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The neglected neutron may be hiding all the missing matter
Are hackers using your computer to mine cryptocurrency?
Rebuilding the genomes of long-dead people
WEEKLY 20 January 2018
AUSTRALIA’S EXTREME HEAT When global warming gets really warm
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Volume 237 No 3161
News Gene therapy to treat blindness 6
On the cover
16 Dark horse The neglected neutron may be hiding all the missing matter 16 Coining it Are hackers using your computer to mine cryptocurrency? 9
Resurrection man Rebuilding the genomes of long-dead people
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36 Australia’s extreme heat When global warming gets really warm 28 The writing on the wall The worrying signs that civilisation has started to collapse Plus Gene therapy for the eyes (6). Hubble trouble (8). Missing black holes (32). Astronomy in Armenia (26). Drone swarm attack (12). Horrible humblebrags (14)
Research into the vulnerability of civilisation is too vital to politicise
THIS WEEK Gene therapy to treat blindness. China oil tanker spill. Worst-ever listeria outbreak
NEWS & TECHNOLOGY Cosmic inflation mystery deepens. Alien mountain ranges. Securing a quantum internet. DNA of long-dead man recreated from his living relatives. US execution hotspots. Mount Etna’s oddities. Drone swarm attacks airbase. Odd radio bursts explained. Everyone hates a humblebrag. Ocado’s robot warehouse assistant. Dark matter may be dead neutrons. Your computer could be mining cryptocurrency for hackers
19 IN BRIEF Sleep more and you eat better. Primate social lives. Giant ice cliffs on Mars. Slowing sea level rise. Improved bowel cancer test
Analysis 22 Stemming the tide Is it too late to crack down on untested stem cell treatments? 24 COMMENT Light the blue touch paper and reboot the space race. The rich US is still in poor health 25 INSIGHT UK environment plan is no green future
Features 28 The writing on the wall Worrying hints that Western civilisation is about to crumble 32 The ones that got away Our collection of black holes is missing some specimens. Where are they hiding? 36 Too hot to handle What extreme heat does to the human body – and how to survive it 40 Anaesthesia pioneer Richard Gill changed medicine after he went to the Amazon in search of relief from multiple sclerosis
Culture 42 Planet and people Could fully embracing our connection with the biosphere help us tackle ecological destruction? 44 A glimpse at time Bio art comes of age at a small gem of a show in the Netherlands
Regulars 26 APERTURE Astrophysics in the snow 52 LETTERS Voting preferences 55 SIGNAL BOOST Support African scientists 56 FEEDBACK Is all fair in love and war? 57 THE LAST WORD Playing for time
20 January 2018 | NewScientist | 3
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History beckons Collapse isn’t imminent but we need to take it seriously THE idea that we are living in a historic, even apocalyptic, age exerts a powerful pull on the human mind. Eschatology – the theology of end times – is a religious concept, but crops up in many other systems of thought. Marxism and neo-liberalism were both driven by an “end-of-history” narrative. Scientific thinking isn’t immune either: the technological singularity has been called eschatology for geeks, and the study of existential risk even has its own centre at the University of Cambridge. You don’t have to believe in the four horsemen to see the apocalypse coming. How credible are these worries? The end of the world itself is a given, but is so far off as not to be worth fretting about. However, the end of the world as we know it – aka Western civilisation – is a different matter. There is an emerging strand of respectable scientific thought that says its decline and fall has started already, or soon will (see page 28). What are we to make of such claims? There seems little reason to doubt that Western civilisation will eventually collapse. Unless it is immune – by accident rather than design – to the forces of
history, it will go the way of all civilisations. Recent political events and long-term environmental trends offer little comfort; artificial intelligence and synthetic biology add a more urgent threat. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and as yet the warnings of impending collapse don’t add up to a compelling reason to stock up on bottled water and canned food. Nonetheless, we ought to give them a fair hearing. Unlike earlier civilisations, we have ways to
“For some activists, climate change was a golden opportunity to further their political agenda” identify subtle trends and the means to intervene. But those making the case for action need to be canny. There is already ample scientific evidence of one real but avoidable threat to civilisation. And yet our efforts to avert it verge on the pitiful. That threat, of course, is climate change. One of the reasons we’re struggling to deal with it is that some activists saw it as a golden opportunity to further their
political agenda: reining in corporations, regulating free markets and imposing environmental legislation. For them, climate change was less of an inconvenient truth than a convenient one. The point is not that the activists’ answers are wrong. Business as usual is a sure way to climate catastrophe. It is that they prematurely politicised the science and hence provoked pushback from people on the other side of the fence. Evidence for an impending civilisational collapse is much weaker, but is already being politicised in a similar way. The causes being offered are familiar bugbears of the left: inequality, population growth and resource depletion. The proposed answers are equally predictable and contentious. The risk is that this new and important science is turned into yet another culture war. Before proposing divisive solutions, scientific eschatologists need to concentrate on nailing the basic facts. Otherwise, historians of the future may judge us harshly for reading the danger signs but failing to act. ■ 20 January 2018 | NewScientist | 5
Reinventing how eyes work to treat blindness Optogenetic treatments are finally making their way to the clinic
SMART goggles and gene therapy are about to be tested as a treatment for blindness. This is one of the first ever uses in people of optogenetics, a technique that involves changing the DNA of nerve cells so that they can be controlled by light. This technique has been a powerful laboratory tool for understanding how animal brains work, but was considered impractical for use in humans because of the need to put a wire into the brain through a hole in the head (see “Internal light”, right). But 12 people in the UK are about to have an optogenetic treatment for retinitis pigmentosa, a rare inherited condition in which the eye’s light-sensitive cells slowly die,
eventually causing blindness. Because light can reach nerve cells in the retina of the eye without any need to drill into the skull, sight loss disorders could be prime targets for optogenetic therapies. The new treatment, developed by French firm GenSight Biologics, targets nerve cells in the retina that aren’t normally sensitive to light. The idea is that by genetically modifying these to detect light, they can compensate for the cells that die off as the disease progresses. To make these cells sensitive to light, they will be injected with a gene that normally helps single-celled algae to detect light. The same gene is often used in optogenetic lab studies. Each patient will receive one injection, in only one eye. Work in mice and monkeys
suggests that, after about six weeks, this injection should enable the cells to detect red light.
Seeing red If successful, this would only boost detection of red light, which isn’t likely to improve vision very much on its own. So the trial volunteers will wear special goggles that have cameras and light sources that together convert other colours into red light. The hope is that this will give them improved vision, albeit in monochrome. The big unknown is how much of a benefit this will give. Michel Michaelides of University College London predicts people’s sight will be “rudimentary”. Because the nerve cells being changed are normally involved in improving or refining visual
Capsized oil tanker leaks deadly toxins
TRANSPORT MINISTRY OF CHINA HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK
AT LEAST crude oil is visible. Not so the toxic liquid leaking from a capsized oil tanker in the East China Sea. This invisible substance can be lethal. On 6 January, the oil tanker Sanchi collided with a freighter, whose crew was rescued. Ablaze and rocked by explosions, the Sanchi capsized on Sunday with the loss of its 32 crew. The Sanchi was carrying 136,000 tonnes of oil condensate, which is more volatile and flammable than crude oil. The spill is the biggest since Deepwater Horizon in 2010. “It’s a pretty good assumption that all the fuel and cargo either has been released to the environment, or will be shortly,” says Rick Steiner, a marine 6 | NewScientist | 20 January 2018
information that is sent to the brain, using them to detect light will reduce clarity compared with a healthy eye. But José-Alain Sahel, GenSight co-founder, says: “We hope the patients will regain, after training,
conservation scientist in Anchorage, Alaska. It could become “the largest spill of condensate in history”. “Condensate is acutely toxic to all marine organisms,” says Steiner. “It can cause lethal injury quickly, or sub-lethal impairments such as reproductive failure.” The species at risk include minke and fin whales. He says the condensate must be tracked.
Setback for crewed SpaceX missions THE 2016 mishap with a rocket launch may continue to trouble SpaceX’s quest to send humans to space. The independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) recommended on 11 January that NASA should not
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there won’t be a placebo group. Although many improvements have been made in gene therapies in recent years, such trials are still closely monitored for adverse effects, after a US teenager died in 1999 when a gene therapy for a liver condition provoked a massive immune reaction. Eyes are considered a safer target, though, as they are
“We hope patients will better be able to see people and recognise large obstacles”
useful vision that will allow them to have autonomy, for example recognising objects, detecting people and large obstacles, possibly better.” For the first trial, the firm is recruiting people who are not
yet totally blind – they should be able to count the number of fingers on a hand held 50 centimetres away. The first patient will get an injection into one eye within the next two months, says the company, and
certify the Falcon 9 rocket to carry
Largest ever listeria outbreak
crew until the conditions that led to the explosion are fully understood. An investigation following the incident found that it occurred when liquid oxygen leaked between the rocket’s helium tanks and their outer layer, then ignited. SpaceX has since changed its fuel loading process and redesigned its helium tanks. NASA is now testing them for similar leaks. Until these tests are done, ASAP recommended that humans not be put aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. The report also expressed concerns that SpaceX and Boeing, the two companies developing spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, may not be able to meet safety requirements before their scheduled missions, which start in November.
THERE have been 748 confirmed cases of listeriosis in South Africa in the past year, making it the largest ever outbreak. So far, 67 people have died. Listeriosis infections are caused by Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, usually in contaminated food such as raw meat and poultry, unwashed vegetables, and dairy products. It can lead to meningitis or blood poisoning in newborn infants, older people, and people with compromised immune systems. Infection during pregnancy can cause miscarriage. Because symptoms can take between 6 hours and 10 weeks to appear, it can be difficult to identify the contaminated food responsible.
relatively isolated from the immune system, and any side effects are likely to be limited to the eye. Retinitis pigmentosa is rare, affecting only around 1 in 4000 people. But GenSight says the same approach might also help people with age-related macular degeneration, which is the commonest cause of blindness in rich nations. Another trial of an optogenetic treatment for retinitis pigmentosa began in 2016. The approach is similar but people will become receptive to blue light, not red, and they will not wear goggles. ■
INTERNAL LIGHT Optogenetics controls neurons with light, but it has been difficult to develop the technique for medical treatments because most of our neurons are not exposed to light. What if we could create an internal light source? Eric Petersen of Central Michigan University and his team have been investigating luciferase, an enzyme that can prompt a chemical called luciferin to emit light. The approach involves inserting two genes into brain cells – one that makes them send signals in the presence of light, and another that makes the enzyme luciferase. When animals are then injected with luciferin, the modified neurons glow and then become active – an effect that lasts about an hour. In work presented at the Society for Neuroscience Meeting in Washington DC in November 2017, the team found that this approach can stimulate nerve growth in rats with spinal injuries, and help them to begin walking. The team is also investigating a similar approach for turning down overexcitable brain cells in people with epilepsy.
“You wouldn’t know what you ate
including speakers, cars and objects
three weeks ago. This is the big challenge we face in this situation,” said Christian Lindmeier of the World Health Organization on 12 January. To help monitor the outbreak, South Africa has made listeriosis a notifiable disease, meaning every case must be reported to its Department of Health.
as well as a giant toy town complete with a railway. The toy town showed how the firm thinks its assistant can improve your life, with examples ranging from voice-activated vacuuming to ordering a pizza. Google says its assistant is now capable of performing a million actions. Meanwhile, Amazon’s Alexa was demoed in everything from mirrors to microwaves. Luxury homeware company Kohler announced a suite of Alexa-powered products, including a smart shower that learns just how hot you like it and a kitchen sink that can give you exactly the amount of water you ask for. But its pièce de résistance was a $6000 voice-activated smart toilet. It has feet and buttock warmers, as well as mood lighting.
Voice assistants steal the show IT LOOKS like you’d better get used to talking to computers. At CES, the world’s biggest technology show, in Las Vegas last week, Google demonstrated more than 350 voice-controlled devices
20 January 2018 | NewScientist | 7
NEWS & TECHNOLOGY
Cosmic inflation mystery deepens and a supernova in the same galaxy. They mathematically remove other sources of motion to figure out how much is due to the expansion of the cosmos. If you think of the universe as a person, the Cepheid method is like measuring their height with a measuring tape, whereas the CMB method is like taking a picture of the person as a baby and running it through a model of how humans grow to
THE heat death of the universe is coming for us, but we don’t know when. The cosmos is expanding, and the speed of that inflation is measured by a value called the Hubble constant. We have two ways to determine this rate, and they return different values, leaving cosmologists at an impasse. A new study has deepened the divide, leaving us in the dark about when the universe’s frigid end might be. One way we search for the Hubble constant is to start at the beginning. We can look at the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – a relic of the first light to cross the cosmos after the big bang – and see how fast the universe was expanding then. Models of how the cosmos has evolved can predict how it should be expanding today. The other method is more direct. We track a spot in our galaxy’s neighbourhood to see how quickly it is moving away from us. To do this, astronomers monitor two things: a type of star called a Cepheid variable, which cyclically dims and brightens,
Alien mountains can appear in planet shadows THERE are stunning mountain ranges on Earth, Mars and even Pluto. But what about worlds further afield? Moiya McTier at Columbia University in New York says that by analysing the dip in a star’s light as a planet passes in front of it, we could discern details about the planet’s landscape. She presented her research at a meeting of the American 8 | NewScientist | 20 January 2018
just beating a dead horse. “It depends how tender you want your dead horse, but we really need to do this due diligence if we are going to say that resolving this tension requires new physics,” says Riess. “We need a really tender dead horse.” If the results aren’t down to measurement error, it is a big deal. It could mean that our guesses about the natures of dark matter and dark energy are wrong, or that there is a particle out there that we have never detected. “It’s starting to become that either there’s new physics or there’s a conspiracy of errors across many different ways of measuring that have nothing to do with each other,” says Riess. The uncertainties in Cepheid variable measurements will take another beating in upcoming months and years as the Gaia space observatory measures the distances to many stars, including Cepheid variables, in and around our galaxy. “This paper has seven more measurements – Gaia is going to release one billion,” says Barry Madore at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC. The Gaia data may resolve the tension or worsen it. But in terms of measuring the universe’s growth like a person’s, it won’t just improve the measuring tape, it will also give us a billion different heights to compare. ■
No current instrument has enough resolution to extract that kind of detail. Upcoming large telescopes, like the European Extremely Large Telescope, will be just barely up to the task of judging whether some of the bumps in the data are simply natural artefacts of light. On next-generation telescopes, it would take 20 hours of transit data, gathered as planets pass their stars, to distinguish features.
To best separate signal from noise, exoplanet and star should be similar in size. Flares, star spots or exomoons could throw in random glitches that mimic a small mountain or crater. Or a seismological event – an alien earthquake – might alter the planet’s shadow as it passes its star. But if McTier’s plan does work, we would have rough topographic maps of distant worlds, and might learn more about exo-oceans or even use surface features to study a planet’s rotation rate – figuring out how long a day is could bolster the case for a planet’s habitability. John Wenz ■
HUBBLE LEGACY ARCHIVE, ESA, NASA; PROCESSING - JEFF SIGNORELLI
predict their current height. Each time these measurements are updated, they conflict. By 2016, Cepheid measurements done by Adam Riess at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, and his team resulted in a value 9 per cent higher than the CMB method. Now, Riess and his colleagues have used the Hubble Space Telescope to measure the distances to seven Cepheid variable stars with greater precision than before. Even with a better measuring tape, the problem persists. This pushes the Hubble constant higher by nearly 0.3 per cent (arxiv.org/abs/1801.01120). Refining the value in this way isn’t
Astronomical Society on 11 January. The rocky planets in our solar system are not perfectly round: there are mountains, canyons and craters. McTier used US Geological Survey maps of these planets and the moon to determine what their light curve around the sun would look like. She also factored in Earth with and without oceans. When the shape of a shadow was analysed, McTier found that landscape features might show up as bumps in the data, corresponding to sharp rises or drops in elevation. The idea is, however, a few generations from being testable.
“We could have rough maps of exo-oceans or even use tall mountains to estimate the length of an alien day”
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Unhackable quantum comms for all
DNA of man from 1827 built from living relatives IT’S not bringing back the dead, but it’s close. A man’s genome has been partially pieced together from fragments of his DNA found in hundreds of his modern-day descendants. It is the first time a dead person’s genome has been reconstructed without DNA extracted from their remains. The person is Hans Jonatan, an icon in Iceland thanks to the book The Man Who Stole Himself. Jonatan was born in 1784 on the Caribbean island of St Croix, then part of the Danish West Indies. His mother, Emilia Regina, was a black woman kept as a slave. His father is thought to have been a Danish secretary, Hans Gram. Jonatan became a slave on a plantation. The plantation’s Danish owner returned to Denmark in 1789, taking Regina and later Jonatan. After fighting in the Napoleonic wars, Jonatan declared himself a free man, as slavery was illegal in Denmark. In a court case in 1801, his lawyer argued he could no longer be kept as a slave. But the judge ruled that he should be sent back to the Danish West Indies, where slavery was still legal. So Jonatan escaped to Djúpivogur,
a fishing town in east Iceland. “He was the first black man to set foot on Icelandic soil and was received with open arms,” says Kári Stefánsson of deCODE Genetics in Reykjavik, Iceland. Jonatan became a merchant and farmer. He had two surviving children with his Icelandic wife, Katrín Antoníusdóttir. Jonatan died in 1827. “He was buried in an unmarked grave, so his remains may exist, but we don’t know where they are,” says Agnar Helgason of deCODE. Now deCODE has rebuilt much of the DNA Jonatan inherited from
security assurances for a network as the simpler version does for point-to-point contact. There is just one problem: figuring out what this equation looks like is very difficult. The pair overcome this by using a technique from machine learning called causal inference to study the structure of the network. Essentially, a computer analyses the direction of information flow between the different nodes to figure out its causal structure. For example, if node A is connected to node C via node B, A and C can’t communicate unless the message goes via B first (Physical Review Letters, doi.org/ch89). Knowing this structure lets the pair come up with a Bell inequality for any kind of network, which can be used to guarantee its security. Jacob Aron ■
ARNALDUR HALLDORSSON/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY
THERE’S a new way to make sure quantum networks are secure. Theoretically, messages sent via quantum networks are protected by the laws of quantum mechanics. This is because any attempt to intercept information sent between two parties will disturb its fragile quantum state, revealing the eavesdropper. One way to check a quantum line is secure involves solving an equation called a Bell inequality – if the result exceeds a certain number, there is a limit to how much information a spy can extract without being detected. But this is only true for messages sent between two points. On a more complex network, the Bell inequality doesn’t apply. That is roughly because quantum hackers can gain a little bit of information from each part of the network and then piece it together. One solution would be to create point-to-point connections between everyone on a quantum network, but that is hardly practical, says Ciarán Lee at University College London. Lee and his colleague Matty Hoban at the University of Oxford have found a better way. They have shown that a more complex version of the Bell inequality can provide the same
Icelanders know their family tree; Hans Jonatan’s grandson (below)–
his mother. To do so, the team took DNA samples from 182 of his descendants, starting with some of his great-great-grandchildren. deCODE could rebuild parts of Jonatan’s genome because Iceland has kept careful records of family trees since it was first colonised more than 1000 years ago. More recently, deCODE built a database of DNA from 150,000 Icelanders. Equally crucially, Jonatan was the first inhabitant of Iceland with African heritage. “There was no African ancestry in Iceland, apart from Hans Jonatan, prior to around 1920,” says Stefánsson. The DNA Jonatan got from his mother was distinct from that of other Icelanders, which was almost entirely of European origin. Its distinctness allowed deCODE to track bits of African DNA from Jonatan’s genome through his descendants and reassemble as many as possible. deCODE ultimately rebuilt 38 per cent of the DNA in Regina’s chromosomes, equivalent to 19 per cent of Jonatan’s genome (Nature Genetics, doi.org/cjbj). By comparing Regina’s rebuilt DNA to African samples, they pinned her origins to Benin, or maybe Cameroon or Nigeria. Either she or her ancestors were probably abducted from there. “This is an amazing piece of work,” says Robin Allaby at the University of Warwick, UK. But it may not be possible to reconstruct other people’s DNA in the same way. “This seems to be the sort of analysis you could only do under particular circumstances.” Stefánsson is more optimistic. “It’s all a question of the amount of data you have,” he says. “What made it easy in Iceland was that there were no other Africans.” In theory, we could get the DNA of historical figures or ancestors. “Any historic figure born after 1500 who has known descendants could be reconstructed,” says Helgason. Andy Coghlan ■ 20 January 2018 | NewScientist | 9
NEWS & TECHNOLOGY
The runaway US execution counties
30 or more executions per 100,000 people, 1977-2014
SOURCE: DOI: 10.1371
A HANDFUL of hotspots carry out a disproportionate number of executions in the US, despite not having particularly high rates of murder. Instead, human bias seems to have led a small number of counties to become far more likely than others to execute. The death penalty is legal in 31 of the 50 US states, where it is handed down to some people convicted of murder. Now an analysis of data from the 38 years since 1977 has identified the US counties that account for most of the country’s executions. During that time, 1422 people were executed, 513 of them in Texas. But even within Texas, there is strong variation. Harris County, home to Houston, carried out the most executions, 125, during the study period, while neighbouring county Montgomery had just 13. “We looked at whether execution rates were linked to higher rates of homicide per population,” says Frank Baumgartner at the University of North Carolina. “But that wasn’t the case at all.”
Mount Etna may not be a proper volcano after all
10 | NewScientist | 20 January 2018
30 or more murders per 100,000 people, 1977-2014
Instead of reflecting crime IOWA rates, the team found that an execution was more likely to COLORADO take place in a county if another VIRGINIA execution had previously been carried out there (PLoS One, SOUTH CAROLINA doi.org/gcrqcq). TEXAS GEORGIA This effect is known as an information cascade, says Harris County Baumgartner. Humans often make decisions on the basis of what others have done before, rather than on the information says Brandon Garrett at the on what they believe others expect in front of them. This cognitive University of Virginia. of them, says Baumgartner. shortcut makes it easier for people “The idea is that executions are “The system separates out into to make what they deem to be only for the most heinous crimes places where district attorneys correct decisions, but means and deserving criminals,” says ‘don’t even try’, and where other that people and events are not Baumgartner. “But our research DAs feel they ‘have to’,” he says. assessed independently. Other biases shape death “Executions should only “Jury members and jurors are sentencing, too. “The odds of be for the most heinous likely to compare their decisions getting a death sentence are three crimes, but really it’s with others that have been made to four times higher for those geographically arbitrary” within the same county, rather who kill white people versus those than focusing on the individual who kill minorities,” says Radelet. case,” says Michael Radelet at the suggests it’s really not the worst Overall, the number of University of Colorado, Boulder. of the worst being executed. executions taking place This runaway effect has led to It’s geographically arbitrary.” across the US is declining. many counties that no longer This is unconstitutional, Those that are carried out are perform executions, while some Baumgartner argues. The 14th increasingly involving untested others continue to do so at a high amendment states that everyone approaches, prompted by some rate. “We see hardly any counties should be equally protected by pharmaceutical firms refusing that stop sentencing [people to the law. But judges and juries are to sell chemicals for the purpose death] and then start again,” much more likely to execute based of use in lethal injections. ■
ONE of the most famous volcanoes may be misunderstood. A geologist believes the material feeding Mount Etna’s cone is mostly water, so it is effectively a giant hot spring. But other geologists are unconvinced. Italy’s Mount Etna is almost always active. It may have spewed 70 million tonnes of lava in 2011 alone. But what really puzzles Carmelo Ferlito at the University of Catania, Italy, is that Etna
Several counties in Texas and elsewhere in the US have carried out a lot of executions despite not having a similarly high murder rate
At first glance, Mount Etna definitely resembles a volcano–
also belches out more than 7 million tonnes of steam, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide every year. The normal explanation is that gas bubbles out of magma as it moves up the volcano’s vent. But Ferlito says Etna would need to erupt 10 times more lava than it does to account for all the gas. Or maybe most of the molten rock in Etna loses its gas and sinks without erupting. But Ferlito’s figures imply this would require 10 tonnes of fresh magma every second. Instead, Ferlito argues that Etna is not just fed by magma. He calculates that its deep plumbing system could hold lots of water, carbon dioxide and
sulphur, making up about 70 per cent of the material feeding the volcano (Earth-Science Reviews, doi.org/cjbh). “Only 30 per cent is molten rock,” he says. Such a system is closer to a hot spring than a conventional volcano. Ferlito suggests Earth holds watery pockets that can feed volcanoes like Etna, in line with other evidence for Earth’s interior having lots of water. But there are simpler alternatives, says Kayla Iacovino at Arizona State University. She has argued that the excess gas could come from deep molten rock that doesn’t enter Etna (Earth and Planetary Science Letters, doi.org/f7wp2w). Colin Barras ■
NEWS & TECHNOLOGY VADIM SAVITSKY/RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY PRESS OFFICE/TASS/ALAMY LIVE NEWS
Cosy cosmic pair may cause radio repeat bursts
Swarm of drones attacks airbase David Hambling
ON THE night of 5 January and into the early hours of the next day, Russian forces in Syria came under attack by a “massive application of unmanned aerial vehicles”, says the Russian Ministry of Defence. It is the first announced use of a swarm of drones in a military action, but is unlikely to be the last. According to reports, 13 small drones descended on Russian forces, but none did significant damage. Seven were destroyed by anti-aircraft defences, and electronic countermeasures such as hijacking or jamming the drone’s controls were used to land the others intact. The captured aircraft seem crudely made, with a wooden undercarriage and plastic sheeting, and are powered by a small liquid-fuel engine. Under their wings, they carried locally made bombs fitted with 3D-printed plastic fins. Many drones carry a video camera and are piloted remotely from just a few kilometres away. But Russia says this attack was launched from more than 12 | NewScientist | 20 January 2018
50 kilometres away and the drones were guided by GPS. This would require the coordinates of the target to be known in advance. The source of the attack isn’t known. Because the drones are home-made, they can’t readily be traced. Islamic State, which has no bases in the area, has used such drone-carried bombs, and other insurgent groups in Syria and Iraq have used similar drones. Israeli military intelligence website Debka.com quotes a Syrian source as blaming Hayat Tahrir al-Sham,
“This is the first known instance of a significant swarm used in a military conflict” a group linked to Al-Qaida, and a Twitter image from 1 January shows al-Sham fighters with a similar drone. DIY drones have been used in concert before in conflicts, but only in groups of three to five. For example, in Mosul, Iraqi forces reported ISIS quadcopters dropping grenades. The Syrian attack is the first known use of a more substantial swarm. The US has many drone swarm
Do-it-yourself bombs that were loaded onto home-made drones
programmes, including missilelaunched anti-tank swarms, air-launched Perdix micro-drones, the ship-launched LOCUST project and the Gremlins programme to take out air defences. However, the largest military swarm to date has been a group of 119 drones flown in a test by the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation in June 2017. The idea behind such projects is that large numbers of small, cheap drones could overwhelm defences that depend on single large jets or a small group of missiles. Incidents in Iraq and Syria have shown that small drones are difficult to shoot down with machine guns. Most missiles can’t lock on to drones because of their weak radar and heat signature. There is no single effective way to combat swarms, but there are many projects developing jammers and other devices to detect, track and bring them down. Flying large numbers of drones requires sophisticated software to avoid collisions. Such programs will probably be available commercially soon, though, because swarms are increasingly used for light shows. Crowds at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas were mesmerised by Intel’s 250-drone show, for example. ■
TWO of the most extreme and mysterious objects in the universe might be getting cosy. And they’re being flashy about it. The only repeating fast radio burst we have seen appears to be coming from a neutron star beside a huge black hole. Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are powerful radio signals that flare from distant space for milliseconds and disappear. Their source is unclear, and we’ve seen fewer than 30, but one is special: FRB 121102 keeps repeating. Jason Hessels at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy and his colleagues have taken detailed measurements of the light from FRB 121102 and found a twist that indicates the source of the bursts is a small, fast-rotating object within an extreme magnetic field – like the ones around supermassive black holes. Some of the bursts were extremely short, lasting only a few tens of microseconds (Nature, doi.org/ch8c). The only thing in our universe we know of that rotates fast enough to beam light towards us and then away again so quickly is a neutron star. The team also found that the radio waves were undergoing a process called Faraday rotation, where a strong magnetic field causes the direction of the waves’ polarisation to twist as they move through the field. Magnetic fields that cause this degree of Faraday rotation are rare. Hessels and his colleagues think FRB 121102 may be next to a huge black hole, the source of the strongest magnetic fields in the universe. Strong magnetic fields can also cause plasma lensing, in which highly magnetised material acts as a sort of magnifying glass for nearby light. This process could allow us to see bursts that would otherwise be too dim. The effect could mean that FRB 121102 isn’t so special after all. It could be that all fast radio bursts are repeaters, but their light isn’t being boosted by lensing, so we only see the very brightest flash. Leah Crane ■
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hired a young woman to approach 100 female college students and ask them to sign a petition. During her preamble, she asked them about their summer plans. In response, she either bragged: “That’s cool! I got my dream internship and got funding to travel to Paris” or humblebragged: “That’s cool! I got my dream internship and got funding to travel to Paris. Ugh it’s so hard to decide which one to choose.” When she bragged, 86 per cent of the students she spoke to agreed to sign the petition. But only 65 per cent of those she humblebragged to signed it. In other experiments, volunteers were asked to rate examples of complaints, brags and both types of humblebrag for likeability and sincerity. None were very popular, but the two types of humblebrag scored lowest on both measures (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, doi.org/gcsg5n). So why do people do it? Humblebragging is seen as a way to broadcast achievements without looking too arrogant, says Sezer. However, it fails to satisfy another important social
“JUST won GQ style award in Germany. Obviously they made a mistake. I wonder how long till they come take it back.” If this tweet by actor Jared Leto sets your teeth on edge, you’re not alone. A study has revealed that feigning modesty while
“Feigning modesty while boasting is a strategic thing, and people see straight through it” boasting – a practice known as “humblebragging” – annoys people even more than outright self-promotion. Humblebragging comes in two forms, says Ovul Sezer at the University of North Carolina. It can be expressed as a display of humility – “I’m so shocked my new book is a bestseller” – or a complaint: “I’ve got nothing to wear after losing so much weight.” Both types are disliked more than outright bragging, according to a series of experiments run by Sezer and her team. In one experiment, the team
IF ARMIES of Terminators start wiping out humanity, their ancestors might be traced to an upmarket home delivery service. Ocado Technology, the innovation arm of grocery retailer Ocado, last week unveiled the first prototype of its SecondHands project, a humanoid robot called ARMAR-6 that will one day collaborate with maintenance workers in the firm’s UK warehouses. 14 | NewScientist | 20 January 2018
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Everyone hates a humblebrag
requirement: sincerity. “Even though bragging is frowned upon, at least it comes across as sincere,” she says. “Humblebragging is a sneaky, strategic thing, and people see straight through it.” Lisa Williams at the University of New South Wales in Australia agrees. “Likeability, respect and sincerity are like three legs of a stool – if sincerity is missing, your social image, like the stool, falls over,” she says. So what should you do the next time you achieve something impressive – keep it to yourself and miss out on respect, damage
Jared Leto sent a humblebragging tweet when he won a style award
ARMAR-6 consists of a humanoid torso perched atop a four-wheeled chassis. It has two cameras for eyes that can track several different objects moving in a busy environment at once. Its two arms end in dexterous five-fingered hands for grasping irregularly shaped objects like bananas and spray bottles. The torso can telescope between 1.5 metres and 1.8 metres. And when it draws itself to its full height, it can use its long arms to reach objects 2.2 metres from the floor. The grocery company wants ARMAR-6 to learn to understand what people are working on, anticipate any
help they might need and step in with manual assistance at the appropriate time. If a technician asks for a spanner, say, the robot should identify the tool among others in a toolkit, use its natural language skills to ask the technician “Do you mean this spanner or that one?”, and then hand it over. Such an ability to understand its surroundings will be a massive advance, says Joanna Bryson, an AI researcher at the University of Bath, UK. It will be between two and five years before a SecondHands robot makes its proper debut on the shop floor, say its developers. Sally Adee ■
your likeability by bragging or threaten your sincerity with a humblebrag? One option is to ask a trusted peer to tell others about your accomplishments. “Then you get the credit without having to do the bragging,” says Sezer. Another approach is to announce your achievement, but ensure you credit the people who helped you. “Then you look warm and communal, which people find attractive,” she says. ■
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Pull Back the Curtain on the Unseen Universe For a few hundred thousand years, we used our eyes as our primary astronomical tool. But all that changed in the 1930s when a young engineer named Karl Jansky detected radiation below the visible part of the spectrum emanating from an astronomical object—and radio astronomy was born. Radio Astronomy: Observing the Invisible Universe takes you on a thrilling journey through astounding discoveries and a virtual tour of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes with Felix J. Lockman, Ph.D., of the Green Bank Observatory as your guide. But perhaps the most astounding of all radio astronomy discoveries is this: The dominant molecular structures in interstellar space are based on carbon. That is not what scientists had expected. We have always labeled these molecules “organic” because life on Earth is carbon based. Now we know the chemistry of the entire Milky Way is organic, not just our home planet, and it is likely that any extraterrestrial galactic life would be related to us, at least on the molecular level. Will we find other organic life forms out there? Radio astronomers don’t know. But they’re certainly working on it.
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Dark matter may be dead neutrons Anil Ananthaswamy
to estimate the length of the particle’s life. This method makes no assumptions about how a neutron decays, and it comes up with a lifetime of 879.6 seconds. The discrepancy in the values generated by the beam and bottle experiments has frustrated particle physicists for 20 years. So, Bartosz Fornal and Benjamin Grinstein at the University of California, San Diego, wondered if neutrons might decay in other
VOLKER SPRINGEL/MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE FOR ASTROPHYSICS/SPL
THE humble neutron could be hiding a deep, dark secret. A puzzling discrepancy in the lifetime of the particle may be solved if neutrons sometimes decay into dark matter, the stuff purported to make up most of the missing mass of the universe. “What we thought were our most likely ideas for what dark matter might be, none of those have worked,” says Dan Hooper at Fermilab near Batavia, Illinois, “Our most likely ideas for what dark matter who wasn’t involved in the might be, none of research, but thinks the neutron those have worked” idea is worth considering. Two distinct experiments produce different answers for the ways. This could explain the lifespan of a neutron. In the “beam longer lifetime via the beam experiment”, the neutron morphs method, which only accounts into a proton in 888 seconds, for beta decay. “The more via a process called beta decay. ways the particle can decay, Then there is the “bottle the shorter it lives,” says Fornal. experiment”: a container of If they are right, a new process ultracold neutrons is monitored of neutron decay would produce for varying lengths of time, and some mystery particle.“It has to those left after each stage are used be something that doesn’t interact strongly with our Now you see it... dark matter is all matter,” says Fornal. Otherwise, around but its nature is a mystery we would have seen it by now.
16 | NewScientist | 20 January 2018
That’s also how physicists think of dark matter, the stuff that keeps galaxies from flying apart. Dark matter may not interact with normal matter, except through gravity. Fornal and Grinstein analysed ways in which a neutron might decay into a “dark” particle, which would happen about once in every 100 neutron decays. They showed that if such a particle were to be a candidate for dark matter, its mass would need to be just slightly less than that of the neutron (arxiv.org/ abs/1801.01124). In some scenarios, the difference in mass would show up as a photon with an energy between 0.8 and 1.7 megaelectronvolts – something we could potentially detect. Hooper is intrigued. “If I were convinced that there was really a neutron decay anomaly and it required some decay to an exotic state, the $64,000 question that it makes you want to ask is: why is this state almost exactly the same mass as the neutron?” The answer may lie in theories called asymmetric dark matter models, in which neutrons and dark matter particles have comparable mass because they were produced by similar processes in the early universe. Such models would get a boost if Fornal and Grinstein’s ideas can be experimentally verified. ■
Are you making cryptocurrency for crooks? ADBLOCKERS are trying to prevent people from accidentally helping hackers mine cryptocurrencies. Malicious code running in the background of thousands of web pages can hijack a visitor’s computing power to generate cryptocurrency – digital currency of which bitcoin is an example. Called cryptojacking, there is no sure way to avoid it, but blacklists kept by adblockers can shield you from the worst culprits. Around 95 per cent of cryptojacking code is a modified form of something produced by German firm Coinhive. The firm’s business model is that, instead of being bombarded by adverts, website visitors can mine a small amount of the cryptocurrency Monero. The websites get an income, of which Coinhive gets a 30 per cent cut, and visitors can browse ad-free. Coinhive asks users before nabbing their processing power. However, hackers are secretly placing a variant of the code that doesn’t onto thousands of websites. This means anyone who visits those sites ends up unwittingly generating cryptocurrency for the hacker who sneaked in the code. Official government pages, including two Ukrainian ministerial sites and the website of the president of Bangladesh, have been hacked in this way. In total, the malicious code has been found running on at least 36,000 websites, and in 291 Android apps, according to analyses by Robert Baptiste, a researcher from French security company fsociety, and Troy Mursch, who runs Bad Packets Report, a computer security website. In total, cryptojacking rakes in an estimated $150,000 per month. “Once it’s placed on a website, anyone on any device with a web browser that visits that site immediately starts mining,” says Mursch. Users can protect themselves with an adblocker. As well as blocking ads, these programs keep a list of websites known to host cryptojacking code and can warn users. Chris Stokel-Walker ■
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IN BRIEF Giant ice cliffs dot Martian surface
When you’re just hanging around, size matters A SIMPLE rule governs a seemingly random phenomenon: the sizes of the groups in which primates live. It seems our closest living relatives opt for social groupings that aren’t as varied and flexible as you might think. Susanne Shultz at the University of Manchester, UK, and her colleagues compared group sizes in 215 primate
some offspring. Bigger ones tended to be either a single male with many females, or multiple males and females. Other patterns, such as lots of males and few females, were rare. “The other thing that seems to be hard for primates to do is male and female pairs combined in a group,” says Shultz, even though this is common in birds. Primates reuse these strategies because they keep facing the same challenges, Shultz says. “Ecology and social relationships are tightly interconnected.” For instance, species occupying open ground form the
species. The average number in a group varied between species but was always clustered around five distinct sizes (Biology Letters, DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2017.0490). The preferred group sizes were, roughly: 2.5, 5, 15, 30 and 50. The smallest normally had two adults and
largest groups, perhaps to defend against predators. Those that live in trees in dense forests prefer medium groups, as big groups would be impossible to coordinate. In 2011, Shultz showed that primate group sizes also evolved in leaps (Nature, doi.org/bpnncg).
Robotic implant stretches bodily tubes SOME children are born with their oesophagus in two segments, so the top part of the tube doesn’t connect to their stomach. A new robotic implant might help treat oesophageal atresia, as this serious condition is known. The robot consists of two steel rings, some sensors and a motor, all sealed in a protective waterproof skin. The device is attached to the outside of one
section of the oesophagus and gently elongates it by moving the rings apart. Once the organ is long enough, the two segments can be stitched together. The researchers behind the device have shown that it works in pigs, lengthening the oesophagus by 77 per cent over the course of eight to nine days. Equivalent growth in a human would be enough to fix the oesophageal
atresia. “We’ve shown that it’s not just stretching, there is actually new cell growth as well,” says Pierre Dupont at Harvard Medical School. The current best treatment requires children to be sedated and paralysed over several weeks and costs around $1 million per child. With the robotic approach, the hope is that once the device is implanted, the child won’t be in pain and could remain awake while it gets to work.
MARS is full of ice. Steep ice cliffs have been spotted poking through the Red Planet’s dust. These could help us learn about the history of the planet’s climate, as we do from ice cores on Earth. Colin Dundas at the US Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona, and his colleagues examined pictures from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and found eight patches of ice, which had formed over millions of years. Erosion carved these icy blue cliffs from sheets of ice just below Mars’s layer of dust (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science/aao1619). The team estimates that the ice sheets, confirmed by radar measurements, are at least 130 metres thick. Of that, less than 100 metres is exposed, while the rest is below ground. Dundas says that they probably formed when layers of snow or frost built up on the planet’s surface and became compacted into ice over time.
Sleep more to eat less sugar WANT to eat better? Try sleeping for longer. Wendy Hall at King’s College London and her team enlisted 42 volunteers to study the link between sleep and diet. Half were given advice on how to get more sleep, such as avoiding caffeine and trying not to go to bed hungry or too full. The rest got no advice. Of those given advice, 86 per cent spent more time in bed and around half slept for longer than they used to. These extended sleep patterns were associated with an average drop in sugar intake of 10 grams a day (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, doi.org/ch77). There were no significant changes in diet within the control group. 20 January 2018 | NewScientist | 19
WHEN it comes to avoiding dangerous rises in sea level, every little bit of global warming we can avert will make a difference. In 2015, world leaders agreed to try to limit warming to 2°C, and if possible to 1.5°C. It turns out that sticking to the lower goal will really help when it comes to rising seas. Klaus Bittermann of Tufts University in Massachusetts and his colleagues simulated sea level rise under different levels of warming. They found that stabilising the increase at 1.5°C would lead to seas rising less, and more slowly, than if the planet was allowed to warm by 2°C. By 2150, sea levels would be as much as 17 centimetres lower for a rise of 1.5°C, compared with 2°C. That means fewer coastal cities lost. Even if we overshoot and hit 2°C, there is still a chance to reduce the impact. Bringing this increase back to 1.5°C would mean sea levels rising by 12 centimetres less than if it stayed at 2°C (Environmental Research Letters, doi.org/ch76). That is in line with a 2016 study by Carl-Friedrich Schleussner of Climate Analytics in Germany. He also found that restricting warming to 1.5°C will result in the seas rising significantly more gradually.
IRA BLOCK/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE/GETTY IMAGES
“Sea level rise will continue for many centuries, but it will happen more slowly if we limit warming,” says Schleussner.
20 | NewScientist | 20 January 2018
A single gene can raise or lower Crohn’s disease risk SCREENING the DNA of nearly 5700 Jewish people has identified a gene that helps determine a person’s risk of developing Crohn’s disease. Different mutations in the same gene can make someone more likely to get the condition, or help protect them from ever developing it. Crohn’s disease is the most serious form of inflammatory bowel disease. Current treatments for the condition frequently fail to provide much relief, and it is hoped that understanding its genetics could lead to new
treatments. Inga Peter of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and her team looked for genes involved in the disorder by studying DNA from Ashkenazi Jews – an ethnic group in which Crohn’s disease is up to three times more common. Comparing DNA from 2066 people with Crohn’s and 3633 people without it, the team identified two variants of the same gene, called LRRK2, with differing effects. One variant raises a person’s risk of Crohn’s by 70 per cent, the other variant lowers it by
25 per cent (Science Translational Medicine, doi.org/ch79). This gene is normally active in macrophages – a type of white blood cell – and a kind of stem cell, both found in the small intestine. It makes a protein that helps collect and eliminate debris and waste inside cells. By mimicking the “good” version of this gene, Peter’s team hopes to develop new treatments for the disease. LRRK2 has also been implicated in Parkinson’s, so drugs targeting this gene may help both diseases, says Peter. CHANDRA X-RAY OBSERVATORY CENTER/NASA
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Better bowel cancer screening A BLOOD test that can spot early-stage bowel cancer may be a more accurate way to screen for the disease than current methods. Bowel cancer starts with the growth of small clumps of cells called polyps. If found early, these can be removed before they turn cancerous. Many countries currently use the faecal occult blood (FOB) test to routinely screen those aged 50 or over for polyps. This simple test detects blood in stools, but doing this only picks up around 15 per cent of polyps. Colonoscopies are much better, but are expensive, invasive and require the use of general anaesthetic, so cannot be used for routine screens. Now a team at Chang Gung University, Taiwan, has developed a blood test that detects cells that have become detached from polyps or more advanced tumours. In a trial of 620 people, it detected 77 per cent of polyps and 87 per cent of cancer cases. The FOB test only detects around 30 per cent of bowel cancers. The results were presented at the Gastrointestinal Cancers Symposium in San Francisco this week.
‘Light echoes’ may reveal new worlds WE COULD use light echoes to find exoplanets in a similar way to how killer whales “see” through pitch-black water by bouncing sound waves off objects. When a star emits a flare of radiation, some of its light may reach Earth where astronomers measure a burst of brightness. But the light emanates in all directions, so it also heads towards any circling planets. Reflections from these could bounce towards Earth, producing a second, fainter burst of light, like an echo. William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute in
Baltimore, Maryland, and his colleagues argue that such a signal could be used to detect otherwise invisible planets around flaring stars (arxiv.org/abs/1801.01144). At the moment, most planets are discovered when we see their shadows dance in front of their host star – a technique that limits detections because it requires the planet to pass through the exact line of sight between its star and Earth. But the new method should allow us to see light echoes from exoplanets in any configuration, says Sparks.
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ANALYSIS STEM CELL CLINICS
Stemming the tide A mix of medical ambiguity and libertarian laws has fuelled untested stem cell treatments. Is it too late to crack down, asks Andy Coghlan SHEILA DRYSDALE’S husband saw stem cells as a last, desperate attempt to ease his wife’s symptoms of dementia. Sadly, the same day she received treatment in Sydney – 20 December 2013 – Drysdale died, aged 75. In July 2016, the coroner investigating the case ruled that Drysdale had bled to death as a result of a liposuction procedure involved in the therapy, saying it had some “troubling hallmarks of ‘quack’ medicine”. Alarmed by this case – the first known death from a stem cell treatment – and others in which unsuspecting people have been harmed (see “Cells behaving badly”, below) authorities in the US and Australia are introducing new measures to crack down on unregulated stem cell clinics, while supporting those developing legitimate treatments. Stem cells hold great promise because they have the potential to mature into and repair multiple tissues of the body. Last year, firms announced encouraging progress towards treatments for diabetes and lower back pain, for example. And for decades, doctors have indirectly used stem cells that are naturally active in blood and bone marrow to treat conditions such as blood cancers. But in the past few years, hundreds of clinics have sprung up offering stem cell treatments that haven’t been thoroughly tested in clinical trials or approved by regulators. “There’s a long list of clinics making claims that are scientifically impossible,” says Sean Morrison of the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Texas and a past president of the International Society for Stem Cell 22 | NewScientist | 20 January 2018
Research. “They make claims to cure things like Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and autism.” Such claims are heavily marketed online and at introductory “seminars” designed to hook punters in. So what can we do to better protect desperate people? A 2016 study identified 351 firms offering stem cell-based interventions – whether legitimate or unregulated – at 570 locations in the US. Hotspots were California, with 113 clinics, Florida, with 104, and Texas, with 71. Since then, roughly 100 more businesses and 150 more clinics have opened. “It’s continuously expanding,” says Leigh Turner at the University of Minnesota, who co-authored the 2016 study and is busy with a follow-up. Australia is also a hotspot for stem cell clinics, with around 60 at the last count. By comparison, hardly any private-sector stem cell clinics have appeared in western Europe,
although eastern Europe has a few. “In Europe, regulators have managed to control untested stem cell treatments quite well, with multiple levels of oversight that make it much harder to do something outside a properly conducted clinical trial,” says Robin Lovell-Badge of London’s Francis Crick Institute.
Crossing the line Three factors have driven the rise of private stem cell clinics in the US and Australia. One is ambiguity over whether removing and reinjecting stem cells into the same person qualifies as a standard medical practice, no different to taking a vein from someone’s leg to provide a heart bypass, for example. If a clinic substantially alters someone’s tissue – say by maturing extracted stem cells in the lab into different types of cells – this potentially becomes
CELLS BEHAVING BADLY People treated at stem cell clinics selling unregulated therapies have been seriously harmed, been offered expensive treatments that appear to have no chance of working and have even had their condition made worse. Just last month, a woman who claims she was blinded by a stem cell treatment launched a lawsuit against the firms that administered it. In March 2017, a report emerged of three other women with age-related macular degeneration who developed severe vision loss following injections of fatty tissue supposedly containing curative stem cells into their eyes, one of them ending up blind. They had each paid $5000 for the treatment, and all three sought emergency
treatment for the side effects in 2015. A US woman with paralysis who was treated in Portugal by injecting nasal stem cells into her spine developed severe discomfort eight years later. The cause, revealed in 2014, was a 3-centimetre growth at the injection site of what appeared to be nasal tissue plus bone fragments. Last year, New Scientist exposed the case of an Indian clinic offering stem cell treatments to 14 people with Down’s syndrome, a condition caused by inheriting an extra chromosome. Although the clinic claimed this proved beneficial, experts contacted by New Scientist were at a loss to see how treatment with stem cells could possibly do any good.
a novel therapy, requiring the same testing and approval as a new drug. But telling who has crossed that line is tricky. Turner’s study found that 61 per cent of stem cell clinics offer treatments based on extracting and reinjecting adipose cells, basically fatty tissue. Some are former cosmetic liposuction outfits that have jumped on the stem cell bandwagon. Another factor is past lax scrutiny of the field by regulatory authorities like the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), coupled with a more entrepreneurial climate than in Europe. The third factor is the growth in the US of laws that entitle people to try untested treatments, but potentially deny them legal redress if these go wrong. Such “right-to-try” laws have been passed in 38 states. Last year, the FDA and its counterpart in Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), independently decided to act. Both proposed regulatory changes to distinguish clinics offering “minimally invasive” routine medical procedures from those with more radical and invasive ones in which tissue or cells are altered outside the body in a way that could constitute a new form of untested treatment. “If they grow the cells in culture, you could introduce mutations before you reinject them, for example,” says Morrison. It could also be dangerous to reinject fat cells in a different place, such as directly into the bloodstream or brain. Campaigners for a crackdown have welcomed the regulations, which are to be finalised in the US
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and Australia later this year, but some fear the measures won’t go far enough. “Until we see details of the new TGA regulations, it’s impossible to decide how effective they will be,” says John Rasko of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, and the main author of a global investigation of stem cell clinics in 2016. In the US, experts fear that the FDA lacks the resources to meet the challenge posed by investigating hundreds of clinics. At a press briefing in November, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb implied there are only a few unscrupulous actors, and these could be targeted as a priority. So far, the FDA has only openly investigated three clinics. The most recent warning notice was made public earlier this month.
treatments through clinical trials, The other two probes were and argues that the rest should be announced in August before allowed to take drugs that the new rules were unveiled. have passed initial safety tests. But critics say the FDA It says that more than a million underestimates the scale of Americans die each year because action needed. “It’s not just a of FDA red tape that can delay full couple of bad centres,” says Turner. “They say they’ll pick ones approval by as much as 15 years. at greatest risk, but it may mean “There’s a long list of that only the most outrageous stem cell clinics making businesses get targeted while claims that are scientifically the rest carry on as normal.” A further obstacle is that people impossible” themselves – encouraged by the “For those who do get access, right-to-try laws promoted by it’s often too late,” says its website. libertarian organisations such But supporters of an FDA as the Goldwater Institute in clampdown on dubious stem Arizona – see the FDA as an cell treatments say that widening enemy of free choice. access plays into the hands of The institute says on its clinics offering unregulated website that less than 3 per cent therapies. “People don’t of terminally ill US patients understand that the right-to-try get access to experimental
laws are an opportunity to victimise patients and be immune to the consequences,” adds Morrison. At present, federal law upheld by the FDA trumps state law, but there are currently bills under consideration to introduce right to try across the US. Given the combined impacts of right-to-try laws and a lack of resources, there are fears that however well-intentioned, the FDA crackdown will falter. “They need more inspectors, to send out more warning letters, and the thing that would make most difference would be criminal charges, proof of fraud and that people were harmed,” says Turner. “Convicting someone of fraud would have the biggest impact.” ■ 20 January 2018 | NewScientist | 23
Expect fireworks The first launch of Elon Musk’s Mars rocket will be a spectacular start to a new era in space flight… if it doesn’t blow up, says Paul Marks JUST five months before Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, an unwieldy cluster of 30 engines roared into life beneath a monster rocket on a launch pad in Kazakhstan. Within seconds, the uncrewed maiden launch of the Soviet N1 moon rocket was in deep trouble. Its control system, and the complex plumbing needed to fuel so many motors, failed. Engine after engine shut down, causing severe vibrations, rupturing fuel lines and starting fires. The N1 crashed after 3 minutes in the air. Three more test launches also failed, killing the dream of putting a cosmonaut on the moon. You might think this would also have spelled the end for rockets with unfeasible numbers of engines. Far from it: engines and control engineering have improved vastly. Russia’s workhorse, Soyuz, which reliably
ferries crews to low Earth orbit, has 20 engines. But Soyuz is not designed to get people beyond such an orbit. Enter another monster – the 27-engine Falcon Heavy, readied by SpaceX for its maiden launch at Cape Canaveral, Florida. It would put the moon and Mars in range of private human space flight. Choreographing so many engines is just half the challenge: Falcon Heavy comprises three of SpaceX’s reusable, nine-engine Falcon 9 rockets strapped together. Its central, strengthened Falcon 9, with a payload-carrying second stage, has two Falcon 9 first stages attached as boosters. SpaceX will try to land all three rockets for further use. If it can achieve this level of reusability and cost-effectiveness, SpaceX will be boldly going where the economics of space flight have never gone before. Nascent firms planning
Still sickening Shorter lives and poorer health are becoming the new norm in the US, warns Laudan Aron IN 2013, a groundbreaking report showed that people in the US were in worse health and dying younger than those in other rich nations. Despite the alarm generated, five years later things look worse. The report, subtitled Shorter Lives, Poorer Health, documented a large and growing US “health disadvantage”. Evidence showed 24 | NewScientist | 20 January 2018
expectancy falling for two years in a row. Policies and poor living conditions play a part. As does the worst drug epidemic in US history – a long-term public health crisis that only got urgent national attention last year. Overdoses, often from opioids, now top road accidents as the leading cause of non-disease death for those aged 25 to 64. The US also continues to see higher rates of gun deaths and infant mortality. Such trends led life expectancy to drop for the
that compared with people in other wealthy democracies, those in the US under the age of 75 – male or female, rich or poor, of all ethnicities – die younger and suffer more injuries and illness. Even a cursory look at what has “The rich US is still unwell, as evidenced by figures happened since reveals why the showing life expectancy US is still so unwell, as evidenced fell for two years in a row” by recent figures showing life
first time in two decades in 2015, and again in 2016. Despite this, the US outspends on healthcare: $9364 per person in 2016, compared with $4094 in the UK. US spending on social welfare is akin to that of many rich nations. The difference is US spending is less redistributive. As the 2013 report argued, a key barrier to better health is “limited political support among both the public and policymakers to enact the policies and commit the necessary resources”. On this, too, the US continues to slip. While not perfect, the Affordable Care Act was, by 2016, providing millions of people with health insurance
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Paul Marks is a technology, aviation and space-flight writer based in London
for the first time. Congress tried to repeal it and aims to weaken it, while also allowing the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides low-cost cover to 9 million children, to go unfunded. As Americans debate policies in an increasingly polarised country, its health disadvantage continues to grow. Until the nation starts to bridge some of its divides and act on the evidence, its people will continue to pay a steep price. ■ Laudan Aron was study director of the Shorter Lives, Poorer Health report, released by the Institute of Medicine and US National Research Council, and is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute
INSIGHT UK environment plan
asteroid, moon and Mars mining will be especially cheered. But the launch will be tense: there is only so much that can be simulated. “With the simultaneous ignition of 27 orbital class engines, there’s a lot that can go wrong,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has warned. He is not alone in developing a means to take people far beyond Earth. NASA is designing its Space Launch System; the Boeing and Lockheed Martin joint venture, United Launch Alliance, has a design called Vulcan in the wings; and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin has New Glenn on the drawing board. But Falcon Heavy is first to the start line. And, if it works, its 27 engines will make it, for now, the most powerful rocket on Earth, capable of sending a 16-tonne capsule to Mars. The mission has attracted attention for far more idiosyncratic reasons: Musk chose his old Tesla Roadster car as Falcon Heavy’s dummy payload, to go into orbit around the sun as far out as Mars. He has deemed the usual choice of a lump of metal as too boring. That’s debatable, but when those 27 rocket engines finally go for launch, what happens next is likely to be anything but dull. Q
Plasticbagbanisno planforagreenfuture Michael Le Page
states that “we want to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste” by 2042. But this is just a vague aspiration, not a legal requirement. What about climate change? We are currently heading for a world about 4°C warmer, which would result in huge swathes of the UK disappearing under the waves and would utterly transform what countryside remained. Here, the Conservative party’s record is abysmal. After the party won an outright majority in 2015, the government scrapped a long list of policies designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, such as subsidies
THE UK prime minister, Theresa May, has unveiled the government’s long-awaited 25-year plan for improving the environment. It talks about protecting wildlife, making the country cleaner and greener, and so on. It all sounds wonderful, but it is mostly waffle. “The government’s 25-year environment plan is a monumental anti-climax,” declared the Green party. “Nothing new, nothing of substance, nothing to tackle climate change.” Take the plans to reduce plastic pollution, which dominated headlines “Almost all the major last week. A worthy goal, absolutely. improvements to the UK’s But what will actually be done? A mandatory 5-pence charge for environmental regulations plastic bags will be extended to come from the EU” smaller shops. Plastic bag use has already fallen nearly 90 per cent due for renewable energy. As such, to the 5p charge in large shops, so this the UK is no longer on track to meet is not going to make a huge difference. its own emissions targets. It is worth pointing out, too, that The claim at the time was that the this charge was introduced to meet scrapped policies were inefficient and European Union rules for reducing would be replaced with better ones. plastic bag use, rules opposed by Nearly three years on, we are still May’s Conservative party. waiting. “We will take all possible And that is just about it. The plan action to mitigate climate change,”
claims the 25-year plan. But again, there is no substance. So what should be done? For starters, the UK should stop blocking new onshore wind farms – wind is the cheapest form of renewable energy. It also needs to come up with a coherent plan for improving the woeful energy efficiency of its housing and replacing fossil gas as the main source of energy for heating. Both will take decades. New homes should have stringent standards – retrofitting is much harder and more expensive. And England and Wales should follow Scotland’s example and ban fracking – it is simply not compatible with meeting emissions targets. Then there is air pollution, which is so bad in the UK and many other countries that it will probably cut years off people’s lives. Reading this plan, you wouldn’t have a clue that the UK is not only failing to meet EU standards that came into force in 2010, but it still hasn’t even come up with a credible plan for meeting them. Indeed, almost all the major improvements to the UK’s environmental regulations in recent decades, from clean beaches to plastic bags, come from the EU. “Brexit will not mean a lowering of environmental standards,” May claimed in her speech. But like just about everything when it comes to Brexit, this remains far from certain. Q 20 January 2018 | NewScientist | 25
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Astrophysics in the snow A FORGOTTEN jewel in the crown of Soviet astronomy, the Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory is located on the picturesque southern slope of Mount Aragats, a four-peaked volcano massif in Armenia. Much of the mountain (top, left) once lay in the permanent grip of ice. Glaciers inside its crater weren’t discovered until after the second world war. Since then, the snow line has risen and sheep herders have abandoned the mountain’s waterlogged environs. Photographer Toby Smith, on assignment for Project Pressure, a charity documenting the world’s vanishing glaciers, also recorded the lives of those who remain on the mountain. Several are astronomers. As well as renting their antiquated equipment (bottom, right) to international teams, they run an underfunded research station near the lip of the crater whose detectors measure cosmic rays (top, middle). They are proud of their heritage. The observatory was founded and built in 1946 by Viktor Ambartsumian, who survived Stalin’s notorious purges of Pulkovo Observatory to become an internationally celebrated pioneer of astrophysics. He and his colleagues began work even before the observatory buildings (bottom, left) were finished. “Our instruments stood under the open sky, covered with tarpaulin,” Ambartsumian once recalled. He set his students, armed only with modest telescopes, the task of producing the first structural survey of the galaxy. In 1958, he caused a furore when he predicted that massive non-stellar objects sat at the centre of galaxies. He turned out to be right. After the Soviet Union’s break-up in 1991, the observatory fell on hard times, but Ambartsumian went on living near the facility and continued conducting experiments there until his death in 1996. His room, also pictured, has become something of a shrine. Simon Ings
Photographer Toby Smith Getty Reportage
20 January 2018 | NewScientist | 27
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There are disturbing hints that Western civilisation is starting to crumble. Laura Spinney investigates
H, the good old days, when predictions that “the end is nigh” were seen only on sandwich boards, and the doommongers who carried them were easy enough to ignore. If only things had stayed so simple. The sandwich boards have mostly gone and the world is still here, but the gloomy predictions keep coming, and not all of them are based on creative interpretations of religious texts. Scientists, historians and politicians alike have begun to warn that Western culture is reaching a critical juncture. Cycles of inequality and resource use are heading for a tipping point that in many past civilisations precipitated political unrest, war and finally collapse. For the most part, though, people are carrying on as usual, shopping for their next holiday or posing on social media. In fact, many people seem blissfully unaware that collapse might be imminent. Are Westerners doing the modern equivalent of sitting around eating grapes while the barbarians hammer on the doors? And more importantly, does science have any ideas about what is really going on, what might happen next and how people could turn things around? The idea that Western power and influence is in gradual decline, perhaps as a prelude to a precipitous fall, has been around for a while. But it has gained a new urgency with recent political events, not least the election of US president Donald Trump. For some, his turning away from international commitments is part of fulfilling his promise to “make America great again” by concentrating on its own interests. For others, it’s a dangerous move that threatens to undermine the whole world order. Meanwhile, over in the old world, Europe is mired in its own problems.
Using science to predict the future isn’t easy, not least because both “collapse” and “Western civilisation” are difficult to define. We talk about the collapse of the Roman Empire in the middle of the first millennium, for example, but there is plenty of evidence that the empire existed in some form for centuries afterwards and that its influence lingers today. The end of Ancient Egypt was more of a change in the balance of power than a catastrophic event in which everyone died. So, when we talk about collapse, do we mean that people lose everything and go back to the dark ages? Or that it’s going to be socially and politically turbulent for a while? Western civilisation is a similarly slippery concept. Roughly speaking, it covers parts of the world where the dominant cultural norms originated in Western Europe, including North America, Australia and New Zealand. Beyond that, though, the lines get blurrier. Other civilisations, such as China, were built on different sets of cultural norms, yet thanks to globalisation, defining where Western culture starts and ends is far from easy. Despite these difficulties, some scientists and historians are analysing the rise and fall of ancient civilisations to look for patterns that might give us a heads-up on what is coming. So is there any evidence that the West is reaching its end game? According to Peter Turchin, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, there are certainly some worrying signs. Turchin was a population biologist studying boom-and-bust cycles in predator and prey animals when he realised that the equations he was using could also describe the rise and fall of ancient civilisations. In the late 1990s, he began to apply these equations to historical data, looking for >
20 January 2018 | NewScientist | 29
“You’ve got to be very optimistic to think that this is just a blip on the screen” patterns that link social factors such as wealth and health inequality to political instability. Sure enough, in past civilisations in Ancient Egypt, China and Russia, he spotted two recurring cycles that are linked to regular era-defining periods of unrest. One, a “secular cycle”, lasts two or three centuries. It starts with a fairly equal society, then, as the population grows, the supply of labour begins to outstrip demand and so becomes cheap. Wealthy elites form, while the living standards of the workers fall. As the society becomes more unequal, the cycle enters a more destructive phase, in which the misery of the lowest strata and infighting between elites contribute to social turbulence and, eventually, collapse. Then there is a second, shorter cycle, lasting 50 years and made up of two generations – one peaceful and one turbulent. Looking at US history Turchin spotted peaks of unrest in 1870, 1920 and 1970. Worse, he predicts that the end of the next 50-year cycle, in around 2020, will coincide with the turbulent part of the longer cycle, causing a period of political unrest that is at least on
MICHAEL CHRISTOPHER BROWN/MAGNUM PHOTOS
The gap between rich and poor is growing, seeding unrest among the have-nots
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a par with what happened around 1970, at the peak of the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam war. This prediction echoes one made in 1997 by two amateur historians called William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their book The Fourth Turning: An American prophecy. They claimed that in about 2008 the US would enter a period of crisis that would peak in the 2020s – a claim said to have made a powerful impression on US president Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Turchin made his predictions in 2010, before the election of Donald Trump and the political infighting that surrounded his election, but he has since pointed out that current levels of inequality and political divisions in the US are clear signs that it is entering the downward phase of the cycle. Brexit and the Catalan crisis hint that the US is not the only part of the West to feel the strain. As for what will happen next, Turchin can’t say. He points out that his model operates at the level of large-scale forces, and can’t predict exactly what might tip unease over into unrest and how bad things might get. How and why turbulence sometimes turns into collapse is something that concerns Safa Motesharrei, a mathematician at the
University of Maryland. He noticed that while, in nature, some prey always survive to keep the cycle going, some societies that collapsed, such as the Maya, the Minoans and the Hittites, never recovered.
Borrowed time To find out why, he first modelled human populations as if they were predators and natural resources were prey. Then he split the “predators” into two unequal groups, wealthy elites and less well-off commoners. This showed that either extreme inequality or resource depletion could push a society to collapse, but collapse is irreversible only when the two coincide. “They essentially fuel each other,” says Motesharrei. Part of the reason is that the “haves” are buffered by their wealth from the effects of resource depletion for longer than the “havenots” and so resist calls for a change of strategy until it is too late. This doesn’t bode well for Western societies, which are dangerously unequal. According to a recent analysis, the world’s richest 1 per cent now owns half the wealth, and the gap between the super-rich and everyone else has been growing since the financial crisis of 2008. The West might already be living on borrowed time. Motesharrei’s group has shown that by rapidly using non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, a society can grow by an order of magnitude beyond what would have been supported by renewables alone, and so is able to postpone its collapse. “But when the collapse happens,” they concluded, “it is much deeper.” Joseph Tainter, an anthropologist at Utah State University, and author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, offers a similarly bleak outlook. He sees the worst-case scenario as a rupture in fossil fuel availability, causing food and water supplies to fail and millions to die within a few weeks. That sounds disastrous. But not everyone agrees that the boom-and-bust model applies to modern society. It might have worked when societies were smaller and more isolated, critics say, but now? Can we really imagine the US dissolving in an internal war that would leave no one standing? There are armies of scientists and engineers working on solutions, and in theory we can avoid past societies’ mistakes. Plus, globalisation makes us robust, right? This comes back to what we mean by collapse. Motesharrei’s group defines
historical societies according to strict geographical limits, so that if some people survived and migrated to find new natural resources they would constitute a new society. By this criterion, even very advanced societies have collapsed irreversibly and the West could too. But it wouldn’t necessarily mean annihilation. For that reason, many researchers avoid the word collapse, and talk instead about a rapid loss of complexity. When the Roman Empire broke up, new societies emerged, but their hierarchies, cultures and economies were less sophisticated, and people lived shorter, unhealthier lives. That kind of across-theboard loss of complexity is unlikely today, says Turchin, but he doesn’t rule out milder versions of it: the break-up of the European long game. New psychology research may Union, say, or the US losing its empire in help to explain why that is the case. the form of NATO and close allies such as Cognitive scientists recognise two South Korea. broad modes of thought – a fast, automatic, On the other hand, some people, such as relatively inflexible mode, and a slower, Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex more analytical, flexible one. Each has its uses, Systems Institute in Massachusetts, see this depending on the context, and their relative kind of global change as a shift up in frequency in a population has long been complexity, with highly centralised structures assumed to be stable. David Rand, such as national governments giving way to a psychologist at Yale University, though, less centralised, overarching networks of argues that populations might actually control. “The world is becoming an integrated cycle between the two over time. whole,” says Bar-Yam. Say a society has a transportation Some scientists, Bar-Yam included, are problem. A small group of individuals thinks even predicting a future where the nation analytically and invents the car. The problem state gives way to fuzzy borders and global is solved, not only for them but for millions networks of interlocking organisations, of others besides, and because a far larger with our cultural identity split between our immediate locality and global “Technological innovation regulatory bodies. may not be able to bail us However things pan out, almost nobody thinks the outlook for the West is good. out as it has in the past” “You’ve got to be very optimistic to think that the West’s current difficulties are just a blip number of people have been relieved of on the screen,” says historian Ian Morris of thinking analytically – at least in this one Stanford University in California, author of domain – there is a shift in the population Why the West Rules – For Now. So, can we do towards automatic thinking. anything to soften the blow? This happens every time a new technology Turchin says that by manipulating the is invented that renders the environment forces that fuel the cycles, by, for example, more hospitable. Once large numbers of introducing more progressive taxes to address people use the technology without foresight, income equality and the exploding public problems start to stack up. Climate change debt, it might be possible to avert disaster. resulting from the excess use of fossil fuels is And Motesharrei thinks we should rein in just one example. Others include overuse of population growth to levels his model antibiotics leading to microbial resistance, indicates are sustainable. These exact levels and failing to save for retirement. vary over time, depending on how many Jonathan Cohen, a psychologist at Princeton resources are left and how sustainably – University who developed the theory with or otherwise – we use them. Rand, says it could help solve a long-standing The problem with these kinds of solutions, puzzle regarding societies heading for ruin: however, is that humans haven’t proved why did they keep up their self-destructive themselves to be great at playing the behaviour even though the more analytical
People who have grown up in a turbulent society tend to have children who renounce violence
people must have seen the danger ahead? “The train had left the station,” says Cohen, and the forward-thinking folk were not steering it. This is the first time anyone has attempted to link the evolution of societies with human psychology, and the researchers admit their model is simple, for now. And while Rand and his colleagues make no attempt to guide policy, they do think their model suggests a general direction we might look in for remedies. “Education has got to be part of the answer,” says Cohen, adding that there could be more emphasis on analytical thinking in the classroom. But Tainter says trying to instil more forethought might be a pipe dream. If behavioural economics has taught us anything, he says, it is that human beings are much more emotional than rational when it comes to decision-making. He thinks a more pressing issue to tackle is the dwindling rate of invention relative to investment in R & D, as the world’s problems become harder to solve. “I foresee a pattern in the future where technological innovation is not going to be able to bail us out as it has in the past,” he says. So, is the West really on the ropes? Perhaps. But ultimately its survival will depend on the speed at which people can adapt. If we don’t reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, tackle inequality and find a way to stop elites from squabbling among themselves, things will not end well. In Tainter’s view, if the West makes it through, it will be more by luck than by good judgement. “We are a species that muddles through,” he says. “That’s all we’ve ever done, and all we’ll ever do.” ■ Laura Spinney is a writer based in Paris 20 January 2018 | NewScientist | 31
The ones that got away M
AR MEZCUA spends her days hunting invisible game. Lumbering giants, impossible to see with the naked eye, expertly camouflaged in the darkness of the night sky. She knows they’re out there; she has seen their footprints, tracked their spoor. But for all the hours she has spent lying in wait for black holes, there is one breed she has never spotted. On paper, they are fairly unremarkable: average size, average mass. They aren’t supposed to be any better at hiding than the others, and they should exist in roughly equal numbers. But they just aren’t there. Spotting these missing black holes won’t just fill a hole in her collection. It could shed light on a central mystery of black hole evolution: how small ones can get so big so quickly. What’s more, it could hold the key to the unusual behaviour of some galaxies. It’s a cosmic conundrum and, according to Mezcua, an astrophysicist at the Institute of Space Sciences in Barcelona, one we might be on the verge of solving. Black holes are not easy to study. They are so massive and compact that their gravity sucks in anything venturing too close. Even light cannot escape their gravitational clutches, so they reflect nothing, rendering them all but invisible. That has forced astronomers to get creative with their searches. Stars accelerating around an invisible body are one giveaway of a black hole, as are sudden bursts of X-rays released by material falling to its doom. More 32 | NewScientist | 20 January 2018
recently, gravitational waves emitted by the collision of black holes have also been observed. One way or another, black hole hunters have lined their walls with an impressive haul of these behemoths. Yet for all their successes, there is still a trophy missing from their collection. For the most part, the black holes found so far can be split into two camps. At the puny end are stellar mass black holes, formed by the explosive deaths of massive stars and typically weighing less than 100 times the mass of our sun. At the other end are the supermassive black holes that sit at the heart of galaxies. The monster at the centre of our Milky Way comes in at 4 million solar masses. Other galaxies have black holes running to billions of solar masses. But the in-betweeners, intermediate mass black holes (IMBHs), are conspicuous by their absence. This is a puzzling state of affairs. Supermassive black holes have to come from somewhere, and the dominant theory suggests they form when smaller black holes merge. But building a billion-solar-mass Goliath from millions of tiny Davids takes time. A lot of time. So when astronomers started observing fully formed supermassive black holes floating about in the first billion years after the big bang, they knew something was up. “There wasn’t time for these supermassive black holes to grow so big in such a young universe,” says Mezcua. Unless, that is, they were built from IMBHs. If the
Our black hole collection is missing some prize specimens. Now we might know where they’ve been hiding, says Colin Stuart
in-betweeners sprang into existence readymade, either from the explosive deaths of gargantuan stars or from the direct collapse of clouds of gas, there would have been enough time for some to merge into supermassive monsters. But if that’s the case, there should be plenty of IMBHs left over that didn’t merge. “We should be able to observe them now in the local universe,” says Mezcua. Where are they all hiding? Until recently, we thought we had it cracked. The answer seemed to lie in a series of unusually bright X-ray flashes that telescopes around the world had been detecting since the 1980s. As matter spiralling into black holes travels faster the closer it gets to destruction, friction with neighbouring material heats it until it glows in X-rays. The greater the mass of the central object, the faster the spiralling matter flies, the greater the friction and the brighter the X-rays. Less powerful X-ray blasts had already been used to pinpoint small black holes, but these new ones, more than a million times brighter than the sun, appeared too bright to be coming from black holes of only stellar mass size. The evidence seemed to point to IMBHs instead. That picture continued to hold as data accumulated, but there was a nagging doubt. “There had been hints for some years that the spectra of these objects didn’t quite fit with IMBHs,” says Matteo Bachetti from the Cagliari Astronomical Observatory in Italy. Then in 2014 came a bombshell: one of the X-ray blasts was found to be pulsating. > 20 January 2018 | NewScientist | 33
IMBHs to make up for the shortfall in them. “We are fairly certain that they do not reside in every globular cluster,” says Kiziltan. “There have to be very fine-tuned parameters in order to produce and maintain the black hole.” As the densest and most massive of the globular clusters surrounding the Milky Way, 47 Tuc has all the right attributes, but it seems to be the exception and not the rule. Kiziltan may have bagged an important specimen, but the trophy cabinet remains largely empty.
Happy hunting ground But all is not lost for the IMBH hunters. Help filling the shelves may come from an unlikely source – other missing cosmic entities. While some astronomers have been scouring the skies for IMBHs, others have been looking for missing dwarf galaxies. These dwarfs, as their name suggests, aren’t huge and are often found orbiting larger galaxies such as our own Milky Way. The trouble is, says Joseph Silk, an astrophysicist at the University of Oxford, “we don’t observe anywhere near enough of them”. In our standard picture of cosmology, galaxies and galaxy clusters are permeated
“We should be able to see these medium-sized black holes today. Where are they all hiding?” over time and any nearby stars have been gobbled up or ejected already,” says Kiziltan. Instead, he and his collaborators have come up with a method of detection based on the path pulsars trace through the sky, allowing them to measure very tiny variations in their accelerations. His team turned its attention to the cluster 47 Tucanae, known as 47 Tuc, visible in the southern hemisphere constellation of the Toucan. They found that some of 47 Tuc’s pulsars are being accelerated by an additional gravitational pull on top of that provided by the cluster’s stars. They put that down to a central black hole weighing between 1450 and 3800 solar masses, right in the middle of the range for IMBHs. “We believe we’ve finally found one,” Kiziltan says. Despite this potential sighting, globular clusters are unlikely to play host to enough 34 | NewScientist | 20 January 2018
by dark matter, a sluggish invisible entity whose gravitational attraction holds structures together. When astronomers run computer simulations of galaxy formation in the early universe, they end up with a lot of dwarf galaxies that didn’t merge. Yet we see far fewer of them in the real universe. There’s another problem, too, says Silk: stars in the centre of the dwarfs we do see are not orbiting fast enough. The standard theory predicts that there should be a dense mass of dark matter at the heart of a dwarf galaxy known as a “cusp”. Its gravity should make stars whizz around at a much greater lick than we observe. These issues have led some astronomers to argue that we need to change the way we think about dark matter. Conventionally, cosmologists refer to dark matter as “cold” – meaning bulky and slow-moving like
NASA/ESA/HUBBLE HERITAGE (STSCI/AURA)-ESA/HUBBLE COLLABORATION
Then another. And another. The discovery left astronomers reeling. “It was so shocking,“ says Bachetti. The X-ray signatures were characteristic of pulsars, the dead cores of medium-sized stars rotating rapidly, spitting out radio waves at their poles like a cosmic lighthouse. But the pulses were more than 100 times brighter than a pulsar should be. In research published in August 2017, Grzegorz Wiktorowicz from the University of Warsaw in Poland suggested this apparent super-luminosity arises from the narrow beams the pulsar directs at us. In assuming that the compact object was sustaining that glow in all directions we had overestimated its mass. The implication is that “intermediate mass black holes are not needed to explain ultra-luminous X-ray blasts”, says Wiktorowicz. Is there anything else we might have been missing? Last February, a team of astronomers led by Bülent Kiziltan at Harvard University announced a discovery in a dense group of ancient stars known as a globular cluster. The clusters are too old to spot a black hole in them by looking for swarms of stars or glowing accretion discs. “Radiation from the outside cocoon of stars blows away the accretion disc
Black holes hiding at the heart of dwarf galaxies could be undetectable on Earth
“One solution has a pleasing logic – as galaxies combine, their black holes do too” surrounding dwarf galaxies: most have central IMBHs. On the face of it, Silk’s proposal has a pleasing logic. Just as large galaxies have large black holes at their centre, smaller galaxies would have ones tailored to match. And as the smaller galaxies drew together to form larger structures, their central black holes would have combined as well.
Vanishing double act
molecules in a cool gas. Yet if the mass of dark matter particles is lower than we had counted on, they’d be zippier and less inclined to clump together. “It would have acted as an egg-beater in the early universe, mixing things up and erasing smaller structures,” says Marla Geha at Yale University. Perhaps that’s why we don’t see as many dwarf galaxies as the standard theory predicts. Such zippy, “warm” dark matter would also be too restless to clump together at the centre of dwarf galaxies, leading to a smaller core rather than a cusp, as well as stars that orbit more slowly. It’s a viable explanation, but Silk prefers a less radical approach. “I find it strange to invent new physics to solve a problem that may well be solved by known physics,” he says. In a paper published last April, he argues that there is a simpler solution to the mysteries
The pairing of medium-sized black holes with small galaxies makes sense on a deeper level too. Early in a dwarf galaxy’s life, the IMBH would have been fed by lots of gas, creating huge outward eruptions that destroyed much of the galaxy. “You end up with lots of dwarf galaxies, but they are almost all little,” says Silk. These smaller dwarf galaxies would not be as bright, perhaps explaining why we’ve struggled to see them so far. This idea gained backing in November when a team of astronomers led by Stacy Kim from Ohio State University used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to estimate how many faint dwarf galaxies we might yet find around our own Milky Way. The answer was largely in agreement with the predictions of a cosmology based on cold dark matter. The cusp problem can also be explained by an early, active IMBH, because the X-ray blasts it emitted would have blown away much of the central accumulation of dark matter. Not everyone agrees with that interpretation, however. “An IMBH will only affect a very tiny region, probably much much smaller than the kind of scales on which people are looking for cores or cusps,” says Andrew Cooper, a dwarf galaxy researcher at Durham University, UK. Circumstantial evidence for IMBHs in dwarf galaxies has been around since the late 1980s. So, if Silk is right, why haven’t we found more concrete evidence of their existence in the intervening decades? Last March, a study based on survey data from the NuSTAR space telescope provided a possible answer. Analysis of 40 months of observations suggests that low-mass galaxies absorb a lot of X-rays,
so almost half of all active black holes in the centre of low-mass galaxies would have had their explosive emissions absorbed before they reach us. There is another reason why the rest may have remained largely under the radar, too. By gorging on gas early in their lives, they produced outbursts that blew away much of their future food supply. “For every active black hole there should be 10 passive ones,” says Silk. “You have to catch the black hole at the right moment to see it in X-rays.” Even then, the NuSTAR survey revealing X-ray absorption suggests that the signal reaching us will be faint. That pushes current X-ray telescopes such as the orbiting Chandra observatory to their limit. “It takes a special effort on the part of X-ray astronomers,” says Silk. “That’s why this area was overlooked until a year or two ago.” Mezcua agrees that dwarf galaxies are the most promising places to look for the missing IMBHs, though what is less certain is how they got there. There are two main options: either they formed when the first massive stars collapsed, or else they were fashioned when giant gas clouds buckled under their own weight. The second mechanism would have created IMBHs on average 10 times more massive than the first, in keeping with the candidates found so far, but the sensitivity of the process means they would be relatively rare. According to Mezcua, “if the black holes were formed from stars then 90 per cent of local dwarf galaxies should have them.” That drops to 50 per cent if they came from gas clouds. Silk is more optimistic. “Both scenarios can give IMBHs in all dwarf galaxies,” he says. There is a way we can settle the debate once and for all: looking out for gravitational waves. So far, the handful of gravitational wave events detected have come from colliding neutrons stars or stellar mass black holes. “The next step is expected to be the detection of colliding IMBHs,” Mezcua says. If and when that starts happening, she may finally be able to complete her collection. Q Colin Stuart (@skyponderer) is an astronomy writer based in London 20 January 2018 | NewScientist | 35
Too hot to handle? Global warming looks set to make many parts of the world uninhabitable. But there are ways to limit the impact, says John Pickrell
SIRICHAI RAKSUE/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
VEN by Australian standards, last summer was a scorcher. January 2017 was the hottest ever recorded in Sydney and Brisbane, and great swathes of the south-east endured temperatures that often exceeded 40°C for weeks on end. In South Australia, soaring electricity demand caused an outage that left 90,000 homes sweltering through a blackout with no air conditioning. Across New South Wales, 87 bush fires blazed. It was so hot that dairy cows dropped dead in the fields. This kind of heatwave isn’t a blip. It is part of a trend that saw Sydney’s temperature climb to over 47°C earlier this month – the highest recorded in the city for 79 years – and could see both it and Melbourne experiencing mega-heatwaves with highs of 50°C by 2040. “Going out to 40 or 50 years, basically the summer we just had will be normal,” says Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick at the Climate Change Research Centre of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney. “It hasn’t really sunken in yet in Australia.” Australians are not alone: most of us fail to take the “warming” in global warming seriously. If you live somewhere temperate, you might even welcome a rise of a few degrees as offering more opportunity for picnics, barbecues and relaxed afternoons in pub gardens. That is unwise. Even now, heatwaves are deadly, and as global warming increases so will the death rate. Human physiology is not designed to cope with the temperatures predicted for large swathes of the globe and many areas could become uninhabitable. Fortunately, there are things we can do to make our bodies and our environments better adapted to a warming world. With a few notable exceptions, we are all aware that anthropogenic warming has widespread and sometimes severe consequences, so it is somewhat surprising that we are only just waking up to the fact that it can kill us. This oversight doesn’t stem from lack of evidence. In the US, extreme heat caused more fatalities between 1978 and 2003 than earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and
tornadoes combined. By some estimates, the 2003 heatwave centred on France killed over 70,000. Another that struck Moscow in 2010 resulted in 10,000 deaths. In October, The Lancet published a report featuring research by 26 global institutions including the World Health Organization and World Bank, which concluded that we face a “looming public health emergency”. This came hot on the heels of research looking specifically at “lethal heat”. Already, 30 per cent of the world’s population experiences potentially deadly temperatures for at least 20 days every year. A team led by Camilo Mora at the University of Hawaii in Manoa reported in June that this will rise to nearly 75 per cent
“The 2003 heatwave centred on France killed over 70,000 people” by 2100 if we do little to limit greenhouse gas emissions. So how hot is too hot? What matters is not the air temperature, but the temperature you experience. You can survive for a while at well above 50°C, as long as you can sweat effectively. The problem is humidity. “The only way you lose heat when you sweat is by turning liquid into vapour. It has to evaporate,” says Graham Bates at Curtin University in Western Australia. “With a humidity of 90 per cent, the air is almost saturated, and when you sweat it just drips off, and you won’t lose heat.” The combined effect of heat and humidity, otherwise known as the apparent temperature, can be gauged using a“sweating” thermometer: one wrapped in a damp cloth. A “wet bulb temperature” of 35°C – equivalent to an ambient temperature of 35°C and 100 per cent humidity or 40°C and 75 per cent humidity – is considered the limit for human survival. Above this, even a healthy person in the shade won’t live longer than 6 hours. Nowhere on earth has experienced it yet, although Bandar Mahshahr in Iran got very
close in July 2015 with the conjunction of 50 per cent humidity and 46°C. But it is only a matter of time. “Both temperature and humidity are going up,” says Steven Sherwood, an atmospheric scientist at UNSW. The highest risk is in places that are already humid, such as the Amazon, the Indus valley and many tropical countries. “It only takes a 6°C to 7°C increase in temperature before some of these regions become physically uninhabitable,” says Sherwood. He calculates that, unless we drastically reduce global warming, some regions will exceed this limit in 100 to 200 years. This may even be an underestimate. Research published in August 2017 showed that parts of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh could occasionally exceed a wet bulb temperature of 35°C by the end of this century. This region is home to 1.5 billion people, Zabout a fifth of the world’s population, most of whom are poor and exposed to the full force of lethal heat. Subsistence farmers will be disproportionately affected by crop failures. Yields of wheat, rice and maize – which together with soy generate nearly twothirds of all calories consumed by people – are forecast to fall by between 3 and 7 per cent for each 1°C rise in global temperatures. And, in a double whammy, rising temperatures also impact the productivity of rural labourers. Since 2000, global warming has effectively reduced the workforce in India by 418,000, according to The Lancet report. What’s more, even temperatures below the theorised limit for human survival could render places uninhabitable, and we will reach this long before the end of the century. In fact, the US National Weather Service classifies any wet bulb temperature above 31°C as “extreme danger”. That’s because your body produces its own heat. At rest, it generates some 100 watts, about the same as a small incandescent light bulb. During brief bursts of intense exercise, such as running, however, it can produce more than 1000 watts, equivalent to the heat produced by a microwave oven. “Muscles in > 20 January 2018 | NewScientist | 37
Turning up the heat Even a few degrees' rise in global temperatures will have a big impact on human health. These maps show the annual probability of deadly heatwaves for three global warming scenarios. The heatwaves are defned by an apparent temperature, which takes into account humidity and other factors that make conditions feel hotter, of at least 40°C. Some of the world's most populous areas will be worst hit
Probability (%) 0 1-19 20-39 40-59 60-79 80-100
humans are extremely inefficient,” says Bates. When you burn fuel in the engine of a car, about 60 to 70 per cent of it goes to turn the wheels. Our muscles, on the other hand, lose 90 per cent of their energy as heat. “The minute you start walking or running in the heat, then you take on a heat load which has to be dissipated to the environment,” he says. The optimum body temperature for a 38 | NewScientist | 20 January 2018
human is between 36.5°C and 37.5°C. This is where your metabolism, specifically your enzymes and other proteins, function most effectively. Millions of years of evolution on the African savannah have honed sophisticated cooling systems to keep our core within this narrow range. When the mercury rises, thermoregulation occurs both consciously – in behaviours such as removing
clothing, drinking water and fanning yourself – and unconsciously through the autonomic nervous system. The unconscious system is triggered by thermoreceptors in your skin, muscles, stomach and other areas detecting changes in temperature. These alert the thermostat in your brain, the hypothalamus, which then sets in motion responses including sweating and shunting blood to the surface, where it can more easily lose heat to the environment. However, to sweat effectively you must maintain your blood volume. If you become dangerously dehydrated, or another part of the system fails, then your body temperature will start heading towards 40°C. At this point, you go from heat stress – where your skin appears very red and sweaty – to heatstroke, where you suddenly become white with skin that is dry to the touch. This happens because blood is being diverted back to the vital organs in an attempt to limit damage due to the lack of oxygen, or “hypoxia”, caused by the blood circulating close to the skin. “About 70 per cent of the people that get into that situation will die or have multiple organ failure,” says Bates. Deaths from overheating are often simply recorded as heart failure, because the heart must work overtime pumping blood to the extremities, but hypoxia is another common cause of death, says Mora. In fact, his team has recently identified at least 27 ways that heat can kill. “One of the main ones is your gut,” he says. “The blood goes to the skin, and several organs are deprived of blood, including the intestines.” Hypoxia is particularly damaging in the gut, because it can cause the lining to disintegrate, releasing the intestine’s contents into the bloodstream and triggering a catastrophic immune response. This consists of a massive production of white blood cells that leads to clotting in major organs. Heat can kill cells directly too, when it is so high that proteins cannot function. The breakdown of muscles is another major killer because long myoglobin molecules unravel and travel via the blood, eventually clogging organs such as the kidneys, liver and lungs. Elderly people are particularly susceptible to heatstroke because they often have weak hearts and their skin is less effective at sweating. Children are at greater risk too as their smaller bodies take less time to heat up and they have a larger surface-area-to-volume ratio, meaning they absorb heat more readily. People on medications are also vulnerable. “Some drugs impair the capacity of the body to perceive the dangers of heat,” says Mora. But nobody is immune from fatal heatstroke.
HOW TO KEEP COOL
Consuming ice pops and icy drinks is one of the most effective ways to rapidly reduce body temperature. Putting your hands and feet into icy water works well too because they contain many capillaries so act as radiators, cooling the blood.
Drinking hot beverages sounds counter-intuitive, but heat lost through the sweating this induces can more than compensate for the heat gained. Choose low-caffeine drinks such as weak black tea or herbal teas, because caffeine both increases metabolic heat and is diuretic so dehydrates you.
Remaining well hydrated is crucial. However, avoid energy drinks packed with caffeine or taurine, and alcohol, which is diuretic and disrupts your body’s thermoregulatory system.
In extremely hot conditions, a fan does the same job as a fan-assisted oven, heating the air rather than cooling it. But place a tub of ice behind it and it becomes a makeshift air conditioner.
Avoid exercising outdoors if humidity is high. Sweat will simply drip off you rather than evaporating and cooling you down.
Nevertheless, our bodies are remarkably able to acclimatise – provided humidity is low enough to allow effective sweating. It takes about a week of exposure before the thermoregulatory system starts to adjust. Then, you begin to sweat earlier and more profusely in response to heat, and your sweat composition changes, so you lose less of the sodium and potassium electrolytes that maintain blood volume. Of course, there are also ways to adapt behaviour to reduce overheating (see “How to keep cool”, above). Given enough time, humanity might even
There is no evidence that eating spicy food cools you. Choose light meals including lots of watery fruits and vegetables, and avoid large meals rich in protein and fat, which take a long time to digest, diverting blood to the intestines and away from the skin where it can lose heat to the environment.
A cold shower before bed increases your body’s capacity to take on heat load in the night, helping you sleep. This is important because lack of sleep affects thermoregulation.
evolve to better endure extreme heat. We already possess the raw material for evolution to work with. There is substantial variation between people in how much they sweat, as well as in the number and density of their sweat glands. Even so, there is little chance we could adapt to cope with a wet bulb temperature of 35°C without hardier proteins able to function at a higher optimal temperature. And that would require significant changes to our basic biology. Time is not on our side, but if we cannot adapt our bodies, we can at least adapt our
environment to reduce the impact of rising temperatures. Heatwaves are often most intense in cities, where asphalt and the dark roofs absorb more of the sun’s rays and create a “heat island” effect. Urban planners rarely consider this, even in hot, wealthy places, such as Melbourne or Abu Dhabi. But there are simple things they could do. “We need to design our homes better. That’s a starting point,” says Perkins-Kirkpatrick. She would like to see more white roofs to reflect sunlight and better insulation and double glazing so that, even without air conditioning, our homes are places we can retreat to in extreme conditions. Cities also need more shady, green spaces to help minimise the heat island effect. A trailblazer here is New York City, which has taken on a massive regreening programme in Manhattan over the past few years. The creation of air-conditioned public refuges is another option that was discussed widely during last summer’s heatwave in Australia. Such measures would have an added benefit. In developing countries, where power supplies are already precarious, rising temperatures will inevitably lead to more outages – even wealthy countries struggle to
“Better-designed homes and greener public spaces can ease heat pressure” meet extra demand during heatwaves, as the authorities in South Australia were shocked to discover last February. In addition, heat causes problems with electricity transmission by making cables expand and sag. Betterdesigned homes, greener public spaces and communal refuges would all ease pressure on electricity grids struggling to cope during heatwaves. That, in turn, would result in lower greenhouse gas emissions. This matters because with a temperature rise of just 1.5 to 2°C – as agreed under the 2016 Paris climate change deal – summer in parts of Australia will effectively become one long heatwave by 2100. Some tropical regions could go into a semi-permanent heatwave state, Perkins-Kirkpatrick has found. And the situation will be far worse if greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed. She foresees “devastating impacts if anthropogenic climate change is not constrained as soon as possible”. The heat could be well and truly on. Q John Pickrell is a science journalist and author based in Sydney, Australia 20 January 2018 | NewScientist | 39
The flying death comes to America When Richard Gill realised that a deadly poison might help his multiple sclerosis, he decided to go to the Amazon to get it
COURTESY OF ARCHIVES AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, LIBRARY AND CENTER FOR KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN FRANCISCO.
T IS 1932 and Richard Gill is crouching on the rainforest floor. He watches as a man lifts a steaming pot off the fire. It has been simmering for days, but now it is ready. The man takes a whip-thin dart and dips it into the tarry black concoction. The paste sticks easily to the tip. It was the first time Gill had witnessed this ritual but it was not to be the last. His former job as a rubber salesman had brought him to Ecuador, and when he found himself unemployed after the crash of 1929, he and his wife Ruth had used their savings to buy some land in the Ecuadorian Andes. He often visited his neighbours, the Canelo. At 2 metres tall, he towered over the native people, but he was humble and keen to learn. He worked hard to win their trust and respect. Gill was fascinated by how the Canelo lived, and particularly by their use of plants. He had studied medicine for a while and although he had decided against becoming a doctor, he retained an interest in the subject. Some drugs had already made it out of the Amazon into modern medicine, including quinine and the emetic ipecacuanha. There must be many others, Gill thought. He knew that several plants went into the pot to make the substance they used to coat the darts that they fired out of long blowpipes, and something in the mix certainly had a large biological effect. Skilled hunters could bring down an animal 30 metres away. They called it “the flying death”. To the outside world, it was curare. “A mere skin prick by a dart laden with the flying death, and any jungle beast suitable for hunting by this method is painlessly
40 | NewScientist | 20 January 2018
dead in a matter of seconds,” wrote Gill in his account, White Water and Black Magic, published in 1940. Curare had been known to European explorers as early as the 1500s. Alexander von Humboldt, who had watched Orinoco river tribes preparing it in 1832, understood its medical potential. The active ingredients are alkaloids that evolved to deter herbivores, but which also happen to block the receptors between nerves and skeletal muscles in animals. A high-enough dose causes paralysis. The animal’s lungs stop working and although its heart continues to beat, it suffocates. The Gills enjoyed life in the Andean foothills, in the shadow of the Tungurahua volcano. But they were not to remain there. On a return visit to the US, and shortly after falling from his horse, Gill began to experience odd symptoms: a tremor in his hands, then
numbness in his legs mixed with painful muscle spasms. “One morning I woke up and my right side wasn’t there,” he wrote. “Suddenly, and for a long time, I became as helpless as a baby.” The doctor diagnosed multiple sclerosis, and suggested a drug that had shown promise in recent experiments and might help ease the pain: curare. The problem was getting hold of the stuff. There was no supply of curare in the US: it was only known from the few small samples brought from various parts of the Amazon. What’s more, no one knew exactly which plants went into the concoction or how to prepare it properly. Adding to the confusion was that every sample seemed slightly different, and prejudice against such “primitive” treatments was widespread. “There were still the ritual-bound, die-hard scientificos who were content to let curare remain the mysterious flying death of the dark jungles,” Gill wrote. Gill realised that his knowledge and experience put him in a unique position. He decided that he would return to the jungle and bring back a supply of curare. Given that he couldn’t walk, it was no small challenge. But with a self-imposed programme of physiotherapy, Gill started to improve, one finger at a time. After two years he was able to walk awkwardly, on crutches. All the while, stuck in the US, he made plans, calculating what he would need for a major expedition into some of the most challenging terrain on Richard Gill with one of the Canelo people, watching curare preparation
IMAGE COURTESY OF THE WILLIAM AND LYNDA STEERE HERBARIUM OF THE NEW BOTANICAL GARDEN
the planet. He also convinced Sayre Merrill, a wealthy Massachusetts businessman, of the importance of his mission. Merrill agreed to fund the entire expedition. Finally, walking with a stick, Gill re-entered the Ecuadorian jungle in 1938. With him were his wife, 75 porters, 36 mules, 12 canoes and quantities of equipment and goods to trade. They headed east, deep into the Amazon basin. At times, they had to blindfold the mules to get them across swaying suspension bridges. At others, they braved white-water rapids. Eventually the expedition set up a base camp close to a village. Because Gill was known and trusted, the people agreed
“Gill was fascinated by the Canelo and worked hard to win their respect” to prepare curare for him in exchange for cloth, knives and other goods. Gill noted which plants were gathered for the curare mixture and took samples of each, along with scores of others that he thought might have medical uses. Four months later, the expedition returned with more than 10 kilograms of processed curare. He sent the botanical specimens to Boris Krukoff at the New York Botanical Garden. One is still part of the herbarium
collection (pictured, left): four wide leaves and a sturdy vine, accompanied by a blow dart. It is Chondrodendron tomentosum, which we now know to be one of several species containing alkaloids with curare-type action. Gill brought back enough curare paste for chemists to study its properties and tease apart the molecular structure of the main active ingredient, tubocurarine. A firm called E.R. Squibb and Sons standardised and marketed curare as Intocostrin. Doctors used it to treat spastic paralysis and also to prevent the frequent fractures seen in psychiatric patients during electroconvulsive shock therapy. But its biggest impact was in surgery. In January 1942, Canadian anaesthetist Harry Griffith published a landmark paper about his experience of administering Intocostrin before abdominal surgery. It had always been hard to ensure a patient remained totally still under anaesthetic, and it usually meant pushing them ever deeper into unconsciousness – a risky step. With the paralysing effect of curare, surgeons found they could work more safely with totally still patients. It also meant they could use much lower doses of anaesthetic. It became possible to perform operations that before would have been too timeconsuming to be safe. The stillness of the patient meant that ever more complex procedures, such as eye operations and neurosurgery, became possible. During the second world war, an anaesthetist called John Halton working in Liverpool, UK, heard about Intocostrin from an American doctor stationed in the country. His combination of anaesthetic, painkiller and muscle relaxant became known as the Liverpool technique. It remains the mainstay of anaesthesia today. Gill does not record using curare on himself. A post mortem after he died in 1958, aged 57, showed the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis had been correct, although Gill’s symptoms seem to have been mild in later life. He spent the rest of his life promoting curare as a treatment. Although public recognition for his endeavours never really came, his contribution was noticed by those who felt its influence. In a letter to Gill in 1943, Griffith wrote: “I should like to express the very great appreciation of our surgeons, anaesthetists and patients for the very useful work you have done in making the drug available to us.” Surgery had entered the modern era. ■ By Christopher Kemp 20 January 2018 | NewScientist | 41
Why awareness matters What does it take to dodge Anthropocene bullets, asks Ben Collyer
WHAT on earth would two humanities scholars know about ecological destruction and how to tackle it? While this is a puzzle one might be tempted to pass by, that could be a mistake. Campaigning scientists are understandably frustrated and baffled that governments and influential players don’t grasp the urgent necessity to reverse global warming and pollution. They should welcome two professors: Timothy Morton, of the English department at Rice University, Texas, and Eric Freyfogle, a law emeritus from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Both shed useful light on the mindset of non-scientists, and point to a more holistic approach for both sides of the sciencehumanities divide. Both insist that it won’t help to panic; instead, we need to understand the phase through which our social institutions and modes of thought are passing. If we don’t take these cultural factors on board, we will be unable to act effectively on the science. According to these authors, the greatest impediment to addressing our ecological crisis is the pervasive anthropocentric illusion underpinning current human relationships. These interactions continue as if humans are separate from the biosphere, and as if nature can be forced into mute Ecological campaigns need to run on hope, not consumer guilt 42 | NewScientist | 20 January 2018
subservience to human will. We need these moments of It is an error of thought and meditation, he suggests, because rule-making that first arose such sensory and conceptual when agriculture sundered the awareness might incline us to see domestic sphere from the wild. a plastic bag blowing down the And this soon evolved into the street in its future existence, fixed “eternal” social orders and too – possibly choking a seabird. rigid monotheisms of ancient To permit such connection is states and the medieval world. also to yield to beauty and disgust, While the Enlightenment’s to an acceptance of enchantment struggle for individual freedoms and mystery as essential aspects began to loosen some of the of rationality. Ecological politics, shackles of political oppression, for Morton, is “about expanding, the objectification of nature “The greatest impediment lingered on, enshrined in law to addressing our and in the way we think. ecological crisis is the In Being Ecological, Morton anthropocentric illusion” tackles the problem from inside the whirl of everyday thought. But he tries to look forward and modifying and developing new imagine modes of thinking forms of pleasure, not restraining more attuned to the reality the meagre pleasures we already of our interconnection with experience because we are only the biosphere. Stop for just a thinking in ways that our current moment, Morton urges, and sense modes of doing things allows. the squiggling bacteria in your What would pleasure look like gut. Now visualise all the plastic beyond the oil economy?” fragments in all the oceans of the This is interesting territory, world. Can you see them, feel made more so by a curious them? They are not “out there”, omission. Morton never considers they are interconnected with us in that ecologists might already time and space. experience the enchantment
Being Ecological by Timothy Morton, Pelican Books Our Oldest Task: Making sense of our place in nature by Eric T. Freyfogle, University of Chicago Press
and mystery of the world their knowledge reveals, and that this awareness is exactly why they campaign. He complains that science approaches its activism with “data dumps” that fail to engage the population at large. This is fair. But rather than engaging more with the raw science, Morton seems to turn away. Being Ecological is the culmination of a series of books by Morton on a common theme – and the most accessible. But he remains content to use the same small set of biological and social reference points. And rather than expand that set, which would be helpful, he returns to the humanities. For example, it would be fascinating to hear his thoughts on quorum sensing, where organisms simultaneously change their behaviour when the density of the group reaches a certain level. Shouldn’t Morton be encouraging his humanities readers to follow him into the lab and science lecture theatres to learn the detail required to help science improve its enchantment skills? After all, using his philosophical work to illuminate a richer set of ecological discoveries can only be a good thing for ecological awareness. Or is this to utterly miss his point, and be guilty of just more “scientism” and data dumping? Morton isn’t really clear. There is no such inconsistency in Freyfogle’s Our Oldest Task, informed by years of practical interaction with land managers and ecologists. As Morton does in the more enticing parts of his analysis, Freyfogle promotes the idea that ecological campaigns
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a framework of law that aims to ensure genuine access to a decent life, a more fertile agriculture, and responsible management of wilderness and oceans. Freyfogle ambitiously proposes a thorough review of modern law to place the enrichment of our environment and community at its core. Any timescale for reform will be long, says Freyfogle, but we should still make a start right away. Activists in environmental and social fields need to zero in on the most offensive aspects of corporate lobbying, property rights that permit environmental damage, and welfare inequalities.
PABLO LOPEZ LUZ/BARCROFT MEDIA
“We need positive liberties, a framework of law that aims to ensure genuine access to a decent life”
Cleaning up places like Mexico City requires institutional change
should stress the promise of a brighter future, rather than motivate by guilt or shame. It is reassuring that he can draw this conclusion from another branch of the humanities: the history of law. Working on long-term ecological restoration projects made him realise that the barriers to change are not technical, but cultural and moral. The shift humanity needs is not held back by a lack of information or proposed solutions, but by the absence of an institutional imperative to act on them.
Freyfogle’s work has immediate relevance for both environmental campaigning and the social and business dysfunction that plays such a major part in ecological degradation: inequality, corporate power over politics, and abuses of private property are everywhere intimate to ecological ruin. Freyfogle argues that for 250 years, progress in social relations has relied on the fight for individual rights, which are mostly “negative liberties”. This term, first used in the 1950s by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, describes the legal form of an individual’s right to minimum interference by state and church.
These personal liberties, so important in the battle against medievalism, have been extended beyond their purpose to corporations and land owners. And this extension is indifferent to inequalities in wealth and to business malpractice, both so damaging to collective welfare, Freyfogle argues. This means that timber from a pristine forest can be sold at profit as the legal right of the owner, but there is rarely any obligation in law regarding the regeneration of a thousand-year-old ecosystem, its role in water catchment, or as simple community enjoyment. We now need positive liberties,
Any changes these activists advocate will need a positive spin. One wonders if Freyfogle’s legal framework might not already be forming. Despite hostile winds, the recent Paris climate summit made progress, and brought together governments, NGOs and large investment funds. And the focus of the agreement is precisely what Freyfogle asks for: humanity’s shared ecology. Can we build on Paris? Quite possibly. But to judge by Freyfogle and Morton, whatever form our efforts take, they must be accompanied by an accelerated and deeper exchange of learning between sciences and humanities. Those of us trained in science need to remember that Plato, Kant and Weber are key to ensuring that it takes its proper place in society, while those from the humanities need encouragement to delve deeper into the detail of the green sciences. Perhaps then we can all learn how to enchant ourselves with practical plans and changed behaviours to speed the day when good news surpasses the bad. ■ Ben Collyer is a writer and researcher based in the UK 20 January 2018 | NewScientist | 43
A glimpse at time Bio art comes of age at a small gem of a show, finds Simon Ings
MAKING art out of biological material, living tissue or even recordings of whole ecosystems is no longer a new idea. In fact it is one that is fast approaching its majority: SymbioticA, the pioneering art and science research laboratory that did so much to establish the field, was opened in 2001. Life Time, a small show running at MU Artspace in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, shows this quintessentially 21st-century art at its best. Few pieces here would ever find their way into a regular gallery. A striking exception is An Incomplete Life, a performance installation by Dutch physical theatre company Wild Vlees (styling itself as Proud Flesh in English), in which a recumbent actor is slowly engulfed by a pile of salt spilling from the inverted cone of a giant hourglass. More often, the artists take the scatter-gun conceit-making of traditional conceptual art and push it towards real experiment and analysis. The pieces that result are more interesting than beautiful, but with good curation this need not be a problem. It would be a dull gallery-goer who didn’t appreciate the exhibits, including those by finalists of the 2017 Bio Art and Design Award. The BADs, developed with leading Dutch researchers in the life sciences, have been pushing the boundaries of bio art since 2011. Three winners from last year take centre stage. Wild Vlees’s An Incomplete Life: an actor is slowly shrouded in salt 44 | NewScientist | 20 January 2018
and other chemicals. The South Korean artist Jiwon Woo Anthropocene has never seemed collaborated with Han Wösten so immediate, or so insidious, of Utrecht University to study as in this video installation. whether there is a bacterial or So much for the art. What of fungal basis to the Korean notion the curation? MU Artspace’s show of son-mat or “hand taste” – the subtleties of flavour imparted to juxtaposes the BAD shortlist with food by the person who prepares works by more established artists it. Some local hooch-making kit to make a statement about the was on display – in case you nature of time. didn’t get the point. Time is difficult to talk about – Then there’s an immersive the show’s cumbersome title is eight-channel audio installation proof enough of that, and even called Seasynthesis: a thudding “Ex Nihilo affords us and horrific distillation of the an ice-cold glimpse of sound pollution besetting the a bureaucratic, postNorth Sea. This is the work of natural future” Dutch artist Xandra van der Eijk, working with Han Lindeboom at Wageningen University. the gallery’s lucid handout by Meanwhile, Chinese artist William Myers, a curator based Guo Cheng has worked with in Amsterdam, labours under the Heather Leslie at Free University title “A Non-Circadian Cadence”. Amsterdam on a Canutic effort But the show itself does much to remove all traces of human better, embracing a wide swathe activity from a cubic metre of of temporal landscape, “from soil taken from a dockyard in the the universal to the personal city, sorting, washing and rinsing, and from the cellular to the and removing rubble, plastics geological”. Time, we are told,
is “simultaneously binding us, through heredity, and separating us, by death”. It is significant, I think, that of the works by established artists featured here, the strongest are two video pieces. Noah Hutton’s film Deep Time documents the destruction of the oil-rich North Dakotan landscape by 1970s-style big engineering. And Ex Nihilo by Finnish artist Timo Wright juxtaposes footage from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a frozen brain being prepared by a cryonics company, and a workshop working on an advanced humanoid robot to afford us an ice-cold glimpse of a bureaucratic, post-natural future. Visiting Life Time is rather like watching one of those allusive, polymathic documentaries by British documentary film-maker Adam Curtis. While the show exhibits some of the method’s shortcomings, it manages the old Curtis trick of delivering much more than the sum of its parts. ■ LIFE TIME: BIOLOGICAL CLOCKS OF THE UNIVERSE, MU, EINDHOVEN, 2017. PHOTO: HANNEKE WETZER
Life Time: Biological clocks of the universe, MU Artspace, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, until 18 February
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Have a nice day now and how do you vote?
From Dave Neale, Truro, Cornwall, UK Ron Baker declares that the best voting system so far devised is the single transferable vote (Letters, 16 December 2017). One cannot choose the best or worst voting systems without making subjective decisions. When the electorate is
almost equally divided, should the power of the government be equally divided, or should it strongly reflect the most popular view? It appears the UK electorate prefers the latter, judging by reactions to power-sharing governments and the referendum on an alternative vote proposal. This is what first-past-the-post delivers. In 1998, the report of the UK Independent Commission on the Voting System compared the choices offered by single transferable vote to “an over-zealous American breakfast waiter going on posing an indefinite number of unwanted options… both an exasperation and an incitement to the giving of random answers”. I do believe in electoral reform, but I also suggest that such subjective issues are for political rather than scientific debate.
This answer apparently British views of Russian resonated with my aunt. I knew science and its invisibility From Martin Giles, London, UK James Harkin recounts how “bumbling British boffins” have become a standing Russian joke (23/30 December 2017, p 53). In the 1980s, I was visiting an aunt in Soviet-dominated Poland when it was under martial law. She – a member of the Polish Academy of Sciences – asked my view, as a chemist, of Russian research publications. I said that they had uses, but weren’t places one looked for imagination. If a Russian laboratory owned a spectrometer, you could be sure that it would publish painstaking compendia of spectra for ordinary inorganic compounds. If I needed to find such a frequency, I could be sure that a Russian would have published it.
that she had been granted the opportunity to do research in Moscow in the 1960s, and asked what she had got from it. Her answer: “Tuberculosis”. From Hugh Jenkins, Stourbridge, West Midlands, UK Having read every issue of New Scientist for the past two years, it is almost as if Russia has ceased to exist as a force in world science. As a Russian speaker and former student of Soviet science policy, I frequently spot Russian names in your reports, but nearly all of them are based outside Russia. It would be interesting to know what has caused this virtual disappearance. Has science there suffered a catastrophic reduction in funding? That would lead to a brain drain, and a concentration of effort in defence and security.
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“We should probably first teach adults how to use social media too!” Taryn O’Neill responds to the proposition that we should teach kids how to use social media, not scare them off (13 January, p 23)
Or is the reason more prosaic – that not enough of it is published in English?
Basic biology and better government as a cure From Sue Band, Murthly, Perth and Kinross, UK Luke Allen argues that the cure for winter crises in the UK’s National Health Service is to shift the focus “upstream” towards preventative measures (16 December 2017, p 24). As a long-retired medic, I am often surprised by questions I get asked by otherwise intelligent people. I have long thought that we should go further upstream to teach wider understanding of human biology and pathology. This would enable people to better evaluate what they read on the internet about health matters. And surely better provision of local facilities and healthy food,
as Allen suggests, is the province of government? I can’t imagine many doctors being happy to take on that role as part of the day job.
Cannabis complexity county by county From Larry Stoter, Monmouth, UK As you note, US federal law on cannabis conflicts with states such as California making it legal (6 January, p 7). Since then, the federal attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has upped the ante. It’s also more complicated than that. The state of California passed responsibility for regulation to city and county governments. Butte county, for example, has banned recreational cannabis; yet the city of Chico, in Butte county, has legalised recreational cannabis but doesn’t allow it to be sold in shops – you can apply for a licence to grow it for personal use.
Pain is necessary to health and wellbeing From Ed Prior, Poquoson, Virginia, US Jessica Hamzelou reports genetic research on a family that doesn’t feel pain (23/30 December 2017, p 14). This is important for people suffering from injuries and could help stop the opioid crisis. But there is a huge downside to losing the sense of pain. A member of my family has type 2 diabetes and lost sensation in his foot. He fractured it without realising and kept walking, causing so much damage that it was amputated.
No longer a cruel and unusual punishment? From Gregg DuPont, Seattle, Washington, US You report on the difficulties of finding replacement drugs for
executions and hence the off-label and experimental use of fentanyl (16 December 2017, p 7). For many decades, barbiturate drugs have been used for humane euthanasia of pets. I note that the sensation of succumbing to general anaesthetic may even be enjoyable. Using these drugs to provide a beautiful and relaxing way to end life would prevent criminals faced with the death penalty from using a defence of “cruel and unusual punishment”.
Can’t we pass on the panspermian favour? From Paul Snell, Heanor, Derbyshire, UK The suggestion that we should deliberately seed life through the cosmos alarms Richard Swifte (Letters, 23/30 December 2017). When the astronomer Fred Hoyle championed panspermia – life >
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20 January 2018 | NewScientist | 53
LETTERS reaching Earth from elsewhere – I do not recall hearing that this “alien” life was a “contaminant” that shouldn’t have arrived, despite it ending up with humans being, eventually, in control of the planet. If Hoyle was right, then what sort of alien “ethics” decided upon our existence? Should we not repay the compliment?
A 19th-century Neptune row rumbles on From Mike Sutton, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK In his excellent article, Richard A. Lovett correctly states that Urbain Le Verrier suggested that wobbles in the orbit of Uranus revealed an unseen eighth planet, which led to the discovery of Neptune (16 December 2017, p 36). This was in November 1845. But in September that year, Cambridge astronomer John Couch Adams had communicated similar calculations to the director of the university’s observatory, James Challis, who ignored his work. Then Le Verrier’s announcement started an international planet hunt. TOM GAULD
On 8 August 1846, Challis observed Neptune but failed to identify it as a planet. It was Johann Galle of the Berlin observatory who made the discovery on 23 September 1846. The editor writes: Q This is the subject of continuing
dispute. Adams himself insisted Le Verrier be given full credit.
Surely seismometers go back further than that From Peter Daymond-King, Helensville, New Zealand I was surprised to read that “in the early 20th century there was no seismology [and] no accurate location data for earthquakes” (25 November 2017, p 40). We may discount the seismometer developed by Zhang Heng in AD 132 because we don’t understand how it worked (see 3 December 2016, p 42). But back in 1969, James Dewey and Perry Byerly listed, at my rough count, at least 15 earthquake recording instruments developed between 1703 and 1889 (Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America,
bit.ly/ns-seismo). And the Seismological Society of Japan was founded in 1880.
There is no queen of England, so show respect From Ian Olson, Aberdeen, UK Graham Lawton would have difficulty addressing the “queen of England” (16 December 2017, p 31). The post has been vacant for over 700 years. An inclination of the head is not sycophancy: it shows acceptance and acknowledgement of the titular head of the country, as agreed by Parliament. This may not always be the case. It is very doubtful, for example, that Camilla Windsor will be so accepted through marriage to Prince Charles. More dramatically, monarchs have been deposed, exiled or even executed. The editor writes: Q Monarchs have indeed been deposed, exiled or executed, but that does not disprove the idea that the current queen is the beneficiary of prestige bias rather than earned dominance.
Seeking research on a gender effect in research From Crad Allerton, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, UK I enjoyed the Christmas edition this year, so thank you all. Some articles involve thinking about why creatures behave in certain ways (23/30 December 2017, p 69), or how hominins behaved in the distant past (p 32). This makes me wonder: does the gender mix of a research team affect the ideas or interpretations it generates? In business, mixed teams work as well as or better than single-sex teams. Has anyone analysed the make-up of the most-cited research teams?
When a childhood calendar is for life From Fred Ramsey, Dublin, Ohio, US Caroline Williams discusses calendar synaesthesia (23/30 December 2017, p 74). For me, the months of the year are placed around a square, with June, July and August at the top, September, October and November down the right side, December, January and February heading left along the bottom, and March, April and May rising up the left side. This is not because my brain is different. It is how the calendar on the wall in my kindergarten class looked.
For the record Q Call that a creature? Australia’s crocodiles are bigger predators than the Tasmanian devil (cover and contents page, 6 January).
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Support African scientists FOR most New Scientist readers, access to science education and research is something they can take for granted. But in many nations, the option to study or to pursue a career in science is not available. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has realised that to change this and achieve its 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, scientists must be supported. And it is through international collaboration that scientific research and education is being used as a catalyst for change. One of the regions facing challenges is Africa. Although the continent has taken substantial strides, there is more to do, especially regarding science funding, research support, policy development and innovation. Fields such as health, agriculture and industry must all overcome problems, which in many cases are being addressed by public-private partnerships. One such initiative, the UNESCO-Merck Africa Research Summit, now in its third year, is the product of cooperation between UNESCO and the world’s oldest pharmaceutical company, Merck.The summit in Mauritius in 2017 addressed the role of African scientists tackling two major challenges facing the continent: treating cancer and making vaccines more widely available.This conference attracted 145 young African researchers, whose expenses were covered, and hosted a ministerial panel discussion attended by 16 African ministers of science, education and health.The summit has become a platform for researchers, scientists and students to share their work, as well as an opportunity to interact with African government ministers. Over the past three years, the conference has generated publications, workshops and education opportunities. It has also funded fellowships for many young African scientists, as well as supporting their PhD research. Ahmed Fahmi, UNESCO
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a non-profit Christian-values organisation. In a 2002 interview, Warren said that he took “a real strong stand against same-sex marriage”, and the site “may as well be” a Christian organisation. The ruling is a dent in eHarmony’s quest to be seen as “the science behind the butterflies”; a matrimonial algorithm that perhaps requires being faithful in more ways than one.
IS ALL fair in love and war? The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) thinks not, since it has ruled that a billboard ad for online dating website eHarmony was misleading. “Step aside, fate. It’s time science had a go at love,” London commuters were told, “eHarmony’s scientifically proven matching system decodes the mystery of compatibility and chemistry so you don’t have to.” The complaint was filed by a man who should know: Lord Lipsey, the joint
among couples who had met more organically on the web. It’s not the first time the eHarmony love boat has sailed into choppy waters. Famously exacting in its standards (the site will not accept applications from those who are too depressed, too married, or toofrequently divorced), eHarmony also faced lawsuits over its refusal to offer matchmaking services to gay and lesbian couples, a problem it claimed was too difficult for its love scientists
chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Statistics, and himself a former member of the ASA council. The body ruled that consumers were likely to interpret the advert as meaning there was significantly more chance of finding love through eHarmony than alternative methods, a feature the company could not demonstrate in the evidence submitted to the regulator. The ASA’s report noted that while the site’s couplings boasted fewer break-ups than competing websites, the rate of matrimonial disharmony was still higher than that found
to crack. eHarmony settled one lawsuit in 2008 by creating a separate service for same-sex couples, Compatible Partners, which was not linked from the eHarmony website at the time. Subscriptions were not linked either, so bisexual singles had to pay twice to see matches from both genders across the two sites. Why the reticence? An educated guess might point toward co-founder Neil Clark Warren, a clinical psychologist and graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary, who launched the company in 2000 with help from Focus on the Family,
“Thai penis whitening raises eyebrows,” reports the BBC. Terry Jeffries says: “I bet customers weren’t expecting that.” 56 | NewScientist | 20 January 2018
THE UK government is keen to crack down on the use of drones, perhaps because people keep using them to deliver drugs to prisons, or maybe because they undermine the state’s monopoly on airborne surveillance platforms. However, these are not compelling arguments, so the government commissioned a report into the consequences of a collision between a drone and a commercial aircraft, which became a key factor in introducing regulations. Yet the results were never released in full to the public. We may now know why: having obtained a copy of the study, The Register reveals test crashes failed to penetrate aircraft cockpit windows, and serious damage was only recorded during less rigorous preliminary tests, where javelin-like drone components were fired at panes of leftover glass held down with laboratory clamps. Reassuring for airline passengers, but less so for a government keen to make the case for tighter rules on drones. When the official summary was published, these less-rigorous tests were presented alongside the full-scale impact studies, giving the appearance that the threat from errant drones to UK aircraft was particularly acute. A registry of drone users was announced soon after. PLANETARY scientist Sarah Hörst wanted to talk to her Twitter followers about a paper in Deep-Sea Research Part II that her colleague spied: “Assessing the apparent imbalance between geochemical and
biochemical indicators of mesoand bathypelagic biological activity: what the @$#! is wrong with present calculations of carbon budgets?” In return, plant developmental biologist Tom Bennett offered a more succinct article from Cell Press, titled “Canalization: What the flux?” Certainly you have more, readers.
THE first incomprehensible units of the new year are upon us. Gillian Peall spotted the strange measurements in January’s Into the Blue, a magazine published by The Bolsover Cruise Club. This tells her that the new Royal Caribbean cruise liner, Symphony of the Seas, will weigh more than 17,000 African elephants. Gillian says “Frankly,
I can’t imagine one African elephant, let alone 17,000”. Why, Gillian, it’s about the same as 1280 blue whales – surely a more appropriate unit for an ocean vessel? THE curing power of candles: “I would like to take issue with an item in Feedback on birthdays,” says Colin Jacobson (6 January). “You report that ‘birthdays cause ageing’, when it is really the complete opposite. They are, in fact, extremely beneficial to one’s health.” Colin says it is “indisputably proven” that the more birthdays you have, the longer you live.
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THE LAST WORD Playing for time
hands are playing, but on where their hands need to be a few seconds later. Of course, pianists often still need their eyes to successfully locate any big jumps, dense chords or complex passages, and to feel both secure and confident while playing. Passages based on scales and arpeggios are easier to play fast, however, as they form a large part of piano practice early on, so the patterns are familiar. It takes years of practice for a performance to look natural and relaxed. After spending hundreds
of hours practising a piece, a in young birds approaching their musician will know it inside out. peak laying, but it is unusual to It is common to practise find them in standard eggs graded technically difficult passages for sale because double-yolkers more than easier ones, until they are usually removed and sold for become instinctive in the player’s special culinary purposes. “muscle memory”. This enables It is feasible, if rare, for an them to be played blisteringly egg with two ova to be fertilised. fast, often faster than the If this does happen, a number intended speed. “A chick hatches by chipping Similar skills are found in away at the shell with its professional sight-readers who egg tooth. Two chicks accompany rehearsals, recitals, would obstruct each other” masterclasses, exams and choirs. They often play at exceptional of factors make it very unlikely speed without looking at their that either chick would survive. hands, because their eyes are The larger the egg, the smaller the processing the written music ratio of surface area to volume, in front of them. so oxygen exchange across the There are also several concert shell would be compromised and pianists who are blind but the chicks would be competing manage just fine. for the same supply. Bernard Bertschinger If the two chicks were to survive Montacute, Somerset, UK long enough to hatch, they would Q It’s not just concert pianists. both need to break into the air cell My girlfriend can steal and eat contained within to take their first my dessert faster than the eye breaths. They would then have to can follow. get out of the shell. Brian Smith Chicks usually do this by Berlin, Germany putting their head under one wing and using this as a fulcrum, and they need to be able to turn a You must be yolking full circle as they chip away at the shell with their “egg tooth”. This My wife recently broke three eggs into would be nearly impossible with the frying pan in quick succession, two chicks in the shell, because as and all were double-yolked. Does this they moved they would obstruct mean there would have been three one another. sets of chicken twins? One can seldom say never, but it would be highly unlikely for QDouble-yolked eggs are the two viable chicks to hatch out of result of two ova coming from one egg. the ovary within a very short Kim Critchley time. This occurs more frequently Clarence Park, South Australia
We pay £25 for every answer published in New Scientist. To answer a question or ask a new one please email [email protected]. Questions should be scientific enquiries about everyday phenomena, and both questions and answers should be concise. We reserve the right to edit items for clarity and style. Please include a postal address, daytime telephone number and email address. You can also send questions and
answers to The Last Word, New Scientist, 25 Bedford Street, London, WC2E 9ES. New Scientist Ltd retains total editorial control over the published content and reserves all rights to reuse question and answer material that has been submitted by readers in any medium or in any format and at any time in the future. All unanswered questions and previous questions and answers are at newscientist.com/lastword/
How is it possible for concert pianists to play faster than the eye can follow?
QWhen a concert pianist performs, sight isn’t the only sense they use. Although handeye coordination is important, especially when learning new pieces, most pianists have a strong “keyboard geography” and knowledge of harmonic and interval patterns, and an internal ear that enables them to feel the music and anticipate what is coming next. Recent research by pianist and music theorist Daniel Beliavsky using eye-trackers suggests that when pianists perform, their eyes are focused not on what their
“Eye-trackers suggest that pianists focus on where their hands need to be a few seconds later”
This week’s questions CUBICLE COUNT
How do those running large sporting and cultural events determine how many toilets to provide? Is there an accepted ratio or does it vary, and if so by how much? Craig Mitchell Brisbane, Australia A TAD LATE
I was cleaning my garden pond at the end of October and came across a live tadpole. I had previously suspected that some tadpoles are late undergoing metamorphosis, but this one really missed the boat. Is this a recognised phenomenon, and what is the explanation? Nick Hardwick Walton-on-the Hill, Staffordshire, UK FUTURE PLASTIC
What is the ultimate fate for plastic waste in the sea? Will it form sediment that gets buried beneath the seabed and eventually turns into plastic “oil” or “coal”? Perry Bebbington Kimberley, Nottinghamshire, UK PUDDLE PUZZLE
My cat used to drink from the pond and never seemed to suffer ill effects and you often see dogs drinking from muddy puddles. So why do humans have to be so careful and only drink clean water? Gavin Ansell Rugeley, Staffordshire, UK
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