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FIVE METRES AND COUNTING First watertight calculations of sea level rise

WEEKLY 13 June 2015


First close-up for thelast planet dw ar f


The world’s elite robots fight it out


When monkeys hang out with wolves


The real reason sunshine is good for you


Sleep away addiction and bad memories

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Volume 226 No 3025

This issue online newscientist.com/issue/3025


News 5



Five metres and counting


UPFRONT Norway turns away from coal. Green light for “female Viagra”. The unknown mass extinction 8 THIS WEEK Microparticles become safety inspectors. Machiavellian behaviour is sixth personality trait. Revealed: every virus you’ve ever had. Catch lunar dew to slake astronaut thirst. Monkeys’ first step in domesticating wolves? 16 IN BRIEF Size matters to mongooses. How lifestyle shapes genes. Nanoparticles talk to the brain. Dinosaur blood found in fossil bones


Why sea level rise is inevitable – and could get worse

Pluto is far from the last stop for solar system exploration

On the cover



Pluto revealed


First close-up for the dwarf planet


14 34

Five metres and counting Sea level rise calculated Clunk and disorderly Elite robots fight it out Nitric glow The real reason sunshine is good for you Baboon’s best friend Monkeys with wolves Power nap Sleep away addictions

Cover image Alex Andreyev



Technology 18 Live at the world’s toughest robot challenge. Create your own Kevin Spacey avatar

Aperture 22 The Transylvanian village sacrificed to sludge

Opinion 24 Legal low David Nutt on why a ban on psychoactive drugs may backfire 24 Light warfare The reality of “Star Wars” lasers is less terrifying, says Jeff Hecht 25 One minute with… Felix Warneken How we found out chimps are primed to cook 26 Prodigal sun Despite cancer, let’s rethink attitudes to sunlight, says Richard Weller


Power nap

28 Pluto revealed (see above left) 34 Power nap (see left) 38 Circles in the sand What made Namibia’s enigmatic fairy rings?

Sleep away addiction and bad memories RAYMOND BIESINGER

CultureLab 42 Throw away those metaphors! Talking about the genome is getting tricky 43 A strange embrace The world of the octopus is playful and peculiar

Coming next week… Dark. Darker A new guise for the universe’s missing matter

Regulars 54 LETTERS It’s cats that are bending minds 56 FEEDBACK Homely chemical attacks 57 THE LAST WORD Mind lags body

Coral fightback The world’s reefs have life in them yet

13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 3

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12 April 2015 DISTANCE: 110 million km

12 May 2015 DISTANCE: 75 million km

7 June 2015* DISTANCE: 44 million km

Are we nearly there yet? Pluto is far from the last stop for solar system exploration

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WHEN the New Horizons space worlds to discover? Hardly. They probe launched, Pluto was still a say travel broadens the mind, and planet. Just a few months later, in 50-odd years of deep-space travel August 2006, the little world was has certainly broadened ours. notoriously demoted to a mere Any initial disappointment at dwarf. But it remained the final the inner planets’ barrenness, stop on NASA’s Grand Tour of the as revealed by the Mariner and solar system’s outer planets – a early Pioneer probes, has given programme, plagued by cutbacks, way to growing excitement at the that has taken decades longer to unsuspected exoticism of the gas complete than anticipated. giants and their lunar retinues, NASA, too, was demoted in discovered by the Voyager, Galileo 2006: it suffered swingeing and Cassini missions. budget cuts that year, and many “They say travel broadens feared it would have to forgo its more ambitious deep-space plans. the mind, and 50 years of deep-space exploration has Two previous Pluto missions certainly broadened ours” were cancelled as the agency’s budget continued to decline. For a while, it looked as though New Horizons is the first of a we were doomed, by the odd new series of missions intended coupling of cost-cutting and to fall between the “faster, better, celestial dynamics, not to explore cheaper” trips that now make up these worlds any further. New much of NASA’s output, and the Scientist’s frustration was such grander visions of its heyday. that we even worked out how to It seems to be working: though send our own probe to the Jovian still millions of kilometres away, moon Europa, which many think New Horizons has already sent harbours a habitable ocean back the best pictures of Pluto (6 December 2014, p 42). we’ve ever had (see above). Vague But NASA’s budget is though these are, they’ve revealed rebounding, and Europa, at least, tantalising hints of a polar cap is firmly back on the agenda. and the chaotic tumbling of its Hopes aren’t pinned solely on tiny moons. Greater surprises NASA. The growing flotilla are surely in store (see page 28). So will reaching Pluto mark the includes probes from Europe, Japan, China and India. They’re not end of a golden age of planetary all flagships, but “faster, better, science? Are there no more new

cheaper” is not a bad approach, given our new-found appreciation of the solar system’s richness. Pluto may be least among planets, but it is foremost in our neighbourhood’s vast family of minor worlds, study of which will help answer another big question: how do planetary systems form? A second dwarf planet – Ceres, titan of the asteroid belt – is being surveyed by NASA’s Dawn probe, while scientists have their fingers crossed that Philae, slumbering on comet 67P, will wake up as the sun breaks over it. New Horizons will itself head on to a still more distant world in the as-yetmysterious Kuiper belt, thought to be home to innumerable icy survivors from the very deep past. The Grand Tour may be nearly over, but many more voyages of discovery are just beginning – and these will be by true explorers, not just whistle-stop tourists. We’ve already sent robotic laboratories roving across Mars, plunging to fiery doom in Jupiter’s murky atmosphere and bouncing off an asteroid. Their successors will be even more audacious: some will bring bits of space back to us. When we first started flinging robotic emissaries into the void, we had no real idea what we would find out there. Now we have – and that is even more exciting. ■ 13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 5





MERS stalks South Korea THE MERS virus has come to South Korea in a big way. Cases more than doubled between 4 and 9 June, from 41 to 95, making it the second most infected country after Saudi Arabia, where the virus emerged in 2012. Seven people have died so far. However, the health ministry announced on Tuesday that it expects the outbreak to start declining this week. All but the initial infection were transmitted in hospitals – the emergency department of Seoul’s Samsung Hospital alone accounted for 10 new cases last week. That means the virus should be contained by better hospital hygiene, and by isolating the contacts of people who have been infected. Nearly 3000 people are already in quarantine. That makes MERS less dangerous

than SARS, a related virus that emerged in China in 2003 and spread worldwide because it was able to pass between people fairly easily. MERS is spreading in hospitals because medical procedures can unintentionally help to distribute viruses, and sick people have lowered defences, but there’s no sign it can spread easily outside. This means it is more likely to become a troublesome hospital infection, like the antibiotic-resistant bacteria MRSA, than a pandemic – unless it evolves to transmit better in people. A genetic analysis published this week found the Korean virus was virtually identical to Saudi strains, suggesting that it hasn’t evolved. Since 2012, there have been 1190 cases of MERS worldwide.

–Hotbed of infection–

Old but unhealthy THE world is sick. About 95 per cent of people have at least one health complaint, with a third of us having more than five. Becoming better at avoiding early death means we spend longer being susceptible to ill health that results from our bodies wearing out. “The focus of health has been on tackling causes of death, rather than disability,” says Theo Vos of the University of Washington in Seattle, one of the authors of a study evaluating how patterns of disease and ill health

“The focus of health has been on tackling the causes of death, rather than disability” have changed in 188 countries between 1990 and 2013. The number of years of healthy life lost globally rose from 537.6 million in 1990 to 764.8 million in 2013, a rise of 43 per cent. The authors attribute this to population growth and ageing. The leading causes were lowerback pain and depression, which 6 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015

were among the top 10 causes of lost years of health in all 188 countries. Other common woes include tooth cavities, tensiontype headaches, iron-deficiency anaemia, hearing loss, genital herpes and migraine (The Lancet, doi.org/45v). Vos is confident, however, that disabilities of ageing are gradually being managed better. “At each age over time, we see small improvements,” he says. But not everyone is upbeat. Rifat Atun of Harvard University says that a complete upheaval in health systems is needed, with resources shifted away from treating disease in hospitals to disease prevention programmes in the community. “Don’t wait for illness, invest in the maintenance of health,” says Atun, the author of an accompanying commentary (doi. org/456). “We can’t manage these chronic conditions in hospitals, so there needs to be an emphasis on maintaining good health, preventing disease and slowing progression of disease when it does happen,” he says. “There’s no choice: it has to happen.”

Female Viagra A BIT of a let-down? The first drug for treating low sexual desire in women is poised to go on sale in the US next year but instant libido is not guaranteed. Flibanserin was approved by a US Food and Drug Administration advisory panel last week. The FDA’s final say is due by August. Manufacturer Sprout Pharmaceuticals of Raleigh, North Carolina, plans to give the drug the brand name Addyi. But it is no Viagra – women would have

to take it every day, whether or not they want sex. And, while the little blue pills work by increasing blood flow to the genitals, Addyi alters brain chemistry. The drug has been rejected by the FDA twice before, with the agency requesting further trials and safety data. The panel this time expressed concerns about its side effects: sleepiness, drops in blood pressure and fainting. And its effects on sexual desire are limited: on it, couples have sex an average of once a month extra, up from two to three times a month.

Elephants find safe havens AFRICAN elephants are crossing borders to escape poaching. They seem to be heading to Botswana, Gabon, Namibia and Uganda. Political stability, relatively sparse populations and low levels of government corruption mean these countries are bucking the trend for declining elephant numbers. Uganda now has 5000 – six times as many as in the 1990s, according to the Great Elephant Census survey. “Uganda is proof that when it’s done

right, conservation can secure elephants,” says Paul Elkan, a director at the Wildlife Conservation Society. He credits the government action, including well-disciplined military patrols to help protect elephants and sharing of revenue from tourist dollars with locals to give them an incentive to protect wildlife. By contrast, bad news from Tanzania and Mozambique where elephant numbers have plummeted drastically.

For new stories every day, visit newscientist.com/news

Sailing by the sun I LIKE the cut of your jib. A small spacecraft designed to test solar sail technology, which derives thrust from sunlight, is finally fully operational. LightSail, operated by the



No climate pause The global warming “hiatus” is just an illusion caused by inaccurate analysis, according to updated ocean observations and new data on surface temperatures. Instead of pausing over the past 15 years, temperatures continued to rise at a similar rate to that seen in the second part of the 20th century (Science, doi.org/45m).

“Last weekend, mission managers made contact with the craft and unfurled its 32-square-metre sail”

Antelope killer found


non-profit Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, has been dogged by problems since its launch, but last weekend mission managers made contact with the craft and unfurled its Norway snubs coal 32-square-metre sail. RIGHT on the money. The Solar sails offer a potentially campaign to persuade big cheap way of exploring the solar investors to sell off fossil fuel system, but few have been tested holdings has had its greatest in orbit. They work by reflecting triumph yet. Norway’s sovereign photons from the sun, providing wealth fund must sell off its a small thrust in the opposite $5 billion of coal holdings, the direction. The force from each country’s parliament voted last reflected photon is tiny, but in week. The fund is the largest space a large enough sail can stockholder in Europe, worth build up significant momentum. an astounding $900 billion. The LightSail mission got off The move won’t put an end to to a bad start when its computer coal-burning for the companies crashed shortly after launch and needed a reboot. A few days “The largest stockholder later, the craft fell silent, forcing in Europe, Norway’s another reboot. But on Saturday, wealth fund is to sell off its it sent back data confirming the $5 billion in coal holdings” sail had deployed successfully. LightSail will fall back to Earth in the next few days, but a second concerned – including Drax, the owner of the UK’s biggest one will launch next year. coal-fired power station. But campaigners argue that it sends a powerful message about how pumping ever more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is ethically unacceptable. It also makes financial sense to disinvest, they say, as the value of fossil fuel companies depends on reserves they may not be allowed to burn in the future. Persuading investors to sell off coal stocks may be the easy part. Their value has nearly halved over the past five years, and with China making strenuous efforts –Run for your life– to reduce its dependence on

–Parting from oil and gas is harder–

coal – and thus imports – they look set to fall further. Also, coal stocks account for just 5 per cent of fossil fuel stocks worldwide, which are worth an estimated $5 trillion. There is little likelihood of Norway divesting from oil and gas. The country gets most of its own energy from renewable sources, but has grown rich by selling its oil and gas to others.

Mass extinction WE PREDICTED it, but still didn’t notice it happening. Some 130,000 animal species may have gone extinct without us even being aware of it. That’s 7 per cent of all land animals. Conservationists have estimated that up to 100 species are disappearing every day because of human activity – but only 800 extinctions have been recorded since 1500. Claire Régnier of the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris and her colleagues say this is because few people are tracking invertebrates, which account for some 99 per cent of species diversity. The team has investigated land snails and found that about a tenth of the 200 known species have probably disappeared, which they extrapolate to other land animals (PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/ pnas.1502350112).

More than half the world’s saiga antelope – some 134,252 animals – were wiped out in Kazakhstan in just three weeks. Now the culprit has been identified as haemorrhagic septicaemia, caused by the bacterium Pasteurella multocida, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health, which says the outbreak is now over.

Flying saucer splash On Monday, NASA launched a test flight of its Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, a disc-shaped re-entry craft designed to slow the descent of spacecraft landing on Mars. But its 30-metre-wide parachute failed to inflate, causing it to splash into the Pacific Ocean.

G7’s climate pledge Leaders of seven of the world’s richest countries have committed to phasing out fossil fuels by the end of the century. They have also agreed to work towards limiting global warming to less than 2 °C above pre-industrial temperatures.

Freeze thaw ovary A woman who had an ovary removed as a child and re-implanted as an adult has given birth. At the age of 13, before she started menstruating, the woman had chemotherapy that would have damaged her ovaries. To preserve her fertility, one was removed and then frozen. Ten years later it was thawed and implanted, enabling her to become pregnant (Human Reproduction, DOI: 10.1093/humrep/dev128).

13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 7


Five metres and counting Only drastic action will prevent a 20-metre rise, finds Michael Le Page WHATEVER we do now, the seas will rise at least 5 metres. Most of Florida and many other low-lying areas and cities around the world are doomed to go under. If that weren’t bad enough, without drastic cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions – more drastic than any being discussed ahead of the critical climate meeting in Paris later this year – a rise of over 20 metres will soon be unavoidable. After speaking to the researchers behind a series of recent studies, New Scientist has made the first calculations of what their findings mean for how much sea level rise is already unavoidable, or soon will be. Much uncertainty still surrounds the pace of future rises, with estimates for a 8 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015

5-metre rise ranging from a couple of centuries – possibly even less – to a couple of millennia. But there is hardly any doubt that this rise is inevitable. We already know that we are heading for a rise of at least 1 metre by 2100. The sea will then continue to climb for many centuries as the planet warms. The question is, just how high will it get?

No return According to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), over the next 2000 years we can expect a rise of about 2.3 metres for each sustained 1 °C increase in the global temperature. This means a 5-metre rise could happen only

if the world remains at least 2 °C of the West Antarctic surviving. warmer than in pre-industrial Others agree. “I think these times up to the year 4100. That are very convincing studies,” doesn’t sound so bad: it suggests says Anders Levermann of the that if we found some way of Potsdam Institute for Climate cooling the planet, we could avoid Impact Research in Germany, that calamity. one of the authors of the sea Unfortunately, the report, level chapter in the last IPCC published in 2013, is not the whole report. “The West Antarctic ice story. Last year, two teams sheet is gone.” reported that two massive glaciers The reason is that the West in West Antarctica have already Antarctic ice sheet sits in a passed the point of no return. massive basin, its base as much Ian Joughin of the University as 2 kilometres below sea level. of Washington, Seattle, modelled At the moment, only a little ice the fate of one of the glaciers. on the edges is exposed to the “No matter what, the glacier warming waters around continued to lose mass,” he says. “As the ice retreats, everThe loss of those two glaciers deeper parts of ice basins alone will raise sea level 1.2 will be exposed to warming metres. If they go, Joughin waters and will melt” says, it’s hard to see the rest


In this section ■ Machiavellian behaviour is sixth personality trait, page 11 ■ Monkeys’ first step in domesticating wolves?, page 14 ■ Live at the world’s toughest robot challenge, page 18

Most of the ice in East Antarctica is more stable than that in West Antarctica as it rests on land above sea level. There are two large basins, the Aurora and the Wilkes, whose floors are below sea level, but these are shallower than the West Antarctic one. We had thought only massive warming would destabilise the ice here.

ur warming world faces massive sea level rise. At least 5 metres is already locked in (orange), although it could be much worse (blue). What we don't know is how fast it will happen


Greenland 6.0 Threshold for irreversible loss could be passed

Trough threat


Sea level rise (metres)

However, Totten, the main SOUTH POLE glacier that drains the Aurora basin, is thinning, says Jamin 1 3 Greenbaum of the University of Texas at Austin. His team reported in March that radar 2 sea level and thus sounding has revealed a trough vulnerable to warming under the ice that could let Aurora basin 3 warm water enter the basin and trigger enough melting Already losing ice to eventually raise sea level by 5.1 metres (Nature Geoscience, doi.org/27w). “The mind-blowing thing is that there is as much ice in one glacier in East Antarctica Only a thin plug of ice as in all of West Antarctica,” prevents irreversible loss 3.5 says Greenbaum. The situation is similar in the West Antarctic ice sheet 1 3.3 Wilkes basin. It’s not losing ice yet, Already doomed but once a small amount on the margins is lost it will continue disintegrating until enough ice –Still dreaming of that seaside villa?– has melted to raise sea level 3.5 metres, Levermann’s team Antarctica. As the ice retreats, “It’s mind-blowing: there’s reported last year (Nature however, ever-deeper parts of the as much ice in East Climate Change, doi.org/snz). basin will be exposed to warming Antarctica’s Aurora basin What will it take to kick-start waters, leading to ever more as in all of West Antarctica” the loss of all this ice? Not much. of it being lost. The process is During the Pliocene period irreversible because once it starts, around 4 million years ago, for it will continue as long as warm instance, when the planet was 2 or conditions persist. This means a 3 °C warmer at times, sea level was 0.8 3.3-metre rise is now unavoidable. over 20 metres higher than now. And that’s not all (see chart, Researchers suspect that much of right). Even in the unlikely event this came from the Aurora and we manage to limit warming to Wilkes basins. 2 °C, we’re in for a 0.8-metre rise Support for this idea comes as the oceans warm and expand. from an improved ice sheet model Ocean expansion Mountain glaciers around the that, for the first time, includes world will contribute 0.4 metres. dynamic processes such as cliff For 2° and 4°C of warming 0.8 Adding those figures to the collapse resulting from ice sheets 3.3 metres, we get 4.5 metres in being undercut by warming total, or 5 metres rounded up. waters. In January, a team Mountain glaciers That’s conservative, given that it including Richard Alley of Will largely vanish doesn’t count any melting from Pennsylvania State University as the planet warms East Antarctica or Greenland. reported that Pliocene conditions

13 June 2015 NewScientist 9


SPECIAL REPORT SEA LEVEL RISE will lead, so the model indicates, to ice loss not only in Aurora and Wilkes but also in several smaller East Antarctic basins. Together, they hold enough ice to add at least 15 metres to global sea level (Earth and Planetary Science Letters, doi.org/42m). We are currently on course for a world even warmer than the

“Within 50 years, we could be locked into sea level rise from Greenland’s thaw, lasting thousands of years” Pliocene, which means we could soon trigger the loss of the Wilkes and Aurora ice – if we haven’t already. Then there’s Greenland. The ice here mostly rests on land above sea level, so should take thousands of years to melt. You might think, then, that there is plenty of time left to save it. Not so, says Alexander Robinson of the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain. He says his team’s studies show that we are already nearing the point of no return for Greenland (Nature Climate Change, doi.org/ kkw). “Within the next 50 years, we could be committing ourselves to continuous sea level rise from Greenland over the next thousands of years,” he says. “That’s a very profound thing to think about.” The reason is that as warming continues, various positive

CThis break-up will be traumatic–

feedbacks will kick in. As the surface of the ice sheet lowers, for instance, it experiences higher temperatures. In theory, the melting could still be stopped if temperatures fall, but because carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for many centuries, says Robinson, it is hard to see how that could happen (see “Can geoengineering save coastal cities?”, below). The loss of Greenland’s ice

would add at least 6 metres to global sea level. And in this business-as-usual scenario, ocean warming would contribute 1.6 metres or more. Adding all this up leads to the frightening conclusion that we don’t have much time left before we’re on a one-way street to a world with seas 20 metres higher. “It’s kind of scary,” says Robinson. It will take thousands of years for the seas to rise to this

CAN GEOENGINEERING SAVE COASTAL CITIES? It’s already too late to prevent massive sea level rise (see main story). Or is it? Can geoengineering stop low-lying cities sinking beneath the waves? It certainly won’t be easy. “Once you kick in the melting feedbacks, it’s very hard to shut them off,” says Alexander Robinson of the Complutense University of Madrid. To have any chance, we have to get the planet’s temperature back down to pre-industrial levels in the not too distant future. “I personally see that

10 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015

as quite unlikely,” Robinson says. One key problem is that most geoengineering methods, such as pumping sulphates into the atmosphere, rely on reflecting sunlight and would cool the tropics more than the poles (Geophysical Research Letters, doi.org/453). Cooling the poles enough to halt ice loss would devastate the rest of the world, slashing rainfall, for instance. The best solution would be to suck all the excess carbon dioxide

from the atmosphere, but the immense scale of the task and the speed required make this seem nigh on impossible. Other suggestions, such as building huge barriers between warming waters and glaciers, don’t look feasible either. Another major problem is that until cities start drowning, it is hard to see politicians spending trillions on megaprojects. And once they begin to drown, it will already be too late to prevent major sea level rise.

extent, but much of the rise could happen early on – within the first few centuries – although no one can say for sure. Joughin thinks the IPCC estimate of up to 1.2 metres by 2100 could still be in the right ball park. “It’s likely to be on the high end [of the IPCC estimate] but not far outside.” Yet in the improved ice model that Alley’s team ran, Antarctica alone added 5 metres to sea level in the first two centuries. That model was run with warm Pliocene-like conditions from the start, not where we are at now. It might not take too long to reach a similar point, though. We’re in danger of soaring past Pliocene levels of warmth as early as the middle of the century if we don’t slash emissions soon. In the study, the West Antarctic ice sheet collapsed in mere decades in response to this kind of warmth. What’s more, the model might still leave out some melting processes, Alley says. “It is possible that this rather short timescale is not the worst possible case.” ■


THIS WEEK Microparticles could sense nuclear danger SAFETY inspectors are being downsized – in a good way. Tiny glass beads patrolling fibre-optic cables could keep an eye on the insides of nuclear reactors and other hazardous environments. Fibre-optic cables may be best known for delivering your broadband connection, but they are also used as sensors, measuring things like cracks or chemical leaks that change the amount of light passing through them. Philip Russell of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light in Erlangen, Germany, and his colleagues have taken this a step further with a new kind of hollow fibre. These fibres were originally designed to improve data transmission, but Russell realised the empty cores could also work as channels for microscopic glass particles. The team used lasers to manoeuvre particles into the fibre. They then showed that a particle exposed to a varying electric field would oscillate inside the fibre, changing the amount of laser light the particle scattered. They used this to measure the strength of the electric field. The team was also able to measure temperature variation by looking for changes in the speed at which the particle travelled down the fibre, which is determined by the viscosity of air, which in turn depends on temperature (Nature Photonics, doi.org/455). Particles prepared in different ways could measure other properties. Made from the right material, they could give off light in the presence of radiation, for example. This would be particularly useful in nuclear reactors. “It’s an impressive piece of work,” says William MacPherson of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK, who thinks the sensors could also be used to monitor complex scientific experiments. “It opens up an exciting possibility for making localised measurements that you can move around.” Jacob Aron ■

goes some way to measuring these undesirable traits, but only in the way we react to others – not in the behaviours we initiate. “Agreeableness captures people’s patience and forgiveness but not the actively harmful behaviours. Honesty-humility really captures that Machiavellianness,” she says. The trait is part of a new sixfactor model. But almost all the supporting evidence for its inclusion has been based on people doing questionnaires and giving their opinion of how likely they are to behave and think in certain ways. Now a study has shown that people who score low on the honesty-humility trait are more likely to be dishonest in a series of lab tests. In one test of 88 people, those who cheated in a dicerolling game to win small sums of cash had lower honesty-humility scores – but there was no link with any of the big five traits. Those in the lowest bracket for the trait claimed to have predicted a dice–How Machiavellian are you?– roll correctly about 75 per cent of the time when their real odds of doing so were only 17 per cent (Journal of Research in Personality, doi.org/45b). “They were cheating like mad,” says co-author Benjamin Hilbig of the University of Koblenz-Landau in Germany. Ivan Robertson of the sixth personality trait – and it’s University of Manchester, not a pretty one. It’s known as UK, says the six-trait model honesty-humility, but it’s people does seem better at teasing out who are lacking in those two Machiavellian personality traits. qualities that the measure is But he points out that the big five designed to pick out. is widely used, and introducing Some psychologists believe new models will make it harder that standard personality tests for researchers to compare work. Cohen thinks acceptance of the “The honesty-humility trait big six is growing. She investigates is invaluable for measuring integrity in the workplace and how likely people are to finds the honesty-humility trait steal office supplies” invaluable for measuring how likely people are to do things based on the “big five” are failing like cheat on their time-sheets to identify people who are sly, or steal office supplies. “If they dishonest and greedy. “These are have the opportunity to behave people who lack moral character,” in a very selfish way, they do so, says Taya Cohen of Carnegie even if it might harm others,” Mellon University in Pittsburgh. says Cohen. “They can be nasty Cohen says that “agreeableness” to co-workers too.” ■

Our personality’s dark side revealed Clare Wilson

FROM Frank Underwood in House of Cards to Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones, there’s a trait that some of our most memorable villains have in spades: Machiavellianism. Yet until recently this has been overlooked by most of personality science. Psychologists have long thought that measuring someone on a scale of just five personality dimensions – agreeableness, extroversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness and openness to new experiences – can capture all the variation in behaviour and attitude seen in the human race. But it turns out that we may have been overlooking a crucial

13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 11



Blood test reveals your viral history Jessica Hamzelou

infections. “A lot of people have hepatitis C, for example, without realising,” says Elledge. You could routinely screen people for all viruses, he says. To develop the test, called VirScan, Elledge’s team looked up all viruses known to infect people – around 1000 strains from 206 viral species. They then recreated the DNA responsible for making each virus’s proteins, and put that DNA into different bacteriophages – viruses that infect bacteria. Each bacteriophage was then able to make on its surface a protein from a particular virus. When someone’s blood is added to the mix, any circulating antibodies latch on to the viral proteins they have seen before.

YOU may remember the last time you had the flu, but what about that time you had measles – or was it chicken pox? Your blood knows: it keeps a record of every virus you have ever had. A tiny drop can now be tested to reveal your entire viral history. When a virus infects us, our immune cells produce antibodies that bind to proteins on the virus and neutralise it. These antibodies continue to be made long after the virus has gone, ready to mount a rapid response should it return. This means that the presence of antibodies is like a viral footprint. To test whether someone has been exposed to a specific virus, you can add a protein from that virus to a sample of their blood. “If we’d had this test during If antibodies target it then the the 1980s HIV outbreak, it person has previously been would have helped us find infected. out more about the virus” Stephen Elledge at Harvard University and his colleagues have pushed this idea further and Sequencing those bacteriophages developed a way to test for every shows their viral history (Science, single human virus in one go – doi.org/45j). and all that’s needed is a drop The team used the test to screen of a person’s blood. blood samples from 569 people Costing $25, the test could from the US, South Africa, help doctors identify hidden Thailand and Peru. They found

Parched on the moon? Just let the sun shine THIRSTY moon settlers might enjoy a drink with the help of the sun. At sunrise, its warmth drives water molecules from the lunar soil – ripe for harvest with the right know-how. Since 2009, several lunar probes have found evidence of abundant water, especially at the moon’s poles. But no one wants the hassle of mining 12 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015

through the dusty surface to drink it. The moon’s gravity is so low and its atmosphere so tenuous that water molecules in the ground turn directly to vapour when heated. Free to bounce around at near the speed of sound, they condense again when they get cold, piling up as frost where temperatures are low. The greatest build-up is where the sun is just rising – the dawn terminator. A lunar “day” lasts a month, so the water molecules have a lot of time to accumulate. Tim Livengood of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

–Writ in blood–

that each person had been infected with an average of 10 viruses over their lifetime. Since we already have tests for individual viruses, the best use of VirScan might lie outside diagnostics, says David Matthews at the University of Bristol, UK. “Usually doctors have a pretty good idea of what you’ve got.” Instead, the technique might be useful during outbreaks of new viruses. Understanding how our immune system responds to other viral fragments might reveal clues as to which species the new virus belongs to, says Pamela Vallely at the

University of Manchester, UK. “If we’d had this test during the HIV outbreak in the 1980s, it would have given us a clue for where to be looking to find out more about the virus.” VirScan could also offer a way to investigate whether viruses are involved in disorders that aren’t well understood. For example, Elledge’s team is collaborating with another group to test people with chronic fatigue syndrome, to see if any have been infected with the same viruses. “Multiple sclerosis is usually wheeled out as being linked to a virus,” adds Vallely. “You could check.” ■

in Greenbelt, Maryland, wondered how much drinkable water you could collect if you set up a solar-powered distillery to catch the morning frost. “We just drop a clear plastic dome over our collecting surface and let the sun turn it back into vapour,” Livengood says. The vapour then frosts up the inside of the dome, where it can be harvested.

Using data taken between 2009 and 2011 by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Livengood calculates that the frost build-up at the terminator would be just under 0.2 millimetres thick – enough to yield about 190 millilitres of water per square metre per lunar day with a suitable set-up (Icarus, doi.org/4ss). “The quantity of water is much less than what we could dig up at the lunar poles, but we get it with very little energy investment on our part,” Livengood says. “We just need to be patient.” Rebecca Boyle ■

“The quantity of water is low, but we get it with very little energy investment. We just need to be patient”


Wolves hang with monkeys to hunt

a time,” says Venkataraman. In contrast, the geladas immediately flee to cliffs for safety when they spot feral dogs, which approach aggressively and often prey on them. When walking through a gelada “The arrangement echoes herd – made up of many bands the way humans’ of monkeys grazing in groups domestication of dogs of 600 to 700 individuals – the might have started out” wolves seem to take care to


Bob Holmes

IN THE alpine grasslands of eastern Africa, Ethiopian wolves and gelada monkeys are giving peace a chance. The geladas – a type of baboon – tolerate wolves wandering right through the middle of their herds. The critically endangered wolves ignore potential meals of baby geladas in favour of rodents, which they can catch more easily when the monkeys are present. It’s an unusual pact, one that echoes the way dogs started to be domesticated by humans (see “Taming man’s best friend”, below). Primatologist Vivek Venkataraman at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire noticed the arrangement at Guassa plateau in the highlands of north-central Ethiopia. Even though the wolves occasionally prey on young sheep and goats, which are as big as young geladas, they do not normally attack the monkeys – and the geladas seem to know that, because they do not run away from the wolves. “You can have a wolf and a gelada within a metre or two of each other and virtually ignoring each other for up to 2 hours at

behave in a non-threatening way. They move slowly and calmly as they forage for rodents and avoid the zigzag running they use elsewhere, Venkataraman observed. This suggested that they were deliberately associating with the geladas. Since the wolves usually entered gelada groups during the middle of the day, when rodents are most active, he wondered whether the geladas made it

–Lone wolf? I’m with my buddies

TAMING MAN’S BEST FRIEND Wolves and primates hanging around together, gradually becoming tolerant of one another’s presence: it sounds like a replay of the way people began cultivating our special relationship with dogs. Dogs were domesticated some time between 40,000 and 11,000 years ago, and although the process remains shrouded in mystery, one hypothesis is that it started when wolves began following roaming

14 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015

human groups to take advantage of the large carcasses they left behind after hunts. That may have encouraged other carnivores to keep their distance, benefiting humans in turn. Eventually wolves may have even helped humans hunt better and outcompete Neanderthals. Could something similar now be happening with Ethiopian wolves and geladas on African highlands (see main story)? Claudio Sillero of

the University of Oxford says the gelada case is comparable to what the early domestication of dogs might have been like. However, the geladas don’t seem to get anything from the relationship, since the wolves are unlikely to deter predators such as leopards or feral dogs, he says. Without a reciprocal benefit, Sillero doubts that the relationship can progress further down the road to domestication.

easier for the wolves to catch the rodents – their primary prey. Venkataraman and his colleagues followed individual wolves for 17 days, recording each attempted capture of a rodent. The wolves succeeded in 67 per cent of tries when within a gelada herd, but only 25 per cent of the time when on their own (Journal of Mammalogy, doi.org/45c). It’s not yet clear what makes the wolves more successful when they hunt within gelada groups. It could be that the grazing monkeys flush out the rodents from their burrows or vegetation, Venkataraman suggests. Another possibility is that the monkeys, which are about the same size and colour as the wolves, distract the rodents and make it easier for the wolves to approach undetected. “I like to think of it as a mobile hide,” says Claudio Sillero, a conservation biologist at the University of Oxford who studies Ethiopian wolves. “The wolves benefit from hiding in the herd.” Whatever the mechanism, the boost to the wolves’ foraging seems significant enough that they almost never give in to the temptation to grab a quick gelada snack. Only once has Venkataraman seen a wolf seize a young gelada. In that instance other monkeys quickly attacked it and forced it to drop the infant, then drove the offender away and prevented it from returning later. The wolves may benefit from associating with other species as well. For example, Sillero has noted that they also tend to forage in the vicinity of herds of cattle, which may help them catch rodents. Other predators might also be doing this without anyone noticing, says Colin Chapman, a primatologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. “I don’t think we’ve looked at it very much, because the predators are usually scared off by people,” he says. “I think it could be pretty common.” ■

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IN BRIEF There’s blood in those dino bones

Rogue wave ahoy! New way to predict surprise sea threat GIANT rogue waves that rise from the deep can do massive damage to ships and oil platforms. Not only are they often twice as tall as surrounding waves, but they seem to strike without warning. What if these sea monsters drop some hints before they appear? To find out how random rogue waves actually are, Günter Steinmeyer and his colleagues at the Max Born Institute in Berlin, Germany, examined wave heights measured over time at the Draupner oil platform off the coast of Norway, where a rogue wave struck in 1995. They sliced the data into segments of varying length,

looking for those with nearly identical features. Then they randomly shuffled the data and again looked for such repeated events. The team found more repeated events in the original data than in the shuffled versions, meaning that the rogue wave had identifiable precursors, rather than appearing completely randomly. “You can be sure that there is some determinism in the data,” says Steinmeyer. This is because rogue ocean waves arise from turbulence, which is difficult to predict, but is not fundamentally random, he says. In the best case scenario, such waves might be predicted 10 to 20 seconds before impact. “What this shows is really that ‘rogueness’ and predictability have nothing to do with each other,” he says (Physical Review Letters, doi.org/44m).

Injected nanoparticles talk to the brain ELECTRICITY is the brain’s language, and now we can speak to it without wires or implants. Nanoparticles can be used to stimulate regions of the brain electrically, opening up novel ways to treat brain diseases. When magneto-electric nanoparticles are subjected to an external magnetic field, they produce an electric field. If such nanoparticles are placed next to 16 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015

neurons, this electric field should allow them to communicate. To find out, Sakhrat Khizroev of Florida International University in Miami and his team inserted 20 billion of these nanoparticles into the brains of mice. They then switched on a magnetic field. An electroencephalogram showed that the brain region surrounded by nanoparticles lit up, stimulated by the electric

field that had been generated (Future Medicine, doi.org/44b). “The electric field can directly couple to the electric circuitry of the neural network,” says Khizroev. By using different types of magnetic field, the nanoparticles could be tuned to release drugs at specific locations in the brain. Khizroev hopes to build a system that can image brain activity and precisely target medical treatments.

THE classic movie Jurassic Park was fiction. Cloning live dinosaurs from blood found in a fossilised insect is not on the cards anytime soon. But now we’ve found what appears to be real dinosaur blood inside a bog-standard fossil bone. “We stumbled on these things completely by chance,” says Susannah Maidment of Imperial College London, whose team was trying to study bone fossilisation by cutting out tiny fragments of fossils. Instead, they found blood-like cells and collagen from 75-million-year-old dinosaur fossils – 10 million years before Tyrannosaurus rex appeared. Although the cells are unlikely to contain DNA, those extracted from better preserved fossils using the same technique may do so, she says – but there is still no evidence that they do (Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/ncomms8352).

I think, therefore I ant sure THEY know they don’t know. Ants seem to examine their knowledge, a little like humans do when unsure of which route to take. Tomer Czaczkes and Jürgen Heinze from the University of Regensburg in Germany kept black garden ants in a T-shaped feeder, with the food always in one arm. Then they switched which arm the food was in. When foraging for the second time after the switch, ants that headed to the original food arm were less likely to leave a trail for the others (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/ rspb.2015.0679). “You don’t want to give your sisters wrong information,” says Czaczkes, who says this might show self-reflection in ants.

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CUTE as a button and about as small as one too. The mini-frog pictured below is one of the smallest ever discovered at roughly a centimetre long. It is one of seven species recently found in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. The discovery hints that there may be more species of these tiny frogs to come, say Marcio Pie at the Federal University of Paraná in Brazil and colleagues, who discovered and described the new species (PeerJ, 10.7717/peerj.1011). The frogs’ bright colour may be a warning to predators about their poisonous skin, which contains a potent neurotoxin. But getting eaten could be the least of their worries. Restricted to mountaintop cloud forests, where their habitat could be shrinking due to climate change, deforestation and cattle ranching, they could be at risk of extinction. These Brachycephalus frogs are among the smallest terrestrial vertebrates, joining the ranks of little frogs from other parts of the world. At 7.7 millimetres long, a species from Papua New Guinea claims the title of world’s smallest vertebrate. A slightly larger frog from the Seychelles, measuring 11 millimetres long, has a head too tiny to contain full ears so it hears through its mouth instead.

First evidence of how your lifestyle could shape future genes FOR the first time, we have a mechanism that could explain how your lifestyle choices may impact the genes of your children and grandchildren. Mounting evidence suggests that environmental factors such as smoking, diet and stress can leave their mark on the genes of future generations. For example, girls born to Dutch women who were pregnant during a long famine at the end of the second world war had twice the usual risk of developing schizophrenia. This is puzzling – although we

know that the environment can alter how our genes are expressed through structural changes to our DNA, classical genetics says such epigenetic markers are stripped from our genomes when we are early embryos. But now researchers have observed some human genes evading this clean-up process. Azim Surani at the University of Cambridge and colleagues found that about 2 to 5 per cent of DNA methylation, a form of epigenetic tag that makes genes less active, escapes the reset process that

happens during early embryonic development (Cell, doi.org/438). Because this is only a small proportion of the genome, Surani says most epigenetic changes caused by our environment are very unlikely to affect future generations, but that there may be a small window of opportunity for some to be passed on. They found that these “escapees” were mostly genes implicated in brain conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, as well as metabolic disorders like obesity. LYNDA SHARPE

New species of tiny frog found

Famous supernova begins to fade STARGAZERS’ favourite explosion, a supernova known as SN 1987A, is starting to lose its lustre. It first appeared in 1987, and is prized by astronomers because it lies close enough to Earth to study in detail. The blast’s shock wave lights up matter kicked out by the original star before it exploded. Some 15 years ago, it started colliding with 30 clumps of dense material that ring the blast site. This makes them shine like a necklace of pearls, but also destroys them, says Claes Fransson of Stockholm University, Sweden. His team examined images from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Very Large Telescope in Atacama, Chile, taken between 1994 and 2014 and found that the pearls along 1987A’s ring have begun fading, which means the shock wave has passed through. Fransson says the ring will vanish between 2020 and 2030. But it’s not the end for 1987A. The team also found scattered bright spots outside of the ring, suggesting the supernova is lighting up previously unseen material. Studying these clumps could reveal more about the explosion’s origins (arxiv.org/ abs/1505.06669).

Size matters to dwarf mongooses HOW do you tell the world what a big, tough competitor you are? If you’re a dwarf mongoose, you do a handstand or a cartwheel to raise your rear as high as possible, then smear your anal scent glands on a bit of vegetation. Why go to so much trouble? To find out, Lynda Sharpe at Stellenbosch University swabbed 10 anal-gland secretions left by wild mongooses in South Africa and used them to mark a bamboo stick at 10 and 16 centimetres above the ground – the marking height of a small and large adult. When she put the sticks out in

the wild, males and females both sniffed them, but females spent more than twice as long sniffing the higher mark than the lower one (Animal Behaviour, doi.org/44g). “Presumably, finding out information about big animals is more important than finding out information about small animals,” says Sharpe. Females may have more at stake in this assessment than males, she says, as they spend their entire lives in the same territory. They may be using scent marks to assess the risk that neighbouring groups will encroach.

13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 17



–Practising for the real thing–

Disaster bots step up The world’s best robots just went to head-to-head to complete disaster-related tasks. We went to see them put through their paces Hal Hodson, Pomona, California

INSIDE Building 9, a concrete hangar in eastern Los Angeles, the pressure is mounting. There is a hum of activity as engineers ready their hyperadvanced robots for the final run in the world’s most important robotics competition: the Darpa Robotics Challenge (DRC), which ran over Friday and Saturday last week at this former horse-racing track in Pomona, California. A whiff of dung hangs over the course as robots scramble over 18 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015

debris, drive emergency vehicles, compete here. I join the few climb stairs and cut through thousand people who have plasterboard walls – tasks turned out to watch how well designed to simulate those these machines can navigate needed in a real-life disaster. unfamiliar environments. There are 23 competitors, four at I instantly see there’s a gulf a time on each task, which they in performance between the attempt twice over the two days. top robots and all the others. A A human would whiz through handful of bots can’t even get out the course in minutes or seconds, of the vehicle they drive to the but only the most advanced start of the course. At one point, machines can tackle it, and then the Atlas robot from Hong Kong only with human controllers. But the data they generate is forming “Momaro gets out in a flash the bedrock of robotic autonomy. using extendable legs, while Robosimian climbs Teams of roboticists have out like a monkey” come from all over the world to

University spills head-first out of its vehicle, tearing its hydraulic lines and spraying fluid in an arc. Some machines, such as the spider-like Grit from a startup in Colorado, never make it off the starting line. The action is interspersed with long pauses (some spectators compare it to golf) as the robots survey the environment and calculate their next steps. Some, like MIT’s humanoid Helios and CHIMP from Carnegie Mellon University, carry out many steps automatically. Others, like the wheeled rover Momaro from the University of Bonn in Germany, are entirely human-controlled. “The human operator is as much a part of the system as the robot,” says Brett Kennedy, who leads the team from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory with squat, four-legged robot Robosimian. By the end of the first day, the

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teams have begun to hone their skills. Momaro zooms its car down the course and gets out in a flash using its extendable legs, each with a large wheel on the end. Robosimian drives slowly and carefully, then climbs out of the vehicle like a monkey, placing the equivalent of its hands on the ground to steady itself. It then folds into a squat and starts to roll forward on wheels, a much easier option than coordinating its spider legs. The robot progresses slowly but smoothly, without any mistakes. Momaro steams ahead. It is by far the fastest robot, and makes almost no mistakes. It and Robosimian jockey for the lead on their run and eventually both collect 7 points out of 8 in less than 50 minutes – high scores and good times, though neither tackles the stairs. The other robots on their run are impressive too. Although Helios falls twice and has to be winched back to its feet, it is fastest of all at climbing stairs. CHIMP and its Tartan Rescue team scored well in a different area. It’s the heaviest robot, a big red beast that runs on treads, weighing 200 kilograms and able to lift 136 kg with just its arms. In one run, CHIMP neglects to turn on its drill before trying to cut through a wall, but is still able to tear through it with sheer strength.

Robot whisperers CHIMP finishes by powering up the stairs, using its treads to roll up, rather than stepping. This helps it top the rankings after the first day, the only team to score the full 8 points. While the crowd is cheering for the robots outside, the heart of the operation is back in Building 9. A 5-minute walk from the course, it’s where each team runs its control centre, guiding their robots over a wireless link, without cables for power or data, something rarely done before this competition.

The mesh between machine and operator is crucial, and each team approaches it in a different way. Some, like Florida-based IHMC, rely on a single master controller – the teams call them robot whisperers. John Carff, IHMC’s pilot, and a video game whiz, is widely considered to be the top robot whisperer. Carff controls Atlas – also known as Running Man – almost entirely by

himself, manoeuvring it around a virtual replica of the course, built using data from its sensors. Others rely on a group of people: Momaro has nine, for example. Sebastian Schuller controls the arms and uses an Oculus Rift to peer into a virtual world in true 3D generated by Momaro’s on-board laser scanners. Whether one person or many, the link is a close one. “There’s

THE ROBOT ZOO The robots taking part in the DARPA Robotics Challenge fell into roughly four categories:

SIMPLE HUMANOID Each humanoid has a slightly different walk programmed into the software. Some of the less advanced swayed through the course like they were drunk, and often fell down like they were. Others - like IHMC’s Running Man which took second place - have a smooth, steady walk and can even stay on their feet when pushed. WEIRD HUMANOID A subclass of humanoid, these robots may have extra-long arms, knees that bend backwards, or tracks for arms. The winner, from KAIST in South Korea, is in this class. It can kneel down onto wheels, allowing it to move around with more stability than a biped bot. Another bot has huge legs, and arms that drag along the ground, connected to a tiny torso. ROLLER Humanoid legs are flexible, but wheels and tracks have two major advantages – speed and stability. Momaro, which is from the University of Bonn in Germany and looks a little like Wall-E, posted the fastest run of the competition at 34 minutes. Its spindly legs can be extended when needed, when getting out of a vehicle, for instance. SPIDER Robosimian, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab is the king of spiders. It is hard to tell which way up it’s supposed to be, and it constantly swivels in unexpected ways. This helps the bot to balance and navigate tight spaces. CHIMP, the third-place robot from Carnegie Mellon University, is a cross between a spider and a roller, and the only machine to right itself unaided after a fall.

some untapped affinity between people and robots,” says Gill Pratt, who has led the DRC for the past three years. “I don’t know why I’m having an emotional reaction to this,” one man in the crowd says after Running Man falls on a rubble crossing. By Saturday afternoon, the whir of powerful winches and the roar of angle grinders fills the air as the front runners scramble to make improvements: Helios gets a whole arm replaced, broken in a fall; Momaro spends the morning practising on the dummy stairs, surrounded by its engineers. Out on the course, the weird humanoid from KAIST in Daejeon, South Korea, is blazing a trail. It

“The crowd whoops wildly as the robot plunges a saw into a drywall, then oohs as it cuts a perfect circle” uses its arms to swing out of the vehicle, landing on its feet. The crowd whoops wildly as the robot picks up a saw and plunges it into the drywall, then oohs as the bot cuts a perfect circle – something it had failed at the day before. A small child yells out “Be careful!” as the robot makes the most careful ascent of three steps I have ever seen. Completing the stairs gives KAIST its eighth point, taking just 44 minutes in total. This turns out to be the winning run, scooping the $2 million prize. Running Man comes in next, scoring 8 in a slightly slower time, and taking home $1 million. Tartan Rescue and CHIMP came third, winning $500,000. Momaro’s final run, the last action of the competition, doesn’t go as well. Its legs collapse as the motor in a knee joint overheats. It drags itself towards the stairs on its belly for 10 minutes, but collapses again as it tries to stand. Back in Building 9, Schuller and his team know it’s over. Momaro waves a gripper, and the crowd erupts into a final burst of applause. ■ 13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 19



Your own Kevin Spacey Online photos can be used to create eerie puppets of famous faces


analysed using face-tracking software, and a realistic 3D model for their face and head created. Further analysis added wrinkles and textures that appear and disappear as expressions change. “The result is a full 3D model you can turn right around,” says Suwajanakorn. As well as being able to manipulate the digital puppets any way they wanted, the team found they could realistically switch an actor’s face with that of another – allowing them to be replaced throughout an entire TV show or movie, for example. They created puppets of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, for example, and gave them the facial expressions and tics of other people, such as George W. Bush. (arxiv.org/abs/1506.00752). One commercial application could be to provide famous animated faces for visual versions of Siri-like assistants, says Suwajanakorn. Another might be to automatically create 3D faces for telepresence robots, says Nicole Carey at humanoid robot maker Engineered Arts in Penryn, UK. “Don’t underestimate how much people want to be someone else,” she says. But plundering large digital image collections suggests an even more interesting, or creepy, application: “Creating a version of someone who’s close to you but no longer alive,” says Kemelmacher-Shlizerman. The face of someone who has died could be recreated and driven with one of the emerging breed of chatbots trained – using the deceased’s tweets and emails – to converse like them. “Our model could bring back your memories of the people you care about,” –The face of your digital PA? says Suwajanakorn. Paul Marks ■

20 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015

Strength in spider silk Is spider silk finally about to have its moment? The famously strong stuff has long been touted as a wonder material but has yet to live up to its promise. Now Bolt Threads, a start-up in California, claims it has cracked the problem of how to make large quantities of artificial spider silk, using genetically engineered microorganisms. The firm has raised $40 million from investors and says it expects the first products to be available next year.

11.4m The prize pool, in dollars, for the

International Dota 2 Championship, the world's biggest video games competition, due to be held in

Seattle in August

Learn while you wait Waiting for a friend to finish typing on instant messaging can really drag. Why not learn a language while you wait? A free extension for Google’s Chrome browser called WaitChatter, developed by Carrie Cai at MIT, offers translations in Spanish and French for common words – and tests you on them afterwards. People who used the app for two weeks learned an average of about four words a day.


FANCY yourself as a puppeteer? photographs online to capture No? How about if the puppet were digitally what they look like from House of Cards star Kevin Spacey? just about every possible angle. Cheap, controllable 3D CGI “The idea was to create realistic models of people’s faces can now virtual models of people just from be created simply using publicly photos rather than complex lab available photos online. What’s set-ups,” says researcher Ira more, their expressions can be Kemelmacher-Shlizerman. manipulated using other people’s So a team led by Supasorn facial tics. One day, this could let Suwajanakorn collected around us interact with avatars that look 200 photos each of various and act like people we know. famous people – including Currently, making such CGI Spacey – from Google Images, models of a human face is taken in different poses and at expensive and requires laser varying angles. The photos were scanning and motion capture. But a team at the University of “The team could switch one actor’s face with another, Washington in Seattle reasoned replacing them in an entire that, for celebrities at least, there TV show, for example” are more than enough paparazzi

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A church burial TRANSYLVANIA. Roll the word around in your mouth and see what it conjures. Images of vampires, bats and howling wolves? You can now add a vast toxic swamp. This is Geamana, Romania, an abandoned village in the Apuseni Mountains of Transylvania. The village was sacrificed for the sake of a nearby copper mine that needed somewhere to dump its tailings – the sludge left over after the valuable minerals have been separated from ore. Some 400 families were relocated and the village was flooded. Now only a church tower peeks out from the swamp. The image is one of 111 selected for the Atkins CIWEM Environmental Photographer of the Year Exhibition. All the images will be on display at the Royal Geographical Society, London, from 22 June to 10 July; the winners will be announced on 25 June. The works will then tour venues across the UK.

Rowan Hooper

Photographer Glyn Thomas


Grim repercussions Banning all new psychoactive drugs – so-called legal highs – will put users at greater risk and hamper brain research, warns David Nutt A BLANKET ban on legal highs is now on the cards in the UK. Cue cheers from campaigners who say that newly devised psychoactive substances can be lethal, and that the “head shops” selling them are reviled by communities in the way sex shops used to be. At the core of the campaign for a ban is the repeated claim that legal highs killed over 90 people in the UK in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available. DrugScience, an independent committee I set up, showed this to be false, revealing many drugs involved in this claim were illegal. Campaigners are aware of this but continue to use the figure – which suggests this parody of the quote often attributed to Disraeli: “There are lies, damned lies and legal high statistics.” To base a new law on untruths is unpalatable at best and dishonest at worst. Moreover, an ill-considered law

could create greater harm to users and the scientific community. How might the proposed ban increase the dangers of legal highs? If head shops shut, people will turn to street dealers and the internet. Neither has the same relationship with customers as shopkeepers, so vital education and guidance on harm reduction will diminish. A blanket ban on new psychoactive substances could also seriously hamper UK pharmaceutical research into brain disorder treatments. Such work is already shrinking, and another regulatory hurdle could run it into the sand: would new antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs be hit by the ban? Scientific societies must warn of unintended outcomes. In any event, bans don’t stop deaths. Illegal opioids such as heroin kill around 1200 people in

Light warfare Reagan dreamed big, but thankfully laser weapons are a smaller reality, says Jeff Hecht HAVE laser weapons finally arrived, three decades after US president Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” anti-missile dream? Sort of. You can watch a US navy laser blow up explosives on a boat and destroy a drone on YouTube. Yet the laser is still a prototype, not a field-hardened weapon. And it is a lot less potent than 24 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015

nuclear missile strike, tipping the cold war balance. Back then, the navy already had a ground-based laser called MIRACL that generated a 1-megawatt infrared beam for a few seconds by burning vast quantities of chemical fuel. The aim was to adapt it for space and put dozens of lasers in orbit. Each would generate a 5-megawatt beam to destroy a missile up to a few thousand kilometres away. Such weapons would have been 50 times more powerful than

Reagan believed possible. The new weapons can destroy rockets, mortar rounds, small boats and drones a few kilometres away. The Pentagon imagines using them against weapons “The logistics of putting launched by insurgents, and massive lasers and to defend cities and ships. chemical fuel tanks in It’s a far cry from Reagan’s goal in 1983: to thwart an all-out Soviet space were ignored”

those shown on YouTube, and their targets were a thousand times more distant. The logistics of putting massive lasers and chemical fuel tanks in space were ignored. Other options, such as nuclear bomb-driven X-ray lasers, were considered, but the end of the cold war in the early 1990s finally doomed Star Wars. At that time fears emerged that rogue states might be able to launch a nuclear missile. The US responded with Star Wars lite – the Airborne Laser programme, in which a megawatt-class laser was put in a jumbo jet. With fewer targets and better chemical lasers, it looked more plausible. But even

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David Nutt is Edmond J. Safra professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London

though it hit some test targets, it was cancelled in 2010 due to power and range limitations. Cue another step down for beam warfare. Smaller solid-state lasers, powered by electricity and hitting 100 kilowatts, are now powerful enough to be a shortrange weapon. The navy, army and air force are trialling versions, and their use in combat may not be far off. If Reagan’s big dream had come true, it could have sparked a huge new arms race. We should be thankful little won the day. ■ Jeff Hecht is a New Scientist consultant. He wrote about the Star Wars project in his 1984 book Beam Weapons


Chimps cook with magic Cooking is a complex skill requiring patience and foresight. Felix Warneken wanted to find out if chimps have what it takes abilities required for cooking. That tells us that those abilities were probably part of the repertoire of the last common ancestors of humans and chimps and so evolved fairly early.

PROFILE Felix Warneken is an evolutionary anthropologist at Harvard University. He explores the origin and development of complex social behaviour. This research was done at the Tchimpounga Sanctuary for primates in the Republic of the Congo

Why test chimpanzees’ grasp of cooking? Cooking food spurred a fundamental change in humans. It makes many foods more digestible and allows us to extract more energy – which we need to sustain our large brains. But we don’t know when or how cooking evolved. We have a chance to look at our closest living relatives to see whether our evolutionary ancestors might have had the core cognitive skills to cook food. It’s like stepping into a time machine to help us better understand our evolutionary past. So do chimps have what it takes to cook? Cooking requires a lot more than just access to a fire. It takes a lot of patience. You have to resist the urge to eat the raw food, you have to understand the transformation process and you have to hold on to the food and transport it so it can be cooked. It is a more complex skill set than you might think – and requires inhibiting your impulses. So we tested all of those cognitive skills across nine experiments and found that chimps had many of the cognitive and behavioural

How did you give chimps access to cooking? We couldn’t use fire to cook, because it would be dangerous. So to mimic the transformation that cooking brings, we created a novel device. It was just a magician’s box with a simple false bottom where we would put the cooked food. The chimp would place a slice of raw potato into the device, shake it, and then the cooked slice would appear. So it seemed as if the raw food turned into cooked food. It worked: even after a single session, the animals wanted the cooking device so they could “cook” their potato. Were the chimps able to transport raw food? In the wild, chimpanzees tend to forage – they snack as they go. But you need to take food somewhere to cook it. And it’s not that easy: even we can’t always resist the urge to nibble as we prepare dinner. But many of the chimps were able to do it. We saw one try very admirably to carry the food 4 metres to the cooking device. Sadly he carried it with his lips, and kept “accidentally” eating it. Another chimp would run to the cooking site, holding the piece of raw potato as far from himself as possible, seemingly so he wouldn’t be tempted. It was challenging for the chimps, but many of them anticipated cooking and could therefore save food for that future use. It was remarkable. Were you surprised by your findings? I’ve been working with chimpanzees for over 10 years and they still surprise me. It’s amazing how quickly they learn and make inferences. We don’t train the chimpanzees in any of these studies. We show them a certain kind of problem and then watch how they solve it. And, as you watch them, it’s like you can actually see the light bulb go on. They really do offer us an amazing opportunity to better understand how some of our most complex behaviour may have evolved. Interview by Kayt Sukel

13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 25


the UK a year, cocaine 200 and other illegal highs around 100. And if averting deaths really is the goal of a ban, then what about tackling a much bigger killer, a recreational drug exempted from the new law: alcohol? There’s a much simpler solution than a blanket ban, as more rational countries such as the Netherlands show. It has drug testing centres that allow users to be sure of what they have bought and learn about safe dosing and harm minimisation. Thanks to this, the Dutch have had low death rates from recreational drugs in recent years. Moreover they can quickly spot dangerous new drugs and issue public warnings. They did this in December 2014 when PMMA pills bearing a Superman logo were detected; no deaths resulted. They also notified other European countries, including the UK, where PMMA is banned. But no official alert was sounded here and we had three deaths. This sad episode sums up the unscientific and primitive UK strategy: impose bans knowing that this won’t work and will lead to some users dying from ignorance. ■


The prodigal sun It’s time to rethink our attitude to sunlight. Shunning it to avoid skin cancer may be killing you in more ways than you think, says dermatologist Richard Weller

UNLESS you’ve been living under a stone, it would be hard not to have heard that sunlight is bad for you. In fact if you are living under a stone, it is probably because of all the messages we get about sunlight and the risks of skin cancer. This is, of course, quite correct. A vast body of evidence links sun exposure to skin cancer. What is lacking, however, is any evidence that sunlight is bad for you, if by “bad for you” we mean it shortens life. Ask a dermatologist about the evidence that sunshine raises your risk of dying and there will be an embarrassing silence. After a century of knowing the link between sunshine and skin cancer, this is not good enough. In fact, there is increasing evidence that keeping out of the sun may be killing you – and in more ways than you think. Even the most ardent sun-phobes acknowledge that sunlight has health benefits, but these have largely been put down to Vitamin D. People with the highest vitamin D levels tend to be healthier. They are less likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, strokes or heart attacks – in fact, they are less likely to die prematurely of any cause. This raised hopes that a simple vitamin supplement could reduce lots of major causes of death. Many studies have now tested the effects of vitamin D supplements on health, but the results have been disappointing. The incidences of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases are not reduced by these tablets, and although they can boost bone health and possibly be of benefit against some forms of bowel cancer, vitamin D is not the panacea that many believe. It accounts for some of the 26 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015

sun’s health benefits, but not all. I believe that it is often a marker of sun exposure, and sunlight has other benefits unrelated to vitamin D. My group has found another mediator that brings us benefits from sunlight: nitric oxide. Its apparent simplicity belies its importance. Nitric oxide has many roles, but a major one is the Nobel prizewinning discovery that it dilates blood vessels and controls blood

“Vitamin D cannot account for all of the health benefits of sunshine” pressure. In 1996, we discovered that the skin produces this gas. This is because the skin contains large stores of nitrate, which the ultraviolet (UV) radiation in sunshine converts into nitric oxide. When this gas enters the circulatory system, it lowers blood pressure by a small amount. This can make a big difference. High blood pressure is the world’s leading cause of premature death and disease, because it leads to stroke and heart disease. Even a small reduction of blood pressure across the whole population will reduce overall rates of stroke and heart attack, and sunlight may well do this, by getting the skin to release nitric oxide into the blood. Sun-produced nitric oxide may also help explain some blood pressure puzzles – why the average blood pressure of the UK population is lower in summer than winter, for example, and the correlation between

PROFILE Richard Weller is a dermatologist at the University of Edinburgh, UK

latitude and blood pressure, with people living closer to the equator having lower blood pressure than those at higher latitudes. We are still building up the whole picture of the nitric oxide and sunshine story. For example, last year, my colleagues and I investigated whether irradiation with UVA light could enhance the performance of cyclists in time trials. We found that their performance was significantly faster after irradiation, but only if they took nitrate supplements

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A bit of time in the sun might do wonders for your health

beforehand. We think this is because of an increase in nitric oxide in the circulation, which dilates blood vessels and allows more oxygen to get to the muscles. I am now starting a British Heart Foundation-funded study to see whether daily UVA can treat increased blood pressure. My work has concentrated on UVA wavelengths of light, in part because this doesn’t cause the synthesis of vitamin D, but my group is currently identifying the optimal wavelengths for nitric oxide release. The dermatology community is hesitant about changing their cautious approach to sunlight exposure, but the wider benefits of sunlight should no longer be ignored. Sunlight is about more than just vitamin D, and nitric oxide may well turn out to be a more important mediator of sunlight’s health benefits. Other mechanisms probably also exist.


Too little sun will kill you

A LIFE-EXTENDING DIAGNOSIS The sun’s rays are known to cause skin cancer, but the picture is more complicated than that. Skin cancer comes in two main forms, melanoma and non-melanoma. Melanoma is the most serious skin cancer, and its incidence is rising. Between 10 and 20 per cent of cases are ultimately fatal. The disease is more common in Australia than in the UK, but it is also more common in indoor workers than outdoor, and in the untanned than the tanned. Episodic sun exposure and sunburn are probably a greater risk factor than continual exposure.

For non-melanoma skin cancer, continual sun exposure is the major risk factor. There are more cases of it in the UK than of all other cancers put together, but it is almost never fatal. In fact, a study of the over-40s in Denmark found that those with non-melanoma skin cancer were less likely to die than healthy controls, and much less likely to have a heart attack. So when I diagnose it in my patients, the first thing I do is congratulate them. How many other diagnoses mean you leave your doctor’s office with a life expectancy greater than when you entered it?

But what about skin cancer? How do the risks of developing this disease from sun exposure weigh up against the benefits of UV rays? (See “A life-extending diagnosis”, below left.) The results of epidemiological studies set up quarter of a century ago to measure the risks of sunlight are now becoming available. The findings have been surprising. A survey of 30,000 Swedish women recruited in 1990 and questioned about their sun-seeking behaviour found that the more they had sunbathed, the less likely they were to have died 20 years later. In fact those who did the most sunbathing were half as likely to be dead as those who had avoided the sun entirely. The authors calculate that 3 per cent of deaths in Sweden are due to insufficient sun exposure. Other research backs this up. Another Scandinavian study of 40,000 women found that those who went on the most sunbathing holidays were least likely to have died 15 years later. The primary duty of a doctor is to extend healthy life, not narrowly avoid one disease. In dermatology we have been distracted by what we see – skin cancer – and have forgotten what matters most. Vitamin D is often used as a euphemism for “healthy sunlight”, but an increasing number of supplementation studies show that the benefits of sunlight cannot all be put down to it. Nitric oxide may be at least as important. Sun has benefits as well as risks, and our public health advice needs to reflect this. ■ 13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 27




It might now be a mere dwarf, but our first visit to Pluto could rewrite the solar system’s story, says Stephen Battersby

OUR and a half light-hours from Earth, a small planet is about to get a small visitor. On 14 July, NASA’s New Horizons craft will skim within just 13,000 kilometres of Pluto, entering a hitherto-unexplored zone of the solar system. When this probe was launched in January 2006, its destination was still the solar system’s ninth planet. Pluto was controversially demoted to a dwarf planet later that year, but its allure is undiminished. Above its surface, frosted with exotic ices, is a strange atmosphere that seeps constantly into space, and a complex system of moons, including the giant Charon. Pluto will be a dazzling destination in itself, and this first visit could also give us clues to how our own planet formed, and to the ancient upheavals that shaped the solar system. With the blobs of Pluto and Charon already swelling in New Horizons’s sights, these are exciting times at the solar system’s new frontier. Until recently, this frontier seemed a lonely one, with Pluto its sole denizen. Then, in the 1990s, astronomers began finding further icy bodies in this remote region of the sort that might make comets. More and more followed, forming a swarm of debris stretching far out beyond the orbit of Neptune – an area now known as the Kuiper belt. The Kuiper belt’s icy shrapnel is thought to be left over from the birth of the eight major planets, remnants long ago hurled out into their present dark domain. Many are dwarf planets on Pluto’s scale – a diverse bunch, with different colours and shapes and satellite systems. “The Kuiper belt is littered with small planets – and Pluto is the archetype,” says Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, who is principal investigator on the New Horizons mission. None of this was known back in the 1980s when Stern began to push for a Pluto mission: he was mainly looking for a place to explore. “This was a chance for a new generation of scientists to mount a mission to a new place. There were no other new places to go.” Pluto’s realm – dark, cold and far from home – is tough territory. Solar panels are no use at this distance, so New Horizons runs on heat from the radioactive decay of a lump of

plutonium. Under such weak sunlight an unheated probe would cool to below -200 °C, so New Horizons is cosseted in a multilayer blanket that traps waste heat from its instruments and electrical systems, keeping its interior at about room temperature. Radio signals take 9 hours for a round trip to Earth, so the spacecraft must be highly autonomous. And with a 12-watt transmitter on board, the signal is so weak that it can carry only about a kilobit of information per second across 5 billion kilometres. Precious images and other discoveries from the fly-by will take 16 months to download. Just getting the spacecraft off the ground was a challenge. Several times a mission was proposed and studied, then ditched. “If the mission had been a cat it would have been dead long ago, because cats only get nine lives,” says Stern. “It was not just political intrigues, but the road to build and launch on time, with plutonium shortages and almost impossible schedules. There were so many problems.”

9 hours for a signal to travel from Earth to Pluto and back

Progress since blast-off has by contrast been serene. In 2007 New Horizons flew by Jupiter to gain a gravitational kick, and tested its cameras and other instruments. They revealed lightning at Jupiter’s poles, the Tvashtar volcano erupting on the moon Io and signs of a recent impact in Jupiter’s rings – as well as a surprising lack of small moons. Since then, the trip has mostly been spent in hibernation mode. “We’ve been in cruise for so long you get used to the pace: ‘What’s new this month? The spacecraft is OK’,” says Bill McKinnon, a planetary scientist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. “Now after all this time, something’s really happening.” That “something” might yet be calamitous. When they were building the spacecraft, scientists expected the Pluto system to be > 13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 29

Destination in sight After a journey of nearly 10 years, the New Horizons probe will fly through the Pluto system in July


KUIPER BELT January 2006 Launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida SUN EARTH



February 2007 Jupiter fly-by

2007 -2014 Hibernation mode

December 2014 Probe woken up



New Horizons is the fastest solar system probe ever launched, but the record for distance travelled still rests with the earlier Voyager probes Voyager 1

Launched 1977

Voyager 2


New Horizons


19.7 billion km 16.2 billion km 4.8 billion km

relatively hazard-free. Then Pluto’s smaller moons were discovered: Nix and Hydra in 2005, Kerberos in 2011 and Styx in 2012. When another object from the Kuiper belt hits one of them, it could kick up a cloud of shrapnel that would escape the moon’s weak gravity. At the speed New Horizons is travelling, even a small pebble or ice shard could be catastrophic. The latest simulations suggest that the chance of a serious collision is slim, but right now the team are analysing images to look for new moons or rings that might increase the hazard. They have contingency plans to change course and avoid any danger zones, though that would mean a slightly more restricted view of Pluto. While New Horizons analyses dust and ionised gas around Pluto, most eyes will be on

248 years for Pluto to orbit the sun 30 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015

the dwarf planet itself. Already the probe has seen signs of a polar cap and other surface features, and as it closes in two imagers will scan Pluto’s surface in more and more detail. LORRI, equipped with a small telescope, will capture black-and-white images with a resolution of about 70 metres at closest approach; another, called Ralph, will furnish the colour pictures. Ralph can also analyse infrared light, and should reveal the detailed chemical make-up of Pluto’s landscape. From the way Pluto’s brightness changes as it spins, we know that methane, nitrogen and carbon monoxide ices form changing patterns on its surface, but what that landscape looks like remains a mystery. Probably the closest model is Neptune’s giant moon Triton, thought to be an ex-Pluto long ago captured from an independent life in the Kuiper belt. “Triton has very unusual landscapes,” says McKinnon. In 1989 NASA’s outer solar system probe Voyager 2 sent back pictures of Triton’s “cantaloupe terrain”, which looks like nothing in the solar system so much as the skin of a cantaloupe melon. Along with fresh lava flows, Triton’s relatively new terrain is a sign

of geological activity driven from within. “This is a mystery,” says Stern. “We don’t know how to power small worlds like this. Pluto will be a second data point.” McKinnon will be looking for signs that may betray a buried ocean of water. “We don’t have an ocean detector device, we can’t X-ray Pluto, so we’ll be looking for clues from its shape and landscape,” he says. Those include fracture patterns that might indicate the presence of a subsurface reservoir. “The holy grail would be evidence of past eruptions, or active vents,” says McKinnon. Perhaps, like Triton, Pluto has active geysers of nitrogen gas, powered by faint sunlight. It certainly has a tenuous nitrogen atmosphere with pressures a few millionths that of Earth’s. Without a supply of fresh gas the atmosphere would not last long, because under Pluto’s weak gravity it is leaking into space, even enveloping Charon. Nitrogen on the surface must be going direct from the frozen to the gaseous state; winds are then thought to blow from the day to the night side, where the gas refreezes. New Horizons will find out more about the >

Pluto and family PLUTO











STYX 2012


2370 km

1207 km

57-177 km

42-148 km

13-34 km

10-25 km

Surface gravity

6.7% of Earth’s

2.8% of Earth’s


70% rock, 30% ice

55% rock, 45% ice

Orbital period

6.3 days

38 days

25 days

32 days

20 days

Mean distance from system centre

19,600 km

65,000 km

49,000 km

58,000 km

43,000 km




STYX 14 July 2015 Pluto closest approach



2017-2020 Flies further into the Kuiper belt




Nitrogen atmosphere Ice DAY SIDE


Ocean? Rock core

Relative sizes

DWARF OR PLANET? Pluto’s elongated orbit is now taking it further from the sun. But even as it heads into colder, darker parts of space, the little world may be edging back into a more cosy position – at least in some people’s eyes – as a planet. Whatever that means. In 2006, competing definitions of the term were put to a vote at a meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Prague. The initial proposal included any star-orbiting object large enough that its own gravity has pulled it into a “nearly round” shape. That would have extended our solar system’s pantheon of planets to encompass not only Pluto but also the asteroid Ceres, along with Eris and Makemake in the Kuiper belt and probably dozens more planets-in-waiting beyond Neptune. A rival proposal added the criterion that to be a planet, an object should be massive enough that its gravity has cleared out its orbital neighbourhood of most debris. Pluto fails on this count as it is just part of the swarm of bodies criss-crossing one another

in the Kuiper belt. Under the final agreed definition, therefore, it became classed as a “dwarf planet”. Before the final vote, the astronomer Jocelyn Bell-Burnell had wielded an umbrella to clarify what would, without qualification, count as an planet. The umbrella extended over rocky bodies such as Earth and giants like Jupiter, but left dwarf planets out in the rain. The new definition was and is contentious. Some find it confusing or arbitrary. Others are sentimental about poor little Pluto, or dislike the terminology. “I coined the term ‘dwarf planet’ in 1991,” says Alan Stern, head of the New Horizons mission. “Some members of the public think it’s an insult, so when I use the term ‘small planet’, it is meant to be harder to misinterpret as pejorative.” Last year a debate at Harvard confirmed that the public, at least in the US, is pro planet Pluto. The IAU has no plans to reopen the debate, but perhaps “dwarf planet” might creep back in under the planetary umbrella, in both popular and scientific parlance.

Then dwarfs would be just one subspecies of planet, along with terrestrials, gas giants, ice giants, super-Earths and probably some other exotics we haven’t seen yet. New Horizons may well help to revive Pluto’s planetude. “When people see imagery of the Pluto system, I don’t know what else they will call it,” says Stern. “If you’re watching Star Trek, the moment you see the destination you know instantly if it’s a star or a planet or an asteroid or a comet or an alien spacecraft; you don’t have to do anything sophisticated to make a decision.” On the other hand, over the coming years more and more dwarf/small planets will be identified in the Kuiper belt. It might be natural enough for people to talk about the planet Pluto, the planet Eris and the planet Quaoar; a sterner test of terminology will be whether we blithely talk about the 73 known planets of the solar system (or is it 74 this week?). Usage will show whether people find this planetary proliferation tiresome or exciting. 13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 31

4.8 billion km Current distance of New Horizons from Earth composition of Pluto’s atmosphere using an instrument called Alice to analyse the spectrum of starlight filtering through it. The spacecraft will also send radio signals through the atmosphere and back to Earth, where mission scientists can work out temperature and pressure profiles from the signal distortion.

Wispy though it is, this atmosphere allows some outlandish possibilities. Liquid neon might be stable, suggests hydrologist Jeff Kargel of the University of Arizona in Tucson. Then neon could play the part of water on Earth and methane on Saturn’s moon Titan, and run in rivers across Pluto’s surface. McKinnon is doubtful. “I’m not expecting rivers of liquid neon, but you never know,” he says. “We are going to see something we haven’t seen before, and that will delight us.” His own suggestion is that liquid nitrogen could flow in places under Pluto’s ice, and that a large impact could inject enough heat to melt lakes of nitrogen on the surface, or even cause nitrogen rainfall. So there seems little chance that Pluto will turn out to be a dull, dead world, a disappointing space rock marked only by impact craters. “But I hope to see some craters,” says McKinnon. For one thing, Pluto’s craters could be a key to understanding how planets came into being. Our traditional picture of planet formation starts with small grains that collide and build into boulders, then larger and larger objects.

The New Horizons probe almost didn’t get off the ground

If this is right, the Kuiper belt should hold leftover planetary building blocks of all sizes. But that idea is undermined by Jupiter’s moon Europa. Europa’s surface is only a few tens of millions of years old, having been renewed perhaps by a process akin to plate tectonics. Being so new, it only shows recent comet impacts. There are relatively few small craters, meaning a lack of small comets hitting Europa. “We would expect many times more kilometre-sized things,” says Hal Levison, a colleague of Stern’s at the Southwest Research Institute who specialises in the dynamics of planetary systems. “Maybe those things go

THE HUNT FOR PLANET X All the clues pointed to something big out there. In the late 19th century, astronomers suspected that anomalies in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune were caused by the gravity of a large, unseen planet. They spent decades, on and off, searching for “Planet X”, to no avail. Then, in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, spotted something. He was checking photographic plates of an area in the constellation Gemini, using a device called a blink comparator to flick between plates taken on separate nights. On 18 February he found a small dot that had moved between two dates in January (see pictures, right). Being so far away, stars are effectively 32 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015


Rivers of neon

stationary as seen from Earth, so it had to be something within our solar system. Its motion turned out to be too slow for an asteroid whirling around the inner solar system. Instead, the object had to be out beyond the orbit of Neptune, and it looked planet-sized. The dot was named Pluto after the Roman god of the underworld. But Pluto is not the hoped-for Planet X: it is far too small to have the observed effect on Uranus and Neptune. Only in 1992 did new data, including a measurement of Neptune’s mass by Voyager 2, allow those apparent orbital anomalies to vanish. Rumours still persist, but Planet X is probably now fading into myth – having helped us find Pluto.

‘poof’ and disappear when they come into the inner solar system and are heated by the sun. Or maybe they never got created.” Counting craters of different sizes on Pluto gives an idea of how many iceballs are hitting it and how big they are. These scars should show us whether those kilometre-scale building blocks really are missing from the Kuiper belt – and whether we need a new theory of planet formation. One recent idea is called pebble accretion: little pebbles a few centimetres across gather into large groups which then suddenly collapse under gravity. “You go directly to objects 10 to 100 kilometres in size,” says Levison. Even if Pluto’s nitrogen craters have evaporated away, there should be a good cratering record on its outsize moon, Charon. Charon is so large that it and Pluto arguably make up a binary system (see “Charon’s secrets”, above right). Its probable origin in a giant collision could shed light on the violent events that shaped the young solar system once the planets had formed. Roughly 4 billion years ago, it’s thought, the young giant planets moved outwards through a dense disc of debris girdling the sun, in the process hurling comets in all directions. Some came our way, and huge impacts created the moon’s “seas” and scourged Earth in a trauma known as the Late Heavy Bombardment. Most models rely on Neptune and Uranus migrating out like this, but it’s not clear when and how fast, or how Jupiter moved around,

CHARON’S SECRETS plumes spouting from Saturn’s moon Enceladus, “but the only solid surface where we have identified ammonia in the entire solar system is Charon”, says Bill McKinnon of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. New Horizons will find out whether there is enough to inject some activity into Charon’s landscape, perhaps lubricating geysers. “I want to see if there are flows of semi-solid ammonia water ice, or eruptions,” says McKinnon. Charon probably formed in a similar way to Earth’s moon, when something huge collided with the proto-Pluto and blasted out debris into a surrounding disc. Simulations show that Charon and the other moons, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx, could have grown from the disc. But in the simulations, Charon moves outwards after it forms and this destabilises the orbits of the small moons, says McKinnon. And the latest Hubble images suggest Kerberos is black as coal, while the other moons are significantly paler, hinting that Kerberos may have a different origin (New Scientist, 6 June, p 16). New Horizons should nail down the

or just what the original debris disc was like. The collision that formed Charon probably happened before all this, so working out exactly how it happened could tell us a little about that disc and how it became today’s Kuiper belt. Researchers had expected the Kuiper belt to be a settled, flattish disc of objects in nice circular orbits. Instead, it is a mess. “It looks like someone took the solar system, picked it up and shook it really hard,” says Levison. Again, the giant planets were probably responsible, but no existing models can match the real tangle of orbits. “Pluto’s formation and evolution is going to

Pluto’s companion, Charon, is almost too large to be a moon


Pluto is an alien world in almost all respects, but in one way it resembles Earth: it has a large, close companion. In 1978, James Christy at the US Naval Observatory in Washington DC realised that a bump on some images of Pluto wasn’t a defect in observations, as had been assumed, but a giant moon. This was the largest moon to be discovered since 1846, when Neptune’s moon Triton was found a couple of weeks after its planet. As Pluto is god of the underworld, Christy named it Charon, after the ferryman who carries souls to the underworld across the river Styx. Rather than Pluto’s chemical tutti-frutti, Charon’s surface is mainly water ice. But it also has a dash of ammonia, which produces a distinctive dip in its infrared spectrum. Since the 1970s planetary scientists have thought ammonia might act as an antifreeze, enabling chilly moons such as Saturn’s Titan to have subsurface oceans, and explaining features on Jupiter’s moon Europa and elsewhere that look like frozen flows. Ammonia has been found in the atmospheres of giant planets and in the

orbits, sizes and compositions of these moons, and perhaps discover others. “Given that we keep finding these things we’re likely to find more,” says McKinnon. With a full picture of the satellite system, models can be refined. If it turns out that the collision couldn’t have created the small moons after all, then they might instead have been captured from the surrounding Kuiper belt – suggesting that other dwarf planets out there are likely to have multi-moon systems too.

give us hints to what happened in the entire outer planetary system,” says Levison. There’s only one chance to get things right, so just at the moment, the mission team is rather busy. “We are navigating by taking images and analysing them and computing rocket burn simulations,” says Stern. “We are looking for hazards, testing programs that will operate the spacecraft during the encounter, and preparing more than 150 software tools for data analysis. I’m not worried about anything we’ve thought of; I worry about what we haven’t thought of.” A first scan for hazards has come up clear.



A strangely mobile blob (arrows) identified in 1930 suggested the existence of a ninth planet

23 JANUARY 1930

29 JANUARY 1930

-228˚ Celsius Pluto’s surface temperature

And as Pluto gradually comes into sharper focus, new features already suggest a complex surface. Come 14 July, things will happen fast. Just a few minutes after closest approach, New Horizons will turn to scan Charon, then back to Pluto to map its southern polar regions, hidden on the approach. That side of Pluto is currently turned away from the sun, so the only light will be a faint glow reflected from Charon. Then, after this all-too-brief encounter it’s onwards and outwards, probably towards PT1 (“potential target 1”), a Kuiper belt object 1.5 billion kilometres further from the sun, and just a few tens of kilometres across. After that, the spacecraft will join the earlier Pioneer and Voyager probes as part of Earth’s interstellar flotilla, reporting on the state of the solar wind until its plutonium power fades away. But first and last things first. The first world of the Kuiper belt, or the last of the nine planets if you prefer, is coming into view. ■ See bit.ly/NSpluto for regular updates on Pluto and the New Horizons mission. Stephen Battersby is a science writer based in London 13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 33


34 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015


VEN as science fiction, the idea that we can learn as we sleep has a controversial history. In Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World, recorded voices whisper class prejudices into the ears of sleeping children, conditioning them for their future roles in society. Despite the evil ends that Huxley imagined, the appeal of getting something for nothing was irresistible to readers and, following the book’s publication in 1932, there was a surge in interest in sleep learning. But was there any fact in the fiction? In 1951, two researchers at George Washington University in Washington DC decided to find out. They recruited 30 volunteers and set up tape recorders and speakers in their bedrooms. For half an hour one night, as the volunteers slept, the recorders played either music or Chinese words and their English equivalents. Next morning, those who had heard the vocabulary performed better on a Chinese language test. “Learning can occur during sleep,” the scientists concluded, grandly. Others soon agreed. A second team claimed to have taught Morse code to a group of sleeping naval students. A third found that children stopped biting their nails simply by listening to the sentence, “My fingernails taste terribly bitter”, six times a night for 54 nights. But it wasn’t long before these findings were

challenged. The volunteers hadn’t been monitored, so there was no evidence they were truly asleep as the audio played. So in 1955, researchers did several more studies, this time measuring brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG) to make sure the recordings were played only during sleep. No learning was detected. The original claims were discarded, and sleep learning was once again relegated to the realm of science fiction. Yet today, after half a century in disrepute, sleep learning is experiencing a revival, with ingenious experiments revealing that our sleeping brains can absorb new information – under the right circumstances.

Unconscious activity These days, we know far more about what goes on in our brains during sleep. “Up until a decade ago, most people thought not much was happening,” says Sid Kouider, a cognitive neuroscientist at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, France. Then, using EEG, researchers discovered that the brain doesn’t shut off. Parts of it are surprisingly active even when we are unconscious. The sleeping brain appears to review and store memories, replaying moments in the day to preserve important information. The discovery that memory consolidation

Learning while you snooze sounds too good to be true, but there might be a way, finds Megan Scudellari

happens during sleep set some people wondering whether they could exert control over the process. In 2007, neuroscientist Jan Born and colleagues at the University of Lübeck in Germany tested the idea. They invited 18 volunteers to play a memory game shortly before going to bed. Each person learned the locations of 15 pairs of cards on a computer screen while smelling the scent of roses. Then, while sleeping, they were reexposed to the scent, which Born predicted would cue memories of what they had learned. The researchers chose smell as a cue because odours don’t arouse us from sleep, and are closely associated with memories. In fact, the brain regions that process odours are directly connected to the hippocampus, a part of the brain with a crucial role in the creation of memories. Sure enough, participants recalled more card pairs after being exposed to the odour than after sleeping without the smell (Science, vol 315, p 1426). Reading these findings, Ken Paller, director of the cognitive neuroscience programme at Northwestern University in Illinois, was intrigued. He wanted to find out whether the same results could be achieved using sounds instead of smells. His volunteers learned the locations on a screen of 50 images, each paired with a specific sound, such as a meow for a cat and a whistle for a kettle. Then the participants took a nap, during which Paller’s team quietly played half of the sounds to them. Upon waking, they better recalled the locations of objects whose sounds had been played while they slept, than those for which the associated sounds hadn’t been played. Paller went on to show that people who >

SMART SLUMBER 13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 35

learned to play a simple song on a video game similar to Guitar Hero were better able to play that melody upon waking if it had been played quietly as they slept. It was becoming clear that memories can be influenced during sleep by external cues. In 2011, researchers in Born’s lab made another discovery. Volunteers who learned a set of word pairs believing they would be tested the next morning performed better than those who weren’t informed of the test or who were informed but didn’t sleep. This suggested that the mere expectation that a memory will be important in future is enough to incite the sleeping brain to replay and strengthen it.

It’s possible to unlearn a phobia while you sleep

But it’s not just learning that occurs during sleep. Turning the idea upside-down, sound associations can also help people unlearn ingrained prejudices – such as the idea that women are bad at science – while they sleep, found Paller, who was working alongside Xiaoqing Hu at the University of Texas at Austin and colleagues. Meanwhile, Katherina Hauner, also at Northwestern University, has been able to erase bad memories during sleep. She showed volunteers images of faces while giving them a mild electric shock and an odour: mint, lemon or pine. Once they had learned to associate some of the faces with pain, the participants slept, while Hauner exposed them to just the smells – no shock this time. At first these triggered anxiety, as measured by microscopic sweat on their skin, but gradually the fear diminished. When they awoke, they were less anxious in response to the images. Volunteers who underwent the same procedure but


Unlearning and forgetting

without sleeping didn’t lose their fear. With the realisation that it is possible to enhance or reduce retention of specific memories during sleep, people began questioning the dogma that the brain can’t learn new information as we slumber. Perhaps the scientists in the 1950s were actually on to something. Two recent

IN YOUR DREAMS External cues such as smells and sounds can influence your mind during sleep (see main story) – but only during slow wave sleep. So what happens if we experience an outside stimulus during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the period in which we dream? In 1958, scientists sprayed sleepers with water and flashed lights at them to find out. Upon waking, 42 per cent reported that their dreams incorporated instances of water and 23 per cent said they included flashing lights. In other experiments – which might not get ethical approval today – researchers found they could influence the content of dreams with electric shocks, bed rocking and mild pain. 36 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015

Stimuli we experience while awake can also affect our dreams. A week of wearing goggles that filter out all colours but red resulted in red-tinged dreams. And attempting to suppress thoughts about a person during wakefulness prompted an increase in dreaming about that person. But the most powerful way to manipulate your dreams is to take control of them yourself during lucid dreaming, when you are aware during the dream. Memories are consolidated during slow wave sleep, but lucid dreaming also seems to have waking benefits. It has been linked with improvements in motor skills, for example, and better mental health.

experiments indicate they were. In the first, Anat Arzi and her colleagues at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel attempted to teach a simple association during sleep – linking a sound with an odour. Humans unconsciously inhale deeply for a pleasant odour and sniff weakly for an unpleasant one. So Arzi and her team exposed sleeping volunteers to an audio tone paired with a pleasant odour (deodorant or shampoo) and a second tone paired with an unpleasant odour (rotten fish or meat). Although they had no conscious awareness of either the tones or smells, upon waking the volunteers sniffed deeply when they heard the tone linked with the nice smell and shallowly on hearing the other – without any odours being present. “We realised that we can learn an association during sleep and can retrieve this association upon waking,” says Arzi. “This study opened the door to so many questions.” Her most immediate question was whether an association learned during sleep could influence behaviour when awake. In a second experiment, Arzi invited 66 smokers to spend a night in a sleep lab, during which she exposed them to the smell of cigarettes

“We might someday use sleep to unlearn prejudices and alter bad habits” Sleeping with the smell of rotten fish could help you quit smoking


paired with the smell of either rotten fish or rotten eggs. Lo and behold, they smoked 30 per cent less the week after the experiment than the week before (The Journal of Neuroscience, vol 34, p 15382). As in Hauner’s fear study, the same procedure conducted while participants were awake didn’t result in altered behaviour. This suggests that there is something special about how our brains process memories during sleep that enhances learned associations, though we don’t yet know what it is. Importantly, Arzi, Hauner and others have found that learning rarely occurs during rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep. It primarily occurs during slow wave sleep, a form of deep sleep in which brain cells slowly cycle from being active to inactive and back again. The same is true for odour-induced memory reactivation, as in Born’s original rose-scented experiment. One possible explanation is that the slow oscillations of brain cells cement memories, says Arzi. Alternatively, it could be a protective mechanism so that memories are not formed during REM sleep, which is prime time for dreaming. “We don’t want to remember our dreams as if they were real,” she says. “That could be dangerous.” With the discovery that our sleeping brains can learn simple associations, scientists are now reaching for the next level of complexity – to find out whether they can learn verbal information. We know that the part of the brain that processes auditory information is active during sleep and preferentially responds to meaningful information. You are more likely to wake up when someone calls your name or cries “Fire!”, for example, than to the sound of someone else’s name or a nonsensical shout. With this in mind, Kouider sought to discover whether the brain can process meaningful verbal information during sleep. He instructed awake volunteers, hooked up to EEG machines, to classify spoken words as either animals or objects by pressing a button with their right hand for “animal” and with their left for “object”. Pushing a button with the right hand results in the left side of the brain lighting up with activity, and vice versa. Next, Kouider let the participants recline in a darkened room and drift off to sleep as they continued to classify words. At some point, they stopped pressing the buttons, but their brains didn’t stop categorising. The hemispheres associated with a button press continued to light up correctly. Their unconscious brains were still absorbing and processing meaningful information, though much more slowly than when awake.

“This is definitely demonstrating that during sleep, not only can you extract the meaning of acoustic information in your environment, but you can also prepare a response, make a decision,” says Kouider. The key finding, he says, is that the brain continued to work on a task that it had begun before sleep. This suggests that any task that can be automated, such as classifying words, could be continued during sleep if begun beforehand. And it implies that our brains process new information even during sleep, so if we can just figure out the right ways to deliver that information – whether using sound, smell or automation – our sleeping, active brains are ready and able to learn.

PUTTING SLEEP TO WORK Though it’s unlikely you will ever master a new language in your sleep, there are ways sleep can be used in everyday life, says Susanne Diekelmann at the University of Tübingen in Germany. Here are three to try: Take naps: Sleep is most effective for

memorisation if you sleep shortly after learning something new, so napping during the day may help cement newly formed memories. Use odours: You may be able to enhance the memory reactivation process by studying with a specific odour nearby, such as mint, then keeping the odour by your bedside at night. Make up a test: The mere expectation that something is important appears to strengthen memories of it during sleep, so after learning something new, have a quiz ready to test yourself the next morning.

It’s early days for this field of research and even enthusiasts acknowledge that we should proceed with caution. “You always need to be careful not to disturb sleep itself,” says Susanne Diekelmann, formerly in Born’s lab and now at the University of Tübingen in Germany. That’s because sleep is a requirement, not an option. Without it we become depressed and forgetful, and our risk of stroke, heart disease and premature death rise dramatically. Some researchers believe there will always be a trade-off, no matter what tricks or techniques we might uncover to induce learning during sleep. “Everything has a cost,” says Simon Ruch, who studies sleep and memory at the University of Bern in Switzerland. “If you really have to learn something, it’s better that you stay up a little bit longer and learn it, then go to sleep.” Diekelmann is more upbeat. She believes that, in the future, sleep learning might help with the improvement of a musical, linguistic or athletic skill. Other possibilities are even more alluring. We might someday use sleep to unlearn deep-rooted prejudices, to alter bad habits, such as smoking, or to learn new associations, such as positive feelings about certain foods or experiences. Paller and his team are already attempting to selectively strengthen memories of vocabulary words during sleep using auditory cues. Presumably, there is no shortage of high-school students prepping for examinations who would like to take part in that study. “We still have more experiments to do to say exactly how much you can change during sleep,” says Paller. “But the door is open. It’s possible.” ■ Megan Scudellari is based in Boston, Massachusetts 13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 37

In the footsteps of gods


Local legend has it that the fairy circles of Namibia were created by gods or dragons. Rachel Nuwer joins those out to solve the mystery

38 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015


ALLY, show her the termites!” Victoria Tschinkel led me to where her husband was kneeling in a circle of sand marked with a bright pink ring. The bare patch in an otherwise grassy desert was one of several that Walter Tschinkel had doused with potent pesticide a few days before. “If termites play a role in killing the grass, then poisoning them should allow the vegetation to grow back,” he says. He began scooping up handfuls of hot orange sand from around the roots of a dry clump of grass. Each scoop was followed by a silent pause as we scanned the dirt for near-invisible insects. When Tschinkel spotted movement, he dived like a hawk, aspirator to his lips, and sucked the termite up a plastic tube into a little glass vial. He would later examine his captives under UV light, looking for a telltale glow that indicated the insects had eaten the slow-acting poison. The grassy Namibian desert is pock-marked with millions of circular patches of bare earth just like this one. Viewed from above, they make the ground look like a moonscape. Commonly known as fairy circles, the patches range from 2 to 12 metres across and appear in a 2000 kilometre strip that stretches from Angola to South Africa (see map, p 40). But nobody knows what they are. Explanations for what causes Namibia’s fairy circles come and go, like the circles themselves, which grow and fade over time. But so far, none has stuck. Tschinkel was here to change that. He had a hypothesis to test, one he hopes will bring the matter to a close – and there’s no room for termites. Few people visit Namibia, a remote country on the west coast of southern Africa. Those who do tend to return with tales of vast sand seas, century-old shipwrecks and ghost towns swallowed by dunes. But it is the fairy circles

“Explanations come and go, like the circles themselves, which grow and fade”

that have proved most captivating. Local legend has it that they are the footsteps of the gods, or burn marks from the breath of subterranean dragons. These days, you are more likely to be told that they are landing spots for UFOs or places where Bushmen urinate. A few think they are simply the sleeping spots of ostriches or oryx. Generations of scientists have had different ideas, from radioactive soil to pathogenic fungi. Some claim that they are caused by noxious gases seeping up through the earth, others that they are places where euphorbia bushes grew. These highly toxic plants are said to have once killed a group of 16 travellers who used euphorbia’s deadly wood in their campfire.

Touched by fairy dust Like most researchers who fall under their spell, Walter Tschinkel, an entomologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, first encountered fairy circles as a tourist. In 2005, he and his wife visited the NamibRand Nature Reserve, a fairy circle hotspot. One of the staff asked if he could figure out what caused them. Tschinkel, who studies ant colonies, didn’t think twice. It was obviously termites. “Everyone had thought termites at one time or another,” he says. So the couple returned in 2007, convinced they would close the case within a week. After three days of digging in the circles without a termite nest in sight, Tschinkel realised that his initial hypothesis needed a rethink. Since that first attempt, Tschinkel, like several others before him, has returned to Namibia repeatedly, moonlighting from his day job to try and crack the riddle. Each field trip yields more questions than answers. In 2009, he seeded some circles with nutrients. He transferred soil from outside the circles to the inside, and vice versa. And he dug several up, laid down a rubber barrier and then refilled them. But none of his experiments made a difference. The fairy circles remained barren and the areas around them continued to grow. > 13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 39

One idea is that termites are to blame for fairy circles

40 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015

rocks, they began a classic plant ecology experiment: some circles would get a full quota of plant nutrients, some would get a steady water supply, some would get both and some nothing at all. If those resources were constraining plant growth, then the circles getting boosters should begin to fill in. They were no longer hoping for a quick answer. “We are adding water at agriculture irrigation rates,” says Cramer. The team also injected nitrogen-labelled isotopes into the centres of some circles to trace the flow of water. Then they put vertical underground barriers around others to see if stopping water and nutrients from leaving the circle might affect surrounding grasses. Finally, a few circles were dosed with poison to deal with the termite question.


The lack of positive results merely spurred Tschinkel on. Using satellite images and field observations, he showed that fairy circles are “alive” – that is, they come and go from the landscape, with lifespans averaging 41 years. Then he teamed up with two other researchers drawn to the mystery: Michael Cramer, a biologist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and Nichole Barger, an ecosystem ecologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In 2013, the pair had built a computer model that revealed rainfall was the most important predictor of fairy circles. The highest densities of circles occurred in sandy, nutrient-poor soils that receive only 50 to 100 millilitres of rain per year. Based on this, Cramer, Barger and Tschinkel began to suspect that fairy circles were the result of fierce competition between grasses living in a stressful environment. This would explain why some studies suggest that circles tend to form after dry years and disappear after wet ones. As plants jostle for water and nutrients, weaker ones die, providing more resources for their stronger neighbours. This leads to bare patches appearing in between areas of vigorous growth. With no grasses on them to suck up the water, the bare patches can hold underground reservoirs of moisture and nutrients that sustain the stronger, greedier plants that line their edges. These reservoirs have been found to stick around for 8 to 11 months after the last rainfall. However, without plants growing in it, the surface layer of sand covering the barren spots becomes particularly dry – like a lid on a bucket of water (see “Underground reservoirs”, far right). This could explain why, despite the underground reservoir, new seedlings can’t take root inside the circle. Over time, the system reaches a stable state – in this case, a circular structure – that minimises competition. Similar patterning is seen elsewhere, including tiger-like stripes in Niger, spots in Chad and bands in Sudan. All occur where extremely dry deserts meet wetter grass or shrub lands. It was a neat solution. But it would take more than fancy computer models to convince the die-hard fairy circle aficionados, many of whom were unwilling to give up on their own hunches. So in February, Tschinkel, Cramer and Barger met up in Namibia’s capital Windhoek and made the six-hour drive south-west to NamibRand. Holing up in an airy former farmhouse with enough food and wine to sustain them for two weeks, they embarked on

a rigorous schedule, heading out shortly after dawn each day and not returning till dusk. I joined the team on their last day of fieldwork, meeting them on a dirt road that branched off into an even smaller dirt road that led to the research enclosure – a tiny patch of ground in the epic orange and sage-green landscape. With the help of NamibRand staff, the team had fenced off an area containing 25 fairy circles to prevent equipment-trashing oryx from getting in – a lesson learned the hard way. The plan was to revisit some of Tschinkel’s earlier tests, but ramp up the rigour. Marking the circles with colour-coded

Circles in the sand The Namibian desert is dotted with millions of fairy circles. They are found in hotspots running in a strip from Angola to South Africa, including at the NamibRand Nature Reserve







Termite trouble Tschinkel had long assumed that the termite theory had been laid to rest. But around the time Cramer and Barger were building their computer model, Norbert Jürgens, an ecologist at the University of Hamburg, Germany, published results in the journal Science suggesting termites were indeed to blame. Based on evidence gathered over the course of 40 field trips, Jürgens was convinced that sand termites purposefully engineer the circles to create water troughs. No one had ever noticed them before, Jürgens said, because their fine tunnels are so hard to spot. There was uproar as termites split the fairy circle fan club once again. The main criticism levelled at Jürgens was that the presence of termites didn’t prove they caused the circles; they may just move in to the basements of existing structures. The debate had raged in journals and on internet forums long enough. Spotting an opportunity for the different sides to meet, Nils Odendaal, CEO of NamibRand, organised the first ever Fairy Circle Symposium to coincide with Tschinkel, Barger and Cramer’s visit. On a warm February morning, 35 people gathered in a garage-turned-conference room. Even as the first talks began, however, brows furrowed, lips tightened and toes tapped. Carl Albrecht, head of research at the Cancer Association of South Africa, presented a third hypothesis – one that has earned him the nickname “the gas man”. He thinks that the grass in fairy circles is killed by noxious gases, possibly seeping up from deep underground. He has analysed the roots of dead plants collected from fairy circles and isolated four molecules his team has been unable to


“The team holed up in a farmhouse with food and wine for two weeks”

identify. Another group at the University of Pretoria are pursuing the same hypothesis and have identified their own set of compounds unique to fairy circles. Albrecht admits this raises more questions than it solves, however. “It’s not clear if those molecules are the cause or the result of something,” he says. But as the day wore on, the competing plants hypothesis favoured by Tschinkel, Barger and Cramer gained momentum. Stephan Getzin, an ecologist at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, showed how aerial images reveal

that, over dozens of square kilometres, fairy circles appear in a surprisingly regular hexagonal pattern, almost like a honeycomb. “Only self-organisation is known to cause patterns like this at such a large scale,” he says. “No matter what is found in the field, all hypotheses on fairy circles need to account for both their small- and large-scale patterns.” Gas belches from below can kill plants, Getzin says, but the patterns formed are always irregular when viewed over a large area. He also says the same is true for patterns formed by social insects in arid environments. Jürgens was outnumbered: “I am the only

Underground reservoirs Namibia's fairy circles may form thanks to plant competition. Stronger plants outdo their neighbours and weaker ones die, leaving bare patches There are no plants inside the circle to trap surface moisture or deplete deep reservoirs, so the surface is too dry for new growth but the reservoirs sustain plants at the edge

Plants on the edge use long roots to tap the reservoir, plant cover outside the circle continues to grow as normal


Moistu re reserv oirs

Termites drawn to the water source help sustain the system by feeding on plant roots inside the circle

one here supporting the leading hypothesis for fairy circle formation.” He hadn’t planned to speak, but after checking on his car full of termite nests – collected from nearby circles and stashed for later study – he gave an impromptu talk. He outlined his view of how fairy circles are established by termite queens and thereafter always contain the insects, which kill the grass by eating its roots and secreting toxic gas. Jürgens and his graduate student Felicitas Gunter also have new phylogenetic data showing that sand termites are actually composed of six distinct species, not one, which would explain why they have been found in places where there are no fairy circles. Jürgens thinks some of those species make different types of fairy circle and those living east of the Namib desert don’t make circles at all. He has also done calculations based on aerial images and on-the-ground monitoring that suggest fairy circles have a much longer lifespan – possibly by hundreds or thousands of years – than Tschinkel first estimated. In the fairy circle whodunnit, are we any closer to the big reveal? Getzin agrees with Tschinkel that the competing plant hypothesis is the one to back. “I think we just need a little time for the idea to settle,” he says. That, and for the results of Tschinkel, Barger and Cramer’s fieldwork to come in – which could take months or years. In the end, it may be that elements of competing theories tell different parts of the same story. Termites might play a role in maintaining existing circles, for example. “It will take more time to put all the pieces together,” says Barger. “This is the great thing about having multiple disciplines involved – trying to assemble the puzzle with just one doesn’t always work.” Back in the enclosure the Namibian sun was already intense by 8 am. The team had learned not to kneel in the hot sand in shorts – they all had matching knee burns. But if they are to get the answers they hope for, hundreds of dollars’ worth of kit has to function properly in the heat for months, and last minute adjustments could prove crucial. Cramer folded out a portable chair and began tinkering. ■ Rachel Nuwer is a writer based in New York. Her trip was partly funded by the Namibia Tourism Board. See Rachel’s fairy circle snaps at bit.ly/NSfairycircles 13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 41


It’s so last century! Talking about the genome is getting tricky, finds Claire Ainsworth

ASK me what a genome is, and I, like many science writers, might mutter about it being the genetic blueprint of a living creature. But then I’ll confess that “blueprint” is a lousy metaphor since it implies that the genome is two-dimensional, prescriptive and unresponsive. Now two new books about the genome show the limitation of that metaphor for something so intricate, complex, multilayered and dynamic. Both underscore the risks of taking metaphors too literally, not just in undermining popular understanding of science, but also in trammelling scientific enquiry. They are for anyone interested in how new discoveries and controversies will transform our understanding of biology and of ourselves. John Parrington is an associate professor in molecular and cellular pharmacology at the University of Oxford. In The Deeper Genome, he provides an elegant, accessible account of the profound and unexpected complexities of the human genome, and shows how many ideas developed in the 20th century are being overturned. Take DNA. It’s no simple linear code, but an intricately wound, 3D structure that coils and uncoils as its genes are read and spliced in myriad ways. Forget genes as discrete, protein-coding “beads on a string”: only a tiny fraction 42 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015


The Deeper Genome: Why there is more to the human genome than meets the eye by John Parrington Oxford University Press, £18.99 The Developing Genome: An introduction to behavioral epigenetics by David S. Moore, Oxford University Press USA, $39.95

of the genome codes for proteins, a jungle in there. It’s full of things and anyway, no one knows exactly doing stuff.” And that is one of the what a gene is any more. most apt genome metaphors I’ve A key driver of this new view is ever read. ENCODE, the Encyclopedia of DNA Recent insights into what some Elements, which is an ambitious of this “stuff” is reveal problems international project to identify with another classic idea: that the functional parts of the human DNA is the master controller of genome. In 2012, it revealed not the cell, with information flowing only that the protein-coding in one direction from it, via RNA, elements of DNA can overlap, but that the 98 per cent of the genome “Epigenetic determinism is just as unhelpful that used to be labelled inactive as the deterministic “junk” is nothing of the sort. Some of it regulates gene activity, gene-as-blueprint idea” some churns out an array of different kinds of RNA molecules to proteins. Some of ENCODE’s (RNAs for short), some tiny, some mystery RNAs control gene large, many of whose functions activity, others make changes that are hotly debated. Parrington the cell remembers and passes on quotes ENCODE scientist Ewan when it divides, and which can Birney as saying at the time, “It’s even be passed down generations.

Simple metaphors just won’t do to describe the subtleties of DNA

The RNAs may be one way the environment alters the behaviour of genes without changing their DNA sequences, a phenomenon known as epigenetics. Growing evidence of the extent of epigenetic influence on the genome has led some researchers to argue that much of medical research, and indeed mainstream evolutionary theory, places too much importance on genes in determining an organism’s characteristics. They think the environment plays a much bigger role in their emergence as an organism develops. This developmental view of the genome is a key theme in

For more books and arts coverage, visit newscientist.com/culturelab

Claire Ainsworth is a science writer

A strange embrace The world of the octopus is playful and peculiar, finds Phil McKenna The Soul of an Octopus: A surprising exploration into the wonder of consciousness by Sy Montgomery, Simon & Schuster, $26

I SPENT the winter of 2012 to 2013 in Boston, visiting the New England Aquarium nearly every weekend with my 2-year-old son. On each trip we would see the aquarium’s octopus, sometimes milky white, sometimes brilliant red, sometimes scarcely visible within its rocky lair. Within seconds, my son would invariably tug at my arm, dragging me on to other animals – the electric eel, the seadragons – or perhaps Each of an octopus’s 1600 suckers has 10,000 “taste” receptors

simply to run the halls. What I didn’t know was that author Sy Montgomery spent much of that winter, and many other seasons, on the opposite side of the octopus display. Over the course of several years, she developed close relationships with a series of giant Pacific octopuses and their handlers. In The Soul of an Octopus, she introduces us to Enteroctopus dofleini, a mollusc with a walnutsized brain that wraps around its throat. It is an invertebrate that diverged from our own family more than half a billion years ago, and has such a fearsome reputation that, until recently, few dared to engage with it. Yet Montgomery, along with a number of psychologists, biologists and volunteers who we meet along the way, do engage. They forge relationships with a

playful, little understood and highly intelligent life form that seems to be reaching out to us with all of its three hearts, eight arms – and 1600 suckers. Montgomery focuses much of her book on those suckers, each of them packed with 10,000 chemoreceptors that she

“The giant Pacific octopus has such a fearsome reputation that few dared engage with it”


The Developing Genome by David Moore. He is a professor of psychology at Pitzer College, Claremont, California, with an interest in cognition in infants, and behavioural epigenetics – the study of how epigenetics shapes individual cognition, behaviour and mental health. This includes the famous studies by researchers Michael Meaney and Moshe Szyf, which showed that baby rats that are licked and groomed by their mothers grow up to be less sensitive to stress, and that this correlates with changes to the pup’s neurobiology and the epigenetic alterations associated with certain genes. Behavioural epigenetics is a controversial field, with critics arguing that many of its findings are little more than correlation and conjecture. Moore is suitably sceptical without shying away from the more contentious areas, such as research suggesting that being abused as a child can cause long-term epigenetic changes in the brain. Some researchers speculate that this could be a mechanism by which the cycle of violence transmits down generations. But just as genes are not destiny, neither is epigenetics. Like Parrington, Moore warns against oversimplification. Epigenetic determinism is just as unhelpful as the deterministic gene-as-blueprint idea. “Do not assume you are trapped by your biology,” he says. That genetics is complicated isn’t news, but Parrington and Moore underline the limitations and the power of trying to understand its complexity by reducing it to simpler divisions. For example, the molecular and computing technologies spawned by such attempts are now giving researchers the potential to work out how to integrate it all to form a greater whole. Time, surely, to rip up the old metaphors and create some new ones. ■

suspects can not only taste her skin but the muscle, bone and blood beneath. After her first such embrace, she writes how the animal knows her in a way no being has known her before. Over the course of the book we get to know several octopuses, each with its own personality, yet all bound by the unhappy destiny of living for four years at most, often ending in dementia-like senescence. At times Montgomery blurs the lines between author and subject. She writes about “our” study when diving with biologists in French Polynesia and challenges aquarium staff and long-time volunteers with her own theories on octopus behaviour. Such journalistic immersion can come at a cost of objectivity. But here it allows Montgomery to deliver a deeper understanding of the “other”, thereby adding to our understanding of ourselves. A good book might illuminate something you knew little about, transform your world view, or move you in ways you didn’t think possible. The Soul of an Octopus delivers on all three. ■ Phil McKenna is a science writer 13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 43

Discrete Mathematics E IT









BY 21


What Is Discrete Mathematics?

2. Basic Concepts of Combinatorics 3. The 12-Fold Way of Combinatorics



Taught by Professor Arthur T. Benjamin HARVEY MUDD COLLEGE


4. Pascal’s Triangle and the Binomial Theorem 5. Advanced Combinatorics—Multichoosing 6. The Principle of Inclusion-Exclusion 7.

Proofs—Inductive, Geometric, Combinatorial

8. Linear Recurrences and Fibonacci Numbers 9. Gateway to Number Theory—Divisibility 10. The Structure of Numbers 11. Two Principles—Pigeonholes and Parity 12. Modular Arithmetic—The Maths of Remainders 13. Enormous Exponents and Card Shuffling 14. Fermat’s “Little” Theorem and Prime Testing 15. Open Secrets—Public Key Cryptography 16. The Birth of Graph Theory 17. Ways to Walk—Matrices and Markov Chains 18. Social Networks and Stable Marriages 19. Tournaments and King Chickens 20. Weighted Graphs and Minimum Spanning Trees 21. Planarity—When Can a Graph Be Untangled?

Discover the World of Discrete Mathematics

22. Coloring Graphs and Maps 23. Shortest Paths and Algorithm Complexity 24. The Magic of Discrete Mathematics

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Thriving communities Biotechnology hubs are buzzing across Europe. Is it time to pack your bags and head to the Continent? Suzanne Elvidge investigates


NCE upon a time, most people lived near work and stayed in one job, in one place, for much of their career. But how things have changed. Today, the average European jobseeker’s horizons are much broader. Martin Welschof, the German-born CEO of drug developer Opsona, works in Ireland but commutes from Norway, where his family is based. “Europe is now a single job market, requiring no work permits, and cities are only a few hours’ flight apart, which means that companies can attract talent from anywhere across the region,” he says. One of the hottest spots for international talent in Europe is life sciences, and hubs are flourishing across the continent. These centres of activity – where research and clinical-stage pharma and biotech companies rub shoulders with suppliers and service providers – generally grow around large pharma companies and innovative science-based universities. They provide ideal destinations to grow careers, with regular chances to gain new skills and experience, take up new challenges and make

46 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015

the most of the many networking opportunities to expand your professional friends list. Brian Taylor, head of Kits and Assays at Cambridge-based Abcam, a global business producing protein research kits, moved to the UK from the US. While the job was the main attraction, he agrees that the location and the opportunities provided by Abcam – and its position in the Cambridge Science Park – were also a draw. “Getting to meet such talented people, including key opinion leaders at some of the top European scientific institutions, has been a plus for me. It’s really inspiring working with so many brilliant minds from a diverse range of cultures and backgrounds and with a wealth of experience.” Hubs also provide an opportunity for people to move around as companies change and merge, explains Susanne Werner, communication advisor at the not-for-profit Industrial Biotech Network Norway. Werner is based at the Oslo Science Park, which sits between the campuses of the University of

A SAMPLE OF EUROPEAN BIOTECH AND LIFE SCIENCE HUBS AND CLUSTERS • BioValley links biotech clusters in Switzerland, Germany and France. It hosts 50,000 employees and 15,000 scientists at 14 technology parks, 10 universities and research institutions, and more than 600 pharma and medtech companies, including Novartis and Roche. • Scotland is one of Europe’s largest life sciences clusters, employing about 30,000 people at more than 600 life sciences companies and organisations. The Drug Discovery Unit at Dundee University is tackling some of the world’s most significant infectious diseases, such as leishmaniasis, tuberculosis and malaria. • Oslo MedTech is home to about 180 companies, hospitals, investment firms, universities, industrial development agencies and research institutions with a focus on medical technology and innovation. This includes Oslo University Hospital and Akershus University Hospital, which together provide healthcare services to more than a million patients each year. • About 45 per cent of Spain’s pharma companies are based in Barcelona and Catalonia. The region hosts specialist high-tech institutions, such as the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre and the Centre for Regenerative Medicine.

For more careers articles, visit newscientist.com/careers

Oslo and Oslo University Hospital and is home to 190 companies and research organisations. Werner shares the example of German-born Peter Skorpil, who was able to successively move within Oslo when the biopharmaceutical companies Clavis Pharma and Pronova BioPharma downsized, and recently took up a post as VP of business development at immuno-oncology start-up Targovax.

Hubba hubba Some European hubs are relatively small, such as BioCity Nottingham, which is based at the previous BASF Pharma site and is backed by the University of Nottingham, Nottingham Trent University and the East Midlands Development Agency. BioCity has spawned other UK hubs, including BioCity Scotland, near Glasgow; BioHub at Alderley Park, on AstraZeneca’s site; and MediCity on the Alliance Boots campus in Nottingham. Others, such as Medicon Valley, stretch all the way across eastern Denmark and southwestern Sweden, a location that could be regarded as the cradle of biotech because of its long history in medical research and its links with brewing research stretching back to the 1800s. All of these hubs have a different emphasis on therapeutic areas or phases of development. Geoff Davison, CEO of Bionow, a life-sciences membership organisation for the North of England, says: “The ‘golden triangle’ [Oxford, Cambridge and London] focuses on therapeutic discovery; Scotland provides a lot of service companies; and the northwest is more of a cross-section through the value chain, including discovery, analytics, service and manufacturing companies, as well as contract

research organisations.” The list doesn’t end there. Munich, Frankfurt and Barcelona are strong in early-stage development, London’s tech boom has resulted in an increase in digital health and discovery companies, and Ireland’s tax advantages have led to growth in manufacturing and devices companies. Oslo Cancer Cluster’s Innovation Park, due to open in August 2015, will focus on oncology research and incubating new companies. Hubs are home to innovative start-ups that are pushing the boundaries of cutting-edge research by developing targeted and personalised therapeutics for patient-centric medicine with greater safety and efficacy. These developments need to be supported by specific skill sets such as bio- and chemoinformatics to analyse the vast sets of data, chemical, biochemical and genome engineering to produce the new small molecules and biologics, and people with skills in diagnostic to match drugs to patients. As the research matures, moving from early-stage discovery to R&D and towards

“My advice is to be prepared to move, and focus on the job, not the location” the market, it will open up opportunities for people with skills in preclinical and clinical studies, commercialisation and traditional and digital marketing. Larger companies offer other opportunities. During the downturn, many companies stripped out mid-level roles, losing employees with the potential to take on senior roles. Europe’s open borders and thriving pharma and biotech industries mean that moving

CASE STUDY CROSSING THE POND FOR A NEW OPPORTUNITY BRIAN TAYLOR relocated to the UK from the US to take up an opportunity to create a new role driving the growth of the kit business at Abcam, a Cambridge-based supplier of protein research tools to life scientists. Taylor previously ran his own life sciences consultancy company in the US, but he wanted a new challenge, along

with the chance to move back to product marketing from commercialisation consulting. “It took a little under three months from the time I joined the company in the US to when I had a work visa and my wife and I were on the ground in the UK,” he says. “Abcam provided relocation assistance through outside companies to make the visa application process and physical move to the UK go smoothly. Support was also provided with

finding schools for children [as well as] property.” However smoothly a move goes, there are always things you can learn, and Taylor offers some advice. “My tip is to relax, learn as much as you can and build bridges with your new colleagues,” he says. “Getting a residential address and a bank account are essential first steps. They define you as a legitimate person and are required for many basic transactions.”

around is easier for scientists than ever before. In fact, the recruitment market is now truly global, according to Tarquin Bennett-Coles, client partner at recruitment consultancy Euromedica Executive Search. “There is a massive shortage of certain skills, and this relates to the rapid pace of change in areas such as personalised medicine and big data.” He adds that many fields need specialists who are unavailable locally, meaning employers must look even further afield. “Recent searches have included talking to candidates in South Korea, Cambodia, China, Japan and the US to fill a UK post.”

Packing your bags “My advice is to be prepared to move, and focus on the job, not the location,” says Stephane Boissel, who has moved about ten times in 20 years around Asia, the US and Europe. He adds that each move has meant a better job or a better company. He is now CEO of TxCell, a company based near Nice that develops personalised T cell immunotherapies using antigen-specific regulatory T cells for niche and orphan indications. Its lead candidate is in phase IIb for Crohn’s disease. While some big pharma businesses will provide high-end relocation packages, particularly for senior people, moving to smaller companies will involve taking greater risks but can result in more opportunities. Welschof advises people who are looking to relocate to carry out a bit of due diligence on new roles in unfamiliar hubs or businesses, including asking around in their personal networks, researching investment profiles and looking at whether the science has a history of being exciting and groundbreaking. There are other common-sense considerations, too, especially in roles overseas. For instance, could you cope with a long, dark Norwegian winter, or do you need a regular dose of sunshine? Moving from one country to another, even with a language in common, can be a big step, says Taylor. Even for accomplished scientists, the practical considerations of a culture shift can catch you out. “As an American, driving in the UK, with everything on the other side, along narrower streets and among lots of bicycles, was not easy,” he says. “And understanding the subtle, and not so subtle, differences between UK and American sensibilities and culture is an ongoing challenge!” Q Suzanne Elvidge is a writer based in the Peak District 13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 47


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13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 51

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Permanent Senior Research Opportunities in Teagasc Teagasc is the agriculture and food development authority in Ireland. Its mission is to support science-based innovation in the agri-food sector and the broader bioeconomy that will underpin profitability, competitiveness and sustainability. We are now seeking applications for the following permanent posts: 1. Dairy Colloid and Formulation Scientist (Principal Research Officer) Teagasc, Food Research Centre, Moorepark, Fermoy, Co Cork The main purpose of this role will be to develop, lead and implement a research programme in dairy based colloid and formulation science within Teagasc. 2. Scientist in Computational Biology (Principal Research Officer) Teagasc, Animal and Grassland Research and Innovation Centre, Grange, Dunsany, Co Meath The main purpose of this role will be to lead key parts of the Teagasc animal research programme relating to computational biology, and develop projects that clearly aim to increase farm livestock production efficiency. How To Apply For further information on these vacancies please log on to our website at www.teagasc.ie/careers.Teagasc is an equal opportunities employer. Canvassing will disqualify. Completed application forms to be submitted by email to [email protected]. Closing date for receipt of applications is 12 midnight on Thursday 2nd July 2015.

A career in science, it’s not always what you think From movie advisor to science festival director, where will your science career take you?

newscientist.com/jobs 52 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015



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It’s cats that are bending minds From Brian Horton

The protozoan Toxoplasma gondii makes infected mammals more likely to take risks and also gives them a preference for the smell of cat urine, so infected rats and mice are easy prey for cats (30 May, p 42). Colin Barras didn’t, however, suggest any benefit to the protozoan in altering human behaviour. What could that benefit be, since we aren’t usually cat prey? But this is to look at the problem from the protozoans’ viewpoint, when surely the whole system is for the benefit of cats. Cats spread the bug to infect rodents, which are then more easily caught, thus benefiting the cats. The cats also spread the bug to humans who inexplicably take a liking to cats, despite the disdain they show for us. Why else would humans feed cats and look after them, unless their brains were deranged by toxoplasmosis? West Launceston, Tasmania, Australia From Liegh White

I keep warning all my cat-owning friends about the parasite that makes them less risk-averse, but they just don’t seem to care. Keyworth, Nottinghamshire, UK

To read more letters, visit newscientist.com/letters

54 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015

Probing the proper purpose of pain From Peter White Barbara Findlay argues that the distress caused by pain has survival value because it elicits help from others (9 May, p 28). I offer an extension. It has been suggested that disgust is a disease avoidance mechanism: we feel revulsion towards cues associated with disease risk, such as bodily fluids and visible injuries, and that drives us to avoid the risk. External signs of distress caused by pain must be strong enough to overcome this powerful avoidance tendency. In effect, there is a conflict between the desire to help elicited by evidence of suffering and the desire to avoid risk elicited by signs of disease. We might feel pain more than other species because it is the way to get people to help us when they really want to get away from us. It’s not easy being a social animal. Tongwynlais, Cardiff, UK From Amanda Williams It is good to see the function of pain explored using evolutionary concepts. But Barbara Finlay asserts that its obvious protective functions are insufficient to explain all pain. To fill the gap, she presents a circular argument: that we experience pain to obtain help, and need help because we are hurt. Pain is a complex event, and pain experience and pain behaviour differ with the social context. We don’t feel pain in order to get help; we need help because we are in pain. London, UK From Colin Morison Instead of prompting us to seek attention, the feeling of pain might simply serve to distract us. It would thereby ensure that, whether in labour or after exercise, we are less able to attend to thoughts or plans of action that might interfere with what our

body has evolved to do in those circumstances to increase its chances of survival. Cupar, Fife, UK

Skeletons do not show death rates From Tony Waldron Rebecca Redfern and colleagues suggest that Romano-British urban dwellers were more likely to reach old age than their rural contemporaries (16 May, p 10). But all their data show is that the number of skeletons of various ages differs between sites. Death rates cannot be estimated because we cannot know the demographics of the live populations from which these skeletons came. Paradoxically, if we constructed “life tables” from these data, giving the probability of death for each age group, it is likely that the mean age of death of the townies would be lower than that of the rural dwellers. Mean age of death is heavily weighted by the number of children dying; and there are more of these in the town sites than the rural. London, UK

Empathy at the political poles From Simon Jones The issues that Darach Conneely raises in his letter on empathy and psychopathy have relevance to the politics of conservatism and socialism (2 May). Conneely notes that “strategies of populist politics… switch off our ability to feel empathy”. Conservatives regard the general population as selfish and stupid. They are unempathetic to those considered “not of the tribe”. Extreme conservatives, such as the Nazis, have exploited this in populist campaigns against minorities, and have defined



minorities by pseudo-biology. For a conservative, the link between populism and oppression of outsiders is obvious. Other conservatives share the same basic approach to the “natural” limits of empathy, but seek to mitigate rather than exploit their effects. This lies behind conservative support for tradition and religion, even if objectively illogical: they believe that these lessen tensions and encourage empathy. Hence the deep conservative fear of the consequences if these are swept away. This fear also lies behind conservative respect for hierarchies – as a protection against the horrors of populism. By contrast, socialists see people as naturally communal, with communality embracing the whole human race. To them, narrow tribal identification is unnatural and the product of distortions of society. Wantage, Oxfordshire, UK

Will artificial aliens show empathy? From Chris Wilkins Why would we want sentient life forms to inhabit a computer in a simulated reality (2 May, p 39)? One reason would be to find out whether it is possible for other evolved life forms to be genuinely altruistic. This would inform us of the stance to be taken if we encountered alien life. Welwyn, Hertfordshire, UK

The ups and downs of meditation From Adrian Ellis Catherine Wikholm and Miguel Farias report that 7 per cent of people on meditation retreats experienced adverse effects, including panic and depression (16 May, p 28). But in the same issue Chloe Lambert mentions

“Does that mean the average antibanana emits 15 particles of matter?” Jordan Ellenberg tweets a tad too symmetrically on our story on why there is more matter (23 May, p 28)

that 10 per cent of Americans aged 12 and over are estimated to be taking anti-depressants (p 35). If this means around 10 per cent of attendees on meditation courses have depression, for only 7 per cent to experience it while on the course seems an endorsement. Hampton, Middlesex, UK From Hennie Barnard The Buddha warned 2600 years ago that if new meditators sit too long, hallucinations may occur. People often believe that having more of something good, whether meditation or exercise, is better than having less. Just because some teachers charge big bucks for courses and retreats doesn’t make them better than others. Wellington, New Zealand From Geoffrey Hunt I have taught meditation (free of charge) as a Buddhist chaplain in a UK university for 13 years. I have never witnessed an adverse incident. But in recent years I have predicted a backlash against what goes under the name of “mindfulness”. The Buddha distinguishes between “right TOM GAULD

mindfulness” and “wrong mindfulness”. Mindfulness is only one of the Buddha’s eight factors. Crash courses are certainly not useful. Mindfulness, like any intervention, isn’t immediately suitable for some individuals with certain life traumas or illnesses – at least not without special support. Woking, Surrey, UK From Dan Raymond The aim of Buddhist practitioners is to attain enlightenment, a state of egoless non-dual awareness, not emptiness, which is merely a tool to cut through ego, which doesn’t exist. Like the harms, the benefits of mediation are also underestimated in the West. Oxford, UK

Animal experiment is under-inspected From Isobel Hutchinson, Animal Aid Catherina Becker argues that animal research in the EU is highly regulated, illegal where

alternatives exist and vital to medical progress (9 May, p 26). But though the UK boasts of its tight regulation of vivisection, in 2013 just 15.7 full time equivalent inspectors were responsible for policing around four million animal experiments. The disturbing incidents that occur in UK labs, as recorded by the government, such as animals chewing off their own feet or toes, are therefore hardly surprising. Tonbridge, Kent, UK

Did the emperor see a meteor too? From Stefanie Duff I was surprised that in discussing meteors, St Paul and Christianity (25 April, p 8) you didn’t also mention the vision of the emperor Constantine, whose conversion made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. If both Paul and Constantine saw meteorites, extra-terrestrial randomness could be responsible for the one-two

punch of conversion and militarisation and the subsequent growth of this monotheistic faith. Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada

Can chirp clean cosmic echoes? From Douglas Dwyer With Sarah Scoles’s report on radio bursts you show a graph of the delays between the first and last components of each to arrive, and these mysteriously appear in multiples of 187.5 (4 April, p 8). This looks to me like evidence of “stepped chirp” signals. Radar designers, bats and whales all use “chirp” – varying the frequency of a signal during a pulse. This maximises the amount of information they can gain about the environment by looking at the reflections of many different frequencies instead. A knowledge of the degree and nature of the dispersion can be used to de-chirp and thus increase sensitivity to reflected signals. So were the radio signals sent, with a chirp, by someone who hopes eventually to receive reflections? Or do they result from a natural process, such as laser- or maserlike activity in the shells of old supernovae? Northlew, Devon, UK

For the record ■ No way out: there wasn’t actually an exit for mice to swim to in our article on a pill to prevent stress; ketamine-dosed mice just swam around (30 May, p 14).

Letters should be sent to: Letters to the Editor, New Scientist, 110 High Holborn, London WC1V 6EU Email: [email protected] Include your full postal address and telephone number, and a reference (issue, page number, title) to articles. We reserve the right to edit letters. Reed Business Information reserves the right to use any submissions sent to the letters column of New Scientist magazine, in any other format.

13 June 2015 | NewScientist | 55

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with ball bearings, says Nigel Rose: “The bomb was triggered by a radio signal, sent to an aerial in the hollow nose cone. To prevent stray interference from the aircraft’s starter motors triggering the bomb, the nose cone was filled with steel balls to shield the aerial.” Chris notes that, if nothing else, the maligned weapon did have “tremendous comedy potential”, as the rubber safety bag could split, sending thousands of balls cascading across the runway and dozens of airmen head over heels as they frantically tried to gather them up.

THIS year marks the centenary of the lethal chlorine gas attacks at Ypres in Belgium, a spectre whose long shadow refuses to abate. Witness a barrage of stories that exploded across the UK daily newspapers recently, warning that the country faced chemical attack by home-grown jihadists. These terrorists, we are told, have worked out how to fashion crude chemical weapons by lacing conventional bombs with chlorine gas. “The chlorine that is often used in bombs,” rumbled the front page of The Times, “comes from the cylinder on the back of household fridges.” Are fridges really a WMD lurking in our homes? Feedback isn’t convinced, though a colleague notes that some early cool boxes used methylene chloride, a potent solvent that can strip paint, weld plastic and decaffeinate coffee beans. When burned, methylene

chloride produces another first world war poison gas, phosgene, which might be one reason why it was eclipsed by less alarming coolants such as CFCs, which proved safer for us, if not for the ozone layer. Feedback notes that one place you can still find methylene chloride in the home is in those delightful bobbing “drinking birds” beloved of children, a toy that we will now view with a more wary eye. ON THE subject of WMDs, Feedback previously discussed Blue Danube, the UK’s terrifyingly unstable nuclear fission bomb, which relied on a bag of ball bearings in the core to guard against premature detonation (21 June, 2014). Chris Gibson writes to say that we are chromatically confused: Blue Danube was the weapon casing, the warhead was codenamed Violet Club. And it was the casing that was filled

Janet Mackenzie writes “Your item on mis-parsed words reminds me of vainly searching for the word “misle” in my dictionary as a child, to work out the meaning of “I have been misled”. 56 | NewScientist | 13 June 2015

STAYING on the topic of happenstance explosives, Niall Litchfield calls our attention to another item that the security services may wish to flag. He reports that as well as a “rock salt depth charge”, the wonderfully named Booms Bangs Fizzes chemistry set lists “Volcano” among its contents. “I consider the £4.95 delivery charge excellent value for money,” says Niall. Feedback notes that for this set, a “nose cone” is also included, although there is no mention of ball bearings. We’re unsure whether to feel relieved or not. OLD-TIME Apple Macintosh users have been complaining of changes in their favourite computer’s user interface, and one Michael J. recalled on the Macintouch.com website how the system-crashed message on the earliest Macs was a graphic of a round bomb with a sputtering fuse. Soon, “I got a bomb” became the Mac user’s standard description of a crash. But context is everything, especially at airports. When passengers started taking early laptops on their travels, security inspectors insisted they start up the computers to prove they were nothing dangerous. Inevitably, things would go wrong, and when they did for one passenger, he said the first thing that came to mind. As Michael J. wrote, “that resulted in chaos”.

ELSEWHERE, responsible parties are racing to mitigate the weaponisation potential of

household goods. Antony Clarke reports from Australia that Finish dishwasher machine detergent tablets are now being advertised as containing “less chemicals”. He notes: “There is no mention of a weight reduction in the tablets, so I wonder what there is to replace the chemicals?” LAWMAKERS in the state of Ohio are also keen to have less chemicals, specifically powdered alcohol, which they recently banned. Feedback is not sure why the bill’s sponsors believe it has “a higher potential for abuse” than the liquid variety. Is it that the sachets are easier to smuggle in to school dances, or is this another novel bomb component to worry about?

FINALLY, the fog of war lifted long enough for Feedback to discover that the fridges to be afraid of are those with canisters containing chlorodifluoromethane, otherwise known as R-22. At high temperatures, R-22 does produce chlorine gas. The ozone-depleting coolant is in the process of being phased out, and since 1 January has been banned in the UK under the Montreal Protocol. Enterprising British terrorists, however, may still buy cylinders of pure chlorine gas by the tonne from chemical wholesalers. So there is that to worry about.

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

Last words past and present at newscientist.com/lastword

THE LAST WORD Mind lags body I’m 77 and, like many people my age, tend to stoop rather than stand up straight. A few months ago I was standing by the kitchen door, talking idly. For some reason I turned and hit my head a stunning blow on the door frame. More recently I was looking over my wife’s shoulder as she worked on her computer; I reached out my hand, pointing to something on the screen. As I pulled my hand back, my fingers got caught in a box on the table and I toppled it over on to the floor, spilling its contents. After a while I realised that both times I’d been stooping. In my mind’s eye my head was clear of the door frame and my hand well above the table, but my stoop cancelled both. Is our body image slow to adjust to reality? If so why, and can it be fixed? (Continued)

■ I read with great interest your earlier correspondent’s explanation of how proprioception may fail to keep up with changes in body shape (7 March). Four years ago, I was pregnant with twins. Even though I could see my quite sizeable belly, touch it with my hands and sense the twins kicking my internal organs, I couldn’t feel my belly “from within”. When lying in bed on my back with my eyes closed, I could feel the blanket touching my belly, but my abdomen seemed to me to be flat and in the very same place it had

The writers of answers that are published in the magazine will receive a cheque for £25 (or US$ equivalent). Answers should be concise. We reserve the right to edit items for clarity and style. Please include a daytime telephone number and an email address if you have one. New Scientist retains total editorial control over the published content. Reed Business Information Ltd reserves all rights to reuse all question and answer material that has been

been all the years previously. I recall having to be especially careful when shutting the car door: if I didn’t make a conscious effort, I’d slam it on my bump. Apparently,

“I knew I was pregnant but my abdomen seemed to me to be flat and in the very same place as before” nine months were not enough for me to develop a proper proprioceptive feeling for my new body shape. Can you also please convey my thanks and admiration to your correspondent David Muir, whose answers to the Last Word questions I always read with great pleasure? Ilka Flegel Kapellendorf, Germany ■ We are happy to do so Ilka, and here is another of David’s answers – Ed

hand senses cold and your right feels warm, despite experiencing the same temperature. When we walk from a sunlit area into a dimly illuminated room, we see next to nothing initially, yet within seconds our eyes compensate and we can discern subtle decor and different shades of grey. When loud, raucous music is switched off, silence prevails for a moment, until we perceive hitherto unnoticed sounds of far-off traffic or birdsong. It can be irritating when the laces on one shoe loosen, so we retie them tight. The other then feels loose because, by comparison, it really is looser. David Muir Science Department Portobello High School Edinburgh, UK

This week’s questions IT’S BEHIND YOU

Footloose I sometimes notice that one of my shoes is loose, although the other is fine. When I tighten the laces on the loose shoe, the other shoe then feels loose. Is there an explanation for this peculiar effect?

■ Our senses are slaves to relative comparison. Place your left hand in hot water and your right in iced water, and then put both into the same tepid water. Now your left

submitted by readers in any medium or in any format and at any time in the future. Send questions and answers to The Last Word, New Scientist, 110 High Holborn, London WC1V 6EU, UK, by email to [email protected] or visit www.newscientist.com/topic/lastword (please include a postal address in order to receive payment for answers). Unanswered questions can also be found at this URL.

Many years ago I heard a radio broadcast featuring a beeping sound that always seemed to come from behind me. The announcer said that the sound would have this quality and it did, even when I turned around. It was a plain beep, and the radio only had one loudspeaker. It was a complete mystery to me then and it still is, so can anyone explain the effect? Martin Harvey London, UK


Tall masts and towers have warning lights to make them visible to aircraft pilots. But how does the autopilot system know of the presence of such tall, relatively thin structures? I assume that the autopilot cannot see the lights. Perry Bebbington Nottinghamshire, UK PERFECT PERCH

Birds perch standing up, bats upside down. Are there any bird or bat exceptions to this? And why do the two perch differently? David Hambling By email, no address supplied LIGHT SNACK

I am a vegan, so my body gets a lot of its vitamin D when I am exposed to the sun. Must the sunshine be absorbed “directly”, or can I get the benefit when it arrives through glass windows? How much do I need per day? Colin Brown Edinburgh, UK

“Must I absorb sunshine ‘directly’ to make vitamin D, or can it shine on me through glass windows?” FUR-UP BALL

I live in a hard water area and use a stainless steel mesh ball in my kettle to stop it “furring up”. The steel mesh traps the scale that would otherwise form inside my kettle. How does it work? V. M. Koritsas Otley, West Yorkshire, UK

Question Everything The latest book of science questions: unpredictable and entertaining. Expect the unexpected Available from booksellers and at newscientist.com/questioneverything