Brownlee of the University of Washington in Seattle, who led NASA’s Stardust mission to bring comet dust back to Earth. “This really looks like a Rosetta Stone that may tell us how comets work.” ■ 16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 9



–They’d love to pump out even more–

Keystone’s climate impact Hal Hodson

TRY not to faint from shock. The controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline will make climate change worse. Carbon dioxide emissions will rise by up to 110 million tonnes per year if it goes ahead, a finding that will step up the pressure on US president Barack Obama to stop the project. It is not much more CO2. “But it is a step in the wrong direction,” says Jerry Schnoor of the University of Iowa in Iowa City. The Canadian energy company TransCanada wants to build Keystone XL to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to Nebraska. There it would link to existing pipes to refineries on the US Gulf coast (see map, right).

“Obama said Keystone can be built only if it does not significantly exacerbate carbon pollution” Supporters argue the pipeline will boost the economy, while environmentalists say there could be spillages and that it will encourage the exploitation of tar sands oil, which emits more CO2 than regular oil. Barack Obama must decide whether to approve the project. In June last year, he said Keystone could be built only if it “does not significantly exacerbate the 10 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014

problem of carbon pollution”. Now it seems it will. Peter Erickson and Michael Lazarus of the Stockholm Environment Institute in Seattle, Washington, estimated to what extent building Keystone XL would affect oil prices. For every barrel of extra oil taken from tar sands as a result of the pipeline, world oil

consumption would rise by 0.6 barrels, as the added production would lower prices (Nature Climate Change, “The maths works out,” says Nico Bauer of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. Schnoor agrees. “Common sense holds that the Keystone XL pipeline will

A boost for tar sands The proposed Keystone XL pipeline will allow even more oil to be extracted from Canada's tar sands and pumped to refineries on the US Gulf coast

increase supply from the Alberta oil sands region,” he says. The bottleneck right now is in getting the oil to the refineries. “Canada has much more oil sands that could be brought into production if they had infrastructure.” The new study contradicts the official assessment by the US Department of State, published in January. The DoS said Alberta’s oil sands would be exploited, and their carbon released, whether or not Keystone is built. “Their sum conclusion is that Keystone doesn’t unlock the oil sands,” says Erickson. “They just wave their hands and say zero.” Last year the US Environmental Protection Agency slammed a draft of the DoS study. The new analysis supports the EPA’s criticisms. Erickson and Lazarus say the DoS failed to account for the effect of a flood of tar sands oil hitting the market through Keystone XL. Essentially, the DoS ignored the law of supply and demand. When Erickson and Lazarus took this into account, it turned out Keystone XL will emit four times more carbon than the DoS estimate. Obama is trying to cut US greenhouse gas emissions – for example, by clamping down on emissions from power stations. Erickson says rejecting Keystone offers easy emissions cuts, on a scale that can only be achieved elsewhere by retooling entire industries. “[It’s] a carbon-saving policy that the US has at its fingertips,” says Erickson. ■

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IT WAS a blitzkrieg with no let-up. Earth may have been pounded by massive asteroids for a billion years longer than we thought, with the impacts only stopping about 3 billion years ago. If that is true, early life had to endure a bombardment that periodically melted Earth’s surface. The planet formed 4.5 billion years ago, and chunks of rock many kilometres across continued falling onto it for hundreds of millions of years. It seemed there was a final burst of impacts around 3.9 billion years ago – and by 3.8 billion years ago it was all over. The first fossils of life are very slightly younger. That story is wrong, says Donald Lowe of Stanford University in California. The barrage continued far longer. “Its termination was not an abrupt drop-off but a gradual waning until 3 billion years ago,” he says. Lowe and his colleagues have spent 40 years studying a patch of ancient rocks in eastern South Africa called the Barberton Belt. Over 25 years ago they found four layers of spherical particles, which seemed to have condensed

from clouds of vaporised rock. Lowe says they are the traces of four major meteorite impacts, and date from between 3.5 and 3.2 billion years ago. Now Lowe’s team have described another four layers of spherules from the same period. That means there were eight major impacts within about 250 million years, bolstering the case that the bombardment was still going on (Geology, The moon also bears scars of major impacts up to 3 billion years ago, says William Bottke of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “This makes it unavoidable that the Earth was still getting hit by big things late in the game,” he says. The impacts were on a scale beyond anything that Earth has experienced since the dawn of complex animals. The asteroid believed to have finished off the dinosaurs left a layer of spherules a few millimetres thick. “Our layers are 30 to 40 centimetres,” says Lowe. That suggests the asteroids were at least 20 kilometres across and possibly more than 70. “They were big boys,” says Lowe.


Ancient life forms fed with fractal arms IS IT a tree? Is it a fern? No, it’s a rangeomorph, one of the first complex organisms to evolve. A new analysis of their fossils suggests that rangeomorphs’ strange bodies evolved to absorb as much food as possible from the surrounding water. Rangeomorphs ruled the oceans for around 40 million years, beginning 575 million years ago, in a period called the Ediacaran. Before them, life was microscopic. They grew on the


Seriously big rocks hit Earth’s early life

–The dinosaurs had it easy–

Each impact would have flung huge amounts of rock and gas into the air and blasted a crater 400 to 800 kilometres across. Lowe recently calculated that one such impact would have caused an earthquake that went on for many minutes and tsunamis that could have circled the entire planet. Such impacts would wipe out

most animals and plants if they happened today, but back then all life was single-celled. “We don’t know if this was apocalyptic for the microbes,” says Lowe. Those on the far side of the planet “would have to ride out some large waves” and a rain of hot rocks, but some would surely have survived. Michael Marshall ■

seabed, far too deep to harvest sunlight for photosynthesis. Up to 2 metres long, they had no organs, mouths, or means of moving, so they had to passively absorb nutrients from the surrounding water. “Geometrically, they were perfectly organised for doing that, creating the greatest possible surface area for absorption in whatever space they occupied,” says Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill of the University of Cambridge. With Simon Conway Morris, she studied how the anatomy of 11 types of rangeomorph evolved, using fossils to create computer replicas of each one. Hoyal Cuthill found three types. Some were tall and slender, like fir

trees, projecting fronds at regular intervals from a central stem. Others had longer fronds that stuck out more to the side, like deciduous trees. The last group were like sponges sprawled on the sea floor. Each rangeomorph body plan was a fractal, so it looked the same at big and small scales. That maximised their outer surface area, boosting food absorption. One sponge-like rangeomorph had a surface area of 58 square metres, about the same as the interior of a human lung (PNAS, Rangeomorphs died out when new life forms evolved that could move and hunt. Andy Coghlan ■

16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 11



Crayfish turn blood into brain cells Catherine Brahic

THINK crayfish and you probably think supper, perhaps with mayo on the side. You probably don’t think of their brains. Admittedly, crayfish aren’t known for their grey matter, but that might be about to change: they can grow new brain cells from blood. Humans can make new neurons, but only from specialised stem cells. Crayfish, meanwhile, can convert blood cells to neurons that then resupply their eyestalks and smell circuits. Although crayfish and humans are very different, the discovery may one day help us to regenerate our own brain cells. Olfactory nerves are continuously exposed to damage and so regenerate naturally in many animals, from flies to humans, and crustaceans too. It makes sense that crayfish have a way to replenish these nerves. To do so, they utilise what amounts to a “nursery” for baby 12 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014

neurons, a little clump at the base of the brain dubbed the niche. Without resupply, the niche’s stash of precursor neurons should gradually dry up, but that does not happen, suggesting the existence of an ongoing supply. In crayfish, blood cells are attracted to the niche. On any given day, there are a hundred or so cells in this area. Each cell will split into two daughter cells, precursors to full neurons, both of which migrate out of the niche. Those that are destined to be part of the olfactory system head to two clumps of nerves in the brain called clusters 9 and 10. It’s there that the final stage of producing new smell neurons is completed. Barbara Beltz of Wellesley College in Massachusetts knew from Petri dish experiments that crayfish blood cells – haemocytes – are attracted to the niche. To test what happens to the haemocytes, she used a chemical called astakine 1, which controls their production, to tweak the number

cell systems normally thought to be separate – cells that make blood and cells that make neurons – can cross over. How to regenerate neurons is a key question for those studying neurodegenerative conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease. Beltz points out that the precursor neurons in crayfish are similar to human stem cells with the exception that the human versions self-regenerate. In humans, after a stem cell splits in two, only one of the daughter cells migrates away and becomes a specialised cell, leaving one behind to produce more cells. “It is a very long way from crayfish to humans,” says Anthony Windebank of the –Love me for my brain, not my body– Mayo Clinic’s Regenerative Neurobiology Laboratory in that were coursing around live Rochester, Minnesota. “However, crayfish. This, she found, also we can learn a great deal from changed the number of cells in these simpler organisms.” the niche; and more haemocytes Transdifferentiation – getting there meant more baby neurons. cells of one type to turn into Beltz’s team then extracted another – is one of the big haemocytes from “donor” challenges for regenerative crayfish, labelled them with a medicine, says Charles ffrenchDNA dye and pumped them into Constant of the University of different “receptor” crayfish. Edinburgh, UK. We have long Three days after this transfusion, searched for examples of the label showed up in cells in the this happening naturally in vertebrates, but to no avail, “The mystery mechanism he says. It is possible to force could one day help us human skin cells to turn back devise new therapies to into embryonic stem cells in reprogram human cells” the lab, but this doesn’t seem to be something we are able to niche. Seven days later it was at achieve without intervention. the base of clusters 9 and 10. And What the new study appears seven weeks after transfusion to show is a remarkable case of the labelled cells were producing this happening in an invertebrate. neurotransmitters, the chemicals If its claims hold, and future that neurons use to communicate research reveals how crayfish with each other (Developmental blood cells are reprogrammed to Cell, become neurons, it could offer Exactly how the blood cells new therapeutic ways of doing are reprogrammed to become the same with human cells. brain cells is a mystery, but “This could be another example the mechanism could one day of nature finding a way of doing help us devise new therapies something that we have to do by to reprogram human cells, laboratory manipulations,” says says Beltz. ffrench-Constant. “If one could “The study is very thorough,” identify the mechanism, it might says Chris Mason of University point us in the direction of new, College London. It shows that two better therapies.” ■

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was to closely monitor them over several days of treatment, taking regular blood samples to see how fast the therapy cleared Plasmodium from their system. But White and his colleagues wondered whether a blood test that detects the presence of parasites with the kelch13 mutation in infected people could offer a less labour-intensive way to identify drug-resistant malaria. They examined 1240 people being treated for malaria in South-East Asia and Africa, and showed that the blood test can be used successfully: mutations in

Gene test aids war on drug-resistant malaria OUR old foe malaria is becoming resistant to artemisinin – the world’s most potent antimalarial drug. But it may not be too late to turn the tide. A large study has scoped out the extent of resistance in South-East Asia and shown that a blood test can quickly identify people with resistant malaria. That’s crucial information for any attempt to stop its spread, including an ambitious plan to blanket treat the entire population in the drugresistant heartland. “If you are planning to create a firewall around resistance, it is essential to know the edges,” says Nick White of Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand. Resistance to antimalarial drugs can emerge anywhere they are used, but curiously it has begun in one region a disproportionate number of times. That area is the Greater Mekong – encompassing forests in Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Bangladesh. Researchers suspected that here, the malaria parasite Plasmodium is somehow more easily able to develop the mutations that bring resistance, says Dominic Kwiatkowski of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

in Hinxton, UK. Last year a study linked artemisinin resistance in the region to mutations in a Plasmodium gene called kelch13, and unpublished research by Kwiatkowski supports the idea that Plasmodium there is more genetically susceptible to the kelch13 mutation. Until now, the only way to identify whether people with malaria carried a resistant strain

Chile is facing yet another megaquake

Hayes of the US Geological Survey in Golden, Colorado. “The issue now is communicating that,” he says, “as the tendency would be for people to think the quake has passed.” The risk zone stretches for 500 kilometres along much of Chile’s coastline, where the Nazca tectonic plate in the Pacific burrows eastwards beneath the South American plate. Strain has been building up since the last megaquake, a magnitude 8.8 in 1877. But Hayes’s analysis suggests the April quake did not release the tension along at least two-thirds of this part of the plate

A HUGE earthquake is predicted for Chile, after a major tremor earlier this year failed to relieve seismic stresses that have been building for 140 years. The magnitude 8.2 Iquique quake on 1 April killed six. Now two separate analyses say worse is to come. “Even though a very large quake has already happened this year, the hazard has not vanished,” says Gavin

Resistance strikes again Artemisinin, our most effective antimalarial, is losing its potency in South-East Asia. Testing the parasite for mutations in the kelch13 gene can quickly identify who has the resistant form - and hopefully help stop it spreading BANGLADESH



Shwe Kyin


Mae Sot





Preah Vihear




DRUG-RESISTANT MALARIA (kelch13 mutation present) Artemisinin therapy takes more than 5 hours to clear 50% of parasites from bloodstream


Binh Phuoc


NON-RESISTANT MALARIA Artemisinin therapy clears 50% of malaria parasites from bloodstream in 5 hours or less

DRUG-RESISTANT MALARIA (no kelch13 mutation)

boundary. The 200 kilometres south of Iquique is at most risk (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature13677). “Enough stress has been stored since 1877 to cause a quake of 8.5, so it means the hazard remains high,” says Hayes. It could be as large as magnitude 8.9, forecasts Bernd Schurr of the German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam, Germany (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature13681).

“Enough stress has been stored to cause a quake of magnitude 8.5, so the hazard remains high”

kelch13 were found in almost all cases of resistance (see diagram). The study also revealed some good news: even the most resistant Plasmodium was still susceptible to artemisinin – it just required a longer course of treatment (The New England Journal of Medicine, That gives hope for the plan of blanket therapy, says White, in which everyone in the region is given antimalarial drugs, whether they are sick or not. Last year his team began two trials involving several thousand people to test the idea, and they want to do more trials in Cambodia and deeper within Burma – although they have not yet received government approval. The blanket therapy approach is controversial, though, not just because of the vast expense. Mass drug administration across the region would be difficult to implement, says Pascal Ringwald of the World Health Organization. “It’s a huge area with millions of people.” If not done rigorously, mass treatment might actually drive resistance. Ringwald wants to see results from the first trials before more begin. But White thinks there is no time to waste. “We have a rapidly closing window of opportunity,” he says. “Few people have died from artemisinin resistance so far but when people do start dying it will be too late.” Clare Wilson ■

“We really don’t know how exactly that missing strain will ultimately be released,” says Emily Brodsky of the University of California, Santa Cruz. “It could be in smaller earthquakes, slow slip events, or in a much larger one.” Fortunately Chile has good systems for responding to earthquakes, says Sergio Barrientos of the University of Chile in Santiago, a co-author on both papers. It holds major evacuation drills involving thousands of people. In coastal regions, evacuation sirens warn of impending tsunamis, and alerts are sent to cellphones and through Twitter. Andy Coghlan ■ 16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 13


IN BRIEF Local clot-buster has less bleed risk

Little chance of a good night’s sleep in space DRIFTING in space is easy, but not so drifting off to sleep. Astronauts have been complaining of sleep deficiency since the beginning of human space flight, and managing sleep will become even more important as space agencies prepare for longer journeys. “Trying to sleep in space is a neat kind of disorientation,” says six-time NASA astronaut Story Musgrave. “There’s no clock, no day or night, no up or down.” In the most comprehensive astronaut sleep study to date, Laura Barger of Harvard Medical School in Boston and her colleagues monitored 64 astronauts over

a total of 4200 “nights” in space and 4000 on Earth, using diaries and wrist devices that record sleep. The average astronaut slept about 2 hours less than the 8.5 hours they are normally allotted. What’s more, sleep deficiency can build up in astronauts from as early as three months before lift-off, possibly as a result of rigorous training and preparations (The Lancet Neurology, More than 75 per cent of astronauts resort to sleep medication at some point to cope, but Barger warns that this strategy could backfire in an emergency. Future research will explore the use of short-wavelength light to boost alertness, behavioural changes and schedule modifications that might help astronauts get all the shuteye they need.

Lumpy little asteroids pose extra threat SMALL asteroids made of collections of rock could be extra dangerous. They are held together by very weak forces, so any attempt to push them off a collision course with Earth might make them crumble into multiple, equally dangerous chunks. Some asteroids are loose piles of rubble, rather than a single dense rock. Calculations suggest that gravity can only hold such asteroids together if they spin no faster than once every 14 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014

2.2 hours. But a few objects break this speed limit. Ben Rozitis at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and his colleagues think they have an explanation for these outlaws. The team studied the 1.1-kilometre-wide asteroid (29075) 1950 DA, which has a very low chance of hitting Earth in 2880. Past radar observations showed the asteroid is highly reflective, which suggested it was made of metal. But Rozitis and

colleagues found its density was much lower than expected, meaning it must be a rubble pile. Yet the asteroid spins once every 2.1 hours, and is too small for gravity to hold it together. Instead, the team says, static-like van der Waals forces help it stick. The force is also responsible for flour caking (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/ nature13632). Any plans to deflect an asteroid headed for Earth will need to take this into account, since a successful strike risks making matters worse.

A NEW drug treats blood clots without boosting bleeding risk. Clots form when blood platelets clump together. They are treated with blood-thinning drugs, but these must be given orally as they need to be metabolised by the liver to work. This means they disperse throughout the body, which risks triggering bleeding elsewhere. Douglas Moeckel at the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis has now developed a more targeted drug using an enzyme that regulates platelet aggregation. He altered its structure to make it more potent. Enzymes work immediately, so the drug can be injected near a blood clot for a localised effect. When tested on dogs with clots in their hearts, the altered enzyme reduced the clot size by 81 per cent without increasing the time it took for a wound on their lips to stop bleeding (Science Translational Medicine,

Pacific dead zone shrank for decades OCEAN “dead zones” are growing around the world, but a big one shrank for most of last century. Freak conditions may be at work, but it offers hope that parts of the ocean will remain breathable. Dead zones form when plankton die and get eaten by bacteria – a process that uses up much of the available oxygen. Most such zones are growing, partly due to global warming. But not the one in the eastern Pacific, says Curtis Deutsch at the University of Washington in Seattle. His team reconstructed changes in oxygen levels since 1850 using sediments that carry traces of past oxygen levels. They found that the Pacific dead zone has been shrinking for nearly all that time (Science,

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IT’S a real Transformer. A butterflyshaped piece of plastic folds itself up to become a four-legged robot – and then scuttles off using its own power source. A team led by Sam Felton and Robert Wood at Harvard University built the robot. They chose an origami shape that easily folds into a four-legged design, but instead of paper they used a sheet of shape-memory plastic – a material that returns to a preprogrammed shape when heated. They laid copper tracks along the origami folds, then fixed microcircuits – each including a motor and a battery unit – to either side of the machine. The robot begins to fold as the copper tracks heat up in a set sequence dictated by the microcontroller. The legs draw up first, and then the robot stands up. Once folding is complete, the motors engage with the gears, and the legs move. With the right programming, the robot can turn, too (Science, Wood says the whole manufacturing process could one day be done by the robot itself – making it truly self-assembling. “The underlying steps required to make the structure have been designed to be easily automated,” he says. Watch a video of it folding and walking at

Neanderthals caught and cooked pigeons NEANDERTHALS had the brains to catch and eat birds, a skill many had assumed was beyond them. Bones found in Gibraltar suggest Neanderthals hunted wild pigeons, possibly by climbing steep cliffs to reach their nests. “Neanderthals were seen as too brutish to catch fast prey,” says Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum. His team studied 1724 bones of rock doves, the wild ancestors of domestic pigeons, from Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar, a trove of Neanderthal relics. The bird bones were buried

between 28,000 and 67,000 years ago. Most date from a time when only Neanderthals lived in the area, before modern humans arrived around 40,000 years ago. Of the bones examined, 158 had burn marks, 28 had cut marks and 15 had human-like tooth marks. These marked bones were found in 58 per cent of the Neanderthal zones, as well as the only modern human zone. That suggests Neanderthals hunted and ate the doves for thousands of years (Scientific Reports, “This provides the first

evidence for sustained and significant use of birds for food by Neanderthals,” says Donald Grayson of the University of Washington in Seattle. “[It is] even more evidence that Neanderthal hunting and foraging abilities were on a par with those of modern humans.” Rock doves nest on high cliff ledges, so the Neanderthals might have climbed up to get them, says Finlayson. “I think they might have had snares or netting made from grasses, but we’ll never know as it’s all perishable.” DANIEL SHAW/DEMOTIX/CORBIS

Transformer robot moves via origami

Touch of silk helps us probe brain YUM, yum... not. Believe it or not, the latest tool to explore the brain is a silk doughnut. Researchers have several lifelike 3D models of the brain at their fingertips, but they mimic the brain’s dense and tangled structure so well that it is difficult to work out how individual cells are performing. David Kaplan at Tufts University in Massachusetts, who develops biomaterials made of silk proteins, wondered if his silk structures could provide a scaffold to build an easier-tostudy neural network. With his team, he fashioned a series of doughnut-shaped silk scaffolds that slot together concentrically to mimic the layered structure of the brain. They seeded these with rat neurons and dunked them in collagen to encourage the cells to grow. The neurons formed 3D networks that behaved a lot like a real brain, despite the structure and order imposed by the silk scaffold. “The scaffold makes it easier to probe different regions and functions in the tissue,” says Kaplan. The model is now being used to study traumatic brain injury (PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/ pnas.1324214111).

Tornadoes now arrive in gangs THEY are mimicking buses: you wait ages for a tornado and then lots come at once. US twisters are increasingly arriving in clusters, sometimes of more than 30 in a single day. Global warming could be to blame. A warmer world ought to influence tornadoes but numbers have held steady for decades. What’s changed is that they now seem to turn up in groups, says James Elsner of Florida State University in Tallahassee. Elsner studied records of major US tornadoes between 1954 and 2013. He found there have been fewer “tornado days” per year in recent

years, but just as many tornadoes. Before 1990 there were no days with 32 or more tornadoes. But every year since 2001 has had at least one such day, and in 2011 there were six (Climate Dynamics, “You’ll see fewer days in which you’re threatened by tornadoes, but when you are, the threat will be greater,” says Elsner. Harold Brooks of the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, presented similar data at a 2012 meeting. He found the number of tornado days per year has dipped from 150 to 100 over 30 years.

16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 15



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rapid rate of keyboard and mouse inputs. Some players carry out more than 300 such actions a minute, rising to 10 a second when up against it. Add in the need to think strategically and outwit your opponent by preempting their moves, and the top players start to look superhuman. What’s largely driving the esports boom is better videostreaming technology and faster internet connections, allowing fans to follow tournaments and their favourite players online. Streaming video of yourself playing at home is now an essential part of being a professional gamer, says Anthony “Nameless” Wheeler of Team –Putting other sports in the shade– EnVyUs, which took home $30,000 for winning the Call of Duty event at G3. “Live-streaming is our source of income,” says Wheeler. “Winning is important because of the prize money, but that’s prize money, not a salary. It’s like a bonus.” Professional video gaming has prizes, fans and superstars just like Watching your favourite player football or tennis, finds Douglas Heaven. And it’s only getting bigger talk you through their game is a unique attraction of esports, “GOOOAAAL!” The commentator of event organisers Gfinity. years and competitive gaming says Aiken. “If you had Usain Bolt almost flips over his seat, shouting Professional gaming has been will become a standard sport.” giving an analysis of his own race at the top of his lungs. The crowd big in countries like South Korea Pro video gamers are no less people would love that,” he says. in the stands picks up the cry. for more than a decade. When dedicated than mainstream Live-streaming has created a Thumping speakers fill the arena the national soccer team reached athletes, says Wyatt. To become new raft of celebrities, too. At G3, with bombastic music and the semi-finals of the 2002 the best golfer in the world you Aiken – known to his fans as spotlights sweep the floor and World Cup, top StarCraft players have to spend hour upon hour Ali-A – can’t walk more than a few walls. Just around the corner, were brought in to boost the on the driving range. “These guys steps without being swamped by the sound of machine-gun fire squad’s morale. do exactly the same,” he says. teenagers. At one point he stops fills the air. Now esports are exploding all “There’s no difference in skill level to sign an autograph and in less Welcome to G3, the biggest over the world. Last month, for between these guys and the very than a minute a queue forms that esports event ever staged in the example, thousands of gamers soon stretches around the arena. “Some pro players carry out UK. For two days earlier this descended on Las Vegas to Competitive gaming is 300 keyboard and mouse month, the Copper Box arena at compete in Evo 2014, an annual becoming easier to try for yourself. actions a minute, rising to the London Olympic Park ditched tournament for fighting games In June, Gfinity launched a new 10 a second in a crisis” basketball and badminton for like Street Fighter and Tekken. website,, for people video games. World champions A week later, a team at an event to do just that. It functions like a at football simulator FIFA 14, in Seattle bagged $5 million for best sportspeople in the world.” social network for gamers, staging lightning-quick strategy game triumphing in the fantasyStarCraft is a case in point. online competitions daily and StarCraft 2, and first-person themed battle game, Defense As in chess, the object of the game awarding £30,000 in prize money shooters Call of Duty and of the Ancients 2 (see page 20). is to defeat your opponent’s army. each month. “We provide a route Counterstrike battled it out for a Video games are no longer just Unlike chess, however, StarCraft into professional gaming if that’s share of the $140,000 prize pot. a huge entertainment industry: doesn’t involve players taking what you want,” says Wyatt. Four thousand fans filled the the top players are superstars. If turns, and requires more complex The company also aims to run arena itself while more than you go to a school and ask the kids resource management in that large-scale gaming tournaments 8.5 million watched live online. if they know this or that player, you must continually generate in sporting arenas every couple of Competition is fierce. says esports pundit and YouTube the pieces at your disposal as you months. “If it continues growing “You’re talking about elite-level broadcaster Alastair Aiken, all of play. To do as well as the pros, you at the same rate, events like G3 performance,” says Martin Wyatt them would. “Give it five or 10 must also achieve an extremely will be the norm,” says Wyatt. ■

Rise and rise of esports

16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 17

TECHNOLOGY ESPORTS on concentration levels and reaction times – crucial attributes for gaming success. Gym over, the team spars for 2 hours with other pro gamers around the world, before breaking To be the best, you have to train. And that means moving in together for lunch. Then they spend another 2 hours watching videos of rival teams, gleaning whatever everything,” says Michael O’Dell, when you have a manager and Simon Parkin intelligence they can that might Team Dignitas’s managing an analyst looking over your THIS year’s world championship give themselves an edge in director. “When my teams shoulder – nobody’s mucking final for the hugely popular game practise remotely over the competition. around. They’re fully focused.” League of Legends takes place in After dinner, most of the team internet I don’t know what’s going Dignitas follows a strict regime. October at the Sangam Stadium, plays League of Legends well into on in the background. Are they Each morning the team heads the cavernous venue in Seoul, the night. Mondays are a day of concentrating properly? Is the together to the gym. Gaming is South Korea, that hosted the rest, although O’Dell says that television on? But when you’re inherently sedentary, but O’Dell 2002 World Cup final. The prize in a gaming house – especially believes that fitness has an impact they’ll often spend at least some pot will total millions of dollars, of the day gaming “for fun”. and the tens of thousands of Team Dignitas has around spectators will be joined by 60 members and competes in nine millions more online. video games. More than half the Money changes sport, even members draw a salary, derived virtual sport. As prize money from tournament winnings, has grown, so too has gamers’ sponsorship and advertising professionalism and dedication. revenue from Twitch.TV, a website One such group of five young men that streams live matches. Top has just moved into a millionplayers can earn up to $200,000 dollar mansion near Long Beach, a year, although the average is California. Here, Team Dignitas around $60,000, O’Dell estimates. will live and train together in the With so much at stake, O’Dell hope of becoming the 2014 League has hired a life coach for the of Legends world champions. players. “They’re able to open The so-called gaming house is up to him about their problems, a relatively recent phenomenon, both personal and professional,” but there are hundreds of these he says. “Last week he took them esports boot camps around the to the beach and they built world, where young teams live sandcastles together as a teamtogether to learn more about building exercise. It has to be their chosen game and one other. like a family, a team, otherwise –Taking one for the team?– it doesn’t work at all.” ■ “Living together changes

Boot camps build winners

Doping in esports rampant, industry insider claims WITH millions of dollars at stake and thousands of fans watching your every move, the pressure to perform as an esports player can be huge. And so can the temptation to dope. On 4 August, Bjoern Franzen – a consultant and marketer formerly with one of the world’s largest esports companies – publicly declared that doping in esports is rampant. In a big blog post, Franzen wrote that gaming 18 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014

firms are turning a blind eye to the substance use right under their noses. “I have seen players pop a pill even an hour before important games either to calm them down or push themselves,” he told New Scientist. Some prominent esports leagues have already banned such substances. Nonetheless, Franzen says he’s seen players take a host of drugs, including Ritalin, which improves focus, and the beta-blocker propranolol, which blocks the effects of adrenaline to help players stay calm under pressure. However, Alexander Müller, managing director at German esports giant SK Gaming, says the company

strictly forbids any doping, and has never had to deal with it among their players. “We establish close to very close relationships with our players,” he told New Scientist in an email. “Drugs have never been a factor in our history with players whatsoever.” Many pseudonymous comments on indicate neuro-enhanced gaming is for real. For example: “I know a few friends that made huge climbs from snorting ritalin between games.

“I’ve seen players pop a pill an hour before important games, either to calm them down or push themselves”

Since then, I’ve always wondered if doping posed an issue to esport organizers,” wrote user Tooky17. “The real danger here is the temptation to escalate,” says Brendon Boot, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Players may end up on ever higher doses, using the drugs in risky ways such as snorting or injecting them, or mixing them. “For example, taking selegiline with an antidepressant can lead to something called serotonin syndrome: headache, confusion, muscle spasms, hyperthermia, tremors and sometimes death,” says Boot. “These guys are playing with fire.” Hal Hodson ■

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2.4 billion

Guy’s got game

Hours of esports video watched last year, as millions around the world watched live streams. That figure is expected to reach 6.6 billion by 2018, according to market research firm IHS Technology

Manuel Schenkhuizen talks about earning a living from esports and being watched constantly by fans online

PROFILE Manuel “Grubby” Schenkhuizen, 28, of the Netherlands, is a pro gamer who has been in three world-class teams. His game of choice: StarCraft 2. Freelance since 2011, he used to compete alongside his wife for the team Evil Geniuses

How did you get into pro gaming? It’s like these Idol shows. I didn’t think I could ever be the best at anything. But people said I was pretty good and that I should try a competition. I won. And I won the next one and the next and the next. After I’d won some tournaments I was picked up by a well-known team and given a small salary. It wasn’t much but I was still living at home at the time and I didn’t have to get another job. How often do you compete? Several times a week online for sponsor money or for a qualifier. Once or twice a month I’ll travel to a competition somewhere around the world. Has the growth of esports turned what you do into a proper career, like playing soccer? I don’t really think soccer is a valid career choice, in that I don’t think you choose to be a professional. In both cases, when you’re really good and really lucky and the infrastructure is there, it sort of chooses you. Now, though, thanks to live-streaming of our games, the options for a professional gaming career are much broader.

15,000 Seats in the world’s first dedicated esports stadium, due to open in 2017 in Hengqin, China

Do you practise every day, like a musician? And is it common to have a coach? Yes, it’s just like that. I play between 4 and 9 hours a day. A lot of people could benefit from a coach, but I don’t think esports is big enough yet. We do the best we can, by ourselves, with the people we care about and who care about us – it can be our partner, a teammate, friends. That’s what I’ve experienced the last 10 or 11 years. Do you stream your practice sessions, too? Sometimes. But streaming isn’t great for practice: we’re entertainers when streaming, not just playing with a webcam. To make it a good show, we keep it high-paced, which makes it hard to learn from mistakes. You don’t have time to reflect on a loss. You have to talk to the viewers, explain what just happened. And they’ll have their ideas about it too. Sometimes the best thing to do after a game is to take a half-hour break or watch the replay very slowly, but that’s boring for the viewer. Do you have rivalries? Not really. But there are people I like to beat. When you meet the same people a lot it starts to become this thing in your head; you remember all the history. Is it fair to compare strategy games like StarCraft to chess, as people sometimes do? As a professional player, it would be short-sighted to say StarCraft is more difficult than chess. But I can say it’s more complicated. There are so many permutations, they’re infinite. You couldn’t explain all the rules in 10 hours. Chess gets really tough at a high level, but its rules are simple. And in StarCraft you also have to be fast. Interview by Douglas Heaven

1972 Year of the first known video game contest. On 19 October Stanford University hosted students fighting it out in Spacewar. The prize? A year’s subscription to Rolling Stone



Is streaming an essential part of being a pro gamer? It is. It’s also very fun. You get used to online feedback from the crowds, so playing by yourself with no one watching can get a little dull. I wouldn’t have it any other way any more. You just need to find a good balance between streaming and practising.

$1.1million Earnings since 2011 of Chen Zhihao of the Chinese team Newbee (pictured, second from right), which plays DOTA 2. He became the highestpaid esports player when his team shared a $5million prize at The International contest this year (see “Fire jets and glitterbombs” page 20).

16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 19


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Can you speedrun your way through Spelunky? BIG names like Dota 2 and Call of Duty aren’t the only games that have attained esports status. Other games might be played for much smaller SUZI PRATT/FILMMAGIC/GETTY IMAGES

prizes, but they’re still lots of fun. DIVING DEEP In Spelunky (pictured), you navigate a series of randomly generated caves bristling with traps and creatures. The Spelunky Daily Challenge gives every player one chance to complete –Let the games begin– a newly generated cave, the winner being the top scorer at the day’s end.

Mark Harris gets lost amid the glitz and glamour of live esports I AM sitting high in the stands at Seattle’s KeyArena, elbow to elbow with excited sports fans. The buzz from the sell-out crowd rises as TV announcers clear their throats and a bank of cameras focus on the field of play. Suddenly, the stage lights up with spotlights and jets of flame. Cheesy rock music blares as the teams come on. Battle is about to commence. This is American professional sports at its loudest and glitziest. But the last NBA basketball game played here was in 2008. This is The International, the world’s biggest annual knock-out championships for Defense of the Ancients 2 (Dota 2 ), a fantasy-themed multiplayer online game that boasts a

heady mix of strategy, teamwork and violence. Dozens of five-player teams from around the world have fought their way through preliminary rounds to reach the finals. Now just two remain: ViCi Gaming and Newbee. Over the next few hours, the combatants will attempt to reduce their opponents to a collection of blood-spattered pixels. All 10 are young, studious-looking Chinese men, reflecting the dominance that Asian teams now exert in competitive gaming. Although heroes to legions of online followers, they have none of the exuberant self-confidence of traditional sports stars. At a pre-match press conference, they nibble

WHERE CAN I WATCH ESPORTS? Ready to get into esports but don’t know where to start? Try logging on to, the top site to watch video games. Twitch pulls in around 45 million viewers every month who watch celebrity gamers playing live. Or, if you’re looking to meet other fans, grab a drink at a dedicated esports bar. Meltdown, the UK’s first, opened in London in June and also

20 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014

has sites in Paris and Berlin. They offer live streams and open play every night. In the US, some bars host dedicated game nights, with big-screen showings of the latest battles. Ones which show Starcraft, the popular multiplayer game, are called “BarCraft” nights, while “BarFights” show Streetfighter II contests. Aviva Rutkin

fingernails, stare at phones and mumble answers to the questions. Even up on stage in matching tracksuits, they strike me as more high-school chess team than potential multimillionaires. There is no airpunching or trash talk, just the air of professionals getting down to business. If the event conveys mass-market aspirations, Dota 2 itself remains fearsomely exclusive. The vicious digital smackdowns look impressive, but the strategic subtleties fly way over my head. Nevertheless, the games flash by and 3 hours later, Newbee blasts to victory over ViCi. The final keystrokes are followed by bursts of fireworks, glitter bombs and a standing ovation from delighted fans around me. After the match, and mobbed by fans, Newbee captain Zhang Ning (aka “Xiao8”) tells reporters: “The game is like a dream and we just woke up.” A week later, the 24-year-old player reveals he has been suffering from stress-induced digestive complaints and announces his retirement from pro gaming. “My doctor advised me to rest. I discovered that health is the most important thing.” Esports may be a young phenomenon but money and fame are helping it grow up fast. ■

Championship Series in Las Vegas, a three-day tournament with prize pots of around $10,000. RACE TO THE FINISH Speedrunning – trying to complete a game or part of one as quickly as possible – turns any game into an esport, and an exceptional run can be posted to YouTube to ensure bragging rights. Ordinary players could take days to finish games like Super Mario 64, but speedrunners can do them in under an hour. Jacob Aron ■


Fire jets and glitter bombs

Players can record their attempts and upload them to YouTube. FIGHT TO THE DEATH Beat-em-ups are the original esports. Games like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Super Smash Bros involve quick reflexes, extensive memorisation and the ability to psych out your opponent. The genre is celebrated at the annual Evolution










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00 August Month 2014 2014 22 | NewScientist | 16

California burning IT WAS raining fire and brimstone at Yosemite National Park, California. This long-exposure photograph taken in July on the park’s western border offers an ethereal, otherworldly view of the massive El Portal forest fire. Named after the gateway to the park, the fire, now under control, at one stage covered around 14 square kilometres and cut off several access points to the park. Summer is always fire season in the western states, but this year the battle against the blaze was exacerbated by three years of drought and the hottest summer on record. Between 14 and 24 July, the National Park Service reported more than 3000 lightning strikes and so far this year, fire crews have had to fight more than 30,000 minor fires across several states, in an area of over 4000 square kilometres. Californian firefighters are highly experienced, but this firestorm is like nothing they have seen. Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told The Washington Post, “The vegetation is so dry, it’s generating so much heat that it’s creating extraordinary conditions.” Fire plays an important part in the sequoia ecosystem, helping the giant trees grow and disperse, but sometimes it’s too hot even for them. The temperatures generated by some of this year’s fires have been so high that sand on river banks reportedly turned to glass.

Anna Williams

Photographer Stuart Palley epa/Corbis

16 00August Month 2014 | NewScientist | 23


Hear no climate evil We’ll never tackle climate change unless we take into account how humans assimilate unwelcome information, says George Marshall DANIEL KAHNEMAN is not hopeful. “I am very sorry,” he told me, “but I am deeply pessimistic. I really see no path to success on climate change.” Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel prize in economics for his research on the psychological biases that distort rational decision- making. One of these is “loss aversion”, which means that people are far more sensitive to losses than gains. He regards climate change as a perfect trigger: a distant problem that requires sacrifices now to avoid uncertain losses far in the future. This combination is exceptionally hard for us to accept, he told me. Kahneman’s views are widely shared by cognitive psychologists. As Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University says: “A psychologist could barely dream up a better scenario for paralysis.” People from other disciplines also seem to view climate change as a “perfect” problem. Nicholas Stern, author of the influential Stern Review on the economics of climate change, describes it as the “perfect market failure”. Philosopher Stephen Gardiner of the University of Washington in Seattle says it is a “perfect moral storm”. Everyone, it seems, shapes climate change in their own image. Which points to the real problem: climate change is exceptionally amorphous. It provides us with no defining qualities that would give it a clear identity: no deadlines, no geographic location, no single cause or solution and, critically, no obvious enemy. Our brains 24 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014

scan it for the usual cues that predictions set two generations we use to process and evaluate in the future and endless talk of information about the world, but uncertainty. The latest report find none. And so we impose our from the Intergovernmental own. This is a perilous situation, Panel on Climate Change uses leaving climate change wide open the word “uncertain” more than to another of Kahneman’s biases – once per page. an “assimilation bias” that bends Discussions about economics, information to fit people’s meanwhile, invariably turn existing values and prejudices. into self defeating cost-benefit So is climate change really analyses. Stern offers a choice innately challenging, or does it between spending 1 per cent of just seem so because of the stories annual income now, or risking we have shaped around it? For losing 20 per cent of it in 50 years’ example, the overwhelming time. This language is almost and possibly hopeless struggle portrayed by the media and many “Is it any surprise that policy-makers are tempted campaigners provokes feelings to postpone action and of powerlessness. Scientists reinforce distance with computer gamble on the future?”

identical to that Kahneman used two decades earlier in his experiments on loss aversion. Is it surprising that when a choice is framed like this, policy-makers are intuitively drawn towards postponing action and taking a gamble on the future? If cost and uncertainty really are universal psychological barriers, it is hard to explain why 15 per cent of people fully accept the threat and are willing to make personal sacrifices to avert it. Most of the people in this group are left wing or environmentalists and have managed to turn climate change into a narrative that fits with their existing criticisms of industry and growth. Conservatives may justify climate inaction on the grounds of cost and uncertainty but they, too, are able to accept both as long as they speak to their core values. As former US vice-president and climate sceptic Dick Cheney said: “If there is only a 1 per cent chance of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, we must act as if it is a certainty.” Strongly held values can explain the convictions of those at the ends of the political spectrum, but they do not adequately explain the apparent indifference of the large majority in between. If asked, most agree that climate change is a serious threat, but without prompting they do not volunteer it. This silence is similar to that found around human rights abuses, argued the late Stanley Cohen, a sociologist at the London School of Economics. He suggested that we know very

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George Marshall is the author of Don’t Even Think About It: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change, which is published in August in the US, September in Australia and October in the UK (Bloomsbury). He is the founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network in Oxford, UK


Insight from a Rubik’s cube Manjul Bhargava explains how a moment of visual inspiration led to him winning mathematics’ most prestigious prize coming out, three of them. I just sat down and wrote out the relations between them. It was a great day! Have any of your other discoveries had unusual origins? I do tend to think about things very visually, and the Rubik’s cube is a concrete example of that visual approach. But that one is probably the most unusual and unexpected origin of all. You have proved several theorems. Do you have a favourite? Mathematicians often say that choosing a favourite theorem is like choosing one’s favourite child. Although I don’t yet have any children, I understand the sentiment. I enjoyed working on all the theorems I have proved.

PROFILE Manjul Bhargava has just won a Fields medal for his work on number theory. Now 40, he was one of the youngest people to be made a full professor at Princeton University, aged 28. He has extended the work of classical mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss

Does the Fields medal mean more to you than any other award you have won? Any award is a milestone, which encourages one to go further. I don’t know that I think of any award as meaning more to me personally than any other. The mathematics that led to the medal was far more exciting to me than the medal itself. The award citation says that you were inspired to extend Gauss’s law of composition in an unusual way. Can you explain what that is, and what you did? Gauss’s law says that you can compose two quadratic forms, which you can think of as a square of numbers, to get a third square. I was in California in the summer of 1998, and I had a 2 x 2 x 2 mini Rubik’s cube in my dorm room. I was just visualising putting numbers on each of the corners, and I saw these binary quadratic forms

Are there any mathematicians, living or dead, that you have particularly looked up to? My mother [Mira Bhargava, a mathematician at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York] has been a source of inspiration to me from the very beginning. She was always there to answer my questions, to encourage and support me, and she taught me how much the human mind is capable of. This year a woman, Maryam Mirzakhani at Stanford University, has finally won one of the Fields medals, after 52 consecutive male winners. How do you view this achievement? This is long overdue! Hopefully in a few years we will not even need to discuss this, as more and more females receive the award. I am honoured to be a recipient in the same year as Maryam. It has been a pleasure to know her – we overlapped for a year early in our careers at Harvard, and later at Princeton. Her work is absolutely fantastic. I hope the media will not speak of her only as a top-rate female mathematician, but also as a top-rate mathematician who is doing truly groundbreaking work. Interview by Dana Mackenzie

16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 25


well what is happening but “enter into unwritten agreements about what can be publicly remembered and acknowledged”. Our response to climate change is uncannily similar to an even more universal disavowal: unwillingness to face our own mortality, says neuroscientist Janis Dickinson of Cornell University in New York. She argues that overt images of death and decay along with the deeper implications of societal decline and collapse are powerful triggers for denial of mortality. There is a great deal of research showing that people respond to reminders of death with aggressive assertion of their own group identity. Dickinson argues that political polarisation and angry denial found around climate change is consistent with this “terror management theory”. Again, there is a complex relationship between our psychology and the narratives that we construct to make sense of climate change. For all of these reasons, it is a mistake to assume that the scientific evidence of climate change will flow directly into action – or, conversely, that climate denial can be dismissed as mere misinformation. The systems that govern our attitudes are just as complex as those that govern energy and carbon, and just as subject to feedbacks that exaggerate small differences between people. The problem itself is far from perfect and the situation is not hopeless, but dealing with it will require a more sophisticated analysis of human cognition and the role of socially shared values in building conviction. ■


It’s all too much! The amount of information we have to negotiate daily can be overwhelming. But there are ways of fighting overload, as neuroscientist Daniel Levitin tells Tiffany O’Callaghan

Are we really living in the age of too much information, or do all generations feel like this?

Good question. It seems like human nature to feel as though what’s happening now is unique. But there has been a measurable shift: in 2011, Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986. During our leisure time alone, we now process on average 100,000 words each day. At some point we are going to exceed our capacity to deal with everything. Maybe we already have. Look at some of the great recent disasters, such as the Exxon Valdez spill. These were caused by people who were overtasked, overworked, sleep deprived and at the limits of their attentional capacity. Is overload inevitable, then?

Information overload occurs when information comes in faster than we can process it. There isn’t a threshold – that’s the wrong way to look at it. Attention is a limited resource. It’s the amount of information compared with what we’re able to deal with at a given time. That changes across lifespan, from person to person, hour to hour. I can deal with more information right now than I can when I am trying to parallel park a car in heavy traffic with two kids in the back. So the idea of “paying attention” is apt?

Each time we shift attention, there is a metabolic cost we pay in glucose. We don’t actually do two, or three or 10 things at once, we just switch from one to another to another. Some brain activities are more expensive than others, and switching attention is among the most expensive. That’s why air traffic controllers have breaks, when they’re not allowed to be on call. Their job is like juggling chainsaws. Or people whose job requires 26 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014

updating social media, perhaps a more common example, have to do a lot of attention switching and decision-making – do I respond to this or let it go? These are the most exhausting things you do. How can we better use our attention?

One way we cope with information overload is by creating systems to organise information. And some of the best tricks are also the oldest. Written language is remarkable: it lets us offload stuff from our brains and put it out there in the world. It also stops us wasting neural resources by getting stuck in a “rehearsal loop”: thinking over and over, “Don’t forget to buy milk”. So the biggest way is simply writing things down or putting them in calendars. Then there’s using the environment – key hooks for keys or leaving things you want to take with you by the door. Surely organisational skills have limits? Even the most organised people have junk drawers.

Far from representing a failure, I think junk drawers are a triumph of organisation. Often we’re busy and have some little thing in our hand and don’t want to stop and think hard about where to put it, so we make a decision that’s good enough for now. We reach a point of frustration, all in the space of 5 seconds, and it goes in the junk drawer. That’s cognitive economy. You’re not wasting valuable resources on decisions that don’t matter. How do we focus on decisions that do matter?

The first thing is to recognise the problem. You have to accept that there are only so many you can make before you become exhausted and unfortunately, trivial decisions don’t take up fewer neural resources than important ones. Take stock of your life, the decisions you need

PROFILE Daniel Levitin is dean of arts and humanities at Minerva Schools at KGI, San Francisco, and professor of psychology, computer science and behavioural neuroscience at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. His new book is The Organized Mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload (Dutton/ Penguin Random House)

Daniel Levitin: shifting the focus of our thoughts takes a metabolic toll

to make, and then prioritise them. For the important decisions, figure out if you can make them now or if you need more information. Say we need to decide about putting Aunt Rose in a nursing home. What information do we need? What are the homes like? Does she need a cognitive assessment? Who does that? How do I find them? Is constant access to information changing how we manage our time?

There is more information now than ever, but we’re also asked to do more. The expectations of bosses, co-workers, friends and family are

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Photographed for New Scientist by Mark Richards

executive network, and it’s the one that keeps you engaged in a task. The other is a task negative network, or daydreaming mode. It’s the default state of the brain, when thoughts are loosely connected and you are not controlling what you are paying attention to. When one network is active, the other is not. How do we switch between modes?

Based on fMRI experiments, my colleague Vinod Menon and I tracked brain activity in situations in which we knew people’s attention would likely shift between modes. For instance, they listened to music, which has been shown to trigger daydreaming. When there was a dramatic change in the music, we saw heightened activity in a part of the insula known to be the hub of a network dedicated to things we find salient or relevant. This signalled a shift from daydreaming to the central executive mode.

“During leisure time alone we now process on average 100,000 words each day” How important is daydreaming?

Daydreaming mode is restorative, and we are often able to form connections between things that weren’t obvious before. That has been the source of many great insights. And being organised actually creates the space to daydream?

greater. And the companies we buy services from are offloading on us. Bagging your own groceries, pumping your gas, making airline reservations, checking yourself in: that’s shadow work we’re not getting paid for, nor are we necessarily seeing discounts. These are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of things that we didn’t have to do before. And again, they use up attentional capacity.

items at a time. More recently, Nelson Cowan at the University of Missouri established that it’s probably only about four. If you walk through your door with the groceries, keys, coat to hang up, the mail in your hand and then the phone rings – there’s five right there. You answer the phone and set the keys down absent-mindedly, and because you’re not focused it never gets encoded in your brain where you put them down or when.

How many things can we pay attention to?

In a famous paper in 1956, psychologist George Miller concluded that you can only pay attention to “7 ± 2”, so between five and nine

What does the brain do when we pay attention?

There are two networks in the attention system. One is a task positive or central

That’s a great way to put it. People who get stressed out are the ones who are always in executive mode. The problems you already know how to solve, you can solve with the central executive. The problems you don’t know how to solve are often solved with daydreaming. If you can clear your mind by externalising things, making lists or plans to deal with issues that come up, then that reduces the chatter in your head and allows serendipitous connections to fill that space. Can we make ourselves daydream?

You can induce it – by listening to music or putting yourself in a relaxing situation. Daniel Kahneman (see page 24) won a Nobel prize for work in behavioural economics with my former adviser, Amos Tversky. They used to take long walks when they were writing their papers. And we now know that engaging with nature is one thing that can encourage the daydreaming mode. ■ 16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 27

OPINION LETTERS Fat lot of good From Paul Gray I read Jon White’s story on the dietary role of fat with a mixture of despair and amusement (2 August, p 32). In the 1980s, I spent 10 years of my career at the European Commission in charge of food, refocusing legislation on safety and consumer information – such as nutrition labelling – only later to see the obesity epidemic inflate both waistlines and healthcare expenditure. Hence the despair. Even with simplified presentations such as traffic light labelling – with green indicating that a food contains healthy levels of a nutrient, red the opposite – we should not have expected a public indoctrinated with simplistic concepts, such as the idea that “natural” must be “good”, to eat more sensibly. It is hard enough to scientifically tease out the effect of specific nutrients on health from the complexities of food epidemiology and the variability of human beings, but it is much harder still to use what we know to persuade consumers to improve their health. Perhaps the doctrine of Paracelsus that underlies all food toxicology, “only the dose makes the poison”, should be applied to nutrition. But how to persuade the consumer to take the right dose? Until we have figured it out, is more nutrition research really worthwhile? Alcester, Warwickshire, UK From Paul Tavener Research into the effects of dietary fat on disease has suffered from 40 years of distortion and misinterpretation. The establishment of an early consensus on very flimsy evidence, driven by very forceful personalities, has proved disastrous. Take one example, the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial (MRFIT), which involved over 28 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014

12,000 middle-aged American men with high cholesterol. Half received treatment for hypertension, intensive counselling to quit smoking, and advice on changing their diet to lower cholesterol. The other half were told to address their health problems however they desired. After seven years, the trial reported that mortality rates between the two groups were not significantly different. The MRFIT results should have acted as a wake-up call, but because they did not fit with the by-then-established dogma, they were explained away by various means and quietly forgotten. The history of research in this area is littered with poor science, muddled thinking and confusion, which is still with us today. Waterlooville, Hampshire, UK

Too charming to die From Jonathan Wallace Tim Vernimmen raises some important questions about how we should allocate conservation resources and which species we should save (19 July, p 38). The broad thrust of his article is that we could focus on the ecosystems or species with the greatest phylogenetic diversity – put simply, those that are most genetically and behaviourally distinct. I agree this is very important, but other factors should not be ignored. Keystone species such as the sea otter may not qualify in terms

of phylogenetic distinction but their significant ecological influence must make them important targets for conservation action. Likewise, charismatic megafauna such as tigers may get a low score for phylogenetic diversity, but their conservation will benefit a host of other species sharing their habitat, while they act as effective poster species for fundraising efforts. Finally, it is important that conservationists take full account of the likelihood of success in deciding which species to adopt. If a creature has slipped far down the slope towards extinction, trying to save it would not be justified. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

Keep it above ground From Rafael Santos Andy Extance draws attention to an important alternative to conventional geological storage of carbon dioxide, namely in-situ mineral carbonation (19 July, p 30). The idea is that reacting the dissolved gas with alkaline minerals deep within the Earth’s crust allows the carbon to be more safely and permanently stored. Another alternative is ex-situ mineral carbonation. In this case, alkaline minerals such as olivine and serpentine are mined and milled, then mixed with CO2 in reactors above ground. The processing costs are inherently higher, but a major benefit is the production of valuable by-products that can be supplied to the construction industry to pay for the process. Leuven, Belgium

Alzheimer’s drug From Steven Fowkes Andy Coghlan’s informative and timely article reported that the anti-arthritis drug etanercept showed promise in halting Alzheimer’s disease when injected

into the bloodstream (19 July, p 10). But he failed to mention years of clinical, off-label use of the same drug for Alzheimer’s, administered by injecting it into the spine. A decade ago, reports of a reversal in Alzheimer’s symptoms began appearing online, and journals have published case reports of this too. Some of the clinical outcomes have been exciting (Journal of Neuroinflammation, DOI: 10.1186/1742-2094-5-2). Etanercept is a huge molecule and does not cross the blood-brain barrier. It would appear that injecting etanercept directly into the base of the brain might be necessary for delivering the maximum therapeutic effect in cases of Alzheimer’s. Cupertino, California, US

It’s good to talk From John Davies In making comparisons to computer language, perhaps both Thomas Webster (21 June, p 31) and Ian Lewis (12 July, p 27), underestimate the complexity of

learning a foreign language, and thereby its positive effects in arresting mental decline. Both types of language have vocabulary and grammar, but a spoken language also has auditory input and verbal output. These are more or less irrelevant in computer languages. Learning to identify “words” in a string of

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spoken sounds is a high-level skill that takes an adult years to develop. And reproducing those sounds in an understandable manner is a kinaesthetic activity involving numerous muscles, which also takes time and practice. It would be beneficial to ask whether it is the mental stimulation and problem-solving associated with learning a language that slows mental decline, or if it is one or more of the features that spoken languages alone have. A final possibility would be the benefits of human interaction: to learn a language one has to associate with a teacher and, usually, other learners. Keighley, West Yorkshire, UK

inevitably result in a public health disaster (16 July, p 6). In 2011, Auckland Council in New Zealand decided to limit the water supply for non-payers to 1 litre per minute, a fraction of the 15 litres per minute typical of a domestic water supply. While this reduced rate is adequate for toilet flushing and handwashing, even specially designed low-flow shower heads require about 3 litres per minute to operate. Perhaps throttling pipes to that rate of supply, allowing a meagre shower, would be both pragmatic and punitive. Canberra, ACT, Australia

An alarm that isn’t given in time for a ship to move out of the way is of little use, especially to merchant vessels which, unlike naval cheetahs that respond instantly to 20 degrees of wheel, take an age to turn and cannot rapidly reach their full speed. Nonetheless, I think ship owners worldwide will be taking considerable interest in any project that can shed light on rogue waves. Bridge, Kent, UK

Flush of success Bee content

Free vote, free will Reckless fracking From Roger Taylor Earthquakes and contamination of drinking water may well be the “most feared potential consequences of fracking”, (2 August, p 6), but a greater fear should be that of being trodden on by the elephant in the room. Fracking simply means a continuation of blinkered business as usual, namely, the use of finite and non-renewable fossil fuels that will produce ever more atmospheric carbon dioxide. Is anyone, anywhere, going to tell our children and grandchildren that because we must have a few sorry pence off the cost of our petrol, or a few extra percentage points added to GDP – a dangerously fatuous measure if ever there was one – there will be nothing left for them when dealing with the increasingly unstable climate we left behind? Meols, Merseyside, UK

Let Detroit dribble From Tom Worthington You report on concerns that shutting off the water supply to non-paying Detroit homes will

From Philip Welsby Your recent Last Word page details how different voting systems produce different results without revealing the “best” result – that is, the fairest and most democratic one (26 July). There are deeper consequences, since the 100,000 billion “voters” that are our brain’s neurons and dendrites will likewise produce inconsistent results, and to make decisions in the face of inconsistency is what underpins free will. Self-awareness eventually emerges from free will, and consciousness follows. An even deeper consequence is that computers could replicate this mechanism. Edinburgh, UK

Wave ahoy From Geoffrey Withington Mariners will beat a path to the door of anybody who can provide warning of imminent danger from freak ocean conditions (26 July, p 42). However, the key to survival will surely be how much time is left to take evasive action. How far away is the monster wave and how long can it remain a monster?

used by climate scientists (19 July, p 32). Specifically, he compares this way of speaking to the strong language of business leaders and politicians, whose careers he says have never been ruined by a longterm prediction failing. Science doesn’t work this way. Science is about assigning probabilities to outcomes through experimentation. Sometimes those probabilities will get very close to 1, but a scientist should rarely talk in terms of certainties. London, UK

From John Goss I read with interest Adrian Barnett’s review of The Wastewater Gardener (2 August, p 46). Near where I live there is a wastewater pumping station which, in severe weather run-off conditions, will sometimes flood an adjacent field. Months later, there will be an abundant crop of tasty, succulent tomatoes. The grey sludge has proved to be a perfect fertiliser for the crop. I knew an old chap who worked at a sewage plant. He used to take the odd bag of sludge home to put on his vegetable and flower plot. Perhaps there is a lesson here? Bletchley, Buckinghamshire, UK

Uncertainty principle From Giuseppe Sollazzo Ken Pettett writes to complain about the uncertain language

From Karen Stanley Where are all these statistics on the decline of the bee coming from, and where are all the observations being made (2 August, p 7)? I am a gardener and we farm 770 acres in the Cotswold hills. Much as we would like to be, we are by no means pesticide-free, yet we have never seen as many bees and other pollinating insects as in the last few years. Why all the doom and gloom? We are in a very good position to observe, and we are seeing more insects than ever. Leafield, Oxfordshire, UK

For the record ■ We exercised too much artistic licence in our article on William Latham and Stephen Todd. Their evolving images of organic life were designed in the 1980s, a decade later than we claimed (2 August, p 47).

Letters should be sent to: Letters to the Editor, New Scientist, 84 Theobald’s Road, London WC1X 8NS Fax: +44 (0) 20 7611 1280 Email: Include your full postal address and telephone number, and a reference (issue, page number, title) to articles. We reserve the right to edit letters. Reed Business Information reserves the right to use any submissions sent to the letters column of New Scientist magazine, in any other format.

16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 29


MEET YOUR MAKER What did the last common ancestor of all life look like? Michael Le Page delves into the primordial soup

30 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014


N 1859, when Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species, he dedicated an entire chapter to the problem of missing “intermediate links” – transitional forms that bridged the evolutionary gaps between closely related species. If his theory was correct, the fossil record should be full of them. Where were they? At the time it was a real problem, as few such fossils had been found. Then came the spectacular discovery, in 1861, of Archaeopteryx, with the wings and feathers of a bird and the teeth and tail of a dinosaur.

Since then we have discovered a multitude of intermediate links: fish that could crawl, lizards with mammal-like jaws, whales with legs, giraffes with short necks and many others. But there’s one we are unlikely ever to find: the link between the earliest proto-life and life as we know it, also known as the last universal common ancestor, or LUCA. LUCA lived around 4 billion years ago – a tiny, fragile life form that is the direct ancestor of every single living thing, from aardvarks to zebras. It wasn’t the very first life: thousands, if not millions, of years of

COVER STORY like. We know it used DNA to store recipes for proteins, for instance. We even know what many of those recipes were, because many vital proteins found in all cells today must have come from LUCA. And from the nature of these proteins, it is clear that LUCA used an energy-rich molecule called ATP to fuel cellular processes, just as our cells do. How did LUCA make its ATP? Anyone designing life from scratch would probably make ATP using chemical reactions inside the cell. But that’s not how it is done. Instead, energy from food or sunlight is used to power a protein “pump” that shunts hydrogen ions – protons – out of the cell. This creates a difference in proton concentration, or a gradient, across the cell membrane. Protons then flow back into the cell through another protein embedded in the membrane, which uses the energy to produce ATP.

Think of a sink

evolutionary experimentation preceded it. But understanding LUCA would give us our best view yet of the origin of life. We already know a surprising amount. Although any traces LUCA left in rocks were probably obliterated aeons ago, something far more revealing survives inside today’s living cells: a biological operating system that is common to all life and must have been shared by LUCA too. Many features of LUCA, though, have remained enigmatic, even paradoxical. But new work on a leading hypothesis for the

origin of life might have solved many of the mysteries. It paints a detailed picture of where our earliest ancestor lived, how it lived and what it was like. Prepare to meet your maker. Darwin himself was among the first scientists to speculate on how life originated: he envisaged a “warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, lights, heat, electricity, etc present”. We will probably never know exactly how LUCA came to be, but we can make educated guesses by looking at some of the features of today’s living systems. These tell us much about what LUCA was

To understand it in energy terms, think of a double kitchen sink. The small sink represents the inside of the cell and the large one the outside world. Start by filling the large sink with water, leaving the small one empty. The difference in water levels is a potential source of energy: drill a hole in the divider and water will flow into the small sink. The flow could be used to turn a tiny turbine – which is essentially what the ATP-making protein is, a turbine turned by protons and other positive ions (see diagram, page 32). This process is so convoluted that when biochemist Peter Mitchell proposed it in 1961 it was dismissed as nonsense. But it has turned out to be common to all life, so most biologists think it must be how LUCA made ATP. Exploiting a proton gradient requires a membrane that is impermeable to protons – they should only be able to flow in through the turbine. So it’s assumed that LUCA had an impermeable membrane. But there is no evidence that this is the case. In fact, the nature of LUCA’s membrane is an enigma. To understand why, we have to backtrack to the 1970s, when it was thought that life could be divided into two great “empires”. In one were animals, plants and fungi, and in the other the much simpler bacteria. Then microbiologist Carl Woese discovered that the bacterial empire actually contained two radically different types of life. A third “domain”, now known as archaea, had been hiding in plain sight. Archaea often look like bacteria, and are similar in many ways – as you would expect > 16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 31

“The building blocks of life would have formed spontaneously within the vents” generate ATP. Now, says Lane, it can also explain another of life’s key features: the membranes of archaea and bacteria. Distinct from the better known black smokers, alkaline hydrothermal vents are places where warm alkaline fluids, at temperatures of between 40° C and 90° C, well up through cracks in the sea floor. As the fluid hits the cold seawater, minerals precipitate out of solution, gradually forming rocky chimneys up to 60 metres tall, full of narrow channels and pores.

Building blocks of life Alkaline vents were present in primordial seas too. Within these ancient vents, Lane, Russell and Martin think, the building blocks of life would have formed spontaneously. The walls would have been rich in iron and sulphide, for example, which can catalyse complex organic reactions. What’s more, temperature gradients within the pores should have created high concentrations of organic compounds and favoured the formation of large molecules, including lipids – fat molecules – and RNA. So it would have been a perfect setting for the RNA world widely thought to have been the first step towards life. This may have been where self-replicating sets of RNA and other molecules first emerged and began to evolve into cell-like organisms with simple membranes. These proto-life forms needed energy – and it was provided, Martin and Lane argue, by the natural proton gradient at the interface between the proton-poor alkaline


given that both evolved from LUCA, probably quite soon after it existed. There are also some fundamental differences between them. One is their membranes. Both bacteria and archaea have membranes made of water-repellent fatty molecules. Simple fatty molecules tend to flip around, making the membrane leaky, so both bacteria and archaea tacked on a water-loving phosphate group to stabilise the molecules and make their membranes impermeable. They took very different routes, though. Bacterial membranes are made of fatty acids bound to the phosphate group while archaeal membranes are made of isoprenes bonded to phosphate in a different way. This suggests that their membranes evolved independently. This leads to something of a paradox: if LUCA already had an impermeable membrane for exploiting proton gradients, why would its descendents have independently evolved two different kinds of impermeable membrane? Nick Lane of University College London, a biochemist and award-winning science writer, has come up with a startling answer that challenges many widely held ideas. Far from being impermeable, LUCA’s membrane was leaky. In fact, he argues, it had to be leaky. Lane starts from the assumption that life originated on the sea floor at places called alkaline hydrothermal vents. This was proposed in 1989 by Michael Russell of NASA. Its proponents, including Lane and William Martin of the University of Dusseldorf in Germany, have argued that it alone can explain why life uses proton gradients to

vent fluid and the proton-rich seawater. This is the ultimate origin of the proton gradients that power life today. The stage was now set for the evolution, via a series of gradual steps, of the turbine protein that straddles the membrane and produces ATP. This was a crucial step in early evolution, though the cells could only survive at the interface between vent fluids and seawater, where there was a gradient to exploit. Only later did they evolve the ability to generate their own gradient using proton pumps. It is a neat hypothesis but as critics have pointed out, there is a big catch. Early cells that had the ATP turbine protein but not proton pumps would only have been able to generate

Life powers up The earliest life on Earth could well have evolved at an undersea hydrothermal vent around 4 billion years ago. How did this cell get its energy, and how did it evolve to colonise the rest of the planet? The cell lives on the boundary between acid, protonrich seawater, and alkaline vent fluid. It develops a protein that, like a turbine, extracts energy from the proton gradient (difference in concentration) ACID SEAWATER


Later cells evolve a "revolving door" protein that effortlessly pumps sodium ions out while letting protons in. The sodium later re-enters through the turbine protein, generating even more energy

PROTON SODIUM ION Eventually cells develop a dedicated proton pump and a leak-proof membrane. These cells can generate their own proton gradient across the membrane to obtain energy, and can leave the vent behind




32 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014


“Eventually, cells would have been able to break free altogether”

Alkaline thermal vents on the sea floor: is this where life arose around 4 billion years ago?

a tiny amount of energy before the proton gradient collapsed. Without some means to shift protons out of the cell, the inside would quickly reach equilibrium with the outside. To go back to the sink analogy, the water levels will rapidly equalise if water isn’t being pumped out of the little sink. And so the hypothesis fails to explain how the universal ATP-making process arose. “It has worried me for some years,” Lane says. Think about it: you don’t need a pump to restore the flow. All you have to do is to pull the plug out in the little sink. As it empties, the flow will resume. That is where the leaky membrane comes in. Think of that primitive cell straddling the interface between seawater and vent fluid. One way to exploit the proton gradient is to have a leaky membrane. This would allow protons to flow continuously from seawater, through the cell, and back out into the vent fluid, without the gradient collapsing. As long as some of the incoming protons pass through ATP turbines, the cells have energy on tap. Simple membranes made of fat molecules have just the required properties. In fact, fats spontaneously form cell-like structures that can grow and divide as more molecules are added. These properties mean they have long been of great interest to those exploring the origins of life. But the assumption was always that leak-proof membranes had to evolve before cells could exploit proton gradients. If Lane is correct, this is wrong. Lane and Martin first sketched out the leaky membrane idea in 2012. Now Lane and his

colleagues Andrew Pomiankowski and Victor Sojo have worked out a more detailed scenario and modelled it to see if it is energetically plausible. The results, just published in PLoS Biology, confirm that leaky cells – unlike impermeable ones – could extract enough energy from a natural proton gradient. Yet in solving one problem, the leaky membrane creates another. At some point cells broke their umbilical connection to the vents. To do so, they had to evolve energyconsuming proton pumps to generate their own gradients. But if you’ve got a leaky membrane, there’s nothing to be gained from pumping protons. They just leak back in again.

Free energy The obvious solution is for the membrane to evolve to be less leaky. But this doesn’t work either, because it would have stopped protons flowing through and shut off the energy supply. Catch-22. Or is it? According to Lane there is a way out. Modern cells have a third kind of protein in their membranes. These act like revolving doors (see diagram, left), swapping one ion for another across the membrane – a sodium ion for a proton, say – and they don’t use any energy. A revolving door like this could solve the leaky membrane conundrum. If early cells evolved a revolving door that exchanged sodium ions for protons, the game suddenly changes. Sodium ions cannot pass through leaky lipid membranes nearly as easily as protons, so the exchanger converts the natural proton gradient into a sodium ion gradient across the membrane. Crucially, sodium ions can re-enter the cell through the ATP turbine

protein (see diagram, below left). So a cell with an exchanger will get more flow through its turbines and thus generate more ATP – up to 60 per cent more, according to the model. Once a cell has revolving doors, evolving a proton pump becomes advantageous even with a leaky membrane: the more protons it pumps out, the more it can swap for sodium ions and the more ATP it can generate. As pumping increases, making the membrane less leaky becomes an advantage as well. That means natural selection would have driven the joint evolution of better pumps and less leaky membranes. Cells could then survive in weaker gradients at the peripheries of vents. Eventually they would have been able to break free altogether and generate their own proton gradient across a non-leaky membrane. And this is what they did – not once but twice, giving rise to the bacteria and the archaea. Other early-life researchers, though, will take some convincing. “I think this scenario is highly unlikely,” says Jack Szostak of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Boston, one of those who think that impermeable membranes evolved very early on. Cells with simple lipid membranes would leak not only ions but valuable metabolites, Szostak says. How then did cells come to exploit proton gradients? That’s not clear. Most researchers focus on very narrow features of early life, such as membranes or RNA. For now, only the alkaline vent scenario offers a broader picture, explaining not only where and how life came about, but why it has many of the peculiar features it does. “This paper is one of a series that deconstruct the organic soup hypothesis which has fooled us for almost 50 years now – that has always been blatantly antithermodynamic and hence basically out of the question,” says Wolfgang Nitschke, a biochemist at the French national research agency in Marseille, who has studied the hydrothermal vent scenario. This doesn’t mean the vent scenario is right, but it does at least lead to predictions that can be put to the test. For instance, can conditions like those in early alkaline vents really generate all the precursor molecules needed for life? Lane is trying to get funding to build a high-pressure reactor that would mimic the conditions at the deep-sea vents of 4 billion years ago. In the meantime, consider this: we’ll never know precisely what LUCA was like. But whatever it was, it lives on inside you. ■ Michael Le Page is a feature editor at New Scientist 16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 33

We seek it here, we seek it there. Will we ever find the elusive magnetic monopole, asks Richard Webb

The stuff of legend J

IM PINFOLD hurries me through the low-lit corridors of the theory department at the CERN laboratory near Geneva in Switzerland. Posters announcing conferences of yesteryear plaster the walls. On one door, an A4 poster adorned with a Nike swoosh announces “Physics: Just Do It”. Through another door, a group of physicists stand in pensive silence around a blackboard covered in chalk hieroglyphics as they sip sparkling wine from plastic cups. It is barely midday. “Walk quickly through here,” he says. “In case you get any funny ideas.” For Pinfold, theory has always been a means to an end; in this case, a shortcut to the car park from which he will drive me over the Swiss-French border to his latest experiment. The ultimate end, he hopes, will be proving an idea that has been burning in the minds of theorists for decades: that magnetic monopoles exist. A monopole is a magnetic north pole without its accompanying south, or a south without its north. No one has ever seen one. And if our present understanding of particles and forces is correct, we don’t have the remotest chance of snaring one. Pinfold, a silver-haired, fast-talking Londoner who works at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, begs to differ. “I’d give us about the same chance of finding a monopole as we would have given of finding the Higgs boson 10 years ago,” he says. “It’s a bullish answer, but it’s my answer.” Magnetic monopoles’ no-show has long been a bugbear to the sort of physicist that sees truth in the beauty of mathematical 34 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014

formulae, and among the most beautiful are the four equations collated by James Clerk Maxwell in the 1860s. These encapsulate the idea that electricity and magnetism are two manifestations of the same thing: the fundamental force of electromagnetism. Maxwell’s equations predicted the existence of individual, freely moving electric charges – things nature supplies in abundance in the form of particles such as electrons and protons. To achieve an aesthetically pleasing symmetry in the equations, similar freewheeling magnetic charges had to exist, too. This was less obvious. North and south magnetic poles that attract and repel each other do exist, just as positive and negative electric charges do. But from the humblest bar magnet to Earth’s mighty interior dynamo, magnetic poles only ever crop up tied together in pairs. Chop a magnet in half and, like Walt Disney’s sorcerer’s apprentice with his magic broom, you forge two new complete magnets, each with a north and south pole. Faced with a brute fact of nature, Maxwell eschewed beauty and wrote the freely moving monopole out of his equations – and out of history. However, monopoles made a comeback thanks to Paul Dirac, a British theorist who was notoriously word-shy and obsessed with mathematical beauty. Quantum theory was all the rage in 1931, and Dirac began applying its ideas to Maxwell’s classical electromagnetism. Dirac’s calculations showed that even if there was just one magnetic monopole in the entire universe, its existence would explain why all the electric charge we see comes in the same bite-sized chunks of +1 or -1. >


16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 35

“Quite plausibly, there is just one monopole in the entire visible universe” This time, the idea stuck. Forty years on, physicists discovered that the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force that controls radioactive decay could be rolled into one, and were seeking ways to unify this force with a third, the strong nuclear force. Gerard ’t Hooft and Alexander Polyakov independently showed that monopoles were essential if such a “grand unified theory” were to make predictions in accordance with reality. “Without monopoles, you would have to expect electrically charged particles to have all sorts of charges,” says ’t Hooft, who is at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and who won a share of the 1999 Nobel prize in physics for his work on unifying weak and electromagnetic interactions.

Particle zoo Fellow theorist Joseph Polchinski of the University of California, Santa Barbara, also has no doubt about the reality of monopoles. “Of all the new things we have predicted – supersymmetry, strings and so on – I would still put the very highest confidence in monopoles,” he says. So where are they? Researchers have looked for monopoles everywhere, from Antarctic ice to moon rocks. Things acting like monopoles have even been created in various supercooled materials in the lab (see “Mission impossible?”, right). But the closest we’ve come to the real thing was on Valentine’s night in 1982. That was when physicist Blas Cabrera saw a promising event in a monopole detector he had set up in

a basement at Stanford University in California. It proved to be a one-night stand, prompting some wag to post Cabrera this loving note exactly a year later: “Roses are red/Violets are blue/The time has now come/For monopole two”. These days Cabrera’s monopole and a couple of other even more ambiguous sightings are regarded as experimental blips. But Dirac’s calculations provide a ready-made excuse for the monopole’s absence. They show that the smaller the unit of electric charge is, the larger the unit of magnetic charge must be. Because the basic electric charge is incredibly small – you need around 1000 billion electrons to power a hearing aid for just 1 second – the basic magnetic charge is so large that it would take an implausible amount of energy to make a particle carrying it. Precisely how much energy depends on the variant of force unification that you choose – theorists have come up with several ways of performing this feat over the years. If you follow the variant that underlies our current best theory of particles and forces, the standard model, then the only time that enough energy was around to make monopoles in any abundance was in the first infinitesimal fraction of a second after the big bang. About the same time, a period of rip-roaring cosmic expansion known as inflation is thought to have occurred that would have scattered monopoles to the four winds. “Quite plausibly what was an overabundance of monopoles would be diluted to one in the entire volume of the visible universe,” says Polchinski.

HELLO, MRS CHIPS Teacher Becky Parker is about to lead her pupils to a first: full membership of an international particle physics collaboration. “It’s barmy, isn’t it?” she says. Parker is director of the Langton Star Centre, a research lab she set up at Simon Langton Grammar School in Canterbury, UK. Her pupils have been using semiconductor chips, developed at CERN near Geneva, to measure the characteristics of highly energetic particles. Their chips have already been incorporated into a cosmic-ray detector, which was one of eight scientific payloads that blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan last month. 36 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014

From 2015, however, they will be monitoring their chips from CERN, as part of the detectors that the MoEDAL (Monopole and Exotics Detector at the LHC) collaboration hopes will capture monopoles (see main story). Katherine Evans, the final-year pupil who headed the student contingent this year, will have moved on by the time the detectors are switched on in 2015, but she is happy to lay the groundwork for future pupils. “It’s nice to think they’ll be the ones to see it,” she says. Parker, meanwhile, is in no doubt of the value of the project. “All the best science is done by the youngest people,” she says. “Why not give them a chance to get stuck in?”

MoEDAL’s detectors are trying to snare a monopole

Or, says Pinfold, we might just find one down a tunnel in Geneva. A narrow, rattly lift just vacated by a technician and his wheelbarrow carries us down 100 or so metres to a cavernous underground hall that is home to one of the giant experiments of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – and to Pinfold’s venture. Now is a good time to visit the bowels of the LHC: the accelerator is switched off until early 2015 while it undergoes an upgrade. We climb a series of metal stairways back up from the cavern floor and reach a platform where a thin metal pipe emerges from the middle of a whitewashed door. Next year protons will once again zip along this pipe at 99.9999991 per cent of the speed of light and collide head-on up to 600 million times a second with other protons travelling at the same speed in the opposite direction. The innards of these high-energy protons provide the raw material for the LHC’s investigations of material reality, as all manner of exotic and unfamiliar particles are fleetingly created in the resulting mini fireballs. Pinfold’s experiment is small by LHC standards, and its feel seems to be almost a rebuke of the LHC’s expensive cutting-edge technology. It is called MoEDAL (short for the Monopole and Exotics Detector at the LHC), and its principal component is a series of metal cases attached to the walls around the platform. Neatly outlined in yellow masking tape, each trails a curl of wires to the floor. By the time protons start colliding again,

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE? The hunt for magnetic monopoles has been far-reaching. Here’s where we have looked and failed to find them:

TRAPPED IN... Moon rocks from the Apollo 11 mission Antarctic meteorites Volcanic rocks

PASSING THROUGH... Experiments looking for high-energy neutrinos and cosmic rays Dedicated monopole detectors Cosmic microwave background radiation



Various particle colliders Magnetic materials

these cases will entirely surround the crash the LHC are the most energetic ever made in a site. “Mind out,” says Pinfold from beneath particle accelerator, they fall far short of what his hard hat as he invites me to crane my neck is needed to make a monopole if you take the into a pit immediately below the beam pipe. standard model at face value. “If you bang your head there, it’s hard.” But Pinfold’s experiment is far from a Within each of the metal boxes are detectors fool’s errand. Fundamental physics is in consisting of a series of stacked layers of a funk. While the discovery of the Higgs plastic that act as a form of photographic boson slotted the final piece into the jigsaw plate. Because a monopole must carry a huge of the standard model, the theory is clearly magnetic charge, it would rip through the incomplete. It manages to describe polymer bonds of the plastic, etching a trail electromagnetism and the weak and strong whose size, shape and alignment would reveal forces in a broadly satisfying way. Yet it the particle’s character. Once produced, remains silent on the fourth, gravity, and monopoles are expected to be highly stable – so the experimental set-up also includes “If monopoles are light, it trapping detectors in which any passing monopole might be bottled and kept boosts the chances of for further tests: a true exotic from the producing one at the LHC” particle zoo. There is an improvisatory spirit about MoEDAL. Although the powers that be at it doesn’t give any clues as to the identity of CERN gave the go-ahead for the experiment dark matter and dark energy, which seem to in 2010, the 60-strong collaboration must make up 96 per cent of what is out there. raise its own funding. With money from These are far from the only question official sources tight, the team is looking to marks hanging over the standard model, and crowdsource some of it. Meanwhile, part of scepticism about it is further fuelled by that the monitoring of the experiment’s output nagging question of aesthetics. Although its will be done by pupils at a school in the UK predictions, as far as they go, agree peerlessly (see “Hello, Mrs Chips”, left). The uncertainty well with experiments, mathematically about what, if anything, the experiment will the standard model is a bit of a kludge, a see is part of its charm, says Richard Soluk, pasting together of different bits of theory MoEDAL’s technical coordinator. “You don’t with the occasional safety pin and sticking make a breakthrough looking for things plaster to cover the gaps. “It would be very, people expect you to find,” he adds. very surprising if it were the end of things,” Even though the mini fireballs produced at says Polchinski.

Many attempts to improve on the standard model have emerged in recent years. Some of these exotic theories, such as ones that predict the existence of extra dimensions, predict a significantly lighter monopole too, says ’t Hooft. This dramatically boosts the LHC’s chances of producing a monopole and MoEDAL’s chances of bagging one. “Their energy would be much closer to where the LHC or its future descendants can reach, so the prospects look brighter,” adds ’t Hooft. All that means Polchinski is crossing his fingers for an upset. “Any kind of new physics would turn the field upside down,” he says. “For monopoles to be within the reach of the LHC will require us to be lucky, but I think we have to look everywhere.” At the end of a long day, the CERN cafeteria is a good place to muse over monopoles. Stickers by the buttons on the water fountain offer three choices, “Order”, “Chaos” and “Self-destruct”. I opt for a beer instead, and rejoin Pinfold in the bustle of physicists and technicians. He is also a member of the ATLAS collaboration, one of the teams that found the Higgs boson, but it is clear that his heart beats for monopoles – as perhaps do those of many a soul in the yellowing corridors of CERN’s theory department. “All we need is one,” says Pinfold. “Everyone was expecting the Higgs. But no one is expecting this.” ■ Richard Webb is New Scientist’s deputy features editor 16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 37

38 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014

Pipe dream Building and maintaining water networks is a ruinously expensive business. Do we even need to, wonders Naomi Lubick



N A garden shed called Stanley on the bank of a muddy pond, Darren Reynolds is about to have a drink. The pond’s less-than-limpid waters would normally flow through the surrounding reed beds to a drainage channel. Reynolds, however, is pouring himself a perfectly clear glassful. What’s in his shed gives him reasonable confidence in what he is doing: it contains a mini treatment plant that can produce drinkable water on demand. Conceived for places with no fixed water infrastructure, such as refugee camps, Reynolds thinks that with a little tweaking it could be just the thing for more suburban locales, too. A professor of health and the environment at the University of the West of England in Bristol, Reynolds is one of a band of researchers advocating a fundamental shift from the way we pipe water now. Just as the future of electricity is seen by some to lie with a decentralised network of small-scale producers, the way to lessen water woes in countries across the globe could be for each of us to take charge of our water treatment ourselves. It is a bold vision – but can it work? Clean water is the most basic of necessities: in 2010 the United Nations declared it a fundamental human right. Yet the World Health Organization estimates that over 1 billion people are without clean drinking water, while more than one-third of the world’s 7 billion people lack basic sanitation. In nations such as the UK and the US, meanwhile, access to safe drinking water may generally be easy as turning on a tap, but what lies behind that is often forgotten. “At the turn of the last century, putting water treatment in was how a city proved it had made itself,” says Michael Beach of the US Centers for Disease

Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. “Go to Philadelphia, go to Baltimore – the water treatment facilities look like Greek temples, because it was probably one of the greatest public health achievements we had put in place.” But since then water infrastructure has tended to lie out of sight and out of mind – and it is crumbling. Last year alone, Thames Water, which provides water for London and parts of south-east England, lost 646 million litres every day to leaks from its 31,000 kilometres of pipes, enough to meet the needs of 3 million people. The company puts the cost of replacing its entire network at upwards of £12 billion. In the US an estimated 240,000 mains water leaks occur each year. In a particularly


spectacular incident last month, a ruptured pipe in Los Angeles sent some 90 million litres of water gushing down Sunset Boulevard and through a campus of the University of California. In a report to Congress last year, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that $384 billion of infrastructure investment would be needed to deliver drinking water across the US for the next two decades. Some say the figures should be even higher, factoring in the costs of protecting supplies from the more frequent extreme weather events predicted for the future, courtesy of climate change. Water market researcher Brent Giles of international firm Lux Research is sceptical of these gloomiest predictions. “People who say it will take trillions of dollars of infrastructure investment are typically civil engineers,” he says – and they love their grand designs. Nevertheless, Giles concedes the problem is undoubtedly huge. Leaky pipes are expensive to fix, but also a health hazard. “Once the water pressure is below a certain point, that’s when things can move in,” says Beach. It’s a problem often compounded by the tendency of laying clean-water and wastewater pipes close to one another. A Norwegian study in 2007 implicated leaky water pipes in many cases of gastrointestinal illness there. In 2009/10, the most recent years for which figures are available, the CDC tracked more than 30 US disease outbreaks back to contaminated public water supplies. “It’s a crumbling infrastructure problem, not a country problem,” says Beach. The fixes we have at the moment are not ideal. To combat hazardous microbes, utility companies in the US and UK add tiny amounts of chlorine to their treated water. > 16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 39

Chlorine treatment in general has raised concerns, as chemical by-products of the process have been tied to health problems including bladder cancer and genetic defects. To stem leaks more quickly, companies such as IBM are developing smarter water management systems that can monitor the rate of flow and respond quickly to pressure drops. Quest Inspar, a company based in Houston, Texas, has developed robots that travel through pipes to find leaks and coat any cracks with sealant. For Reynolds, such solutions are papering over the cracks. What is needed, he says, is a rethink of the underlying paradigm. “We dirty water, treat water, and then pump water, and then we do it again – at great cost,” he says. Most of our water infrastructure is in place to deal with the 150 or so litres of wastewater each person produces every day. According to figures from industry body Water UK, this water is sullied by just 60 grams of organic matter – less than 0.1 per cent of the total flushed. If we could treat this waste closer to home, recycling dirty water and bringing it up to drinking standard, that could reduce costs and minimise the health risks of leakages in the wider pipe network. Such an approach



might also provide a cheaper way to ensure clean water and sanitation for poorer countries with little established infrastructure. Local water purification systems have existed for years in places off the water grid – from remote homesteads to the International Space Station. They come in a range of shapes and sizes, including sand filters for rain barrels that physically trap microbes and other contaminants, solar-powered rooftop purifiers that use light to break them down,

SLUDGE POWER “There are 2.6 billion people in this world who don’t have access to sanitation,” says Orianna Bretschger. More people have access to a mobile phone than a toilet.” The researcher at the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, California, is developing a small solution to that large problem. Her microbe-based water-treatment systems pull pathogens from water – while producing fertiliser as a by-product, and generating power to boot. Large wastewater utilities in wealthy nations already use “activated sludge” containing microbes to break down organic matter. But where oxygen is readily available, nasties such as E. coli can also thrive. The treatment must be combined with extra processes, such as expensive reverse osmosis or large-scale chlorination, which are impractical in the developing world. Bretschger and her colleagues have instead concocted a cocktail of sewagetreating bugs that thrive without oxygen. This mix of microbes could break down water-borne organic matter while outcompeting the nasty bugs that need oxygen. They would borrow electrons 40 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014

from surrounding metal surfaces to “breathe”, creating a current that could also be used to power bathroom facilities. That would make for a lasting and low-maintenance solution in developing countries with little water infrastructure, Bretschger says. Last year the philanthropic Roddenberry Foundation gifted her $5 million to continue developing the system and bring its output up to drinking standard. Bretschger’s prototype is only about the size of coffee cup. “We need to demonstrate consistency and reliability in a tank the size of a building,” she says. This month, her team will be assembling the components to build a full-scale version with students in a nearby high school. That will serve a dual purpose, she hopes: to prove the system works, and to start to change mindsets. “Public perception has a lot to do with the success of these ‘toilet-to-tap’ projects,” she says. “I like to say ‘showers to flowers’: all of our water is recycled, it’s just a matter of how we do it and the time it takes to get that water back to you.”

and pots lined with nanoscale particles of silver that kill microbes on contact. But such systems tend to be very smallscale, providing no more than the minimum water requirement for a family. In his shed, Reynolds is working on something a little bigger. He takes water from a pond on the university campus and passes it through a series of filters and membranes to remove impurities. Along the way, a small amount of brine solution is added that has been zapped with a current, releasing hydroxyl radicals, hypochlorous acid, chlorine ions and other related substances that act as disinfectants. This current can be created using energy collected by a solar cell. When the current is switched off again, the disinfectant reverts to brine, sidestepping the environmentally troublesome residues that can be left behind by direct chlorination. Reynolds’s tests have shown that the concentration of common pathogens dropped below detection limits with just 10 to 20 seconds of treatment. And what works for pond water should also work for wastewater from the home. “It could almost certainly be used for treating ‘grey water’, the stuff we are flushing down the toilet or sink,” he says. He’s not the only one moving in this direction. Water researcher Jörg Drewes at the Technical University of Munich, Germany, and his team have developed a system that attaches to a building’s pipes before water flows to the taps. It combines filtration membranes with treatments using oxidation and ultraviolet light to break down contaminants, and produces drinking-standard water from a variety of wastewater supplies. Commercial products are becoming available too. Puralytics, a firm based in Beaverton, Oregon, markets “Solar Bags” that use sunlight to render contaminants harmless, but has also developed larger systems that deal with higher volumes of water and use LEDs for places where sunlight is not available. Others, such as General Electric and the Australian company Aquacell, are developing systems based on filtration membranes covered in a film of helpful microbes – a common technology in large-scale wastewater plants – to “mine” wastewater of harmful substances and treat it for reuse. Ben Grumbles of the pressure group US Water Alliance believes we now have the technology to make decentralised water treatment work. “There are competing visions, to centralise or not to centralise,” he says.

Reverse plumbing He thinks it makes sense to encourage local water recycling, using lightly, locally treated recycled water for watering lawns, washing cars and the like. But he worries that if homeowners or building managers, rather than local authorities, must produce their own drinking water, vulnerable populations such as the elderly and the poor may end up with unclean water. Beach agrees that any transition to off-grid water would need stringent regulatory and legal frameworks. The lesson of what happens when homeowners are responsible for their own filtration and pipe systems comes from the 16 million households in the US that get their water from private wells, he says. The rules say they have to prove their wells are clean, but in practice there is little oversight. “What that means is nothing gets done.” Drewes suggests that a switch to local water treatment would require companies and experts – call them reverse plumbers – who either come in to check decentralised water purification systems or use smart meters to monitor them from afar. He and


“Should we have a continued reliance on modern centralised wastewater and drinking utilities, or do we increasingly move to the ‘spaceship’ model, where homes and businesses are off the grid in certain respects?” The most obvious benefit would be to people in those developing countries in which there isn’t much water infrastructure (see “Sludge power”, opposite page). But as far as wealthy countries are concerned, Giles for one is less convinced that off-grid water will wash.



An awful lot of costly infrastructure is needed to treat our sewage (left and above)

his team have recently started investigating the scales at which each of these models would be economical with the local purification systems they have developed. Other problems would need to be solved, too – not least a powerful yuck factor when it comes to perceptions of “toilet-to-tap” water treatment. For that reason and others, Drewes believes the most likely move in the developed world is not a wholesale switch to off-grid water, but some form of hybrid solution. He envisages old, patched-up pipes continuing to distribute water in the volumes we demand, but treated to a lower standard. At local treatment facilities, it would undergo further treatment to bring it up to par. Grumbles also sees the future in a hybrid model of “centralised systems delivering water, but not fit to drink”. Reynolds is still working on his own solution. Since January, he has been operating a larger purification system in his shed that can pump out 3000 litres an hour, enough for 1500 people’s most basic needs. Working together with Portsmouth Aviation, he has developed a lorry-sized version capable of treating 18 to 20 cubic metres an hour. It is being trialled in Romania, providing water for communities that normally depend on boreholes polluted by contaminants including agricultural run-off. The by-products extracted by treatment are so rich in nitrogen that they can themselves be used as fertiliser. It’s early days for off-grid water, Reynolds admits, but the costs of maintaining and extending existing water infrastructure will sooner or later force a rethink, he says. “In the world of the future, it is not going to pull us all through.” ■ Naomi Lubick is a freelance writer based in Stockholm, Sweden 16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 41

It t u fin rns o ds ut Bo th b H ere olm ’s m es ore to th ei tsy -b its ym ale se xc hro mo so me

42 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014

th an we ha ds us pe cte d,

Why oh Y?

“At this rate, it was famously predicted, the Y ought to disappear in 5 million years”


HERE’S nothing very macho about the Y chromosome. Even though it’s what makes men male, the human Y, like its counterparts in almost all mammals, is tiny compared with its partner, the X chromosome. It’s lost hundreds of genes – and if the Y continues to lose them, it could someday wink out of existence entirely. Claims of its impending demise are starting to look premature, however. Far from being a rotting husk, the modern Y, tiny though it is, is turning out to be a highly evolved and surprisingly important part of men’s wider genetic endowment, responsible for far more than just maleness. It is easy to see why some biologists thought the Y was destined for oblivion: it is all on its own. There are two copies of all other chromosomes, which are basically containers for holding genes. Each copy acts as a backup for the other. The pairs line up and swap bits when organisms reproduce. Some offspring get landed with chromosomes full of damaged genes and are eliminated by natural selection, whereas others inherit undamaged copies and survive to reproduce. Way back in the evolutionary past, there was no Y, just a regular pair of chromosomes. Sex was determined by environmental factors such as temperature. But then a gene on a single chromosome mutated in a way that made any individual that inherited it male. At first this proto-Y could still swap genes with its partner, the proto-X chromosome. About 180 million years ago – in the line of mammals that branched away from the platypus and echidna – a section of it containing the gene variant for maleness got flipped back to front. This section no longer lined up properly with the corresponding part of the proto-X, so damaged genes in this section could no longer be swapped for good ones.

Beyond repair Further inversions put more and more of the Y beyond repair. The X was fine because females inherit two copies that can swap parts. The Y, however, started to lose bits because men have just one copy. The human version now has just 78 genes, far less than its original 600 or so. At this rate of decay the Y ought to disappear altogether within 5 million years, as famously predicted a few years ago by Jenny Graves at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. But there is growing reason to believe that

what’s left of the Y is here to stay. For one thing, even though it has lost almost all of its original set of genes, it has gained others: we now know that 61 of the human Y’s 78 genes were not present before the first inversion took place. Almost all the new genes play a role in sperm production, making the Y a perfect home for them. There are often several copies of these genes, too, so there are backups. An even stronger reason to think the Y chromosome has a bright future comes from the discovery, by Daniel Bellott at the Whitehead Institute in Boston, that its decay seems to have ground to a halt. His team compared the Y chromosomes of eight mammals – human, chimp, rhesus macaque, marmoset, mouse, rat, bull and opossum – to trace its evolutionary history (Nature, vol 508, p 494). They found bursts of gene loss directly after inversions happen, followed by long periods of stability. In fact, not a single gene has been lost from the oldest part of the human Y in the past 44 million years. The remaining genes may simply be too essential to lose. A team led by Henrik Kaessmann at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, surveyed the Y-chromosomes of 15 different mammal species and one bird. They found that a chromosome linked with maleness evolved three distinct times – once in birds, once in the ancestor of the platypus and echidna, and a third time in the ancestor of all other mammals. The ancestors of the three Ys each started with different kinds of genes, but to Kaessmann’s surprise, all ended up with a stable set of the same sorts of genes, which is what Bellott’s team also found. “You play this evolutionary game with different sets of genes, and you get the same kinds of genes retained in each case,” he says. “It’s always the regulatory genes that remain.” Why? When a gene is lost from the Y, males are left with one copy of the gene, on their single X chromosome. That means less of the protein the gene codes for gets made – roughly half the usual dosage. Evolution can fix this in males by ramping up production from the single X, but then their female descendants get a double dose from their two Xs. To keep gene output the same in the two sexes despite this difference, females have evolved to inactivate one of their two copies of most genes on the X. Perhaps the amount of protein produced by the regulatory genes retained on the Y had to be so precisely calibrated that organisms couldn’t survive the awkward

intermediate stage when this workaround did not yet function perfectly, suggests James Turner at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research in London. Regulatory genes are particularly vital because they control many other genes. So important are the Y genes, in fact, that even during a man’s lifetime, losing the Y in some tissues takes a toll. Chromosomes can be lost when cells divide, and men who lose the Y chromosome in their bone marrow – which happens in about 8 per cent of elderly men – have a higher risk of cancer and die an average of 5.5 years younger than other men.

Stable Y All these findings seem to point in one direction. “The rotting-Y-chromosome theory is dead,” says Turner. Most people agree. Graves remains a holdout, however, noting that many of the genes Bellott and Kaessmann single out as essential on the human Y have disappeared from the Y of some other mammals, suggesting they are not so essential after all. Nor is Graves reassured by the finding that the human Y has been stable. “Just the fact that we’ve had pretty much the same Y chromosome for millions of years doesn’t mean it won’t disappear tomorrow,” she says, pointing out that it already has in a few rodents, insects and other organisms. Whatever the human Y chromosome’s ultimate fate, the new findings are raising interesting issues. Since the Y chromosome no longer interacts with the X, even the genes they still have in common have been evolving separately for tens of millions of years. So might they now play subtly different roles in the body? A Y-chromosome copy of a regulatory gene that turns on a slightly different set of genes in a slightly different group of cells than the X copy could make male and female cells act quite differently from each other. “This could have important consequences for differences in disease prevalence between males and females,” says Bellott. Kaessmann agrees. “It’s going to be very interesting to find out what the Y genes might regulate, compared to the X copies,” he says. So not only is the Y chromosome no longer shrinking, it may be growing in importance – at least in the minds of biologists. ■ Bob Holmes is a consultant for New Scientist 16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 43


Down and very dirty Touring the internet’s seedy side is a wild ride for Douglas Heaven

The Dark Net: Inside the digital underworld by Jamie Bartlett, William Heinemann/Random House, £20

WHAT is the internet for? Meeting new people. Bullying them mercilessly. Sharing a video of yourself playing guitar. Sharing a video of yourself masturbating. Buying books. Buying drugs. Registering a vote. Requesting a murder. For the first users of the Arpanet – a tiny network of computers set up to link a handful of academic institutions in the 1970s – there was a much simpler answer. The sole point of connecting computers was to allow the easy sharing of data. In one sense, that’s still all the internet is for. But the mess of humanity has since put its spin on things. There is nothing you can think of, however extreme, sordid, outlandish or just plain weird, that someone else hasn’t already put online. Take the Assassination Market. Here you can add a name to a list or add money to a pot attached to a name already there. If enough people chip in and the pot for a particular name grows, or so the idea goes, then someone, somewhere, will be motivated to claim it. Would-be assassins just have to make an anonymous prediction of the exact time and place of a named individual’s death. If they make it come true, they bag the fee. The far-right EDL whips up hatred online and in the streets 44 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014

The Assassination Market is Jamie Bartlett’s first port of call in The Dark Net, a travelogue around the dark side of the internet. It gets worse. At least the Assassination Market has the whiff of a stunt about it – to date no one has been knocked off the list. The online forums of far-right groups like the English Defence League, on the other hand, are much more successful at engendering the kind of hatred that is then vented on the streets. And since Bartlett is head of the

Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think-tank Demos, you would expect him to be a confident and well-informed guide. He certainly finds his way to sites that won’t pop up in a typical search engine, but most of his material is gathered from the shadowy corners of the internet’s most familiar places. Wherever you go online, nastiness is never far away. Facebook and Twitter are as

riddled with obnoxious bullies, hate-mongering extremists and illegal activity as the off-piste terrain reachable only with specialist browsers. “I came to realise that the unspoken truth about the dark net… is that everything is close to the surface,” Bartlett writes. “Hidden encrypted websites and mysterious underground drugs markets sound like they exist far beneath the surface web of Google and Facebook. But cyberspace doesn’t have depth.”

It’s easy to forget that because most of us seldom break out of our habitual browsing patterns. But we need only look at the Facebook and Twitter updates posted by ISIS since it swept across northern Iraq, for example, to get a jarring reminder. But Bartlett has a trick that enables him to lift the book above others that riff off the allure of a secret internet, making it far more than a potpourri of pornography and pot purchasing. He goes out of his way to meet the people behind the online personas. Writing a book about the internet can be done without leaving the house; writing a good one really requires the writer to


“There is nothing you can think of, however extreme, sordid, or weird, that someone hasn’t put online”

get to know society’s outsiders. Each of the book’s nine chapters introduces us to a different set of characters. So, for example, Bartlett visits Calafou, a libertarian commune in Spain, to meet Amir Taaki. Taaki is a genius coder and architect of Dark Wallet, an anonymous Bitcoin payment system that he thinks just might save the world, one overthrown government at a time. Then Bartlett is off again, to meet Paul, a polite and charming fascist, and later Michael, a family man convicted for downloading a hard-drive’s worth of child pornography. Michael blames the internet for his activities: “I cannot believe there is so much out there! Why on earth was it so easy for me to find it?” Bartlett gets invited by “camgirl” Vex to witness the business end of her live three-girl webcam show. Like any good reporter, he sits perched next to her bed, just off camera, notepad on his knees. By meeting the people behind the online activity, Bartlett humanises it. And the internet is nothing if not an enabler of everything human. It brings together people with similar interests, the nasty and extreme just as much as the harmlessly niche. But the internet also encourages us to think of our online selves as less real. Sitting alone in front of a screen can make it hard to appreciate the “reality” of your online behaviour – it’s easy to do things we would never dream of doing in the offline world. Technology isn’t neutral, Bartlett writes. “Technology extends the power and freedom of those that use it.” There have always been two sides to this story: technology will make everything better and technology will ruin us all. Seen as an extension of ourselves, it’s likely to do neither. We shouldn’t look for salvation in any technology, especially a blank canvas like the internet. There will always be a dark side. ■


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An ordinary miracle Even if the evolution of life on Earth is not unique, it may be special, finds Stuart Clark The Copernicus Complex: The quest for our cosmic (in)significance by Caleb Scharf, Allen Lane, £20

IN THE 16th century, the Polish canon-cummathematician Nicolaus Copernicus suggested that Earth was not the unmoving centre of the universe; he claimed instead that our planet orbited the sun. The idea that Earth is nowhere special has been reinforced by subsequent discoveries. Our solar system is far from the centre of our galaxy, and that galaxy is just one of an almost uncountable number of others. For most of us, this idea is humbling. For astronomers and cosmologists, it is useful, allowing them to make general statements about the universe based on observations made from Earth. However, Earth is the only planet known to support life – intelligent life at that – and astrobiologist Caleb Scharf thinks we should prepare for the possibility that we

are special in some way, after all. Special – but not unique. In 2000, Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee argued in Rare Earth that intelligent life on Earth relied on so many unlikely accidents that we are probably alone in the universe. This is a step too far for Scharf, and rather like saying that a spectator at a baseball game lucky enough to catch a ball must therefore be alone in the stadium. In a big enough universe, extraordinary things happen all the time. Our solar system is a case in point: the latest exoplanet research suggests that its orderly arrangement of planets is exceptionally rare, with rocky planets closer to the sun and gas giants farther out. The Copernicus Complex is an astrobiology book framed within a philosophical question. It does not discuss why life (intelligent or not) exists. It is, nonetheless, an easy-to-read summary of astrobiology research, which is no mean feat considering the weighty topics it deals with. ■ Stuart Clark’s Is There Life on Mars? is published by Quercus 16 August 2014 | NewScientist | 45

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issue of New Scientist in which we asked about headline questions (19 July). In our defence, this column goes to press before the magazine’s cover. But what of the question? We lack space here for the details of how Alan Turing teasingly hypothesised an “oracle” while discussing limits on the power of computation. Suffice it to say that Feedback wishes the very best to the researchers who we reported, correctly, as believing that they may be able to build something like an “oracle”. But…


QUANTITY surveyors, are, in Feedback’s experience, sober people with a clear grasp of the concept “quantity”. They will thus be alarmed at the assertion that Adrian Dooley forwards from the National Building Specification website: “Building Information Modelling (BIM) involves generating a visual model of the building… working in 3D, 4D (workflow) and, increasingly, 5D (quantity surveying).” We look forward to playing with 4D models of buildings, even if only to watch the paint dry, then peel. But does the organisation have any idea how complicated it would be to survey quantities in 5-dimensional Kaluza-Klein universes (described in Instant Expert, 4 June 2011)? WHEN a headline is a question, is the answer always “no”? We asked for counter-examples (19 July) and readers’ responses were far more

interesting than we had anticipated. Michael Paine submitted an article in Space Review: “Can we detect asteroid impacts with rocky extrasolar planets?” He wrote the article and, we suspect, the headline – unlike contributors to magazines and newspapers, whose headlines are written by editors. He answered “yes” and gained points, we submit, mostly for chutzpah. Martin Gardiner points us to The Independent: “Cornwall hotter than California? British sea temperatures hit all-time high”. But we read that “?” in the same way as an “accidental” in musical notation – indicating a sharp note of incredulity rather than an actual question.

MORE controversially, Jared Gottesman noted the headline – or, strictly, cover line: “Turing’s Oracle: Will the universe let us build the ultimate thinking machine?” And where did that appear? On the front of the same

Ben Dallimore alerts us to an exciting headline on the BBC News Health page: “DNA project ‘to make UK world leader’.” Take DNA from Aneurin Bevan, Sylvia Pankhurst, Alan Turing… 5 6 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014

THE most delightful discovery of the week was that the theorem under discussion above – that all headlines that are questions invite the answer “of course not” – has a name. Or names. Lawrence D’Oliveiro points us to “Betteridge’s Law of Headlines” which, confusingly, in the world of WikiFact is currently held to originate from an observation in 2004 by UK journalist Andrew Marr. Looking that up, however, led us to Hinchcliffe’s Rule, which applies to scientific publications and which Feedback is astonished has eluded us for decades. It is named after Ian Hinchliffe of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who among other things co-organised a competition to test physicists’ ability to spot signs of “particles” inserted deliberately into very large synthetic data sets (16 August 2003, p 14). Its most succinct expression is in a paper filed as a preprint under the name Boris Peon and dated 1988. It is entitled “Is Hinchliffe’s Rule True?” and its abstract reads: “Hinchliffe has asserted that whenever the title of a paper is a question with a yes/no answer, the answer is always no. This paper demonstrates that Hinchliffe’s assertion is false, but only if it is true.” There is nothing, and is no need for anything, following the abstract. Feedback is in correspondence with “Boris Peon”, and keenly anticipates the prospect of an “improved” paper.

MANY millions of pounds, euros and dollars are flowing to those who propose that they have the

answer to a question they have invented: how to encourage “reader engagement”, “usergenerated content” and other features of the phenomenon, unnamed in our universe, that is the successor to the old-hat but still challenging “internet two” business environment. We hereby give it away. It is: “be wrong”. We provided a modest example by saying that a holistic pyramid thingy in Utrecht, the Netherlands, was made of “standard 25 mm copper tubing” (26 July). This resulted from asking ourselves “what is ‘1-inch pipe’ called?” and not checking. So it’s available only in our head – so far. Nick Cornford can obtain only “15, 22, or 28mm: quite

unsuitable. No wonder my pyramid doesn’t keep my razor blades sharp.” Jim Grozier expects “a specialist plumbing shop to open in Utrecht, selling 25mm copper tube at €100 per metre”. FINALLY, Orly Selouk is a Feedback reader, and like us reads all the way to the end of the small print stuffed into medicine packets. How, Orly wonders, should one comply with the injunction to “contact my doctor or pharmacist should I notice increased blood levels of nitrogen or urea”? Probably by asking a doctor to check whether you need to ask a doctor whether…

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Last words past and present at

THE LAST WORD Sky lie When I went on holiday from the UK to Australia, I noticed that the full moon looked different to how it appears at home. Online, I found many comments about the moon in the southern hemisphere appearing to be “upside down”. On my return home I compared photographs that were taken in Northern Ireland with those that I took in Cairns in Australia, and there seemed to be only about a 70-degree difference rather than 180 degrees. So does the face of the moon have any variation locally in terms of the aspect facing Earth, and are there two places in the world that when compared would give a 180-degree difference?

■ This raises several interesting issues. To start with, consider observers standing at latitude 54° north in Northern Ireland looking up at the full moon at midnight, when it is highest in the southern sky. The moon will be aligned with its south pole towards the southern horizon. Now suppose you could transport them into the southern hemisphere over the course of a few minutes. As they approach the equator, they would see the moon rise higher and higher in the sky, but with its orientation unchanged. As they cross into the southern hemisphere, the moon would be at the zenith, vertically overhead. Thereafter they would have to bend over backwards to see the moon in the same orientation – the “right way up”.

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Eventually they would have to This, I think, is the explanation stand up to avoid falling over for the apparent rotation your backwards. Turning around to questioner observes. It is because look at the moon now, they would the photos were taken when the see it in the northern sky, with its moon was low in the sky, and north pole towards the northern because Cairns lies roughly 71° horizon. In that sense, the moon is south of Northern Ireland in now perceived to be upside down, latitude. but really it is the observers who I mentioned earlier that the are “upside down”. face of the moon is “more or less” Now consider the moon’s path aligned to the ecliptic. This is in the sky. The moon (more or because the moon does not keep less) follows the arc of the ecliptic, exactly the same face towards the the apparent path of the sun Earth; it wobbles, a process known across the sky, and the face of as libration. the moon is (more or less) at a constant orientation to the “It is actually possible to ecliptic. The angle the ecliptic see about 60 per cent of makes with the horizon depends the moon’s surface at one on the latitude of the observer time or another” and the time of year. During the equinoxes, it turns out that at the equator, the ecliptic Partly this is due to the moon’s rises vertically and passes through orbit not being exactly circular. the zenith. For our observers in The moon slows down or speeds Northern Ireland, the plane of up as it goes around the Earth, the ecliptic is at 54 degrees to the so its orbital speed does not keep perpendicular, towards the step with its rotation. At some southern horizon; for the points, it is possible to peer a little observers in Cairns (latitude 17° way round the moon’s eastern or western limb. “In viewing the moon from In addition, there is a daily Ireland and Australia, it’s libration. This is the result of really the observer who Earth’s rotation carrying the has turned ‘upside down’ ” observer from one side of the earth-moon axis to the other, south) it is at 17 degrees to the bringing a tiny sliver more of perpendicular, leaning towards the moon’s surface into view the northern horizon. in the process. This means that photos of the For the same reason, the moon near to moonrise taken in observers based in Northern the two places would show a Ireland would see a little way over difference of 71 degrees in the the moon’s north pole, and the orientation of the moon’s face observers in Cairns slightly over relative to the horizon. its south pole.

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Finally, the moon’s orbit is inclined slightly to the ecliptic, by about 1 degree, which brings the north or south of the moon a little more into view at various points in its orbit. The combination of these effects makes it possible to see about 60 per cent of the moon’s surface at one time or another, rather than exactly half, as many people assume. This means, of course, that two photographs of the moon taken some time apart in different places would not show exactly the same face, regardless of its orientation. David Walmsley Wokingham, Berkshire, UK

This week’s questions IT’S A FLEA COUNTRY

Our cats have brought in fleas this year, and despite our best efforts we have been unable to remove them from the house. It has prompted a couple of questions though. Fleas can jump a long way, but how do they aim for their targets? And how do they know when another animal is close by, and that it is a good time to jump to their next host? Miles Glanfield London, UK HUE GOES THERE?

How far beyond the visible spectrum does a rainbow extend? Greg Parker Edinburgh, UK

Will we ever speak dolphin? The latest book: packed full of wit, knowledge and extraordinary discovery Available from booksellers and at

New scientist 16 august 2014  
New scientist 16 august 2014