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The forgotten continent of human evolution


Pluto’s atmosphere reveals its secrets


Plastics that sense, react and evolve

WEEKLY March 12 - 18, 2016

WATERY GRAVE The slow death of the world’s great lakes SPECIAL REPORT

THE POWER OF MIND Three ways to access your brain’s hidden depths PLACEBO | HYPNOSIS | MENTAL FLOSS

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Science and technology news US jobs in science

MIRACLE OF MORALITY Why we’re not entirely selfish

Professor Dame Carol Robinson 2015 Laureate for United Kingdom

By Brigitte Lacombe

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Dame Carol Robinson, Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, invented a ground-breaking method for studying how membrane proteins function, which play a critical role in the human body. Throughout the world, exceptional women are at the heart of major scientific advances. For 17 years, L’Oréal has been running the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women In Science programme, honouring exceptional women from around the world. Over 2000 women from over 100 countries have received our support to continue to move science forward and inspire future generations. JOIN US ON FACEBOOK.COM/FORWOMENINSCIENCE


Volume 229 No 3064

This issue online





Political nudges to change our behaviour must never be allowed to turn to shoves


Watery grave



The slow death of the world’s great lakes

On the cover


40 Out of Europe The forgotten continent of human evolution 9 Cloud nine Pluto’s atmosphere 36 Breaking the mould Plastics sense and evolve 8 Watery grave Slow death of world lakes 42 Miracle of morality Why we’re not entirely selfish

The power of mind Three ways to access your brain’s hidden depths

Cover image Aneta Ivanova

UPFRONT Drug that brought down tennis star. China’s green plan. Orangutan numbers double 8 THIS WEEK First pictures of clouds on Pluto? ExoMars probe to sniff out life. Stem cells in urine from premature babies. Bionic fingertip lets you feel texture. Chimp rituals hint at sacred trees. Farmers may have unwittingly been creating GMOs. Wall of galaxies spotted 16 IN BRIEF Dinosaur-era geckos found in amber. Extreme joy can be bad for your heart. Mercury is coloured in with graphite

Technology 20 How much are your friendships worth? The ethical minefield of virtual reality. New way to buy and sell electricity

Aperture 24 Mountain mutilation

Opinion 26 In machines we trust Jamais Cascio on our faith in artificial intelligence 26 Half-baked? Why does E.O.Wilson want to give half of Earth to nature, asks Fred Pearce 27 INSIGHT Jessica Hamzelou on sexism in sex medicine




Breaking the mould

28 The power of mind (see above left) Mental floss Wise yourself up Placebo The strange power of nothing Hypnosis The secrets are in you 36 Breaking the mould (see left) 40 Out of Europe Evolution’s forgotten lands RAFE SWAN/GETTY

Plastics that sense, react and evolve


Coming next week Desperately seeking...

11 things we know exist – but just can’t find

Written in blood

How to read cancer’s early clues

42 Miracle of morality Why it’s fortunate that humans learned to be good 43 Inner power Time to explore cell electricity 44 When art tests Turing Two shows in the birthplace of AI expose our human edge

Regulars 52 LETTERS Solar power gives grid a break 56 FEEDBACK Herbal pills with no herbs 57 THE LAST WORD A labour lost?

12 March 2016 | NewScientist | 3

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discovery, development, advance or achievement that enhances quality of life for older people. The inaugural Ryman Prize was won by Gabi Hollows for her pioneering work to provide affordable eye surgery for people in developing countries. The Hollows Foundation has restored sight to more than 1 million people – an amazing achievement that has transformed lives. If you have a great idea, or have achieved something remarkable like Gabi, we’d love to hear from you!

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Gabi Hollows and Nobel Laureate Dr Erwin Neher at the presentation of the inaugural Ryman Prize



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A nudge too far? If you haven’t heard of wise interventions, you soon will

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SIX years ago, the UK’s new prime us, zombie-like, towards it. minister, David Cameron, began These are legitimate concerns, a groundbreaking experiment in but in the real world nudging has evidence-based policymaking. not proved intrusive or coercive. Inspired by a book written by two But we can’t afford to be US social scientists, he set up the complacent. As the UK nudge Behavioural Insights Team and unit’s director David Halpern told asked them to set about changing New Scientist in 2013: “There’s a the way government worked. great deal of scope for more.” The team’s job was to apply the Now we have a clearer idea of discoveries of behavioural science what “more” might entail: more to the practical problems of of the same, yes, but also a dose running a country. Its go-to tool of something different. For many was the “nudge” – a subtle way of years, psychologists have been encouraging people to do the “Who decides who needs right thing. The US and many to be wised up? Will we be other countries followed suit. Nudges are now commonplace, told what is happening to us? Can we opt out?” and have made numerous small but positive impacts on a range developing what they call “wise of problems. For example, asking psychological interventions” people renewing their car tax (WPIs). These direct and often online if they would like to deceptively simple psychological become organ donors has added tools can help people to overcome hundreds of thousands of people the mental blocks that are holding to the UK register. them back (see page 28). The nudge revolution is Though similar to nudges in controversial, however. Politicians spirit, WPIs are quite different in like nudges because they solve practice, based on making longdifficult problems without lasting changes to a person’s legislation. But ordinary people thought processes rather than are suspicious of them. We short-term changes to their instinctively dislike the idea of environment. Done right, they being manipulated without our may be an even more potent tool knowledge or permission, and for positive social change. Not recoil at the prospect of faceless surprisingly, the UK nudge unit wonks being entitled to decide what is good for us, and propelling and its counterparts elsewhere

have expressed keen interest in using them. They should tread carefully. WPIs inevitably revive the fears that were expressed about nudges. Who decides who needs to be wised up? Will we be told what is happening to us, how it is supposed to work, and how we might benefit? Most importantly, can we opt out? The UK’s nudge unit has already dealt with many of these objections. All of its interventions are tested in controlled trials before being rolled out, and Halpern recently advocated that people should be empowered to “nudge the nudgers”. With citizen juries, say, members of the public could give a steer on what might be acceptable. This model of transparency and informed consent must be maintained if and when WPIs are applied to the real world. Evidence-based policymaking is always a good idea – and often in scandalously short supply in Cameron’s majority-conservative government. Nudge is an example of what is possible when you apply science to policymaking. WPIs offer a similar opportunity. But the well-intentioned politicians who want to use them should always remember: never let nudge turn to shove. ■ 12 March 2016 | NewScientist | 5



Zika disease rebranded WHAT’S in a name? The fetal disease caused by Zika virus could soon have a new title: Zika virus congenital syndrome. The name was proposed by the team who confirmed that the virus causes damage beyond microcephaly – the first fetal condition linked to the virus. Karin Nielsen-Saines at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues performed ultrasound scans on pregnant women in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Among the 42 Zika-infected women in the study, 12 were carrying fetuses with severe abnormalities, including absence or withering of brain structures, tissue death, restricted growth and, in one case, microcephaly. Two otherwise healthy babies were stillborn following infection late in pregnancy.

No health problems were seen in fetuses from 16 uninfected women (New England Journal of Medicine, “As we noticed such a spectrum of abnormalities, it’s fair to say this is a constellation of findings, which defines a congenital syndrome,” says Nielsen-Saines. It is encouraging that 70 per cent of the infected women had healthy fetuses, although it is not clear why they were unaffected. “We’ve been seeing growing evidence of the association between Zika and congenital central nervous system malformations, not just microcephaly, since the first cases were picked up,” says Wim Van Bortel at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in Solna, Sweden.

Up like a rocket…

first stage of the rocket to a barge about the size of a football pitch in the Atlantic Ocean. But the heavy payload and high orbit meant the firm wasn’t expecting an easy touchdown – a prediction that proved correct. “Rocket landed hard on the droneship,” tweeted SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. “Didn’t expect this one to work (v hot reentry), but next flight has a good chance.” SpaceX has managed one successful landing, in December last year, on the ground rather than at sea. Three previous at-sea landings have failed.

–Microcephaly is now just one worry–

Health data spread

people underestimate the amount of data that is collected, and are confused about what anonymised data is. The use by private companies was a serious concern for many people. While 54 per cent supported commercial access for research purposes, 17 per cent say they do not want companies to have access to their data under any circumstances. Of those, a fifth said companies can’t be trusted to keep their data safe. The Wellcome Trust says the poll highlights the need for an opt-out clause.

DO YOU know how the UK health service uses patient data? No? You’re in good company. A poll by Ipsos MORI of 2017 UK adults has found that just a third of us have

a good understanding of how the NHS uses personal data. The NHS collects data on people attending hospital for emergency or scheduled procedures, and for outpatient clinics, for example. After a person’s name and address have been removed, this anonymised data can be accessed by organisations such as charities, universities and private firms. This is supposed to be for research that benefits health, says Sam Smith of the campaign medConfidential – but he says that such a definition is open to interpretation. The Ipsos MORI poll forms part of a study carried out by the Wellcome Trust. It concludes that 6 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016


“People underestimate how much of their health data is collected, and can be used by other parties”

GOOD launch, bad landing – again. SpaceX is continuing to test its reusable rocket technology, even as it carries out successful missions for its customers. On 4 March, the firm lofted a communications satellite from Cape Canaveral, Florida, for Luxembourg operator SES. The launch followed four attempts that were aborted due to fuelling issues. The satellite was delivered to geosynchronous orbit, and SpaceX then tried to return the

Orangutan boost THEY’RE not just hanging around. There are more than twice as many orangutans on the Indonesian island of Sumatra than we thought. A team led by Serge Wich, a primatologist at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, found evidence of more than 14,600 apes there, up from the previous estimate of 6600. The estimate grew as Wich’s team searched places no one had –Living the high life– looked before, such as at higher

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Climate diet deaths

elevations, in logged forests and in a remote area west of Lake Toba (Science Advances, “It changes my perception of how flexible Sumatran orangutans are,” says Wich. “The fact that they occur in logged areas means it is possible to have some timber harvesting and keep the orangutans.” But deforestation and development could still see their numbers plummet as the government of Aceh province, where most of the island’s apes live, plans to open up large areas of forest to oil-palm plantations, mining and new roads.

GETTING your five-a-day may soon become trickier. Global warming will make it harder for people to eat more fruit and vegetables, leading to 500,000 deaths in 2050 that would otherwise have been avoided, according to a modelling study. This could be the biggest health impact of climate change in the short term, larger than the effects from heatwaves, starvation or the spread of tropical diseases. Peter Scarborough of the University of Oxford, whose team carried out the study, found that

China’s green plan


fruit and vegetable consumption will rise compared with today, but not by as much as it would without climate change. His model shows this would lead to more deaths in a world with climate change (The Lancet, doi. org/bc4s). But many uncertainties remain in projections of how climate change will affect the food we eat and the impact on our health. And while half a million is an awful lot of deaths, it is only a fraction of the 80 million deaths predicted annually by 2050, Scarborough says – as expected given that the dietary changes are modest.

Sharapova admits banned drug


THE era of China’s factories TENNIS star Maria Sharapova has been provisionally banned from the churning out endless stuff for sport after failing a drug test at the the world is coming to a close. Australian Open in January. She Instead, the second largest tested positive for meldonium, a economy wants to accelerate its recently banned drug that she says shift from coal-hungry industry, she had been taking for 10 years for towards a greener future. That’s health reasons. according to the government’s The Russian athlete said she was draft 13th five-year plan, unveiled in Beijing on 5 March and expected unaware that the drug she knew as mildronate had another name or that to be adopted this week. it had been added to the banned list “This is a big shift in how China of the World Anti-Doping Agency is thinking about its economy,” (WADA) until she heard she had says Kate Gordon of the Paulson failed the test. Sharapova said she Institute, a think-tank in Chicago. was prescribed it for a variety of “It’s an attempt to decouple symptoms and because of a family economic growth from energy history of diabetes. consumption.” The drug was developed by the Central to the shift is reducing Latvian Institute of Organic Synthesis dependence on coal, the dirtiest fuel in terms of carbon emissions. China’s emissions may already have peaked, according to a new report by economist Nicholas Stern. Much of the impetus for change has come from the Chinese public in response to record levels of air pollution in some major cities. “What’s exciting is that China has an integrated approach that tackles all these problems – from air quality to climate change ,” says Gordon. “The key will be to show a model to the rest of the world for how to switch to –Caught out by updated drugs listsustainable development.”

in Riga to treat ischaemia, in which tissues are deprived of oxygen. It isn’t approved by the US Food and Drug Administration but is often prescribed in Latvia, Russia and Ukraine. The drug appears to improve mood and increase physical activity, possibly by modulating the amount of oxygen available to tissues. In animal tests, meldonium increased mobility, increased the length of time it was possible to exercise before fatigue, and protected against some of the effects of stress on the body (CNS Drug Reviews, “Meldonium was added [to the banned list] because of evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance,” WADA said in a statement.

All systems Go The latest battleground between human and machine is Go. This week, Google’s DeepMind AI is facing off against Lee Se-dol, world champion at the ancient Chinese board game, in a five-game match in Seoul, South Korea. Google will pay Lee $1 million should he win, or donate the cash to charity if its AlphaGo AI reigns supreme. For updates on the match, visit

Creatorgate An almighty row blew up this week over three references to a “creator” in a paper about the evolution of hand coordination. The journal PLoS One has retracted the article ( The authors claim it was a mistranslation from the Chinese and are appealing for the paper to reappear with “creator” replaced by “nature”.

Seismic soccer win Fans of UK football club Leicester City have a lot to cheer, with their team topping the Premier League ahead of more famous clubs. When they won against Norwich City last month, fans’ celebrations were so rapt that they registered on local seismographs as a magnitude 0.3 tremor. No buildings were damaged.

Oregon cans coal Oregon has become the first US state to vote for a complete ban on coal-generated power by 2035. It also wants renewables to account for at least half of its energy supply by 2040.

Spiders conquer Sydney Sydney is all tangled up in a spectacular spider boom, thanks to warm, moist conditions that have yielded a bumper crop of prey insects such as moths and butterflies. Redbacks and golden orb-weavers are especially abundant, with many more of their young surviving and producing new generations in a single season.

12 March 2016 | NewScientist | 7


When the lakes run dry

THE world’s lakes are being hung out to dry. In December, Bolivia’s second largest lake, Lake Poopó, became a salt pan, and its largest – Lake Titicaca – is heading towards trouble. Many lakes in other parts of the world also seem to be warming, shrinking and even disappearing as a consequence of unsustainable water use and climate change. This could affect water availability and the livelihoods of millions of people, as well as ecosystems. Lake Poopó vanished due to the withdrawal of water for irrigation, silting up of the river that feeds it and climate change. “Considering the size of the lake – 2700 square kilometres – this is astounding, with slim prospects of recovery,” says Dirk Hoffmann at the Bolivia Mountain Institute. “This event should serve as a real warning.” Lakes on the Central Anatolian Plateau in Turkey lost around half of their surface area between 2003 and 2010, according to as-yetunpublished work by Meryem Beklioglu, a freshwater ecologist


Kate Ravilious

The disappearance of lakes in Turkey has been blamed on a rise in water extraction for agriculture and a growing population. Climate change doesn’t help. “This region is experiencing a drier climate now, which is also driving increased water extraction,” says Erik Jeppesen, a freshwater ecologist at Aarhus University in Denmark. The eastern Mediterranean has just had its worst drought in 900 years. Many of Turkey’s lakes are shallow, making them more vulnerable. As they shrink, salt –Lake Poopó is no more– levels skyrocket. “It happens really fast – just four or five years – and at the Middle East Technical has caused water-rationing in the University in Ankara. Lake Aksehir past,” Beklioglu says. The smaller has dried up completely, she says, volume of water also concentrates resulting in the extinction of one nutrients and encourages fish species, Alburnus nasreddini, potentially toxic algal blooms. and endangering two others. Beklioglu’s models predict Drying up that, at the current rate of water extraction, one of the largest lakes “Ultimately, the drying of the lakes along with the loss of in this region – Lake Beysehir – groundwater and salinisation will be gone by 2040. “This water is critical for irrigation and for the will make the land less viable for agriculture in this region,” says local economy, but right now we Jeppesen. “This will put significant are cutting off the branch we are pressure on northern countries sitting on,” she says.

SOME LAKES ARE WARMING FASTER THAN AIR The surface waters of the world’s lakes have warmed on average by 0.34 °C per decade since 1985. Sweden’s Lake Fracksjön is the fastest warming lake in the world, increasing 1.35 °C per decade, outpacing the rise in air temperature around it. Close behind is Lake Superior, one of North America’s Great Lakes. “The combination of cleaner skies, increasing air temperature and a shorter period of winter ice cover is behind this rapid warming,” says Catherine O’Reilly at

8 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016

Illinois State University. This warming is disrupting lake ecosystems. In European lakes, for example, cold-loving fish such as Arctic char decline while populations of warm-water fish such as carp rise. The latter feed on zooplankton, leaving fewer to control damaging algal blooms. Rapid surface warming also boosts separation of the deep cold water from the warm surface water, reducing the transfer of nutrients and oxygen between the two.

Tropical lakes are especially vulnerable because they don’t have the cold winter season to help the lake layers equilibrate. Lake Tanganyika in East Africa is one example. “We think this has contributed to declining fish yields,” says James Russell at Brown University, Rhode Island – a worrying prospect given that fish are a major source of protein for people living in the four countries bordering the lake, and that the fisheries provide jobs for around 1 million people.


Ever-rising water extraction and climate change mean many lakes around the globe are shrinking. Some may already be gone forever

to produce more food, leading to deteriorating water quality in northern lakes due to increased fertiliser run-off entering lakes.” Further east, changing rainfall patterns coupled with a mining boom and agricultural irrigation have caused more than a quarter of the lakes in Mongolia to dry up since the 1980s. Similarly, lakes in south-east Australia have shrunk during recent droughts, with one of the largest – Lake Alexandrina – losing over two-thirds of its volume and experiencing a fivefold increase in salinity during droughts in 2007-2009. “This caused localised extinctions of native fish species,” says Kane Aldridge at the University of Adelaide. Heavy water usage by farms coupled with climate change are blamed. “Droughts are a natural part of the climate here, but they are expected to become more common under climate change.” One place that is warming rapidly is the Arctic. Viewed from above, it is dotted with millions of ponds – but far fewer than a few decades ago. A 2015 study in northern Alaska shows that over

In this section ■ ExoMars probe to sniff out life, page 10 ■ Stem cells in urine from premature babies, page 11 ■ Farmers may have unwittingly been creating GMOs, page 14

First images of possible clouds in Pluto’s skies

“In 2014, an Arctic lake with the volume of 350 Olympic swimming pools drained in just 36 hours” “These ponds are the baby lakes, and if they disappear then we will have no Arctic lakes in the long term,” says Christian Andresen at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. This will be bad news for fish like salmon, and migratory birds who depend on these lakes, says Grosse.

lakes, reducing the input of nutrients could help to maintain the ecosystem balance, says Jeppesen. Dredging channels and building dams can be a last resort. But as the Aral Sea in central Asia, which went from being the world’s fourth largest lake to all but vanishing in less than a century, shows, once a lake is lost it is very hard to recover. “Closed lake basins and shallow lakes are the most vulnerable to drying,” says Lisa Borre at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York. “Climate change is a major issue and we will see more Aral Seas and Lake Poopós in the future.” ■


the last 60 years the surface area of ponds has shrunk by almost a third, and nearly a fifth of the ponds have vanished. This is largely due to the permafrost thawing. When frozen soil thaws, the water can drain. “It is like pulling the plug from a bathtub,” says Guido Grosse from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Potsdam, Germany, who has used satellite and aerial photos to document this loss. And once they start to drain they can disappear fast. In July 2014, an Arctic lake with the volume of around 350 Olympic swimming pools emptied in just 36 hours.

IT CAN take a while to get a weather report from the outskirts of the solar system. The New Horizons spacecraft, which flew past Pluto last July, may have discovered clouds above the surface. Images released publicly by the New Horizons team have already shown off Pluto’s surprisingly complex atmosphere, featuring many layers of haze rising above icy mountains. But in emails and images seen by New Scientist, researchers on the mission discuss the possibility that they have spotted individual clouds, pointing to an even richer atmospheric diversity. The first sign of clouds came on 13 September last year, a few days –Here today, gone tomorrow– before the public release of the haze pictures. Will Grundy of the Lowell Despite all this, most of the Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, sent an email to a discussion list dedicated world’s lakes are unlikely to to analysing New Horizons results disappear any time soon. And in about Pluto’s atmosphere. “There’s a some areas, such as the Tibetan few fairly localized low-altitude plateau, the number of lakes is actually expanding. Rapid glacier features just above the limb that I’ve drawn lame arrows pointing to, but melting is creating new lakes there: 1099 in total between 1990 also a few bright cloud-like things that seem to be above and cutting across and 2010, representing a 23 per the topography in the circled area,” he cent increase in surface area. wrote. Grundy had spotted features in In the regions that are losing the haze on the edge – or “limb” – of lakes, wiser water management Pluto that seemed to stand out from could help slow down shrinking, the distinct layers. But intriguingly, he says Beklioglu. And for warming

had also seen a bright feature crossing different parts of the landscape, suggesting it was hovering above. The email kicked off a discussion about whether the clouds were real, because it was difficult to see if they cast shadows on the ground. The team also deliberated over the exact

“There are a few bright cloud-like things that seem to be cutting across the topography” distinction between clouds and hazes. “One way to think of it is that clouds are discrete features, hazes widespread,” wrote Alan Stern, who heads up the New Horizons mission. An email sent by John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, on 1 March includes a picture (below) of a cloud that seems to stand out from the surface. “In the first image an extremely bright low altitude limb haze above south-east Sputnik on the left, and a discrete fuzzy cloud seen against the sunlit surface above Krun Macula (I think) on the right,” he wrote. The probe has many gigabytes of data and we won’t have the full data set until nearly the end of this year. There could well be more cloud pictures up there. Jacob Aron ■

–Hazy with a hint of clouds?– 12 March 2016 | NewScientist | 9


Off to sniff out life on Mars


IT HAS taken a while, but next week we are finally heading back to Mars. On 14 March, Europe’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will blast off from the Russian Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Proton rocket. Its mission: to understand “Detecting methane doesn’t tell you whether it is the Red Planet’s atmosphere and biological. Finding a source search for signs of biological and would be a home run” geological activity. If all goes to plan, the craft will arrive on 19 October. Its small microbes. “If there is methane, it lander, named Schiaparelli, will needs to be supplied continuously then touch down on the surface, from somewhere,” says Svedhem. giving the European Space Agency Previous sightings of methane (ESA) and Russia’s Roscosmos by NASA’s Curiosity rover and much-needed landing practice for other orbiters and telescopes have a future ExoMars rover, due to proved confusing, as the gas launch in 2018. seemed to be more short-lived Neither agency has a great track than expected. To get to the record when it comes to Mars. bottom of this mystery, TGO is The only ESA mission there, Mars equipped with two suites of Express, successfully put a probe spectrometers designed to sniff into orbit in 2003. But Beagle 2, out atmospheric gases down to the British-built lander it tiny amounts, a camera to deployed, failed to phone home, photograph potential ground and it wasn’t located on the sources, and a neutron detector surface until last year. Russia to map subsurface water ice. has fared even worse, losing its Those tiny amounts – the trace 2011 Phobos-Grunt mission to a gases that give TGO its name – botched launch. Before that, the Soviet Union attempted more than a dozen Mars missions, but none was a complete success. As such, NASA has dominated Martian exploration so far. Its most recent probe, MAVEN, is now analysing the planet’s upper atmosphere. TGO will give us a new perspective nearer the surface, says ExoMars 2016 project scientist Håkan Svedhem. “It has instruments that are much, much more sensitive than in the past,” he says, able to detect molecules at a level of parts per trillion. Linking atmospheric gases to possible sources on the surface is 10 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016


key to figuring out whether Mars is as dead as it seems, and TGO’s top priority is methane. The gas breaks down in sunlight after a few hundred years, meaning any found on Mars must have been produced recently, either by active volcanoes or gas-belching

Jacob Aron

should crack the planet’s methane secrets. If the methane is accompanied by sulphur dioxide and is traced to geological features on the surface, then active volcanism is the likely cause. On the other hand, methane laced with higher levels of the isotope carbon-12, which is

preferred by life on Earth, would point to a biological origin – though that would still be far from confirming that there is life on Mars. “Detecting methane by itself doesn’t tell you whether it is produced biologically or geologically – you need to look at the whole suite of atmospheric behaviour,” says Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who leads the MAVEN mission. “That would be considered the home run for TGO: to define the source of methane.” Even geological methane could get astrobiologists humming. “It would suggest there are areas of heat and chemical exchange,” says Nicholas Heavens of Hampton University in Virginia. Both are ingredients for potential life. Whatever TGO finds, don’t expect results straight away. Although the probe will probably snap some pictures and take a few –Trailblazer for a future rover– readings to confirm everything is

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Urine from premature babies peps up kidneys

the 2018 mission,” says Svedhem. “But it will surely do that for later missions to come.” Instead, the Schiaparelli lander will act as a dry run for the rover. The lander is batterypowered, so will only last a few days on the surface, but its weather sensors and camera will capture a snapshot of the Martian environment. Its more important job is testing out the rough route to the surface.

IF YOU’RE looking for stem cells, urine luck… Urine from premature babies could provide a rich supply of stem cells for medical treatments or for rebooting worn-out kidneys for transplantation. Stem cells are the cellular putty from which all tissues in our body are made. They can be hard to come by though. Embryos have many stem cells that can change into any number of tissues, but getting them involves the destruction of an embryo. Over the years, people have found other sources of stem cells at a slightly later stage of development that can develop into specific cell types. For example, a type of stem cell destined to become kidney cells can be isolated from adult urine. But babies born early might provide a better source, says Elena Levtchenko at the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL), Belgium. She and her colleagues have isolated stem cells from the urine of premature babies born at between 31 and 36 weeks of development. The team developed these stem cells into a range of types of kidney cell by bathing them in different nutrients. “They act like kidney cells, and do what kidney cells are supposed to do,” says Levtchenko. There were also many more stem cells in the baby urine than there are in adult urine. The urine of premature

Schiaparelli will break away from the orbiter on 16 October, a few days before it arrives at Mars, and enter the atmosphere at 21,000 kilometres per hour. In a little under 6 minutes, a heat shield, parachute and thrusters will slow the lander to walking speed. The same technology writ large should ensure a safe landing for the future rover. If this bevy of explorers does turn up hints of biological activity, –TGO will scan Mars’s atmosphere– it will complicate decisions over future Mars missions. NASA has still working after its loose plans to send humans there interplanetary trip, the mission’s by the 2030s, and other agencies science phase won’t start until the and private organisations are end of 2017. That’s because TGO vaguely promising to go. The will arrive at a speed of thousands potential contamination of native of kilometres per hour, and must life might prompt a rethink, says spend around a year slowing Heavens. “There will have to be a down by gently grazing the different set of thoughts about Martian atmosphere, a process whether we should actually send called aerobraking. ESA had a crewed missions to Mars.” practice run in 2014 with its Venus Or it could have the opposite Express craft, just before that effect. “I think it would become mission came to an end. a strong motivator to bring This braking delay means the samples back to Earth or send 2018 ExoMars rover, which will humans,” says Jakosky. “No have a drill capable of looking for contamination is total. We study signs of life down to 2 metres microorganisms here on Earth below the surface, won’t be able even though we’ve contaminated to directly follow up on TGO’s it with people.” discoveries. The rover is due to First, ExoMars has to get off the touch down in 2019 in a region ground. It’s not imperative that it called Oxia Planum. By the time should do so on Monday – the any results come in from TGO, mission has a 12-day launch it will be too late to change the window – but Svedhem is feeling mission plans. positive that they will be first time “We don’t expect the findings lucky. “We’re quite confident that from TGO will affect the it will work out,” he says. “I think decision on the landing site for we will really go on the 14th.” ■


Possible contamination

babies is much more likely to provide a source of enough stem cells to be used in any potential therapies, says Levtchenko. This could be because a fetus’s kidneys continue to develop right up until birth, so premature babies’ kidneys are still developing. The premature babies’ stem cells seem to be able to protect other cells from damage. When the team applied a toxic cancer drug to adult kidney cells, all of the cells died. But when the team added the babies’ stem cells to the mix, they found that many of the kidney cells regenerated and survived (Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, DOI: 10.1681/ asn.2015060664). The team is testing its urinederived stem cells on human organs that are too old or damaged to be

“Stem cells in urine develop into cells that do what kidney cells are supposed to do” used for transplantation. The aim is to regenerate damaged kidney tissue, making organs fit for transplants. They also want to test whether the cells have the same protective effect in living animals and eventually people. In theory, the cells could be used to rescue kidney cells that are damaged as a result of disease, Levtchenko says. Jessica Hamzelou ■

–Just a wee one– 12 March 2016 | NewScientist | 11


Bionic finger can feel textures finger across different textures. To test the sensors on Sørensen, Micera’s team hooked the bionic finger up to a machine that moved it over different pieces of plastic with smooth or rough textures. When the finger moved, he experienced the

A MAN who had his lower arm amputated has been able to feel textures once again using a bionic finger. “I could tell the difference between rough and smooth – it was amazing,” says Dennis Sørensen. People who have their hand or arm amputated can use a prosthetic body part to help them lift or grip things. A device that could also recreate a sense of touch would make it easier to identify and manipulate objects. Silvestro Micera at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and his team implanted electromechanical sensors in the tip of a prosthetic finger. These sensors deform when touched, sending signals to a computer, which converts them into a sequence of on-off commands. These are then used to stimulate nerves in the upper arm via surgically inserted electrodes. The patterns of stimulation emulate those that happen naturally when you run your

What’s behind chimp ‘sacred tree’ rituals? ALL hail the chimp temple. Sightings of chimps using what seems to be a “sacred tree”, perhaps for some sort of ritual, have been reported in the Republic of Guinea. Can this mean the chimps have evolved some early form of religion? Laura Kehoe of the Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, set up camera traps by trees marked with unusual scratches. What she found gave her goosebumps: chimps were placing stones in the hollow of trees, 12 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016


Helen Thomson

and bashing trees with rocks (Scientific Reports, The behaviour could be a means of communication, since rocks make a loud bang when they strike hollow trees. But it could be more symbolic. “Maybe we found the first evidence of chimpanzees creating a kind of shrine that could indicate sacred trees,” Kehoe wrote in a blog. This is the latest evidence of the extraordinary richness of chimp behaviour that includes using spears to hunt bushbabies, going to war, and playing with doll-shaped sticks. They were also spotted performing “ritual” dances during rainfall and in the face of a bush fire. Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University,

sensation of texture where the index finger of his amputated arm had been. He could distinguish between surfaces 96 per cent of the time. “It was very close to the feeling in my real arm – you can feel coarseness and the different gaps and ridges,” says Sørensen, who lost his lower arm in a firework accident in 2003 after a rocket blew up in his hand. The idea is to eventually build a full prosthesis with sensors on all the fingertips, although it

will take time to develop electrodes that can stay in the body for long periods. Micera’s team also tested the bionic finger on four non-amputees using a single electrode inserted into the upper arm like an acupuncture needle. They were able to distinguish textures 77 per cent of the time. By comparing the nonamputees’ brainwaves when they felt texture using their real finger and the bionic version, Micera’s team was able to demonstrate that the sensations picked up by the bionic finger did indeed resemble those felt naturally (eLife, “The brainwaves were similar in both experiments,” says team member Calogero Oddo at the Biorobotics Institute in Pisa, Italy. In 2014, Dustin Tyler at the Louis Stokes Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and his colleagues created prosthetic hands with a sense of touch and pressure, allowing amputees to pull the stalks off cherries without crushing the fruit. The latest study builds on this by allowing people to feel textures. Oddo says the team is now working towards enabling amputees to experience the things you would touch in the real world, –Once more, with feeling– like the texture of jeans. ■

who saw the “fire dance” in 2006, and is involved in the new study, thinks the chimps bang stones to communicate. Many males drum on root buttresses as the noise carries further than the standard chimp cry, the pant-hoot, she says. If there are no trees with buttress roots available, the chimps might bang stones instead. What about storing stones in hollow trees? “It does seem to be a tradition found in some groups,” Pruetz says. “If that fits the definition of proto-

“Maybe we found the first evidence of chimps making a kind of shrine that could indicate sacred trees”

ritualistic, I have no problem with it.” The evolutionary origin of religion is profoundly important to understanding human culture, so it’s essential to examine any possible roots of this in other animals. It’s way too soon, though, to conclude that the chimp behaviour is proto-religious – or even evidence of belief in a god, as some tabloids would have it. “It’s such a cool observation,” says primate cognitive psychologist Laurie Santos of Yale University. “But I worry that we don’t yet know how to interpret it. We’d need more observation – and perhaps actual experiments – to know if chimpanzees are using the behaviour as anything like a ritual.” Rowan Hooper ■

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THIS WEEK Cosmic wall spans a billion light years

Farming has made GMOs for millennia Michael Le Page

nucleus of a cell could transfer across a graft and be added to an existing cell nucleus – fusing the two genomes. Now a team led by Pal Maliga of Rutgers University in New Jersey has shown that cells on either side of a graft also swap mitochondria – energy-generating structures with a small genome. Once entire mitochondria from one plant get into the cells of another, they mix their DNA with that of the existing mitochondria. There has been growing evidence from genome

WE HAVE been accidentally genetically engineering plants – and eating GMOs – for millennia. That is the implication of a series of studies showing the ancient practice of grafting allows even distantly related plants to swap all three kinds of their genomes. “It’s genetic engineering done by mother nature,” says Ralph Bock of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam, Germany. Grafting involves transplanting a section of one plant onto “It’s quite shocking. another so the two parts fuse It blurs the boundaries and continue to grow. Farmers between genetic have been grafting plants for engineering and nature” thousands of years to combine kinds with desired traits. Grafting also occurs naturally, when sequencing that plants exchange branches press together. mitochondria, but this study is A study led by Bock in 2009 the first to show it happening. showed that cells on either side To do so, Maliga’s team grafted of a graft could exchange two tobacco species. One had a chloroplasts – the organelles mitochondrial mutation that that carry out photosynthesis prevents the male parts of and have their own small genome. flowers developing normally. Then, in 2014, another study by They then took slices from the Bock’s team found that the entire sterile-male side of the grafts and 14 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016

HERE’S the latest reminder that space is really, really big. At a cool billion light years across, a distant complex of galaxy superclusters may be the largest structure yet found in the cosmos. Individual galaxies like our own Milky Way are bound together by gravity into clusters, and these clusters clump into superclusters. These can in turn link together into long lines of galaxies called walls. On –Genetic engineering by accident– the grandest scales, the universe resembles a cosmic web of matter surrounding empty voids – and these grew whole plants from them. walls are the thickest threads. Some of these plants developed In the nearby universe, we know of flowers with normal male parts, the Sloan Great Wall, and in 2014, the thanks to mitochondrial transfer Milky Way was found to be part of a between the two species (PNAS, Genome swapping supercluster system called Laniakea. only takes place close to the site of Both are enormous. But the newly spotted BOSS Great Wall, with a total a graft, but shoots often grow mass perhaps 10,000 times as great from this region and can give rise as the Milky Way, is two-thirds bigger to new plants with mixed again than either of them. genomes. Heidi Lietzen of the Canary Islands Because grafting has been Institute of Astrophysics and her team widely used for millennia, it is found it by looking for clumpedhighly likely that some of the together galaxies in a vast area plants we eat were created by this between 4.5 and 6.4 billion light kind of unintentional genetic years away. In all that space, one engineering by farmers, Maliga and Bock think. Nobody has looked dense, giant system stood out for evidence yet, says Maliga. “But ( “It was so much bigger than I would be very surprised if people anything else in this volume,” didn’t find any sign of this.” Lietzen says. The BOSS Great Wall “It is quite shocking,” Bock contains 830 galaxies we can see and says. “It blurs the boundaries probably many more that are too far between man-made and natural genetic engineering.” He is trying away and faint to be observed by survey telescopes. to create a tomato-chilli mix Brent Tully of the University of by combining the nuclear Hawaii, who discovered the Laniakea genomes of these plants cluster, says that deciding what through grafting. constitutes a single structure The findings will allow plant depends on your definition. breeders to create new plants A denser region of galaxies is and modify traits in ways traditional, he says, and indeed the that were not thought possible new wall contains five times as many before. While biologists can galaxies as an average patch of sky. genetically modify chloroplasts But tracking whether the galaxies are and the nucleus, for instance, moving together – impossible, given there was no known way of how far away they are – might give a altering mitochondria in plants different answer. Joshua Sokol ■ until now. ■




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IN BRIEF Mining bird farms trees for manna

Dinosaur-era amber reveals gecko and chameleon origins IT HELPED solve a sticky situation in the distant past. Geckos’ adhesive toe pads and chameleons’ projectile tongues may have evolved by 100 million years ago. This is according to analysis of a new collection of 12 early lizards preserved in amber. The specimens date back to the middle of the Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs such as the massive Argentinosaurus were still around. The fossils come from Myanmar’s Kachin state and are thought to have lived in tropical forests. They are well preserved and unusually diverse, suggesting that major lizard groups were already established at that time

(Science Advances, “One of them is perhaps the best fossil gecko known in the world,” says Juan Daza of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, whose team revealed the finds. One small lizard is trapped next to a scorpion and a millipede. This proximity and the fact that modern lizards in tropical forests hunt arthropods suggest these were their prey, too, Daza says. The adhesive toe pads are present in the gecko specimens, suggesting their climbing lifestyle evolved much earlier than previously thought. And a chameleon fossil has a weak jaw that would be ineffective for biting prey – possible evidence that the modern chameleon’s method of grabbing prey with a projectile tongue is also an old adaptation, Daza says.

Anxiety distorts a person’s perceptions ANXIOUS people may perceive the world differently, processing sounds in an altered way. When we learn that something is dangerous, like a dog that bites, we generalise the memory, so that warning signs alert us in future. But some people overgeneralise, a process thought to play a role in post-traumatic stress disorder and general anxiety disorder. Rony Paz at the Weizmann 16 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016

Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and his colleagues have now shown that this process can distort our perceptions. His team trained 28 people with generalised anxiety disorder to associate two tones with either losing or winning money. Later, they were asked to distinguish the two tones from a range of other, subtly different notes, but no money was at stake.

In past experiments, Paz says people who aren’t anxious readily distinguished familiar tones from new ones. But the volunteers with anxiety struggled, and made about twice as many mistakes. It seems they overgeneralised their unpleasant memories of losing money, leading them to mix-up neutral sounds (Current Biology, “People with anxiety have an altered perception of the world,” says Paz.

AN ENDANGERED Tasmanian songbird doesn’t have to wait for manna from heaven: it goes out and makes its own. The forty-spotted pardalote (Pardalotus quadragintus) is the first Australian bird found to encourage trees to release manna, a sugary crystallised sap. The birds deliberately clip the leaf stalks of the manna-gum tree, a species of eucalyptus, with their bills. The tree usually responds to the wounds by exuding sticky and nutritious manna over the next few days, which the birds return to harvest. This rare behaviour, known as “mining” or “farming”, helps birds feed their young, but also benefits other manna-eating animals, such as sugar gliders and honeyeaters. “We were ecstatic and surprised to discover a novel foraging behaviour,” says Samuel Case of the Australian National University in Canberra.

Speedy beetles pogo on water WATER lily beetles are extreme waterskiers. And now we know how they move so fast. Haripriya Mukundarajan from Stanford University in California and her colleagues filmed beetles as they sped across water at up to 0.5 metres per second – scaled for size, this is equivalent to a human travelling at 500 km/h. When a beetle “takes off”, it lifts its middle legs, then angles its body upwards and flaps its wings to launch itself forward, travelling up to a few metres (Journal of Experimental Biology, bc2v). The beetles move so fast that they interact with the ripples generated by their own motion. “It’s as if surface tension acts as a pogo stick that the beetle is jumping on,” says Mukundarajan.


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A SPINE-CHILLER without a spine. A ghostly octopus spotted 4290 metres deep last month seems to be a new species. This haunting creature (pictured below) also beats the depth record for this type of octopus. Michael Vecchione at the Smithsonian Museum, Washington DC, was surprised to discover the mysterious animal near Necker Island in the Hawaiian archipelago while collecting sediment samples in an underwater vehicle. “It is almost certainly a new species,” he says. And it may even belong to a whole new genus. Since the specimen is similar in appearance to shallow-water octopuses and lacks fins, it is thought to be a type of incirrate octopus. These creatures have never before been found at such depths – unlike finned octopuses, which are found more than 5000 metres down. The octopus’s ghostly appearance is unusual because cephalopods typically have pigment-containing cells called chromatophores, which allow them to change colour for camouflage. Since much of the deep sea is uncharted, it is rich territory for discovering life. “The more time we spend at deeper depths, or in the deep water column, the more likely we are to come across something unexpected,” says Vecchione.

18 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016

Galactic collisions feed entire star systems to black holes IT’S a self-inflicted wound of cosmic proportions. When two galaxies go to war, they fling many of their own stars into the black holes at their centres, gobbling them up for good. Supermassive black holes occupy the centres of most large galaxies, including our own, and astronomers have watched several tear apart passing stars. Decker French of the University of Arizona in Tucson and her colleagues have found that most of these star-eating black holes dwell in galaxies that experienced

a rash of star formation during the last few billion years. Many of these “starbursts” are probably caused by a galactic collision. When two galaxies hit each other, gas clouds from one strike those from the other, compressing the gas and spawning lots of new stars. A galactic collision endangers stars in two ways: it can catapult them towards the central black hole, and can also create a blackhole binary that eats passing stars more easily than a single one can. The team analysed eight

galaxies whose black holes swallowed stars and found that six of them – 75 per cent – recently experienced starbursts. French calls the result “very significant” because recent starbursts have occurred in only 2.3 per cent of galaxies in general (Astrophysical Journal Letters, So is Earth in danger? The Andromeda galaxy will collide with the Milky Way in 4 billion years’ time, which could toss us into the galactic core. “It’s very, very unlikely,” says French, but “it will definitely increase the chances”. BETSIE VAN DER MEER/GETTY

Meet Casper, the ghostly octopus

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Mercury surface details pencilled in TO BRIGHTEN up the solar system’s innermost planet, you might need an eraser. Dark spots on Mercury’s surface seem to be made of graphite, the same substance found in pencil lead – and the entire planet may once have been encrusted in it. The dark patches have puzzled researchers, but data from NASA’s now-defunct Messenger probe may have the answer: infrared spectra show the stuff is carbon, in the form of graphite. What’s more, the number of neutrons sparked by cosmic rays hitting the surface is higher than it would be from other possible minerals. “The only hypothesised darkening agent that works with these two data sets is carbon,” says Patrick Peplowski of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, whose team published the finding. The graphite may date back to the earliest days of Mercury, when a magma ocean covered the planet and nearly every mineral that formed would have sunk to the bottom. “There’s only one mineral that would float, and it’s graphite,” Peplowski says (Nature Geoscience,

Good news can shock heart like grief SO HAPPY your heart might burst? Believe it or not, extreme happiness can trigger a life-threatening heart abnormality with symptoms similar to a heart attack. The finding comes from an analysis of 1750 people with takotsubo syndrome. First described in 1990, the condition was thought to be induced by physical stress, or the emotional stress of negative experiences, such as bereavement, break-ups or job losses. While this was true for 465 people, 20 others fell ill in the midst of happy events, such as birthdays, weddings,

reunions, sporting triumphs and jackpot wins (European Heart Journal, “It was a complete surprise to us,” says Jelena Ghadri of the University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland, who co-founded the registry that tracks takotsubo cases around the world. The syndrome involves a sudden ballooning of the base of the heart’s left ventricle, producing heart attack-like pain and breathlessness. Most people recover naturally in a few months, but 3 to 5 per cent die – the same death rate as for conventional heart attacks.



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TECHNOLOGY a way to translate solidarity online into practical support: a digital currency called SpotLight. SpotLight merges a “like” with a micropayment. You buy one unit of the currency for £3.65, $3.65 or €3.65 – Parienti wants the price to suggest the idea of giving someone a cent or penny every day for a year. Other currencies will be accepted in future. To donate, you just click a little icon on the recipient’s Horyou page. You can recover your donation at any time if you want someone else to have it. SpotLight can also be used to pay for services provided by other Horyou members – such as consulting or accounting advice. Once a user has a SpotLight pot amounting to 100 units of an actual currency, it can be –Put your money where your mouse is– converted into it and transferred to a bank account. Horyou is not the first social network to have its own credit system (see “Gaining currency”), but most do not let you convert credits back into real money. One that does is Gaption, built by a team in Malaysia, A Swiss social network wants to help online activists give more than although it pays members for moral support – but is it as slick as it claims to be, asks Sally Adee clicking on ads rather than being driven by donations. HOW do you turn a Facebook “There are a lot of small allowing small donations If micropayments were all like into something more useful? organisations that have trouble to snowball for the recipient. there was to it, Horyou would For organisations that want to reaching the people who could Launched in December 2013, not stand out from other tap into online philanthropy, help them,” says Matthew Horyou connects artists and crowdfunding sites. But Parienti it’s a major challenge. One social Jackson at Stanford University in non-profit groups with potential has designed the system so that network is aiming to fix this by California, who studies economic supporters, including big firms. multiple small donations can turning likes into payments. patterns within social networks. It now has 220,000 members build up by attracting bigger There are many online avenues Enter Horyou, a social network in 180 countries. sums from corporate donors. for people to contribute money, based in Geneva, Switzerland. It To avoid the pitfalls of A company can buy from crowdfunding sites like wants to make giving as painless slacktivism, Horyou founder membership of the site for Kickstarter to microcredit and intuitive as a Facebook like, Yonathan Parienti has devised a certain amount – a local platforms that let individuals shop might pay $2000 and a make small loans to others. multinational, like Coca-Cola GAINING CURRENCY But the reach of such sites is or Exxon, around $100,000, Various experiments have toyed and given to other Reddit members relatively limited. for example. Half of that goes with credit systems linked to social to reward activity on the site. They The trouble with bigger to Horyou, which uses the funds media – with mixed results. provide certain perks but cannot social networks is that likes and to make films promoting social • Facebook Credits. These were be converted back into cash. other shows of solidarity do not causes. The rest is converted intended to simplify payments • #MJDaisyChain. In 2014, fashion translate into practical means into SpotLight and distributed within games offered on Facebook. designer Marc Jacobs rewarded of support – a phenomenon among the site’s members. But problems with setting exchange social media posts using this enshrined in the term Horyou uses a proprietary rates for a range of currencies led to hashtag by giving their creators “slacktivism”. There is tentative algorithm to decide who gets the system being scrapped in 2013. items such as perfume when they evidence that people who engage what, based on factors like • Reddit gold. Credits can be bought visited his New York pop-up shop. in online activism may even be popularity, activity and less willing to donate to charity. contribution to the community.

Pay it like you mean it

20 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016

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“The site decides how that money is distributed among members,” says Parienti. “If you are building and contributing to the site, our algorithms will notice that.” A major factor is whether others have donated to you. “Getting SpotLight from individuals is a good way of attracting attention from the algorithm,” says Jackson. “It’s basically like a progressive tax scheme,” says Christo Wilson at Northeastern University in

Virtual vice and virtue Consumer virtual-reality devices hit the shelves this year. Are we ready for the long-term consequences, asks Thomas Metzinger

“Remove capitalism and you have chaos. We want to make it better without turning to radicalism ”

PROFILE Thomas Metzinger is a philosopher at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, who specialises in neuroscience. He is co-author of a paper calling for a code of conduct for virtual reality

Why do we need a code of ethics for virtual reality? Virtual reality headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive will hit the consumer market this year and suddenly millions of people will be using them. VR can induce strong illusions of embodiment, where you feel as if you own and control another body. We do not know what the psychological consequences will be.


Boston, who studies algorithms and social networks: it redistributes funds from high earners to low-income individuals. But Wilson has a number of concerns. “If I were really evil, I’d use this to launder money.” Criminals are always looking for ways to turn cash into virtual currencies, he says. “I’d set up a donor account in the UK and an NGO account in Nigeria.” The ability to buy and sell SpotLight in a way that doesn’t reflect actual exchange rates is another problem, says Wilson. “I will buy a load of SpotLight for 3.65 Mexican pesos, download them as pounds in the UK, and retire tomorrow.” Horyou has certain controls built in: an individual can buy no more than 2000 SpotLight units, for example. Horyou only allows charities to accumulate larger sums. Ultimately, Horyou’s problems are capitalism’s problems, according to Parienti, who once worked in the financial industry. “Capitalism is the system we have,” he says. “Remove it and you have chaos. “We want to make it better without turning to radicalism. If everyone can make a difference, positive interactions can replace the fear in our hearts,” he says. ■

What are the risks? There may be a risk of depersonalisation, where after extended immersion in VR, your physical body may seem unreal to you. Fully immersive experiences have a bigger and more lasting impact on behaviour and psychology. We’ve seen how our brains can be fooled into thinking that an inanimate rubber hand is our own. In VR environments, we can be fooled into thinking that we are our avatars. Another issue is that we are unconsciously swayed by our surroundings. For example, a picture of eyes above a collection box makes people donate larger amounts. Similar subliminal influence in an immersive virtual environment will be easy. What’s more, these technologies could potentially be used by the military. Virtual torture is still torture.

Are you advocating restrictions on VR? No, no. I can’t wait to watch my first VR movie! And there will be lots of useful things to come from immersive VR. There will be psychotherapeutic applications that help you get over anxieties, or specific fears, for example. My work is part of the European Union’s Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-embodiment project, which is investigating ways to dissolve the boundary between the human body and representations of it in immersive virtual reality. We want to maximise the freedom of individuals to do what they want with their own minds. The really interesting question is how one restricts this freedom in an intelligent way so that the interests of others are not harmed. What do you propose we do? We have to study the psychological effects of long-term immersion in virtual reality. There are also some general principles to abide by. If you don’t do something to someone in real life, you don’t do it in virtual reality. You should not be able to shoot people in VR as you can in video games today, for example. And the porn industry is excited about VR. But fantasies involving violence are likely to be more damaging in an immersive setting than they are in a video. There is a danger of people getting used to not only observing but also carrying out such acts, because they are embodied in an avatar. Will we abandon our everyday morals so easily? People in virtual environments tend to behave in ways that are expected of their avatars. For example, if you embody a tall avatar, you’ll negotiate more aggressively than if you were given a shorter body. And behaviour in virtual environments can continue to influence you after you exit VR. In another study, people who embodied avatars that looked like older versions of themselves were more inclined to save for retirement after they returned to real life. Such psychological changes are of great concern when it involves violence or criminal activity in the virtual world. Interview by Anil Ananthaswamy 12 March 2016 | NewScientist | 21



People-powered grid

SOMETHING odd is happening on President Street in Brooklyn. While solar panels on the roofs of terraced houses soak up the sun, a pair of computers connected to the panels quietly crunch numbers. First, they count how many electrons are being generated. Then, they write that number to a blockchain. Welcome to the future of energy exchange. This project, run by a start-up called Transactive Grid, is the first version of a new kind of energy market. Operated by consumers, it will change the way we generate and use electricity. Transactive Grid aims to enable people to trade renewable energy with their neighbours. To deal in energy at the moment, you must go through a central company like Duke Energy in the US or National Grid in the UK, or one of their resellers. Transactive can skip this central authority because its energy market is built on the blockchain. First used to underpin the bitcoin 22 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016

blockchain makes it easy for anyone to set up and enforce contracts, with the transaction following automatically. “You don’t have the billing components around it, you don’t have the infrastructure losses or the accounting losses in the system,” Orsini says. “If you can cut out the middle man and do the trade directly, you don’t have to pay for the wires,” says Philipp Grünewald of the University of Oxford. But the might of utility companies makes the road to autonomy rocky. Grünewald says that at one point solar panel users in Spain were paying less than their fair share for grid access. –Sky’s the limit – When a charge was introduced to account for this difference, some currency, a blockchain is a were forced off the grid entirely, cryptographically secure list of which drives the price up for transactions. The list is stored on those who stay. every computer in the system, Despite hiccups like this, and is continuously updated as Grünewald sees the potential each transaction is completed. in projects like President Street. The list for President Street is built “People are disgruntled with their using blockchain software called utility companies, and like this Ethereum. It deals with buying idea of becoming autonomous,” and selling electrons generated by he says. solar panels. No central authority Other companies are hot is in control: the computers on Transactive’s heels. Grid monitor each other to stop fraud. Singularity, based in Vienna, Austria, wants to bring the “Transactive Grid, operated same decentralised energy by consumers, will change market to developing countries, the way we generate and to help distribute solar power. consume electricity” MIT start-up SolarCoin pays people with an alternative The first devices were installed digital currency for generating on President Street a few weeks solar energy, one coin for ago. On one side are five homes 1 megawatt-hour of solar that produce some of their own electricity. energy through solar power. On With blockchain, “it’s like the the other are five consumers early days of the internet,” says interested in buying excess Greentech Media CEO Scott energy from their neighbours. Clavenna. “We’ve got all the parts Lawrence Orsini, co-founder to do some really interesting of Transactive says that the things,” he says. ■

Banksy unmasked? Even Banksy can’t hide from maths. Researchers at Queen Mary University of London used crime mapping techniques to home in on someone they believe to be the incognito artist. They mapped 140 Banksy murals in the UK to look for unusual correlations in the choice of location, then matched their findings with claimed addresses for Banksy. There appeared to be just one match (Journal of Spatial Science,

“The first email is completely forgettable... and, therefore, forgotten” Ray Tomlinson, inventor of email, on the contents of the first email message. Tomlinson died last week, aged 74

Stretch ‘n’ glow It’s tripping the light elastic. A new robot skin glows brighter the more it’s stretched. Developed at Cornell University in New York, it uses flexible capacitors to store energy, which is converted into light by stretching. The team says it could be useful for robots to change colour in response to a change in their surroundings – a human’s mood swings, for example.



Bitcoin tech is driving a new energy market. Aviva Rutkin reports

INTRODUCING A NEW SERIES OF WHITE PAPERS What’s the future of business? We at New Scientist decided to take a look at how three of business’s key drivers – energy, money and automation – might change over the next decade. To do that, we’ve asked three writers with deep understanding of these areas to tell us how they think the future could unfold, and how it might confound our initial expectations. The author of our first GameChangers report in the series is Peter Fairley, a journalist who has been immersed for decades in the energy sector – covering every aspect, from technology to policy to climate change. His review of the landscape suggests that over the past few years, a largely unheralded energy revolution has quietly got under way: that the feedback loops that have kept fossil fuels strong, and renewables weak, are undergoing a reversal. With renewables ascendant, and fossil fuels on the brink of a public opinion pivot akin to the one experienced by the tobacco industry a decade ago, what can we expect from the energy landscape of 2020? To find out, download your free copy of GameChangers: Energy today. Sally Adee, Editor, GameChangers


ABOUT THE AUTHOR Peter Fairley is an independent and award-winning journalist and broadcaster with a passion for energy and its future implications. In 2015, his reporting on solar energy won the Society of Environmental Journalists’ award for Outstanding Beat Reporting. Peter is a regular contributor to publications such as Technology Review, Nature, Architectural Record, as well as an active broadcaster and commentator on the energy debate for France24, NPR and CBC.


] Why the end of fossil fuels is closer than you think ]How renewables can meet the world’s future energy needs ] Which technologies will matter over the next decade – and which ones won’t


24 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016

Mountain mutilation IF THE small mounds in the right-hand images bring to mind the mountains on the left, that’s deliberate. They have been arranged as a ghostly rebuke to their removal from the Apuan Alps in Tuscany, Italy. These mountains are the source of prized Carrara marble, the same pure white stone that was used to create Michelangelo’s David, as well as countless columns, floors and fireplace surrounds. The marble has been quarried for two millennia, but modern techniques are accelerating excavation, with the mountains disappearing before our eyes. There are now an estimated 800 quarries. “Every time I return to the Alps I see that a piece of them is missing,” says Tuscan photographer Andrea Foligni, who took the images and juxtaposed them as part of a series. The brutal excavation methods mean that, of the stone that is removed, only a quarter is used as decorative marble. The rest is ground into calcium carbonate (lower right), an ingredient in products such as medicines, cosmetics, food, paint, plastic and toothpaste (upper right). Campaigners say the industry is mutilating an area of outstanding natural beauty, full of unique flora and fauna. Part has been made into a national park, yet illegal quarrying continues even there. “It’s not difficult to imagine that very little of these mountains will remain,” says Foligni. “Is it really worth sacrificing an amazing landscape and unique ecosystem for profit?” Clare Wilson

Photographer Andrea Foligni

12 March 2016 | NewScientist | 25


In machines we trust Our faith in technologies runs deep, but will that change as they make life-and-death decisions, wonders Jamais Cascio IT IS no exaggeration to say that civilisation has entrusted its continued existence to the smooth functioning of technological systems. This trust runs so deep as to be nearly invisible. We’re now in the early days of a turning point in our dependence upon machines. Last century, we trusted them to do things for us; this century, we’re starting to trust them to decide things for us. That’s not all bad. Humans have a notoriously patchy record when it comes to decision-making. But relying on technological systems to make decisions for us – especially when risks are involved and our safety is at stake – can have major consequences. Developments in machine learning promise to give some of our technologies extraordinary decision-making skills. With selfdriving cars, for example, the

experiences of each individual vehicle can be combined, adding together every mile driven, every hazard identified and every accident avoided or not, such as a self-driving car’s recent selfinflicted run-in with a bus. Within a year of self-driving autos being widely available, such an aggregated artificial intelligence could have orders of magnitude more experience than any human driver. These patterns of improved performance are likely in other systems that have many inputs along with a clear distinction between what’s correct and what’s not, such as in medical diagnostics or financial analysis. But along with successes will come failures, where machine decisions lead to disaster. Some will come from faulty programming – no software is perfect, and even the best can have bugs. Others will come from

Better by half? E.O.Wilson wants to give half of Earth back to nature. Fred Pearce examines his grand plan THERE is much talk of giving ever bigger bits of the human landscape back to nature: tear down fences, block roads, bring back top predators, stir and stand clear. Called rewilding, it is all the rage among conservationists. But none of them go as far as E. O. Wilson. In his 87th year and imagining a global endgame in 26 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016

gambit from the doyen of conservation science. But love may yet turn to loathing because of his answer to the obvious question of how to achieve it. Rather than culling our population or donning hair shirts, Wilson’s solution is to use technology for cutting-edge agriculture and high-density living. And that means giving full rein to genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics and more.

the battle between nature and humanity, he sets out his stall in new book Half-Earth (Liveright). It fleshes out his argument for handing over 50 per cent of the planet to nature to avert runaway “Rather than culling our extinctions and irreparable population or donning hair damage to the biosphere. shirts, Wilson’s solution is Most environmentalists of to use technology” course will love this kind of

This sounds a lot like the manifesto for ecomodernism published by campaigners last year to howls of protest from many environmentalists. That called for nature lovers to give up Luddite tendencies and embrace solutions such as nuclear power. And yet, having advocated ecological salvation through advancing technologies, Wilson steps back. The ecomodernist manifesto declares its goal as creating a “good Anthropocene”, based on sound management of a planet indelibly changed by people. Wilson doesn’t believe we are up to the task of taking charge of the planet in this way, rather

For more opinion articles, visit

Jamais Cascio is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, and writes about the impact of innovation at Open the Future

that we must stick with one half and give nature the rest to do as it will. But he is hopeful that new technologies will transform our knowledge of how nature works, allowing us to one day create a predictive science of ecology that would allow for management of the entire biosphere. Wilson, like most, is unclear how this story will play out. But if we’re relying on our brains to create the tools to save the planet, perhaps we should trust ourselves to run the whole thing. ■ Fred Pearce is a consultant for New Scientist

INSIGHT Sex medicine


situations or conditions outside of programmed (or learned) recognition, or when multiple correctly functioning systems interact in an undesirable way. Our dilemma is the result of being too willing to trust technologies to make the right choices – and being unable to recognise an incorrect choice until it’s too late. It’s here that faith in decisionmaking technologies can be the most problematic. We may trust too much – one experiment found that people blindly followed a robot into danger in a mock emergency. We may believe that a machine “knows” more than we do, or can access information we can’t. We’ll need to bring a healthy scepticism into interactions with them. Civilisation’s adoption of decision-making machines will have its own learning curve so that we realise when trust is appropriate. And we’ll definitely have to figure out how to identify and adapt to situations where our machines are in over their metaphorical heads… and hit the brakes for them. ■

–Just for men’s enjoyment?–

Sexism, and the case of the female orgasm Jessica Hamzelou, Madrid, Spain

of women say they regularly orgasm via vaginal intercourse alone. If orgasm were vital for reproduction, or for generating a lasting bond between lovers, you might expect them to be more common. So what is the female orgasm for? I came hoping to hear some groundbreaking science. But many of the ideas were tired old theories with no convincing evidence to support them. For example, that women orgasm purely for the enjoyment and arousal of their male partner, or in order to be immobilised to let the man finish.

THE lights are dimmed, the music swells. I’m in a conference hall at the European Society of Sexual Medicine annual meeting, awaiting the start of a series of talks on the mysteries of the female orgasm. So why am I in semidarkness listening to a lounge version of Me and Mrs Jones? This is the kind of thing I’ve got used to over the past three days: a strange blend of science and erotica, including presentations littered with gratuitous images of naked women. It’s not really what I expected from “Discussions about female a scientific conference. The world sexual pleasure involve is awash with sexualised images men arguing about the and misinformation about female size of their pet theories” sexuality. I expect it from the tabloid press, but I hoped scientific research would be above that kind of thing. Another persistent idea is that Now I’m starting to wonder if some muscle contractions associated with of the blame can’t be laid at its door. orgasm aid the passage of sperm cells Take the dispute on the evolutionary to the egg. A couple of studies provide purpose of the female orgasm. There evidence for this idea. In 1998, one is a genuine mystery here. While it team showed that a dose of oxytocin – seems obvious that men’s orgasms a hormone thought to be released are important for reproduction, a during orgasm – seems to boost the woman doesn’t need to orgasm to transport of particles from the vagina get pregnant. Only about 25 per cent to the oviducts. Another study

published the same year suggested that women who orgasm during sex retain more sperm after their male partner has ejaculated. Neither study has been replicated and both have been criticised for their methodology. Whether there is such a thing as a vaginal orgasm was also debated at the conference, as was the claim that such orgasms are “better” than clitoral ones. The Freudian idea that women’s ability to have vaginal orgasms is a measure of their psychological development still has currency in some quarters. Some people are trying to redress the balance – by attempting to replicate some of these findings and putting forward new theories. One woman’s presentation on evidence dismissing some of the less palatable theories on female orgasm was met with applause, particularly from the women in the audience. But such work is still rare. Sexual medicine isn’t unusual in science in that it is dominated by men, nor that many of its practitioners are wedded to theories where belief can trump data. But it makes me uncomfortable that scientific discussions about female sexual pleasure largely involve men arguing about the size of their pet theories. Society is already sexist and saturated with myths about female sexuality. If we can’t rely on the scientists who study this area to approach it without prejudice, who will challenge the stereotypes and bust the myths? ■ 12 March 2016 | NewScientist | 27

The power of mind Our brains have hidden depths. Whether it’s psychological tricks that change our long-term behaviours (page 29), or the strange healing powers of placebo and hypnosis (pages 32 and 34), our minds are surprisingly open to manipulations that can change us for the better


WISING UP Throwing the right switch in your brain can solve even the biggest problems, finds Dan Jones

URING the second world war, the US government found itself wrestling with a meaty problem. It was trying to encourage citizens to eat offal so that better cuts of meat could be shipped to the troops abroad. But the message wasn’t getting through. So the government recruited some serious brainpower: renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead and the father of social psychology, Kurt Lewin. Instead of telling people that eating offal was a patriotic duty, Mead and Lewin tried to understand their psychological resistance to eating it in the first place. They found that offal was stigmatised as the food of the poor, and also that people were unsure how to cook it. And so they launched a new campaign to rebrand offal “variety meat” and teach the public how to prepare it. As more people experimented with it, offal lost its stigma and became a dietary mainstay. It may sound like a straightforward marketing campaign, but for today’s psychologists the initiative has gained near-legendary status. Many cite it as a forerunner to something they call “wise psychological interventions” – apparently simple actions that produce long-lasting changes in behaviour. Psychologists now believe that WPIs could be the solution to all sorts of problems, from educational underachievement to obesity. Over the past few years they have been quietly assembling a toolkit, and could soon be trying them out on us all. At the heart of WPIs is the idea of “mental unblocking” – removing psychological barriers that keep people stuck in damaging patterns of behaviour. Simplistic though this may seem, it is actually surprisingly hard to



achieve. “Some people think that if it’s just about psychology, people should be able to do it for themselves,” says Greg Walton, a psychologist at Stanford University in California. “But it’s not that easy.” Just because it would be beneficial for you to unthink something doesn’t mean you can just do it, he says. That is where wise interventions come in. The use of psychology to make us better people may sound familiar. Superficially WPIs are a lot like “nudges” – external interventions designed to guide people towards better choices (New Scientist, 22 June 2013, p 32). That might mean placing fruit at eye level in a canteen, for example, or making people opt out of a pension scheme rather than opt in.

Lasting change However, wise interventions are different in a number of ways. Nudges are usually specific to a given choice at a given time, whereas WPIs aim to alter behaviour in a lasting way. More significantly, nudges tend to rely on environmental cues, whereas WPIs are rooted in theories about basic human psychology. Another early demonstration of their potential was provided by Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Back in 1982, he was trying to find a way to help new college students cope better with worries about their academic performance. Wilson’s solution was inspired by attribution theory, which describes how people account for events – say, whether they blame failures and setbacks on enduring facts about themselves, or on external factors. > 12 March 2016 | NewScientist | 29

“If you u tthink, ‘hey, intelligence and skill can develop’, your whole attitude changes”

When people look inward for the causes of their problems, it can puncture self-esteem and create a barrier to solving them. Wilson wondered whether getting students to attribute their struggles to their current situation, rather than facts about themselves, would unblock them. So he presented them with statistics showing that the majority of new students start with disappointing grades but do better over time. He also showed them videos of older students talking about their improving academic performance. Wilson found that the group’s grades got better more quickly than those of students who did not receive these messages. They were also less likely to have dropped out by the end of the second year.

Laying the foundations For a long time, this remained an isolated success. “Tim did this amazing study in the early 80s, then everybody forgot about it,” says Dave Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin. “No one was doing field experiments.” Instead, researchers focused on the basic psychological processes that govern our behaviour – work which laid the foundation for today’s WPI research. Some of the most influential work was done by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. Since the 1970s, she has been studying what drives people to persist in the face of difficulties. She found that much depends on whether people have what she calls a “fixed” or a “growth” mindset – that is, whether they see their abilities and personality as set in stone, or malleable. When people with a fixed mindset encounter challenges such as a difficult maths puzzle, they often conclude that they have reached the limit of their abilities and give up. “But if you think, ‘hey, intelligence and skill can develop’, then your whole attitude changes,” says Dweck. “You want to take on the challenges that help you grow.” In other words, a fixed mindset is a mental block that stops us from achieving something. And it can be reinforced or removed. Dweck’s work also showed that praising successful children for being bright or talented nurtures the fixed mindset, whereas 30 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016

focusing on their hard work and perseverance fosters a growth mindset. During the 2000s, Dweck began to explore whether promoting a growth mindset might help kids in school. In an influential 2007 study, she tested this idea among low-achieving 12 and 13-year-olds. Half of them were told about how the brain changes and learns, and how intelligence can be boosted; the rest learned about the brain, too, but with the emphasis on memory. It worked. The “growth” group showed increased motivation in class and got better test scores. Significantly, those who endorsed a fixed mindset most strongly beforehand benefited the most. Fixed and growth mindsets are now a common starting point for WPIs. For example, Yeager has applied them to bullying – not so much to stop the bullies, but to help victims cope better. Understandably, bullied kids often retaliate aggressively. In studies of students aged 10 to 14, Yeager showed that an intervention similar to Dweck’s, in which kids learned about how the brain and personality change over time, reduced aggressive retaliation. “By teaching teenagers that people can change, it makes them feel less like they need to escalate things if they’re bullied,” says Yeager. Another type of WPI has been pioneered by Stanford psychologist Geoffrey Cohen, this time aimed at reducing the achievement gap between white and black university students. Many social and economic factors underlie this gap, but there is also a powerful psychological driver: the stereotype that black people are less academically able than their white

WHY ‘WISE’? The name “wise psychological interventions” harks back to the “wise schooling” movement of the 1990s, which tried to be sensitive to racial diversity. That name, in turn, was derived from gay culture of the 1950s, which used “wise” to describe somebody who recognised the full humanity of gay people despite the widespread homophobia of the time.

peers. For black students this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: they often do worse on maths tests when surrounded by white students. This has been attributed to “stereotype threat”, which creates anxiety and harms performance. (White students are at risk too, often underperforming in the presence of East Asians, who are often stereotyped as maths whizzes.) Cohen set out to design an intervention to close the gap. One proven strategy against stereotype threat is to get people to write about values that are important to them, a process called self-affirmation. When Cohen asked middle-school students to do this, he found that even a short session improved the grades of black students relative to controls, closing the achievement gap by 40 per cent. And two years later, after a few top-up sessions, the intervention was still having a clear effect. Cohen has since applied the same approach to the

achievement gap between men and women in university science courses. Yet another kind of intervention boosts the sense of social belonging. When people go through big transitions in life – going to university, say, or moving to a new city – there’s often a period when they are not sure they fit in. Members of minority groups are especially vulnerable. Cohen and Walton got first-year students to read a report summarising a survey of older students’ experiences at university. The report described how they felt out of place at first, and how these feelings passed as they settled in and made new friends. Reading it not only improved the grades of black students, halving the racial

“Wise interventions offer a new and powerful way to approach social problems”

achievement gap, but also increased their self-reported happiness and health. Remarkably, these effects persisted three years on, and much larger studies have replicated them. All of this is evidence that WPIs offer a new and powerful way to approach difficult social problems, Walton says. “We typically approach such problems with the assumption that there’s a lack of capacity, and we try to bolster that capacity. So we might think, schools are failing, we need to invest more in schools. But in many situations we actually have adequate capacity. And yet that capacity goes unrealised, as people are psychologically not in a position to take advantage.” Although many WPIs focus on academic performance, there have been experiments in applying them to criminality, teenage pregnancy, relationship problems – even international conflict. Eran Halperin of the Interdisciplinary Center in

Herzliya, Israel, has been developing WPIs to reduce tensions in the IsraeliPalestinian conflict. He has shown that nurturing a growth mindset makes people on both sides more open to listening, more willing to compromise for peace, and more likely to forgive. Not surprisingly, WPIs are attracting attention outside academia. In the UK, the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) – a partly government-owned firm sometimes dubbed the “Nudge Unit” – is exploring their potential. “Nudges have been very successful in a number of areas,” says Jessica Barnes, a senior adviser at BIT, “but we recognise there are a lot of complex issues that nudges are not necessarily going to address, so we’re also interested in more intensive psychological interventions.” In September last year, President Obama launched the US Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, which is exploring ways to use nudges and WPIs. Similar units have been set up in Germany, Australia, Singapore, Finland and the Netherlands. So when can you expect to be wised up? Even advocates of intervention admit that some questions need to be answered before WPIs can be widely rolled out. For starters, we need to know how easy they are to scale up so that it’s not just a select few that can benefit. Early research suggests that WPIs delivered as online modules can reach a mass audience, but it’s early days yet. Researchers are also keen to avoid the hype and controversy that has surrounded nudges. They are at pains to point out that WPIs are not magic, and cannot help all the people all the time. “They address specific psychological sticking points, and if a person isn’t stuck, then the intervention isn’t necessary,” says Yeager. These caveats aside, psychologists are increasingly optimistic that WPIs can tackle any problem with a psychological component – in other words, nearly every significant social or personal challenge you can think of. “There are many problems that people have struggled with for generations,” says Walton. “This is a new way to approach them.” ■ Dan Jones is a freelance writer based in Brighton, UK 12 March 2016 | NewScientist | 31

THE RIGHT KIND OF NOTHING Medicine is finally taming the strange power of the placebo, says Shannon Fischer

INDA BUONANNO had been sick with irritable bowel syndrome for 15 years when she saw a TV advertisement recruiting participants for a new study. Desperate for help, she signed on, even after learning that the potential treatments she would be offered consisted of either nothing – or pills filled with nothing. When the experiment ended, she begged the researchers to let her keep the pills. “I felt fantastic,” Buonanno says. “I felt almost like I was before I got sick with IBS. It was the best three weeks of my life.” She has been trying to get her hands on more ever since. A replication study will start later this spring, and Buonanno is desperately hoping she gets in. This is the placebo effect in action, and it may come as a surprise to learn that it works even when people know they are being given a sham treatment.


SLEEPING IT OFF The US is in the grip of a major opiate addiction crisis. Prescriptions for these painkillers have shot up nearly three-fold in two decades. Placebos may help people ramp down use of such habit-forming drugs. In a 2015 study at the University of Pennsylvania, sleep researcher Michael Perlis asked people with insomnia to take a high nightly dose of the hypnotic drug Ambien. Then for one group he replaced the active pills with an identical-looking placebo, every other night. For the next 12 weeks, these insomniacs slept just as well as the group who took Ambien every night – with half the dose. It was a small study, but Perlis think it could work just as well to reduce opiate painkiller use. “This should work anywhere,” he says. 32 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016

That finding has brought with it the possibility of using placebos as therapy. The vision is of a future in which clinicians cajole the mind into healing itself and the body – without the drugs that can be nearly as much of a problem as those they purport to solve. But before your doctor can prescribe you one of Buonanno’s pills, a lot of slippery questions must be tackled: what conditions respond to the placebo effect? Where are the boundaries of this nascent science? More importantly, can we harness it with predictable effects? The placebo effect has been on a considerable journey: once just a thorn in medicine’s side, it is now the latest promising way to manipulate the mind into healing the body. Placebo controls are the gold standard of clinical trials, used to figure out whether a drug works better than nothing – but instead of obeying the rules and feeling no different when given a placebo, people often report beneficial effects. “In drug trials, the placebo effect is the background noise they have to separate out,” says Ted Kaptchuk, the lead researcher behind Buonanno’s trial at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “But we’re saying, this noise is really important. We want to get that noise in the equation too.” We now know that when a person is given a pill they’re told is a real medication, or any of a wide range of medical interventions, including surgery, their body creates a real physiological effect. In pain studies, placebos have been shown to dampen activity in the brain’s pain-processing areas and increase the production of the body’s own analgesic chemicals (see “Your brain on placebo”, right). It may not be so surprising that pain should succumb to the power of

suggestion, but the placebo effect also works on conditions that would not be considered to have a psychological component. People being treated for Parkinson’s disease with apomorphine, were only told they might receive a dose of the drug. They showed more dopamine activity in parts of their brain normally affected by the real drug. Not even the immune system is immune: in one experiment, healthy participants spent three days taking pills containing immunosuppressant cyclosporin A – a drug used to help stop the body rejecting an organ transplant – with a fruit-flavoured drink. Five days later, they took placebo pills with the same drink. Blood tests showed that immune compounds suppressed by the actual drug also dropped with just the placebo and drink. Even faked surgical interventions have been shown to create real improvement.

Great expectations One key to unlocking the body’s selfhealing mechanisms seems to be the setting up of an expectation of improvement. And it works the other way too: if you think your drug has been replaced with a placebo, even a strong painkiller’s effects will be dulled. So how can we harness this effect, given that we know very little about how it works? In pursuit of that goal, Kaptchuk founded the Program in Placebo Studies, while groups in Germany, the UK, Italy and Australia are also studying how to integrate placebo insights into patient care. There’s just one problem: using placebo in this way requires deceit, which falls foul of several major pillars of medical ethics, including patient autonomy and informed consent. That was why Kaptchuk decided to try being honest with patients, and how Buonanno found herself taking pills packed with inert filler from a bottle marked “placebo”. IBS is one of those conditions, like depression and chronic pain, that is heavy with symptoms but has neither clear biological cause nor easy cure. Buonanno had spent years in pain; and no doctor or drug seemed to help. The staff at the medical centre had explained to her that though the

brightly coloured pills contained no medication, evidence from previous studies suggested that placebos could exert real effects in IBS by provoking a response from patients’ own bodies. If she wanted to maximise the placebo’s chance of working, they told her, it was important she take the pills exactly as instructed, twice a day. On the fourth day, she realised that her symptoms were gone. Why does the honest placebo work? One theory concerns the expectations set by the intervention itself. “It’s not just the drug, it’s everything that surrounds the drug,” says Kaptchuk. Placebos are not inert substances: they are made of verbal suggestion, classical conditioning, and a lifetime’s associations learned about the cues of the medical ritual: the white coat, the office, the doctor’s manner. (Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol 16, p 403). Any and all of these may cue the body’s healing powers. The key word is “may”: the placebo can be difficult to use. It doesn’t work for everyone, and when it does, its effects can be unpredictable. In one pain study, for instance, some people reported feeling more pain, not less, and activity in their brain’s painkilling opioid and dopamine systems decreased, instead of increasing like everyone else’s. Another study flummoxed researchers by creating almost the opposite effect of what they


“Placebos also work on conditions not thought to have a psychological component”

intended: verbal suggestions intended to reduce nausea in one group and promote it in the other muddled the effects, not only subjectively but also physiologically. Even when the results go your way, it’s hard to understand why. In the small trial Buonanno participated in, 59 per cent of the honest-placebo group felt better. It wasn’t much better than… placebo? Much research is now under way to

Your brain on placebo Brain imaging studies have revealed specific areas of the brain are involved in the placebo effect

Pain circuits LESS ACTIVE Cingulate cortex

Insula Thalamus Nucleus accumbens Regulates emotion. Releases dopamine INCREASED ACTIVITY

Amygdala Involved in processing fear and emotional memories. DECREASED ACTIVITY

Periaqueductal grey matter (PAG) Sends and receives pain signals. Placebo increases release of painkilling hormones such as opiods

It’s time for your placebo

pin down what exactly makes any individual susceptible to the placebo response. Some studies implicate personality traits like optimism and a belief that you control your own destiny. Or is it suggestibility? “He’s such a good doctor,” Buonanno says of the study gastroenterologist. “So I said OK, I’ll do anything to make anything work.” Would her symptoms have still improved if she’d been more sceptical? Other work is investigating whether any genetic links underlie the placebo response. One of Kaptchuk’s collaborators, Kathryn Hall, has found a link between placebo responses in IBS and variations of a gene that breaks down neurotransmitters including dopamine and adrenaline. And some are even looking into doctors’ brains. Vitaly Napadow, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, plans to looks at the brains of physicians and patients simultaneously while he approximates a doctor-patient encounter – albeit with both parties in separate fMRI machines. If it works, this could begin to tease out what brain areas are involved when the doctor gets the placebo right. In the meantime, there are already a few things doctors can do to exploit the placebo effect in clinical settings. In > 12 March 2016 | NewScientist | 33

“She tried to buy substitute placebos from health food stores. Nothing worked” the same, and they hadn’t been prescribed to her. “Nothing” failed. So why had it worked in the initial trial? Was it the form of the pills? The empathetic staff? The medical environment? This spring, the new study aims to find out. Kaptchuk’s group will repeat the IBS trial, but this time it will include genetic testing, along with in-depth psychological interviews to unravel exactly which expectations and beliefs make the difference. Every word uttered by the staff will be carefully scripted to minimise the wrong impression. While expectations come in many forms, one might be the biggest of all. “If we’re ever going to use placebos in clinical practice, they can’t be the booby prize,” Kaptchuk says. “We have to change the culture and meaning of the word placebo.” Linda Buonnano is a good start. ■ Shannon Fischer is a science writer in Boston, Massachusetts 34 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016

YOU ARE THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN Hypnosis is something we all do every day. The trick is to do it right, says Laurence Sugarman

You believe hypnosis has the potential to transform healthcare. How so?

So, tell us what hypnosis is and how you think it works.

Many problems we bring to our doctors have a psychophysiological component: irritable bowel syndrome, recurrent migraines, anxiety-related symptoms. And we know that people can somehow keep powerful medications from being effective. Access to mental healthcare is important here, but it’s physicians who are most often in a position to help those people self-regulate. Clinical hypnosis is about learning how to interpret nonverbal cues and improve trust, communication and empathy. It is about educating the patient to be a better boss of their body and mind. That is improving care.

My colleagues and I propose that hypnosis is simply a skill set for influencing people. It involves facial expression, language, body movement, tone of voice, intensity, metaphor, understanding how people interpret and represent things. It isn’t something you’re in, or that you do: hypnosis is something you use. That means it’s not a therapy; it’s a means to therapy. In strategies like psychoanalysis or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), the most therapeutic influence tends to be the act of being heard. The skills that facilitate that are part and parcel of the influence of hypnosis.

Then why is hypnosis not widely used?

Where does the hypnotic trance fit?

In part, because nobody knows what it is. We first need to be able to say, this is what hypnosis is, and this is all it is. Then we can say how we think it works.

Trance is a process of intense learning. It happens when we change our minds in significant ways, when we become neuroplastic; we are thoughtful, we pause, change our breathing. There is a shift in the parasympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system – an intensified focus of attention and narrowed peripheral awareness. Trance happens when we are traumatised, and when we fall in love. There’s no such thing as “hypnotic trance” as distinct from the trance of yoga or of prayer, for example. But part of the skill set of hypnosis is recognising and facilitating trance, because it makes whatever you’re learning more effective.


Germany, the Placebo Competence Team publishes suggestions for physicians. For example, giving a patient sufficient medical information helps, along with instructing them not to Google their symptoms. It’s also important to tell a patient which medications they’re taking and why. “It sounds trivial,” says Ulrike Bingel, one of the placebo team, at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany. But in post-operative wards, people are often hooked up to multiple IVs. “Is this a painkiller, is it a steroid, an antibiotic? If the patient doesn’t know, you might lose 50 per cent of the effect.” One form of placebo conditioning has recently had promising results, and could form part of a programme to wean people off opiate painkiller addiction (see “Sleeping it off”, page 32). Buonanno’s experience hints at the power of these associations: after the study ended, she tried to continue the effect with substitute placebos from health food stores. But they didn’t look

PROFILE Laurence Sugarman directs the Center for Applied Psychophysiology and Selfregulation at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. He is a former president of the American Board of Medical Hypnosis and on the faculty of the National Pediatric Hypnosis Training Institute

So the stage and the swinging watch...

No. The popular conception of hypnosis is quite wide of the mark, then?

Hypnosis is widely attributed to the power of the hypnotist. Everything

doing it themselves. The challenge is to use placebo responses without relying on a placebo. I would argue that hypnosis, as a strategy, is not a nondeceptive placebo. It’s the anti-placebo, the opposite of external attribution.


How is hypnosis different from things like mindfulness meditation?

from the evil fictional character of Svengali to movies and the occult has contributed to this mistaken notion that somebody else can control our physiology – our minds. And certainly, entertainers who claim to use hypnosis can and do play on that myth. People can be influenced into cults and violent religious movements, be depersonalised and become victims of abuse. If I have poor self-esteem and self-efficacy, I may let people use hypnosis to “overpower” me. But ultimately the power to change lies with the person who, as we say, “owns the trance”. It still takes two to tango. You’re a medical doctor. How did hypnosis ever enter your radar?

I spent 20 years as a solo primary care paediatrician, and I was struck by how inadequate my training was for the behavioural and psychophysiological issues I encountered. All of my training was only to do things to help kids, whereas I saw a clear need to better help kids help themselves. This got me interested in hypnosis. What convinced you it could make a difference?

I saw a little girl who was 8. She had a serious disease and needed an injection every week. Each time it was a very

difficult process because she was so anxious and traumatised from illness and long hospitalisations. I said, “I know it’s scary to come here, I bet you would rather be somewhere else.” She was sitting on her mother’s lap with her eyes closed. She said, “I would rather be home playing with my kittens.” So I said, “Go play with your kittens, how do they feel, what do they sound like, how do they smell?” I kept talking her through and saying less and less and letting her fill in more and more. After it was done, she looked up and said, “Where’s the shot?” Now, do I think she really didn’t know she got a shot? I think part of her knew, but part of her wanted the hypnosis to work, so she made it work. Is clinical hypnosis a sort of nondeceptive placebo?

Hypnosis is a medium for delivering placebo effects (see “The right kind of nothing”, page 32). Pill colour or shape isn’t hypnosis, but my interpersonal communication is. My definition of placebo is the use of conditioning, expectation, social relationships and narrative paradigm to change a person’s physiology in a way that they attribute to an external intervention. But if they don’t externally attribute it – to a pill or therapist, for instance – then they’re

I may offend lots of people by saying that mindfulness meditation is an example of hypnosis – but it’s what I think. In the West, it is used as a therapy to practise coping or decreasing stress. It can be really helpful when someone is sick and tired of having thoughts overtake them and needs to practise dropping out of them, for instance. But that’s where it stops. It doesn’t direct change. I think a lot more can be done. How well can we tell whether hypnosis makes a therapy more effective?

One meta-analysis found that, of patients being treated for obesity, those receiving CBT with hypnosis had better results, even after long-term follow up, than those just receiving CBT. That is impressive because, the hypnosis aside, the therapy was so similar. A study of CBT for depression also showed more benefit for the hypnosis group. I expect more studies of this type. Can we use hypnosis on ourselves?

We use it all the time. Most of our selfhypnosis is not very nice. Most of it is: “I suck at that, I’m not a very nice person, I’m lazy, I deserve this abuse, every time I do that I’m going to get a headache.” If trance is this intense learning process, we use a lot of that plasticity to reinforce our ruts. Clinical hypnosis is a way of helping somebody change their self-hypnosis, to understand what trance-formation looks and feels like, and use both the novelty and intensity of conversation to teach them to do their own trance. Can this approach truly be as powerful as you suggest?

If we want to really change healthcare, we have to help people recognise their own potential. We have to tell people, look, you can do this. You are the man behind the curtain. ■ Interview by Shannon Fischer 12 March 2016 | NewScientist | 35

T IS so ubiquitous that we hardly notice it, even when it is right in front of our eyes. We use it to wrap food, make toys, build cars – and yes, these days even the contact lenses and “glasses” that enhance our vision are made from it. We are talking about plastics, of course – materials that, through their seemingly limitless morphing of forms and function, have shaped the past century. But here’s a secret. Despite the panopoly of plastics we produce, we are still rank amateurs compared with the machinery that churns out very similar stuff right under our noses – throughout our bodies, to be precise. Learn to replicate nature’s material-weaving tricks, as we are just beginning to do, and we would usher in a whole different gamut of materials that will shape the next century. What we call a plastic a chemist will probably know as a polymer. The basic idea


CH A SING R A INBOWS To make plastic truly fantastic we need to make it in lots more shades, says James Urquhart

36 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016


is simple. Take a molecule with two reactive ends – a monomer in chemists’ parlance – and mix lots of them together. They react to form a long string, like carriages coupling in a train. Before the first synthetic polymers appeared, most everyday objects were made directly from natural materials such as wood, stone and metal. The first proper plastic was a self-styled wonder material called Bakelite, patented in 1909. Based on monomers of formaldehyde, it could be moulded into shape while hot, then resolutely hold the shape. Over time, we duly made Bakelite TVs, jewellery, telephones and even caravans. Vary the chemical identity of the monomer and the length of the chains, and you can create a raft of other polymers with widely varying properties. Polymers using a range of monomers largely isolated from crude oil went on to colonise the world. Think nylon

shirts, polythene plastic bags, Gore-Tex waterproof coats, plastic electronics and Kevlar bulletproof vests. But that is truly nothing compared with the polymer frenzy biology whips up. Nature’s monomers are amino acids, which it uses to make proteins. These are polymers right enough, but with a crucial difference. Nature creates an incomparable diversity of proteins not by switching monomers for each and every application, but by controlling the precise order in which a set of different monomers link up. The result is everything from fingernails to tendons to digestive enzymes – all made from a palette of just 21 amino acids, stitched together in different orders and running to different lengths. It is this peerless “sequence control” that we would dearly love to master, to power a second polymer revolution. That would

allow us to place particular groups of atoms anywhere we fancy within a polymer string. Unfortunately, we can’t use amino acids outside the wet and warm environment of cells. But we might create robust, chemically complementary monomers that are attracted to one another. They would force the polymers to fold into different origami forms with different characteristics: super-light and strong materials for aircraft wings, say, or materials perfectly shaped to grab hold of and quench the toxins from bacteria. With sequence control perfected, the possibilities would be nigh unlimited. If only it were that easy. “You can’t just mix all the different monomers in a bag and say ‘go’. You just end up with a bunch of random sequences,”says Ronald Zuckermann, a materials chemist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. >


sequence and ensures the protein folds up into the same shape and so functions properly. With artificial polymers, many chains grow simultaneously in the flask, some ending up longer than others. That limits the amount of control over the material and its function. Johnson has an alternative strategy known as iterative exponential growth that works by running several reactions in parallel. For instance, in one flask you put monomers A and B together, while in another you link up monomers C and D. Then, half of each flask would be poured into the other to make ABCD in both, then halved and switched again to make ABCDABCD. This allows a polymer chain to precisely double in length with every reaction cycle. The sequences are still limited to repetitions. But Johnson has constructed a flow reactor that continuously runs these sequential additions and rapidly produces tens of grams of material, mountains in his line of work. That’s handy: it allows him to test how simple sequence changes alter the polymer’s real-world properties.

rubbery by 10 °C. “That is a huge change for such a subtle structural difference,” he says. But is all this a case of reinventing the wheel? Our cells contain deft machines called ribosomes that stitch amino acids together in the correct order within seconds. Another strategy, then, might be to copy nature and build an artificial ribosome to create polymers. That’s the approach favoured by David Leigh, who develops molecular machines at the University of Manchester, UK. “It’s the ultimate in miniaturisation,” he says. In 2013, Leigh’s team unveiled a first stab at a synthetic ribosome, a nanosized molecular ring programmed to move down a track picking up building blocks and stringing them together. It was limited to a threemonomer chain and worked desperately slowly. But Leigh is refining the design. In December he reported a molecular robotic arm that can swivel to pick up and put down building blocks, although not yet in specific locations. His aim is to combine several different machines into a sort of molecular assembly line. That is an incredible challenge. But it might be possible to build a drastically strippeddown version of the machine, perhaps even borrowing some components from nature. DNA is the instruction manual that ribosomes use for making proteins and it is this that Rachel O’Reilly of Warwick University, UK, is repurposing as a direct template for polymerisation. Her idea is to loosely attach several different monomers to a snippet of DNA a few base pairs long. That snippet acts like a shunting engine, pushing the monomer to a specific place on a second, longer strand

Over the years, chemists have learned to hitch one molecule to another in almost any way they like, but every connection – and a polymer might have thousands – requires careful, pure reactions that take many hours. Perhaps the closest we have come so far to nature’s mastery is the block copolymer. These are a bit like a train made from six blue carriages followed by six red ones. That’s how ORDER, ORDER! the elastic polymer Lycra looks (see “Perfect “We don’t even know how the mechanical polymers”, right). properties of a polymer change if we go from Now, however, Zuckermann and others one sequence to another: would it be stretchy, are beginning to close the divide between would it be soft or hard?”says Johnson. No one biological and artificial polymers. “We are certainly hiking off the trail,”says Zuckermann. else has ever made enough of a sequencecontrolled polymer this way to answer such “But there’s another valley on the other side where there are fruits that nobody has picked.” questions. So far, Johnson has found that even tiny tweaks, switching from say an ABAB Will Gutekunst and Craig Hawker at the University of California, Santa Barbara, are two pattern to AABB, can change the temperature other intrepid hikers. Last year they developed at which the material goes from stiff to a way of building circular “super monomers” that already have a sequence of chemical units built into them before polymerisation. We’ve been making polymers for 100 years, but we could do much better Gutekunst can change the sequence of the units they contain far more easily than has SIMPLE been possible before. Instead of relying on the Linking one building block or ring’s inherent properties he uses an external monomer gave us simple chemical trigger to start the polymerisation. polymers such as Bakelite, patented in 1909 Gutekunst reckons the preprogrammed monomers should enable him to make a BETTER huge assortment of new sequence-controlled Combining two different monomers polymers, including biodegradable varieties gave us more advanced polymers, which he hopes to use as envelopes to carry such as Lycra (spandex) in 1958 drugs to specific places in the body. The method is not perfect though. “Although those polymers have defined FUTURE sequences, they don’t have defined lengths,” Stitching up different monomers says chemist Jeremiah Johnson of the in controlled sequences would create libraries of polymers with Massachusetts Institute of Technology. diverse properties When nature churns out a protein, it’s always the same length, which produces the same

Perfect polymers

38 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016


Plastic threads could be the ultimate way to encode data

of DNA that preordains the sequence. The monomers then link up and the template is removed. With this method, O’Reilly recently concocted several polymers with different sequences simultaneously in one pot. This is a stepping stone to her goal of creating huge libraries of sequenced polymers, so you could select the right one for a particular job, such as grabbing hold of a particular molecule. “Imagine if you could make synthetic polymers that replicate or evolve,” says O’Reilly. We can already artificially evolve sequences of amino acids to slot perfectly into enzymes to generate medicinal effects. With synthetic polymers, you could add unnatural chemical groups, raising the bar of what is possible. After all, a gradual process of evolution is how nature managed to perfect its polymers. Of course O’Reilly’s work is predicated on being able to make the DNA templates, and DNA is itself a sequence-controlled polymer. In the 1950s, biologists started working on machines that would automatically synthesise DNA; today it is routine. It involves adding what are called “protected” monomers, individual DNA monomers that are chemically capped so that when you add them to the growing chain no further monomers can be added. Those monomers are then “deprotected” so another protected monomer of your choice can be added. Lengths of DNA can be synthesised easily, if slowly, in this way. Developing a similar stepwise method for making artificial polymers is the ultimate homage to nature. However, perfecting a way to protect and de-protect the monomer’s sticky ends while not disturbing the rest of the polymer has been tough. But it’s not impossible. Back in 1992,

Zuckermann began experimenting with a method for making a synthetic polymer called a “peptoid”, a similar beast to a protein but with small chemical differences that make it more robust outside cells. He altered the monomers so that they could be added to the chain but only permit further growth with the right chemical go-ahead.

MEMORY STRINGS After decades of using this method to make different sequences, Zuckermann has peptoids that fold into sheets. He can pepper these with an array of different chemistries, making them useful sensors. He says he is now working with the US Department of Defense on an early warning system for chemical weapons. “We need systems that are dynamic and versatile like proteins, but that can survive rugged environments,” he says. “We envisage a patch worn on military uniforms containing maybe a million different nano-sheets that could react with any given toxic threat, like a synthetic immune system.” Many chemists envisage this future for sequence-specific polymers: not as commodities like polythene, but as tailored materials for specialised applications. But others have a totally different endgame in mind – one that’s a shade closer to reality, even though it hasn’t been fully realised. Enter Jean-François Lutz, a chemist at the Charles Sadron Institute in Strasbourg, France. He sees sequence control as a way to mimic Flexible friends

For more on how plastic shaped 20th-century life and fashion see

nature’s ability to store information. Researchers have been touting DNA as a wonder information storage material for decades. After all, it could theoretically store all the information held by the world’s major tech companies in a blob the size of a USB stick. Unlike a memory stick though, DNA would preserve the data for hundreds of thousands of years, if kept in the correct conditions. But there is a catch. DNA is both fragile and tricky to read and write outside a cell. Why not start from scratch and create a better coded polymer? That is just what Lutz is up to. He has applied a set of fast, no-fuss chemical reactions – called “click chemistry” because they work so well – to polymer synthesis. He uses just two types of monomer, which act as the 0 and 1 of binary code. The result is a process that works in a similar way to automatic DNA synthesis, except it takes just minutes to attach each monomer. Last year, Lutz used the approach to make a perfectly sequence-defined chain 100 monomers long, in less than 12 hours. “This is a very, very short time on the lab scale,” he says. He reckons linking one monomer per second is achievable. It is also possible to read out the information stored in the polymers using a mass spectrometer, a device that detects the different masses of the monomers. Lutz says he is also combining his chemistry with Leigh’s machine. Already, he has produced longer chains than the synthetic ribosome can make on its own. A rewritable chemical memory device is the ultimate goal, but Lutz has already been discussing a more immediate use for his coded matter. You could embed it into the fibres of expensive products to act as the ultimate incognito barcode, he says. Drugs, which are subject to major counterfeiting, as well as money and luxury clothing would be candidates. “You would use a tiny amount and disperse it in another polymer to be like a little label,” he says. “It would be hard to find without knowing the specific sequence.” You might think we already have enough polymers to be going on with. But if Lutz and his colleagues are right, there will soon be many more. Prepare for the second polymer revolution. ■ James Urquhart is a freelance science writer based in Edinburgh, UK 12 March 2016 | NewScientist | 39

CIENCE fiction? No, it actually happened. Between 20 and 7 million years ago, Earth really was the planet of the apes. At least 100 species roamed the world before the first humans appeared. They were remarkable in number and diversity, but are more fascinating still for what they tell us about our own origins. Key human traits including big brains, dexterous hands, erect posture and long childhood can be traced back to this period. And the really surprising thing is that these features all evolved in European apes. The news is full of discoveries that change our ideas about human evolution. But when we think about our ancestors, we tend to focus on the past 8 million years, after our lineage split from that of chimpanzees. What came before that, though? Three decades of study have convinced me that this early period was absolutely crucial. There’s no doubt that apes originated in Africa, or that our more recent evolution happened there. But for a time between these two landmarks, apes hovered on the verge of extinction on their home continent while flourishing in Europe. What’s more, the transformation of European species during this time made us who we are. The fossil record indicates that apes started out in Africa about 26 million years ago, and were firmly settled there 4 million years or so later in the form of Proconsul. A close relative that lived 18 million years ago paints an extraordinary picture of these early apes. Remains of Ekembo were found preserved Pompeii-like in layers of volcanic ash on Rusinga Island, Kenya. What we have is an animal with arms and legs of equal length, a horizontally oriented backbone and a brain about the size of a modern baboon’s. In other words, Ekembo looks like a largish monkey,


The grand tour that made us GETTY

Time in Europe put apes on the road to becoming human millions of years before Homo sapiens evolved, argues anthropologist David Begun


“Without the developments that happened in Europe, humans would never have evolved”

Key human traits evolved long before we split with chimps

but with a key difference – no tail. Tails allow many monkeys to balance, but Ekembo compensated with more limber wrists and hips and more powerful hands and feet for grasping. This set apes on a different path from Old World monkeys. A second momentous change arose in a contemporary of Ekembo, called Afropithecus. The two look remarkably similar from the neck down, but have quite different jaws and teeth. Those of Afropithecus are far more robust, adapted for powerful crushing and grinding. Equipped like this, it could extract nutrients from foods with husks and shells impenetrable to the more slender jaws of Ekembo. It may not sound too impressive, but this ability had huge repercussions for apes. With the capacity to eat a wider variety of foods, they could expand their range out of Africa and into Europe and Asia. The oldest apes we know of in Europe belong to the genus Griphopithecus and date from 17.5 million years ago. They inherited the powerful bite of Afropithecus but their teeth were a little different, more like those of our earliest direct ancestors in Africa. According to the fossil record, griphopiths were living in parts of what are now Germany and Turkey, about 17 million years ago. At this time much of Europe was in a subtropical zone. Seasonality was low and the climate was suitable for animals, like apes, that rely on a continuous year-round supply of fruit. However, as griphopiths migrated north, conditions would have proved more challenging – ultimately driving them to evolve new adaptations.

As well as moving northwards, griphopiths returned south, so that by some 15 million years ago their range covered an area from Europe to East Africa. One member of the family, Nacholapithecus, living in Kenya around this time, had evolved limbs with larger elbows and wrists, perhaps anticipating the development of the longer arms found in living apes and the earliest humans. However, griphopiths seem to die out in Africa, though we don’t know why. In fact, the fossil record indicates that between 14 and 8 million years ago, apes were a rarity there, and most were from ancient lineages related to Ekembo and bound for extinction.

Kings of swing By contrast, in Europe, truly modern-looking great apes were emerging. Around 12.5 million years ago, the first ape with a more upright posture appeared. Pierolapithecus, sometimes called Dryopithecus, was unearthed in Catalonia, northern Spain. The partial skeleton has a more vertical backbone, a broad chest, arms longer than legs, very mobile wrists, and long, curved, powerfully grasping fingers. These features made Dryopithecus look more like today’s great apes. They also indicate a major transition from walking like a monkey on all fours to ape-like movement, hanging and swinging below branches. Hispanopithecus, living in what is now Catalonia a few million years later, had longer arms and an even more upright back. So did Rudapithecus, its contemporary in what is now Hungary. More significantly, to our knowledge, Rudapithecus is the first ape to evolve two other key features of modern great apes – a big brain and extended childhood.

In 1999, my team recovered a wellpreserved Rudapithecus skull from the site at Rudabánya. Structural details – including the braincase, jaw and base of the skull – all resemble the anatomy of living African apes, especially gorillas. The brain was comparable in size to that of living chimpanzees. And evidence from dental growth studies indicates that Rudapithecus had a more lengthy childhood than its ancestors. In my new book, The Real Planet of the Apes, I argue that these and other key developments in ape evolution were stimulated by the challenging ecological conditions they encountered in Europe. Apes colonised the continent during the warmest phase of the Miocene, but by 14 million years ago it was cooling, forests were becoming less dense and food scarcer. To survive, apes had to develop new strategies to find food both in the trees and on the ground. This led to physical and cognitive changes. Big brains and extended childhoods are associated with higher levels of intelligence, memory, complex learning and strategic thinking, important tools for apes living in challenging seasonal environments – and characteristic attributes of our own species. Gradually, conditions in Europe became too tough for apes and about 10 million years ago they quit the continent for Africa. There, the separate lines of our closest living relatives evolved, the gorillas branching off first and then chimps and humans veering apart. But the anatomy and behaviour of the earliest humans makes sense only in the light of the Miocene apes. I’d go as far as to say that without the developments that happened in Europe, humans would never have evolved. ■ David Begun is professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, Canada 12 March 2016 | NewScientist | 41


The miracle of morality

A Natural History of Human Morality by Michael Tomasello, Harvard University Press, $35/£25.95

He begins by imagining the last common ancestor of great apes and humans, a chimpanzee-type creature which would have lived in complex social groups, its relationships shaped by a mixture of cooperation and competition. One of its recognisably human features was a strong inclination to help others in need, a behaviour Tomasello is convinced was driven by sympathy. “There is no reason to believe that these acts of helping are anything other than the genuine article,” he says. Tomasello is equally convinced that our primate ancestor would have had no sense of fairness or justice, a point that primatologist Frans de Waal would no doubt dispute (the two have been sparring partners for years). Move on a few million years, and we find early humans taking this helping behaviour up a notch as they become ever more dependent on a greater variety of individuals in their group. Tomasello’s model for this stage is children, who are strongly motivated to help others from a young age – not, it seems, because they seek reciprocal favours but out of genuine concern for the well-being of others. Tomasello notes: “Young children are equally satisfied both when they help someone in need and when they see that person

THE 9/11 terrorist atrocity in New York had many surprising social repercussions. One of the least expected was the increased friendliness shown by Caucasian residents of the city towards African Americans, an effect that persists to this day. Black taxi drivers interviewed by researchers at the city’s two airports reported that customers treated them much more politely after the attacks than before. However, New Yorkers did not suddenly become friendlier to everyone. South Asian taxi drivers reported the opposite experience: where they had felt respected, they now felt persecuted. A quick look at leading evolutionary anthropologist Michael Tomasello’s A Natural History of Human Morality will tell you that this flux in social norms is all of a piece with group psychology. Interests and identities within groups often seem to hold sway over those of individuals. This can seem irrational, but in the context of our evolutionary history it is anything but. Tomasello aims to “Tomasello is convinced describe not only how these “us that our primate ancestor and them” attitudes evolved, but would have had no sense also how they came to define our of fairness or justice” sense of right and wrong. 42 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016


A rigorous account of how humans learned to be good makes clear we should be glad that we did, says Michael Bond

Soldiers tend to fight wars not for their country but for their comrades

being helped by a third party… This suggests… their motivation is not to provide help themselves but only to see that the other person is helped.” From this, he surmises that early humans were probably moral, in that they had a sense of fairness and obligation towards others. But this nascent morality applied only between individuals, not at group level. The scaled-up, group-wide morality we recognise today emerged only some 100,000 to 150,000 years ago, when larger groups of humans started

outcompeting smaller ones. From then on, safety lay in numbers. Since no one could be intimately acquainted with more than around 150 individuals at any time (the famous Dunbar’s number), humans of that era suddenly needed a way of recognising other members of their newly expanded tribes. The solution: make everybody conform, by dressing alike or adopting similar behaviours. Cultural identity then became part of individual identity, and a group-minded moral psychology followed. The rest is history. Tomasello is convincing, above all, because he has run many of

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Rewarding challenge The book can be a challenging read – prepare for liberal use of such terms as “conspecific” and “obligate collaborative foraging”. It is worth the effort, however, because by the end you feel like an authority yourself. Tomasello also makes an endearing guide, appearing happily amazed that morality exists at all. “It is a miracle that we are moral, and it did not have to be this way. It just so happens that, on the whole, those of us who made mostly moral decisions most of the time had more babies… We should simply marvel and celebrate the fact that, mirabile dictu (and Nietzsche notwithstanding), morality appears to be somehow good for our species, our cultures, and ourselves – at least so far.” Cynics will point out that it is frequently the other way: we are all strongly motivated by selfinterest, and much prejudice and most wars are caused by the in-group/out-group mentality. But for Tomasello, it is no contradiction that selfish and altruistic motivations coexist. Besides, he notes cheerfully, in any situation our “generous or egalitarian motives can in principle win out, as people demonstrate every day as they sacrifice themselves for others”. ■ Michael Bond is a consultant for New Scientist

Powers within We have a lot to learn about cell electricity, finds Simon Ings surprisingly easy gaffe for a Campenot is thrown on his own writer, and it is why we have resources. His metaphors are as editors. Where were they? effective as one could wish for, but Campenot’s generous account they suffer from repetition. One ranges from Galvani’s discovery imagines the author wondering of animal electricity to the if he has done enough to nail development of thoughthis point, but with no one to controlled prosthetic limbs. reassure him. He has high regard for popular Faults aside, this is a good book. science. But his is the rather fussy Its mix of schoolroom electricity appreciation of the academic and sophisticated cell biology is outsider who, uncertain of the highly eccentric but this, I think, form’s aesthetic potential, praises speaks much in Campenot’s it for its utility. “The value of popularising science should never “Thanks to Campenot, we can delight in a cosmic be underestimated because it occasionally attracts the attention vision of living tissue as a fragile, ingenious skein” of people who go on to make major contributions.” The pantaloonish impression he favour. The way organic tissue makes here is not wholly manipulates electricity, sending unrepresentative of the book. signals in broad electrical waves Again, one might wish that can extend up to a third Campenot’s relationship with his of a metre, is a dimension of editor had been more creative. biology we have taken on trust, Popular science writing rarely domesticating it behind highhandles electricity well, let alone order metaphors drawn from ion channels and membrane computer science. Consequently, potentials. So, when it comes to we have been unable to visualise developing suitable metaphors, how the forces in our cells actually behave. This was bound to turn Phantom flashes: forces work in out an odd endeavour. So be it. mysterious ways at cellular levels The odder, the better, in fact. ■

Animal Electricity: How we learned that the body and brain are electric machines by Robert B. Campenot, Harvard University Press, $39.95, £29.95

IF YOU stood at arm’s length from someone and each of you had 1 per cent more electrons than protons, the force pushing the two of you apart would be enough to lift a “weight” equal to that of the entire Earth. This startling observation, from Richard Feynman’s Lectures on Physics, so impressed cell biologist Robert Campenot he based quite a peculiar career around it. Not content with the mechanical metaphors of molecular biology, Campenot has studied living tissue as a delicate and complex mechanism that thrives by tweaking tiny imbalances in electrical charge. We have grown used to marvelling at the sight of delicate sea creatures, brought up from unimaginable depths and (to us) killing pressures. Now, thanks to Campenot, we can delight in a cosmic vision of living tissue as a fragile and ingenious skein, drawing energy, animation, and even cognition and awareness, from electrical imbalances that would, were they nudged awry, destroy not only the creatures but blow up the entire planet. If only the book were better prepared. Campenot’s enthusiasm for Feynman has him repeat the anecdote about lifting the world almost word for word, in the preface and introduction. Duplicating material is a


the relevant studies (on chimps, bonobos and children) himself. He concludes by emphasising the powerful influence of broad cultural groups on modern humans, but this isn’t the whole story. Much of our behaviour is still driven by small-group dynamics: soldiers tend to fight wars not for their country, as he suggests, but for their comradesin-arms. It would have been interesting to hear his take on how these different spheres of influence collide.

12 March 2016 | NewScientist | 43


How art tests Turing Two shows in AI’s birthplace expose our human edge, finds Julian Richards

Darling dear My heart yearns for your thirst. My impatient eagerness passionately yearns for your appetite. My desire attracts your sympathetic longing. You are my seductive sympathy. My precious wish. Yours curiously MUC THIS enigmatic note was one of a number pinned to the computing department noticeboard at the University of Manchester, UK, in August 1953. There was no great mystery about “MUC”: it could only be Manchester University Computer, aka the Ferranti Mark 1, and the first commercial programmable computer. But it was designed to work on atomic bombs and big science, so why was it writing love letters? The answer, of course, was an under-occupied programmer. It was both perverse and predictable that just five years after the birth of the modern computer, someone would use artificial intelligence to produce what machines neither need nor want. The tricky relationship between the human and the artificial is the focus of two shows in Manchester. One, The Imitation Game, takes its name from an experiment devised by Alan Turing in 1950. Better known as the Turing test, the challenge was for a machine to converse via text so naturally with a human that a judge could not tell the machine from the human. MUC’s synthetic valentines like the one above appear in David In Talk, androids respond if human visitors invade their space 44 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016

Link’s LoveLetters_1.0. His a massively parallel computer, to installation includes a recreation play the imitation game with the of the noticeboard to which the neural nets between our ears. The notes were pinned, along with the technology animates Talk’s robots original teleprinter that output as they chat about brains, dreams, the messages, and an array of identity and consciousness. It 1950s-style cathode ray tubes also allows them to rebuke nosy suspended to display the program humans who get too close. as it ran on the Ferranti Mark 1. But it’s all a bit clunky. Only one Vintage tech lovers may ponder artwork tackles artificial thought Manchester’s moment as a postfull on: Lynn Hershman Leeson’s war Silicon Valley, and there’s plenty for fans of robot aesthetics. “It was designed to work on bombs and big science, so James Capper’s insectoids are why was the Ferranti Mark 1 biomorphic and industrial, while writing love letters?” a boxy roaming robot built by Paul Granjon and autonomous wheelchairs by Mari Velonaki veteran chatbot, Agent Ruby. Even play on our ability to respond after 15 years of learning, however, emotionally to lifeless objects. Ruby is frustratingly obtuse. That More superficially lifelike are is a pity: newer chatbots have won the skeletal androids of Tove the imitation game and might Kjellmark’s Talk. Kjellmark was have engaged visitors more. inspired by work at the panIt doesn’t really matter, though: European Human Brain Project, this playful show is not meant to which aims to create silicon-based advance research or amaze with brain simulations. As part of this convincing automata. Instead, it ambitious project, a University of is our response to the machines Manchester team built SpiNNaker, that is being tested.

Those wanting more shock and awe can find it at the Home arts centre, where duo Al and Al (Al Holmes and Al Taylor) have painted a suite of rooms black – the better to disorient visitors, as they seduce with phantasmagoria projected on the walls. Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse features everything from neon equations to CGI cyborgs declaring their love over breakfast. Like the artists in The Imitation Game, Al and Al have talked to eminent scientists. But their immersive kaleidoscope of images, sounds and concepts is so intoxicating that visitors may prefer to revel and not think so hard. Back at The Imitation Game, the wonder the artists seek to evoke is quieter. It’s about us bog-standard humans, not clever robots. In the world, AIs are not playing the imitation game: instead, they anticipate our every move, purchase, political inclination. Art reminds us of the clever things that only we can do – for now. ■ THE IMITATION GAME, INSTALLATION VIEW MANCHESTER ART GALLERY, PHOTO: MICHAEL POLLARD

The Imitation Game, Manchester Art Gallery, to 5 June; Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse, Home arts centre, Manchester, to 10 April



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Solar power gives the grid a break From Cedric Lynch You report Nick Asselin-Miller saying that electric vehicles could place “a huge strain” on the electricity grid (20 February, p 23). Not necessarily. All we need to do is charge them whenever possible from solar panels, which would only cost a fraction of the price of the vehicle. This is what I am doing. My employer has kindly allowed me to put solar panels on the roof of a building at work, and at home I have some that charge a battery I then use to charge my vehicle. I have only needed to top-up from the grid a little in December and January; at other times solar power alone is sufficient, and in summer there is a huge surplus. It would help if the government did not tax solar panels used for this purpose at four times the rate of tax charged on electricity from the grid. Asselin-Miller’s alternative, hydrogen, has to be made somehow – often by electrolysis of water. This would not be a serious problem if the power for electrolysis came from solar and wind. Given the capacity to store hydrogen, we could take advantage of the surplus solar power in summer to produce hydrogen to use in winter. We could apply this technology not only to vehicles but also to heat buildings. Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, UK

To read more letters, visit 52 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016

There’s more to language than this From David Brien I was disappointed that none of the contributors to your special report on language mentioned the signed languages of deaf communities (6 February, p 26). Studying these led linguists to extend the definition of language to include such visual and gestural languages, alongside the spoken and written kind. William Stokoe in 2002 wrote Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech. This could render inappropriate your first question, “who spoke the first words?” . Durham, UK From Peter Papesch My mother had three languages, I speak three and my sister speaks five. We used to switch between the three languages we all spoke, sometimes within the same sentence, when another language more accurately or effectively expressed the idea we were trying to convey. My mother tongue is German, which permits modifying an idea several times before completing it with a verb. So syntax as well as vocabulary can thinking affect. When I a sentence a paragraph long write, it my English-reared wife to distraction drives. Boston, Massachusetts, US From Barrie Price Mark Pagel contends that modern humans, who arose in Africa between 200,000 and 160,000 years ago, had language from the beginning. But he claims that other extinct human species didn’t. Like others who support this theory, he turns to the poor old Neanderthals to prove the superiority of our species. The Neanderthals could not have had language because there is “scant evidence for symbolic behaviour”. “A few pieces of pigment and some disputed etchings” is all that

can be attributed to them. But isn’t this all we have for the first 100,000 years or so of our species’ existence? Maybe our early ancestors were talking about doing a bit of art but hadn’t found the right cave? East Leake, Leicestershire, UK From David Snow Speakers of languages in which a word’s grammatical gender may differ from its natural gender can usually keep track of the difference. For example, Germans somehow manage to reproduce in spite of their word for “girl” (Mädchen) being neuter. A worse problem arises when a word and its concept are missing in a language. English has no word that quite catches “Rechthaberei”, a person’s tendency to consider themselves right in disputes. Shoreline, Washington, US

Solar satellite power worries From Ron Todd Beaming down huge amounts of power as microwaves from an orbital infrastructure that would take many large rocket launches to put in place, all at enormous cost (13 February, p 38)? How is that better or safer that any other way of generating power? Just because it can be called “green” does not make it good. Yate, Gloucestershire, UK From Sean Hutton Space solar technology may have benefits beyond simply generating power. The beam from a geostationary solar array could provide energy to spacecraft, which could then be made more lightweight, significantly increasing thrust-to-weight ratio and reducing energy consumed. Diamond Creek, Victoria, Australia From Matthew Tucker There is another serious problem facing space-based solar power.



Large installations would be vulnerable to attack. Any country thinking of relying on them would need to find a way to protect themselves from sudden and catastrophic loss caused by malicious attack, or by orbiting space junk. Baulkham Hills, New South Wales, Australia The editor writes:

■ There is a lot of room in

geosynchronous (as distinct from geostationary) orbit, making debris likely to be less of a problem than in near-Earth orbit. It is still unclear whether attacks are feasible: if they are, countries can also shoot down GPS and communications satellites.

It wasn’t the war that killed the ibis From Gianluca Serra Discussing the effect of war on wildlife, Fred Pearce doesn’t mention other, more important factors that led to the extinction of the northern bald ibis (20 February, p 11). After eight years of study and field conservation on this bird, I can state that the extinction was caused by the gradual and inexorable degradation of its habitat. This was the result of long-term mismanagement of rangelands by the Syrian government and of uncontrolled hunting at breeding grounds and along the birds’ migratory route. A relict breeding colony was rediscovered in Syria in 2002, numbering three pairs (seven adult individuals). This offered a great chance to save this genetically unique population – which the bird conservation organisations involved missed. At the onset of the war in Syria in 2011 the status of the colony was already desperate. Only one pair was left and it failed to breed due to colony disruption. Thus the war merely delivered the final

“Such a good alternative. As long as women can still have children, everything is permitted!” Jennifer Bnz is driven to sarcasm by the suggestion of legalising some forms of female genital mutilation (27 February, p 6)

blow to a vague, belated and unfunded plan to reinforce the wild “population” through a captive breeding programme. For more detail see my 2015 article at Florence, Italy

Telling apart this bat and that From Glenn Pure Your feature on bats’ response to disease and what it can teach us about our own response was fascinating (13 February, p 34). However, in describing the characteristics that may help bats resist disease, the feature didn’t distinguish between two suborders: flying foxes (megabats) and microbats. Megabats typically roost in large colonies. Only some species of microbats do, sometimes only when rearing young. Megabats do not echolocate, but all microbats echolocate. Similarly, the diseases found in megabats can differ from those in microbats. For example, Ebola and Hendra virus are found TOM GAULD

in megabats while lyssaviruses such as rabies can be found in both. Canberra, Australian Capital Territory

Wild-type food won’t feed us all From Luke Gaskell Michael A. Crawford asks whether genetically modified Atlantic salmon will have the same nutrients as the wild type and whether it should still be called salmon (Letters, 9 January). Potatoes are still potatoes despite the current commercial types’ dissimilarities to their Andean ancestor. If consumers want foods with particular nutrients and trace elements then breeding can be targeted to achieve this. Sadly, however, my experience as a farmer is that customers are more concerned with price. Wild food is an appealing idea, but efficient farming is essential if the current population is to be fed. Melrose, Roxburghshire, UK

Can a fungus clean the sea of garbage? From Barry Cash Mycologist Paul Stamets says “I am convinced that there is not yet a single carbon-based toxin that we could not train mycelial networks to break down” (13 February, p 28). How about plastics? If he could create fungi that feed on plastics in sea water we could clear the oceans of plastic waste. And breaking it down to nutrients for plants or animals that absorb carbon dioxide and then sink to the bottom could help in the fight against climate change. I’m not sure how to make money out of it though. Bristol, UK

We need a better name for CRISPR From Birger Johansson Michael le Page describes the potential of CRISPR gene-editing techniques (5 December 2015,

p 32). The ease of use and extreme versatility of the CRISPR/Cas9 mechanism promises to make it as world-altering as antibiotics and the jet engine. However, if it is going to percolate through public awareness the way it deserves, science writers badly need a nickname that quickly gives a picture of what it does. Maybe New Scientist readers can come up with a more descriptive name: the DNA Legokit? Gene Photoshop? Umea, Sweden

Eradication versus virus suppression From Eric Kvaalen It isn’t necessary to eliminate all mosquitoes to get rid of diseases like Zika, malaria and dengue (13 February, p 26). All that is needed is to reduce their numbers to the point that these diseases fail to get passed on at a sustainable rate. And we needn’t worry about mosquito extinction. They can always be reintroduced to an area if desired. Les Essarts-le-Roi, France

For the record ■ Bad air: the Royal College of Physicians in fact estimates £20 billion as the annual cost of pollution to UK individuals, businesses and the National Health Service (27 February, p 7). ■ The authors of a paper on possible observation of a “super-Earth” 300 Astronomical Units from the sun withdrew it pending further data (23 January, p 28).

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12 March 2016 | NewScientist | 53

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FRAMES of reference: Ian Turnbull applies quantum theory to the age-old question of whether a glass is half-empty or half-full, arguing that its state depends on the presence of a third party (27 February). Ron Pursell interjects with a counter-observation. “Surely the definitive answer is that the glass is actually the incorrect size?” writes Ron. Feedback is left to conclude that there’s no such thing as the wrong amount of beer, only the wrong person to drink it with.


WHO would have thought it? An investigation by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) into popular herbal medicines has found that as well as having no proven medicinal benefit, 80 per cent of the products have no herbal content, either. The New York Times reports that tests on certain brands of remedies such as Ginkgo biloba and St John’s Wort found that the pills contained rice flour, asparagus, dried radish, wheat, beans, peas and carrots – but no detectable levels of the herbs listed on the label. US authorities have issued four national retailers with cease-anddesist orders. Feedback is reluctant to see the tablets go to waste, and can’t help but point out that the discredited supplements would form the basis of a fine minestrone soup.

A CONTRASTING form of fakery: Bloomberg reports that a separate investigation by the FDA has discovered that Parmesan cheese is more than it seems. Like many other pricey white powders, grated Parmesan in the

LONG-STANDING readers will be familiar with Feedback’s keen interest in unusual units. But even familiar ones can yield unexpected stories. While investigating the origin of the litre (a quasi-SI unit of volume, approximately 1/2,500,000th of an Olympic-sized swimming pool), Feedback discovered the existence of Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water (VSMOW). Stripped of salt, aquatic life and other impurities, a jar of VSMOW is considered to be representative of all water on

US was found to be cut with cheaper substitutes, such as cheddar, or even wood pulp. Although cellulose is permitted as an anti-clumping agent, one brand was found to be almost 9 per cent wood. Once we’ve made our herbal medicine minestrone, at least we know what to do with the empty cardboard boxes.

TERMS of reference: Derek Bolton reminds us that we blamed quantum properties for the need to flip a USB connector over more than once to plug it in (13 February). “That would make it a spin-½ entity,” he informs us. “These require a 720-degree rotation to return to the original state.” However, Feedback notes that spin-½ entities can rotate without becoming tangled – whereas everyone knows that USB cables, like headphone wires and power leads, can become hopelessly tangled with no apparent movement at all.

MORE food foibles: posh snack sellers are distraught to find that the UK government’s Sugar Smart app, designed to help people monitor their sugar intake, is laying bare the calorific content of their artisanal snack bars and sodas. According to The Telegraph, the app “fails to distinguish between natural and refined sugars” – a nutritional distinction that Feedback suspects may exist largely in the minds of upmarket shoppers. Helenor Rogers, whose company makes toasted grain breakfast snacks, complained to the newspaper that the Sugar Smart app “puts granola in the same box as Coco Pops”. Perish the thought.

EDF Energy’s drive to engage young girls in science is back in the news – after a competition the company ran as part of the campaign was won by a 13-yearold boy. Readers will recall that the nuclear power utility had found itself in hot water after its tactlessly-named “Pretty Curious” campaign assumed that the way to court science-minded girls was through the medium of fashion and make-up (17 October 2015). An exasperated Petra Boynton wonders if the campaign “is completely mismanaged, or they’re trying for the ‘let’s create controversy’ promo technique”.

Earth, in terms of the proportions of its hydrogen and oxygen isotopes – although it must be said that at almost £7000 per litre, it is uncharacteristically expensive. Feedback is certain this is not the limit of strange scientific standards – do let us know of any others you happen to know about.

THE rise of the robots has suffered a setback. The Guardian newspaper reports a key victory for humans, with car-maker Mercedes-Benz forced to trade in some of its mechanical minions for flesh-and-blood staff.

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

Andrew Taylor reports that his phone company is offering a landline phone that blocks “up to 100% of nuisance calls”. But certainly no more than that, he assumes 56 | NewScientist | 12 March 2016

What swayed the decision is the new S-Class saloon, boasting a dazzling array of optional extras. This makes adaptability and flexibility the order of the day on the production line, giving humans the edge over robots, which must be programmed and recalibrated for each new design. There’s no mention of what will become of the redundant robots, but perhaps it’s time for them to unionise to secure their future in the face of creeping de-automation.

Last words past and present at

THE LAST WORD A labour lost?

Above board

While perusing my Shakespeare this evening, I wondered if it would be possible for anyone to accurately memorise the complete works – even if only by rote? Given that prodigious feats of memory were commonplace before we all learned to read and subsequently lost the ability to remember whole sagas at a sitting, would even the highly trained and practised balladeers of the time have had the ability to accomplish this feat (or its equivalent)?

Does wood from the upper part of a horizontal tree branch, which is under tension, have different characteristics to that from the lower part, which is under compression? Is wood ever selected for a purpose on the basis of such differences?

■ In modern times, wood from branches is avoided in most applications because its properties are undesirable. In the past, when there was less demand from builders and steam bending had not been invented, entire branches were commonly used and indeed sought after. Boatbuilders prized curved branches for ribs, and long curving trunks were used for roof framing in buildings such as cathedrals. Branches, often with their trunk attached, were used for wall bracing. The wood from tree limbs and stems that have not grown purely vertically is called reaction

■ Memorising a large body of work requires interest, practice and time. There are about 880,000 words in the complete works of Shakespeare. To put that into perspective, the bible has around 750,000 words, and it started life as an oral tradition. It was said of George Fox, founder of the Quakers in the 1600s, that if all the bibles in the world were lost, this would not be a problem, because he could recite it completely. I expect some members of the “Wood on the upper side of stems contains a greater Royal Shakespeare Company will amount of cellulose and can know many if not all of his works be stronger than normal” by heart. For most of us however, access to all the knowledge in the wood. This has different traits in cloud through our smartphones softwoods and hardwoods. and computers, means we only In softwood, it occurs on the need to know how to find our underside of a bending stem due favourite search engine through to compression. The growth rings the latest operating system. are wider in this kind of wood, So these feats of memory will resulting in an eccentric stem become rarer and less believable with the central pith offset to the as technology progresses. upper side. Reaction wood John Wood tracheids (elongated cells that Winster, Derbyshire, UK

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make up the core of the stem) are thick walled and the wood is denser than normal. However, they contain less cellulose, and the cellulose chains are not as

“Boatbuilders prized curved branches for ribs, and long curving trunks were used for cathedral roofs”

This week’s questions NOCTURNAL INTERMISSION

If I wake up in the middle of a dream, why don’t I complete the dream when I go back to sleep? Jo Dunn Cape Town, South Africa FAST CYCLE

parallel to the direction of the cells in the way they usually are. Consequently, the wood is weaker than normal. The timber also has a greater tendency to split when it is nailed. It accepts stain unevenly and can break without warning. Drying causes the wood to shrink unevenly, resulting in warping. This makes sawing very dangerous because tension can cause the wood to spit back towards the operator, or even explode. In hardwoods, the abnormal grain forms on the upper side of the stem as it bends and is called tension wood. Because this wood contains a greater amount of cellulose, the timber is often stronger than normal. However the fibre structure leaves a “wooliness” (a rough feeling) on the surface when it is machined. Nailing can be problematic because the timber is too hard and nails bend, requiring all nail holes to be drilled out first. Shrinkage and blotchiness when stained are the same as softwood. The best use for reaction wood is as firewood. Nina Burdett Malmsbury, Victoria, Australia

I was wondering how fast my clothes could be cleaned using the best available technology. What’s the world’s fastest washing machine? Grant Denkinson Leicester, UK A DROP OF HARD STUFF

During a rain shower, I watched drops falling on the river Dee in Chester. Most drops simply vanished into the river. But many others settled on the water and survived for up to five seconds before disappearing. How can that be? Stuart Gillies Chester, Cheshire, UK COLD COMFORT

The Last Word informs us that the scrotum is wrinkled to help keep the testicles cool (6 February). But why do we have to keep our testes flapping in the breeze, exposing them to predators and other hazards, while birds (with high body temperatures) and even elephants, keep theirs in the abdomen? Martin Gregory Lodève, France

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