24 November 2018, No3205 
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SMART PLANTS They hear, they learn – and they remember

GHOST PARTICLE The hunt for the elusive fourth neutrino

GREEN SKY THINKING An entirely new kind of aircraft WEEKLY 24 November 2018 No3205 Australia $9.50 (Inc. GST) New Zealand NZ$9.50 (Inc. GST) Print Post Approved 100007877

37 TRILLION PIECES OF YOU Mapping the epic complexity of the human machine

4 7


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DISRUPTING SCIENCE The radical plan to make all research free

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Publishing and commercial

Volume 240 No 3205

News A summer of science begins in Antarctica 8

On the cover


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40 Smart plants They hear, they learn – and they remember 32 Ghost particle The hunt for the elusive fourth neutrino 7


News 6

THIS WEEK A brand new type of plane. NASA picks landing spot on Mars. Au revoir, Le Grand K


NEWS & TECHNOLOGY Antarctica’s summer research season begins. Gene silencing may treat pre-eclampsia. Termites’ monumental mounds. Star smash shows Einstein was right. Exosuit-assisted car makers. China’s stone tools may rewrite our species’ ancient history. Blockchain genome sequencing service. Deleting your cookies won’t stop this web tracker. Ghost galaxy lurks behind Milky Way

Green sky thinking An entirely new kind of aircraft

28 37 trillion pieces of you Mapping the epic complexity of the human machine 36 Disrupting science The radical plan to make all research free Plus Termite nation (10). The missing meteorites (8). Very ancient China (15)

Academic publishing’s stranglehold needs to be broken. We must let radical ideas bloom

19 IN BRIEF Walking backwards boosts your memory. Microrobot grabs heavy metals. Your taste for coffee may be in your genes. Alien world hides in plain sight

Analysis 22 INSIGHT Should disposable nappies be banned? 24 COMMENT Embracing nuclear power. Ungendered brains 25 ANALYSIS Google to take control of app used by NHS

Features 28 37 trillion pieces of you We are finally working out how the human body fits together 32 Hunting the ghost particle Will we find the elusive fourth neutrino? 36 Access all areas The radical plan to make all research free 40 Smarty plants It’s not just animals that can learn and remember, says Monica Gagliano

Culture 42 Poles apart We love heroic polar explorers, but there are richer stories to be found 43 Iconic investment Victoria and Albert Museum’s ambitious plans. PLUS: This week’s cultural picks 44 The drugs may work... Netflix hit Maniac runs with psychedelic science

Regulars 26 APERTURE The amber spyglass 52 LETTERS Tipping points in risk perception 55 CRYPTIC CROSSWORD 56 FEEDBACK Le Grand K and other standards 57 THE LAST WORD One for the eggheads

24 November 2018 | NewScientist | 3

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HERE is a trivia question for you: what is the most profitable business in the world? You might think oil, or maybe banking. You would be wrong. The answer is academic publishing. Its profit margins are vast, reportedly in the region of 40 per cent. The reason it is so lucrative is because most of the costs of its content is picked up by taxpayers. Publicly funded researchers do the work, write it up and judge its merits. And yet the resulting intellectual property ends up in the hands of the publishers. To rub salt into the wound they then sell it via exorbitant subscriptions and paywalls, often paid for by

taxpayers too. (Some readers may scent a whiff of hypocrisy, given New Scientist also charges for its content. But good journalism does not come free.) The academic publishing business model is indefensible. Practically everybody – even the companies that profit from it – acknowledges that it has to change. And yet the status quo has proven extremely resilient. The latest attempt to break the mould is called Plan S, created by umbrella group cOAlition S. It demands that all publicly funded research be made freely available (see page 36). When Plan S was unveiled in September, its backers

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WHEN New Scientist first wrote to ecologist Monica Gagliano asking for an interview, her response was unexpected. She couldn’t commit to anything immediately because she was about to seal herself away in a pitch dark room for 40 days to meditate. When the interview eventually happened, she revealed more in the same vein. Once, in need of

some research inspiration, she visited a shaman deep in the Amazon jungle, she said. Gagliano’s research itself is unorthodox too. She is known for a string of experiments that she claims show that plants can learn to associate a stimulus with a reward, just as Pavlov’s dogs did. Plant biologists may not like her use of the word “learn” one bit.

expected support to snowball. But only a minority of Europe’s 43 research funding bodies have signed up, and hoped-for participation from the US has failed to materialise. Meanwhile, a grass-roots campaign against it is gathering momentum. Plan S deserves a chance. The scientists who oppose it have real concerns, but are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Research funders should put their worries aside too, on behalf of the taxpayers who fill their coffers. Plan S only works if everyone gets on board; if it fails, it is hard to see how the iron grip of academic publishing can ever be broken. ■

But Gagliano is sticking to it, and plans experiments that might reveal the equivalent of a plant’s brain (see page 40). She is out to do no less than transform how we see one of the kingdoms of life. For our part, we applaud Gagliano. She is doing the right thing by testing her ideas and publishing the experiments. Some might call the ideas out there. But what great scientific breakthrough wasn’t viewed like that to begin with? ■ 24 November 2018 | NewScientist | 5


Volcano of Fire erupts

The authorities were taking no chances after around 200 people died in an eruption in June, during which fluid-like masses of ash and debris called pyroclastic flows struck several villages on the surrounding slopes. Such flows can reach up to 700 kilometres an hour. The Volcano of Fire, also called Vulcan de Fuego, is one of the most active volcanoes in Central America. Numerous small eruptions occur each day but large ones are rare.

NASA picks Mars rover landing site

Dry summer set the stage for Camp Fire

AFTER four years of deliberation, NASA has picked its next Mars landing spot: Jezero crater. The hope is that it has the right environment to preserve signs of ancient life.

THE cost of California’s devastating wildfire known as the Camp Fire continues to rise. As New Scientist went to press, there were 79 confirmed deaths, with almost 700 people still unaccounted for. Authorities say the fire, which has hit the town of Paradise (below) and other parts of Butte County, will probably continue to burn until the end of the month. The first major rainfall in six months is expected this

Satellite images suggest the 50-kilometre-wide crater once had a river flowing along its rim and into a big lake. It is thought to hold rocks that can preserve organic molecules, such as clays and carbonates. It is located 18 degrees north of Mars’s equator. “Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionise how we think about Mars and its ability to harbour life,” said NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen in a statement. If all goes to plan, NASA will launch its six-wheeled rover in July 2020 and it will land on Mars in February 2021. The lander will include a solarpowered drone to help pick out interesting sites to visit. The European Space Agency also plans to send a rover to Mars in 2020, and recently chose Oxia Planum – a large plain packed with clay rocks – as its preferred destination. 6 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018



THOUSANDS of people were evacuated from the area around the Volcano of Fire in Guatemala on Monday after it erupted for the fifth time this year. The eruption appears to have quickly died down.

week, which may help to contain the blaze. However, wet conditions bring a threat of mudslides and could also hamper search and rescue efforts. This year has seen California’s most destructive wildfire season on record, with 7579 fires burning 1.7 million acres in total. The long dry spell and record summer temperatures created ideal wildfire conditions. Due to climate change, such dry conditions are about seven times more likely now than they were at the end of the 19th century, says Patrick Brown at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC.

Metrologists bid Le Grand K au revoir THE kilogram is to be defined using fundamental constants instead of an old lump of metal, following a unanimous vote at the General Conference on Weights and Measures in Versailles, France, last week. Since 1889, the kilogram has been defined using a cylinder of platinum and iridium known as Le Grand K, or the International Prototype Kilogram. Copies of this weight have been distributed around the world, but discrepancies between these have revealed that Le Grand K has lost a little weight, and brought down the value of the kilogram with it. From May next year, the official kilogram will be defined by the Planck constant, which describes the size of the smallest possible packet of energy. The Planck constant is incredibly small, so it is measured using a specialised piece of equipment called a Kibble balance. The hope is that eventually anyone will be able to accurately weigh anything without having to fly it to France to compare it with Le Grand K.

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Zero-emissions plane has lift-off IT ONLY flew for 12 seconds – the same as the Wright brothers achieved with their maiden flight – but it marks another aeronautical milestone. After nine years’ work, Steven Barrett at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his colleagues have flown a first-ofits-kind zero-emissions plane with no moving parts. The small, unpiloted plane flew for 55 metres in an indoor sports hall, steered by remote control. Instead of propellers or jet engines, the plane uses electrodes on its wings to produce ions that push against the surrounding air. The team claims the plane is quieter and cleaner than any other powered aircraft. “It really wasn’t clear that it would work,” says Barrett. “Quite a few colleagues said it had less than 1 per cent chance.”

“It weighs just 2.45kg and produces more thrust per unit of power than a standard jet engine” The idea of producing aircraft thrust via an electric field, known as electroaerodynamics, was first explored in the 1960s. Electrodes are used to create an electric discharge that produces electrically charged atoms or molecules in the air. An electric field then accelerates these ions towards the back of the plane. Collisions with air molecules produce a thrust force in the opposite direction, pushing the plane forwards. But nobody could make this “ionic wind” work for a plane. “The physics of thrust had not been fully worked out,” says Barrett. So the team used a computer to generate a design that hit the


Streams of ions could propel aircraft of the future, reports Douglas Heaven

This plane produces thrust through an electric field

perfect balance between weight and power for flight. The resulting aircraft has a wingspan of 5 metres, weighs just 2.45 kilograms and produces more thrust per unit of power than a standard jet engine. There is a long way to go before such a plane could do anything useful, however. A bigger plane would need a larger power supply, making it too heavy to fly. The team optimised their design for lightness not speed: it only flies at 5 metres a second compared with 200 metres a second or more for most passenger jets (Nature, doi.org/cw7m). With air travel continuing to increase, many people hope that electric planes will one day provide

a better alternative to jet fuel (see “Clean green aviation”, below). Norway has been testing electric, two-seater planes and wants all short-haul flights leaving its airports to be electric by 2040. In theory, electric aircraft have a lower carbon footprint than conventional planes. They also produce no air pollution during a flight. But the batteries needed to power them are so heavy that larger planes are currently unviable. Electric planes won’t replace existing passenger jets without a battery breakthrough, says Lynnette Dray at University College London. She estimates it will be at least 30 years before

CLEAN GREEN AVIATION Passenger planes that fly using electroaerodynamics (see main story) are many years away. Here are three alternatives for greener flight.

Electric planes: Small electric planes are being developed for short flights. But it could be decades before batteries are both light and powerful enough to power larger aircraft.

Biofuel: Aircraft powered by jet fuel partly produced from biomass have lower carbon emissions. A few airports, including Los Angeles International, are already refuelling some planes with biofuel. However, growing enough biomass to power the world’s aircraft could cause environmental problems of its own.

Hybrid planes: Like hybrid cars, hybrid planes could use a mixture of fuel and electricity to make them greener. Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens are collaborating on a hybrid plane that could use batteries during take-off, when fuel consumption is greatest.

batteries can get even a small passenger jet, such as a Boeing 737, into the air. What’s more, switching to electric planes without tackling where their power comes from won’t cut emissions overall. Most electricity still comes from burning fossil fuels. “If all planes were electric today and powered from the US grid, their footprint would be worse,” says Barrett. With their greater efficiency, electroaerodynamic planes could give electric flight the boost it needs. The team’s design pushes the limits of what is possible with today’s materials and electronic technology. But Barrett thinks that it could be made to fly faster and for longer in the future. The prototype only produces thrust around its wings. Barrett wants to make every surface, including the aircraft’s body, propulsive. He thinks future planes might have two sets of wings – one in front of the other – with a flow of ions between them. You could also steer the plane by changing the shape of its electromagnetic field, he says. The result would be a plane that was carried along inside a pocket of electrically charged wind. “The whole aircraft would move through the air in a slipstream,” he says. ■ 24 November 2018 | NewScientist | 7



The Antarctic summer brings more people to its research stations

Scientists migrate to Antarctica Alison George

AS THE nights get longer in the northern hemisphere, scientists are heading to Antarctica in their thousands. Their quarry includes meteorites, penguins and revealing ice cores. Only about 1000 people overwinter in Antarctica, and the population is set to quintuple for the next six months as scientists make the most of the continent’s summer research season, which runs from November until April. Constant daylight, sub-zero temperatures and brutal winds await. But that isn’t enough to put the travellers off. “We are well kitted out, and we stay in pyramid tents, which are surprisingly cosy,” says Katherine Joy from the University of Manchester, UK, who is heading south with colleague Geoffrey Evatt in search of buried meteorites. Antarctica is a particularly good 8 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018

place to collect these rocks – not only are they easy to spot there, but the ice acts as a conveyor belt that deposits them in hotspots. Meteorites from the frozen continent make up about two-thirds of the 35,000 space

rocks collected so far, giving valuable information about the solar system. But very few iron-based meteorites have been found in this Antarctic bounty. These are made from the cores of destroyed small planets, so hold vital clues about how planets formed in the early solar system. Evatt and Joy think these meteorites are missing because they get trapped below the ice surface. In January, Evatt will be

heading to the British Antarctic Survey field station, Sky-Blu, at the southern end of the Antarctic Peninsula, to test equipment – in essence, a metal detector and a chainsaw – for finding and extracting buried meteorites. Joy is aiming to reach a rarely visited region south of the Shackleton mountain range, to scope out promising places to use this equipment the following season. “We’ll be out on skidoos for most of the day, exploring the ice fields. Hopefully the weather will be kind, because you need good visibility to spot small meteorites on the ice,” she says. If their buried meteorite hypothesis is correct, it might allow them to uncover a new trove of space rocks. “It’s utterly exciting to be at the heart of this. We may find a new Martian or lunar sample,” says Joy. On the other side of the continent, at France’s Dumont d’Urville Station, work has already begun to survey the breeding success of a nearby colony of emperor penguins. There are only 54 breeding colonies of this iconic Antarctic resident, many of which are under threat from climate change. But the colony of some 4000 breeding pairs near

PICKED UP BY A PENGUIN It is tempting to think of Antarctica as pristine and protected from human influence, but that isn’t the case. The Antarctic summer sees many scientists arriving on the continent, some of whom go there to study how climate change is affecting penguin species (see main story). But when we travel, we take our bacteria with us. Vanessa Marcelino at the University of Sydney, Australia, and her colleagues have compared the diversity of gut microbes carrying antibiotic-resistance genes in gentoo penguins living near two Chilean Antarctic bases.

Swabbing the throats and cloacas of 20 penguins, they found that both populations had resistance genes in their microbiomes, and that those living near O’Higgins Base carried a greater number of resistance genes than those near the smaller, less-populated González Videla Base (bioRxiv, doi.org/cw5m). The study “demonstrates really nicely the interlinkage between humans and the environment, which is very often overlooked”, says Josef Järhult at Uppsala University in Sweden. However, it is hard to know for sure

that it is people’s presence in Antarctica that is causing these bacterial genes to spread to penguin populations. Antibiotic resistance can occur naturally, and microbes with resistance genes have been found in ancient Antarctic soils before. Francois Balloux at University College London says more evidence is needed to tie the presence of this genetic material to human activity in the areas sampled. “There’s no pristine place on Earth as far as antimicrobial resistance is concerned,” he says. Chris Baraniuk

For daily news stories, visit newscientist.com/news

O’Higgins Base Shackleton mountain range

González Videla Base Sky-Blu

SOUTH POLE Little Dome C McMurdo Station SOUTHERN OCEAN Bases Geographical features

Dumont d’Urville seems to be doing well for now. Their chicks hatched in July. In some years, few survive. But this year has been a very successful one, says Christophe Barbraud of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). But one thriving colony doesn’t mean all is well for emperors elsewhere. “You can have very different breeding success at

“It’s utterly exciting to be at the heart of this. We may find meteorites from Mars or the moon” different colonies due to different ice conditions,” says Barbraud. To see how penguins are faring in less-accessible places, researchers use satellite imagery and aerial photography, including photos of five colonies taken on helicopter flyovers by a team at the US’s McMurdo Station. Meanwhile, 1200 kilometres inland, a European team is preparing to drill back in time. Analysing the air bubbles trapped in ice cores extracted from the thick ice sheet that covers Antarctica has enabled us to study the climate of Earth going back hundreds of thousands of years. These measurements have been invaluable for understanding how our planet’s climate can change, but so far we have only looked back 800,000 years.

Dumont d'Urville Station


This summer, the “Beyond EPICA” team is making preparations to drill a core that stretches back at least 1.2 million years. The group has identified a place high on the Antarctic plateau called Little Dome C, where it thinks this ancient ice might lie. If it works, an ice core from this spot will enable us to study the period about 1 million years ago when Earth started having ice ages every 40,000 years, instead of every 100,000 years. Understanding what drove this shift, and whether increasing carbon dioxide levels played a part, will help us to predict future climate responses to higher levels of greenhouse gases. The team doesn’t yet know if it will be given European research funds to drill this core – a huge undertaking that will probably take place in two Antarctic summers’ time. While waiting to hear, the team is drilling at Little Dome C to obtain ice chips, and measure isotopes within the ice to determine how old it is. “This will give us information about samples at depth, without waiting for the real core,” says glaciologist Olaf Eisen of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, who is coordinating the project. The team can expect harsh conditions, he says. “It’s -30°C on a warm day,” says Eisen. ■

Gene silencing treats pre-eclampsia ONE of the leading risks to women and fetuses during pregnancy could be stopped in its tracks by an injection that targets genes in the placenta, suggests a small study in monkeys. Pre-eclampsia occurs in up to

Moore’s team has tested the method in a mild version of pre-eclampsia in baboons. When the condition was induced in nine monkeys, their placentas pumped out more FLT1. The team injected the RNA therapy

10 per cent of pregnancies and can lead to seizures, strokes, and kidney and liver damage. When it gets severe, the only treatment is to deliver the baby, no matter how early in the pregnancy. This can mean women having to choose between their own health and their baby’s. “It’s very scary,” says Melissa Moore at the University of Massachusetts, who is developing the treatment and has had the condition herself. Pre-eclampsia happens when the

into three of the baboons. Over the next two weeks, the three made less FLT1, had lower blood pressure and signs of less kidney damage than the six untreated animals (Nature Biotechnology, doi.org/cw7g). Their offspring seemed normal, but were born a little smaller than average. Moore says this could be a result of reducing the blood pressure, so further studies are needed to find the optimal therapy dose. An Irish biotech firm called Alnylam

placenta isn’t delivering enough nutrients and oxygen to the fetus. To compensate, the placenta releases proteins to raise the woman’s blood pressure, boosting their supply. But these proteins can push blood pressure to dangerously high levels. Moore’s team has come up with a highly targeted approach, known as RNA silencing, that may be able to treat pre-eclampsia with little risk of unexpected side effects for the fetus. The technique destroys short strands of the RNA molecules in our cells that are the blueprints for making proteins. It targets the RNA blueprint for a placenta protein called FLT1, known to raise blood pressure in pre-eclampsia.

has had success in rats with another RNA therapy for pre-eclampsia, which targets a different protein involved in blood pressure. Alnylam brought the first RNA therapy to market earlier this year, designed to combat a rare, hereditary form of nerve damage. RNA therapy is appealing for pre-eclampsia because, as well as being highly targeted, the treatments don’t seem to cross the placenta, making them less likely to affect the fetus. A single injection should target a particular protein for several weeks, which would be useful in developing countries, where regular medical care may be difficult to achieve and pre-eclampsia is a major cause of death in women. Clare Wilson ■



24 November 2018 | NewScientist | 9


Sam Wong

A VAST part of the dry forests of north-east Brazil has been reshaped by one of the world’s biggest engineering projects – all the work of termites. An area of 230,000 square kilometres, larger than Great Britain, is covered in 200 million regularly spaced mounds, each about 2.5 metres tall. Known as murundus, they are made of waste earth dug out by termites to create a huge network of tunnels. Some of the mounds and passages are up to 4000 years old. In all, the termites have excavated more than 10 cubic kilometres of earth, making this the biggest engineering project by any creature besides humans, says Stephen Martin at the University of Salford, UK. Despite the extent of the mounds, they have been little studied until now. That changed when Martin came across them while researching honeybees in the Brazilian state of Bahia. “I looked on Google Earth and realised they are everywhere in this area, but I could find nothing about them online,” he says.

Neutron star smash supports Einstein again NO MATTER what tests we throw at Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity, it just won’t break. A collision of stars has now shown he was right, again. The general theory of relativity predicts there are four dimensions, three of space and one of time, and that both gravity and light exist in these. But some people argue there may be extra dimensions. They think 10 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018

The piles of earth are very conspicuous in areas where plants have been cleared, but most of them are covered by caatinga forests, made up of small, thorny trees that shed their leaves seasonally. These leaves are the only known food for the termites, but they fall once a year at most, and disappear quickly. This sporadic food supply may explain the vast network of tunnels: they allow the termites to get to the food quickly. “It is as if all the supermarkets were open for one day a year – the person with the fastest car would get the most food,” says Martin. “You need a network of roads to get to the supermarket as quickly as you can because you’re in open competition with other colonies.” To estimate the age of the mounds, Martin and his colleagues turned to a technique called optically stimulated luminescence. This can be applied to quartz crystals in the soil to determine when they were last exposed to sunlight. From this, conservative estimates of the ages of the mounds range from 690 to 3820 years old (Current Biology, doi.org/cw7h).

that gravity, but not light, could occupy them. To test the idea, a team of more than 1000 researchers looked at the aftermath of neutron stars smashing together. The collision of these stars is so cataclysmic that it causes ripples in space and time known as gravitational waves. The team detected such an event using both light waves and gravitational waves. They believed that if the gravitational waves travel in more dimensions than light, the strength of the gravitational waves should be reduced in comparison to


Tiny termites dig a world of their own

Insect power has created a huge, undulating landscape

Their remarkable persistence is thanks in part to the dry, stable climate, with little rainfall to erode them. In addition, the soil is hard, acidic and lacks nutrients, so the area hasn’t been farmed. Martin thinks the regular pattern of the mounds is the result of each colony having to dig vast, interconnected networks of tunnels to find food. The spacing of the mounds minimises the energy costs of removing soil from the tunnels. The termites might use pheromones to help

light by the time they reached Earth. But the two measurements matched up perfectly. Although this isn’t definitive proof that extra dimensions don’t exist, it is another hint that Einstein was right. The team also measured how long the neutron stars took to spiral towards one another and how the gravitational waves stretched and squeezed space-time. These too came

“The collision of two highly dense neutron stars is so cataclysmic that it causes ripples in space and time”

them find their way to the nearest waste mound. In most termite colonies, the queen, after mating, builds herself a chamber where she grows to an enormous size and produces huge quantities of eggs. Martin and his team were unable to find one of these royal chambers, so the structure of the colonies, as well as their size, remains unknown. It is also unclear how the termites sustain themselves when their food supply is only available for such a short period. “We don’t know any [termite] species that hibernate, but maybe they do,” says Martin. ■

out in favour of general relativity (arxiv.org/abs/1811.00364). There is one potential spoiler. All of the tests included data from LIGO, the gravitational wave detector in the US, however some physicists question if it has detected any gravitational waves. Because general relativity isn’t compatible with quantum mechanics, the suspicion is that Einstein’s theory will have to break. “Every time we get a new result that is again perfectly consistent with general relativity, I am secretly surprised,” says team member Michalis Agathos at the University of Cambridge. Leah Crane ■






Exoskeletons for making Mustangs workers can’t simply be replaced with robots, says Smets. The vest is the next best thing. Wearing the EksoVest feels halfway between carrying a large backpack and putting on a climbing harness. There are lots of straps: a thick support strap around the hips, a chest buckle, a forearm sleeve and a biceps cuff with two magnetic buckles. All this serves to hold up a device that looks like a folded bicycle,

Leah Crane


WHEN a few workers at Ford’s assembly plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, started wearing exoskeletons for the first time, people made fun of them. Calls of “Hey, Iron Man!” rang across the factory line. Putting one on, I understand the comments – I feel and look a bit like a superhero. The inside of the assembly plant is like the inside of a clock, full of moving parts that all work “If he does 6000 arm lifts together. Cars wind their way a day, the exoskeleton is through the huge building with saving him 20 Mustangs’ their tyres at eye level, and worth of weight” workers stand beneath them, attaching bits of plastic and securing screws and bolts. with bars connecting to the As workers are reaching up arms acting as the main support. a lot, they are prone to shoulder The whole thing weighs about injuries. This is the most common 4 kilograms. medical problem for those At the shoulder is a compressed working at the Ford factory, says spring that powers the whole suit. Marty Smets, the company’s head Pull a small strap and the spring of manufacturing ergonomics. The EksoVest, a wearable support system designed by Ford and the California-based exoskeleton firm Ekso Bionics, is designed to prevent these problems. It uses compressed springs to support the arms when they are overhead, diverting weight to the larger muscles lower in the body. It has been rolled out in 17 factories in eight countries so far. At about $6000 apiece, the vests are much less expensive than treatments for shoulder injuries, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Because each factory tends to make more than one type of car – the plant in Flat Rock puts together both Mustangs and Lincoln Continentals – and lots of the tasks involved require human judgement and expertise, the 12 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018

releases, making it feel like raising my arms is easier than keeping them at my sides. It wasn’t immediately comfortable. I couldn’t reach my back pockets or scratch my shoulder, for example. But it got easier as I moved around. Within a few minutes, I was resting my arms at shoulder level, like a child sidled up to a kitchen counter. “It’s like breaking in a new pair of work boots,” says Bruce Watkins, who was one of the first workers to try the EksoVest in 2017 and now wears it almost every day. “When I first tried it on, it felt awkward, but now it’s like an extension of me.” Moving around the line, he looked completely natural in the exoskeleton. It is easy to see how physically strenuous the work would be without it. The suit provides about 2 to 7 kilograms of lift assistance per arm. That may not feel like much, and I was initially disappointed that it wouldn’t let me pick up a car, but some workers on the line lift tools above their heads thousands of times every day. If Watkins does 6000 arm lifts, “that’s saving him


FIELD NOTES Flat Rock, Michigan

Leah tries out the exoskeleton, which helps protect shoulders –

more than 20 Mustangs’ worth of weight a day”, says Smets. There haven’t yet been any long-term studies about whether the suit lowers injury rates, so it’s not yet clear how effective it is, but feedback from workers has been positive. “Before I started wearing it, I was always really sore at the end of the day,” says Watkins. “Now it’s nothing.” Another early EksoVest adopter, Nick Gotts, says that on shifts that can be nearly 11 hours long it makes a big difference, especially in the last hour. He wishes there was a version for legs, too. Smets and his team are working on developing and testing other types of exoskeletons to assist with jobs elsewhere on the production line, like those where workers have to be bent over most of the day, reaching to attach parts to the inside of cars. The field is advancing fast, says Smets. “This is what they look like now – who knows what they’ll look like in two years?” My experience at Ford hints at what the future of factories may be like. Robots will surely take over many tasks, but for those that still need a human eye, technology can help enhance their performance, with exoskeletons being a part of it. Jobs for superheroes are safe, for now at least. ■

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China’s advanced Stone Age tools have just confirmed that Levallois-style stone tools recovered from Guanyindong cave in south China are between 160,000 and 170,000 years old (Nature, doi.org/cw6j).

A HAUL of ancient stone tools has plugged a big gap in China’s archaeological record, challenging our understanding of how our species spread around the world. Our hominin predecessors began making stone tools more than 3 million years ago. As time went on, these tools became more complex. About 300,000 years ago, a new style of tool made using “Levallois” techniques began to appear in Africa and western Eurasia. Rather than chipping flakes off a stone to create a tool, Levallois techniques work on the stone so it is the flakes themselves that become the tools. This enables several tools to be made from a single stone. Until recently, it seemed that the Levallois revolution didn’t spread east to places like China until much later – about 40,000 years ago – but that idea is now being questioned. Bo Li at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and his colleagues

New company sequences your DNA for free A FIRM co-founded by pioneering Harvard geneticist George Church wants to let people learn about their genetic code for free. The blockchainsecured service will sequence people’s genomes without charging a fee and will offer rewards to those who let third parties access their data. People can already get their DNA sequenced by companies such as Helix and 23andMe, typically for around $200. If a user consents, their results can be sold to third parties


Colin Barras

The finding follows an announcement at the start of the year that Levallois stone tools – some of which were 385,000 years old – were found at a site called Attirampakkam in India (Nature, doi.org/gcwsh8). Clearly, hominins in central and east Eurasia began making Levallois tools much earlier than we These stone tools from China are 160,000 to 170,000 years old

5 cm

such as pharmaceutical firms, but users don’t receive any reward or compensation for this. Nebula Genomics, which launched last week, aims to connect consumers interested in exploring their genetics with researchers looking for large DNA data sets to assist with drug development. The service offers to sequence your entire genome for free and keep it secure. You can then choose to share the genomic data anonymously with companies or research institutes in return for “Nebula credits”. People will also receive credits for sharing other health information, such as whether they have diabetes or arthritis. This should help

thought. But who were these ancient toolmakers? It is a difficult question to answer, says Michael Petraglia at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, who wasn’t involved in either study. No human fossils have been found at either site. In Africa, Levallois tools are associated with our species (Homo sapiens), while in Europe it was Neanderthals who made them. Petraglia says either species could in principle have moved east to China, taking Levallois tools with them. But it is also possible that an ancient human already living in the east of Eurasia – for example the Denisovans, about whom we know very little – invented the tools independently. If it were our species, though, we would need to rethink when H. sapiens arrived in China. Recent finds have pushed back China’s record of H. sapiens to about 120,000 years, but that is still 50,000 years after the tools at Guanyindong cave were in use. Li says archaeologists urgently need to find more human fossils in China, ideally some preserved well enough to yield ancient DNA. “Hopefully our study will stimulate a new wave of archaeological studies,” he says. ■

researchers identify patterns between certain gene variants and diseases, says the company’s co-founder Dennis Grishin. Users can access services on the Nebula platform using their credits. For example, someone could buy information about their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease based on their genomic data. For the time being, people won’t be able to convert the credits into money. Pharmaceutical companies are currently prepared to pay

upwards of $1000 for individual genomes, but Nebula hasn’t decided yet whether to allow such cash transactions, says Grishin. Jacqueline Savard at Deakin University in Australia warns that some drug companies may use people’s genetic data in ways they aren’t aware of or can’t foresee. “People should be free to do what they want with their genomic data,” she says. “But they need to be given clear information about how it will be used so they can make the right decisions.”

“Nebula Genomics aims to connect people who want to explore their genetics with drug researchers”

Church’s other ambitions include bringing back the woolly mammoth, editing our genes to fix diseases and reversing ageing. Alice Klein ■ 24 November 2018 | NewScientist | 15

NEWS & TECHNOLOGY Haunting our corner of the cosmos, Ant 2 is in the box to the top left

Your computer’s clock can give you away online

But these tracking cookies have become increasingly ineffective, because many people use tools, such as ad blockers, which keep them at bay. Now Iskander Sanchez-Rola at the University of Deusto in Spain and colleagues have developed a tracking tool that doesn’t need to use cookies. Instead, it relies on detecting tiny variations in a computer’s hardware. The tool works by measuring subtle but unique differences in the way the quartz crystal in a computer’s clock behaves compared with crystals in other computers. These differences affect how quickly websites are processed by a computer, so they act as a digital fingerprint for a device. When 300 volunteers made a one-off visit to a website using the tool, it could uniquely fingerprint around half of them. When combined with other techniques that measure how a computer processes a web site’s graphics, 80 per cent of devices could be identified. “Our technique is far more reliable and practical than any existing fingerprinting technique,” says Sanchez-Rola. His team presented the tool at the recent ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security in Toronto, Canada. “Unfortunately, modern computers are too diverse, and there are too many ways that diversity can be noticed and used by trackers,” says Peter Eckersley at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy rights group. That means privacy tools must improve to stay ahead of detection techniques, he says. Edd Gent ■ 16 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018


A WEBSITE tool can track your internet activity even if you use standard ways to hide your browsing habits. Tracking people on the internet is normally done using cookies, tiny files left on our computers by the websites we visit. These are used for security purposes, such as for detecting suspicious online banking logins, and also by advertisers to target people based on their online visits.

Phantom galaxy is our new neighbour Chelsea Whyte

surroundings. They found that four bright stars of the same type, known as RR Lyrae variables, were moving together. They then measured the light coming from 100 red giant stars around the four bright stars and found that they, too, were moving at the same rate, which means they are part of the same galaxy. But these stars also revealed that the galaxy they live in is odd.

LURKING behind the disc of dust and gas that makes up the Milky Way is a nearby ghostly galaxy that we haven’t noticed before. It looks like no other galactic structure we’ve seen, according to the astronomers who found it, although not everyone agrees. The newly detected dwarf galaxy is a third of the size of the Milky Way. It is in the Antlia “Calculations show that constellation and has been the galaxy is enormous, named Antlia 2, or Ant 2. spanning about 9500 light While it emits about the same years, but extremely dim” total light as other galaxies near the Milky Way, it is 10 times the size of them, so its brightness is Based on the stars’ distance from spread over a bigger area in the Earth, the team calculated that sky, says Gabriel Torrealba at Ant 2 is enormous, spanning Academia Sinica in Taiwan. This about 9500 light years. makes it much fainter and harder But it is extremely dim for to see. something that big. In fact, it Torrealba and his team found is 100 times more diffuse than Ant 2 using data from the Gaia members of an unusual class of satellite, which tracks the position galaxy that astronomers have and movement of nearby stars to labelled ultra-diffuse galaxies. make a map of our galaxy and its This means Ant 2 has the lowest

known surface brightness of any stellar system we have seen. Torrealba suggests one explanation might be that the dark matter in Ant 2 is distributed in an unusually diffuse way. (arxiv.org/abs/1811.04082). But before we can know for sure how unusual Ant 2 is, there are questions to answer, says Gisella Clementini at the National Astrophysical Institute in Italy. She studies RR Lyrae stars observed by the Gaia satellite, and says there is an error in the formula Torrealba’s team used to calculate the distance to Ant 2. That is potentially a significant problem, because the galaxy’s extremely odd traits are only that strange if the galaxy is as far from us as Torrealba’s team calculated. Clementini says she has alerted his team to this and they have agreed to redo the analysis. “They have discovered something, but at this stage, I could not bet on any property of the system unless we can confirm the calculations,” she says. Torrealba says that, from an initial assessment, the error in their distance formula puts the RR Lyrae stars at about 260,000 light years away, instead of the original measurement of 424,000 light years. But he says they confirmed the distance of the rest of the stars in Ant 2 with two other methods, and the distance to those stars is secure. A galaxy like Ant 2 should hold hundreds of these Lyrae variable stars, he says, so it might be that the group of four stars his team looked at happen to be the closest ones to us. The new calculation doesn’t change the bizarre nature of Ant 2, he adds. “It would need to be twice as close for the unusual aspects of this galaxy to look less unusual. Changing it by 10 or 20 per cent, it would still fall into this class of very bizarre objects,” says Alan McConnachie at the University of Victoria in Canada. ■

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IN BRIEF Nearby alien world hiding in plain sight

That espresso habit may be down to your DNA

caffeine more vividly were 20 per cent more likely than

ARE you a tea or a coffee person? The answer may be

easily are more prone to getting addicted to its stimulant

written in your genes. Both drinks contain bitter components such as caffeine. Previous research has found that people experience

effects, and coffee has more caffeine than tea. In contrast, participants with gene variants that made them more sensitive to two other bitter tastes – quinine

bitter flavours differently according to the taste receptor

and propylthiouracil – were 4 and 9 per cent more likely

genes they have. Now Daniel Hwang at the University of Queensland in

to be heavy tea drinkers respectively (Scientific Reports, doi.org/cw5f).

Australia and his colleagues have studied links between taste receptor genes and tea and coffee consumption in

These people were also less likely to drink coffee. It is unclear why, but it may be because they are more

over 430,000 men and women in the UK, aged 37 to 73.

sensitive to bitter tastes overall. As a result, they may

Those with gene variants that made them taste

a normal caffeine taster to be heavy coffee drinkers. The caffeine supertasters were less likely to drink tea. This may be because people who detect caffeine more

prefer the gentler bitterness of tea, says Hwang.

Icy grave of huge meteorite discovered A GIANT meteorite crater that has turned up under the Greenland ice sheet may hold clues to a mini ice age some 13,000 years ago. An international team found the 30-kilometre-wide feature using NASA radar data. It would have been made by a meteorite about 1 kilometre across. A river draining from under the ice covering the crater is washing out sediment particles with a

telltale internal structure that results from a brief shock wave. “They’re absolutely characteristic of impact,” says team member Iain McDonald at Cardiff University, UK. Without access to the crater, the team can only date the impact to some time in the past 3 million years (Science Advances, doi.org/ cw5d). But that leaves open the possibility of a connection with a

short episode of northern hemisphere cooling called the Younger Dryas, says McDonald. Its cause has long been unclear. One theory involved an impact from space, but we knew of no suitable crater recent enough. If the meteorite had hit ice hundreds of metres thick, millions of tonnes of fresh water would have melted and flowed into the sea. This could have disrupted ocean currents and cooled the climate, says McDonald.

A STELLAR neighbour that we have stared at for years appears to have a planet after all. Barnard’s star is a red dwarf just 6 light years away. That makes it the next closest star to the sun after those in the Alpha Centauri system, and an obvious target for planet-spotters. But despite many astronomers looking, no planets ever showed up. Ignasi Ribas at the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia in Spain and his colleagues may have hit the jackpot. They combined the results of earlier surveys, looking for the wobble of the star caused by the tug of an orbiting object. So small was the effect of their proposed planet, GJ 699 b, on Barnard’s star that they needed 771 readings taken over 20 years to be sure they had seen something (Nature, doi.org/gfjzh7). GJ 699 b is thought to have three to four times Earth’s mass and a surface temperature of -150˚C.

Fungus-based bots to tackle pollution MICROBOTS made with mushroom spores could help remove heavy metals from contaminated water. Metal pollutants cling to the devices, which are spores coated in iron oxide. An external magnetic field can be used to move the microbots around in water and recover them later. The system was created by Li Zhang at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and his colleagues. They found that the microbots could reduce lead levels in contaminated water from 5 parts per million to 0.9 ppm within 50 minutes. That is still not safe to drink, but Zhang suggests using the devices in less heavily polluted water (Advanced Functional Materials, doi.org/cw5q). 24 November 2018 | NewScientist | 19

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IN BRIEF How cities can boost a hurricane THE towering skyline of Houston, Texas, made Hurricane Harvey dump even more water – because tall buildings shifted air upwards, generating more rain. This and other consequences of urbanisation increased the overall flooding risk by a whopping 2100 per cent. Harvey caused damage to the tune of $125 billion last year. Now, using climate models, researchers at the University of Iowa and Princeton University have studied the impact of a hurricane like Harvey on a

Hungry for something new? This edible game might satisfy YOU really are the controller now. Players of the Guts Game must swallow a sensor in a pill and then fight off an imaginary parasite by making changes to their own gut. Small wearable sensors such as those in Fitbits have already been used to gamify exercise. Now Zhuying Li and Floyd Mueller at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology have explored what is possible using ingestible sensors. These can capture video, detect chemicals or measure acidity, temperature or pressure. The Guts Game is for two

players. Both swallow a sensor and must then alter their gut temperature at set times over 24 to 36 hours to kill a virtual parasite. To do this, they can consume hot or cold items, exercise hard, or eat spicy dishes that make them sweat. The game ends once one player excretes the sensor. The sensor beams temperature data to a phone app. The winner is the player who does best at matching the target temperature at the given times. Seven pairs of players tried the game, with mixed reactions. Some

felt trepidation at taking the device. Others said they had learned about their bodies, especially how food and drink could change temperature in the stomach, whereas gut temperature was most affected by exercise. The researchers presented the game at a computer-human interaction conference in Melbourne. They say there was no risk to players as the temperature changes are small. Mueller hopes gamifying pill-taking will provide ideas to help people stick to medication.

virtual version of present-day what would have happened if the city were replaced by farmland. Vegetated land soaks up a lot of rain. But if roads, buildings and paving replace plants, the rain flows straight into rivers, which can increase flooding downstream. In addition, the larger surface “roughness” of urban areas created a drag effect on Hurricane Harvey, says team member Gabriele Villarini at Iowa. The result was to push warm surface air higher up, creating conditions favourable for cloud formation and precipitation (Nature, doi.org/gfjzjg). Previous studies had suggested that global warming may have increased Harvey’s rainfall total by between 15 and 40 per cent. All in all, it seems Harvey was a very


unnatural disaster.

20 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018


Houston, and compared it with

Painful downside of weekend lie-ins SLEEPING in on days off may cause period pain by disrupting reproductive cycles. We know female shift workers are more prone to irregular menstrual cycles, to difficulties in conceiving and to miscarriages, possibly because their work hours affect the circadian rhythms that control hormone cycles. Now Yoko Komada at Meiji Pharmaceutical University in Japan and her colleagues have looked at whether social jet lag – sleeping in on weekends to make up for early starts during the week – has similar effects. They surveyed 150 female Japanese university students about sleep habits and menstrual patterns. The students were deemed to have social jet lag if the midpoint of their sleep was at least an hour later on days off. Those with social jet lag reported significantly more pain, bloating and behavioural changes during their periods. The greater the social jet lag, the worse the symptoms (Chronobiology International, doi.org/cw5c). The team ruled out any impact from late-night drinking or smoking, since few of the students drank and none smoked.

Just hit reverse to remember better TO IMPROVE your recall, try walking

than the forward-walkers and the

backwards – it boosts scores in

non-walkers – a small but statistically

memory tests. That is the finding of Aleksandar

significant improvement. Five variants of the experiment

Aksentijevic at the University of

showed a similar effect. In some,

Roehampton, UK, and his colleagues.

participants imagined forwards or

They asked 114 volunteers to watch

backwards motion, or watched a

a video in which a woman has her bag

film shot on a train to give a sense of

stolen. Ten minutes later, they asked some volunteers to walk forwards or

forwards or backwards movement. We are used to thinking about time

backwards 10 metres, while a control

as a space we navigate, and to using

group stood in one place. Then all

spatial language to talk about time.

had to answer 20 questions about

Studies of this sort suggest this is

the video. On average, the backward-walking group got two more answers correct

not just a convenient analogy, but intrinsic to the way we conceptualise the past (Cognition, doi.org/cw5g).

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Messy business Disposable nappies have been named as the latest plastic items we should ban, but are the alternatives any better? Alice Klein investigates

Some nappies, such as these gDiapers, have compostable parts 22 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018


A FRESH stink is being kicked of these was commissioned in up over the use of nappies. the early 2000s by the UK Last month, UK environment Environment Agency, after prime secretary Michael Gove ignited minister Tony Blair was quizzed controversy by hinting at a about what kind of nappies he crackdown on disposable nappies. would use on his fourth child. Environmentalists welcomed the The report, which was idea, but time-poor parents published in 2005, sparked fury baulked at the prospect of having among anti-plastic campaigners. to wash piles of cloth substitutes. It concluded that reusable cloth Despite feeling soft, the surface nappies were no greener than layer of disposable nappies is just one of many plastic components. “One child typically gets through 4000 to 6000 These nappies generate 4 million disposable nappies from tonnes of waste a year in the US birth to toilet training” alone, with each child typically getting through 4000 to 6000 of them. So it is no surprise that they have become the latest in a list of items being targeted for environmental reasons. Governments around the world are already phasing out singleuse plastic items such as bags, straws and utensils in an attempt to cut waste. But some parents argue that, when you look at the data, cloth nappies are no better than the standard, disposable variety. Reusable cloth nappies carry a cost to the environment because of the water and energy used during repeated laundering. There are also dozens of new “eco-disposable” products, which their makers claim combine the convenience of disposable nappies with environmental sustainability. But these come with their own flaws. How do the options stack up? To compare different nappies, researchers conduct life-cycle assessments that consider their environmental impact from production to disposal. The first

plastic disposables because the electricity consumed by washing and drying them cancelled out the benefits of reducing plastic production and waste. “I still get email abuse every now and again,” says Simon Aumônier at UK consulting firm Environmental Resources Management, who co-wrote the assessment. Critics said the report was misleading because it was based on how most people use the nappies, rather than optimal use. In response, Aumônier and his colleagues published a follow-up

report in 2008. It found that if cloth nappies were washed in full loads, air-dried on a washing line and reused on a second child, they resulted in 40 per cent lower greenhouse gas emissions than using plastic disposable ones. These benefits are likely to be even greater today now that half the UK’s electricity comes from lowcarbon sources, says Aumônier. Similarly, Kate O’Brien at the University of Queensland in Australia co-authored a study showing that reusable cloth nappies were much greener than

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plastic disposables if they were washed in front-loading machines in cold water – although most manufacturers recommend washing at warmer temperatures – and line-dried. “It’s pretty clear that cloth nappies have less impact overall if you wash them the right way,” she says. That may be the case, but it is hard to deny the superior convenience of plastic disposables. Modern cloth nappies are much easier to use than the safetypinned terry towelling squares of yesteryear (see “You’ve come a long way, baby”, right), but they still require time, commitment and physical space for washing and drying. And they can’t simply be chucked in the bin when you are out and about. “For a stay-at-home parent living in a house, cloth nappies are a very feasible option, but they’re harder if you work full-

time or live in a flat,” says O’Brien. Plastic nappies are still used by 95 per cent of parents in the West and make up about 4 per cent of municipal household waste. Once in landfill, they take hundreds of years to break down. To cut this burden, some councils in the UK and Australia offer cash incentives to encourage parents to switch to cloth nappies. Others are thinking about setting up schemes to turn discarded plastic nappies into new products. Small nappy-recycling initiatives in the UK and the Netherlands have previously failed because of high running costs, but now bigger players are stepping in. One is Procter & Gamble, which currently owns the lion’s share of the global nappy market. Last year, it announced it was investing in a European Union scheme aiming to convert 10,000 tonnes of used nappies – as well as products such as incontinence pads – per year into plastic bins, packaging and medical devices. It sounds ideal, but Aumônier warns that it may not be the miracle solution everyone is hoping for. The recycling process is likely to be energy-intensive, which could outweigh the wastereduction benefits. “There’s an assumption that recycling automatically means better, but as a bit of a sceptic, I’d like to see it demonstrated,” he says.

Guilt free? In the meantime, some people are turning to “eco-disposable” nappies, which are marketed as get-out-of-jail-free cards for busy, environmentally conscious parents. These are also single-use nappies, but they are made of plant-based materials – such as cellulose, wood pulp, bamboo, or corn or wheat starch – that are meant to be more sustainable and biodegradable than plastic. A clear benefit is that they are made from plants instead of non-renewable petrochemicals. However, their biodegradability

YOU’VE COME A LONG WAY, BABY Old-school cloth nappies were squares

super-absorbent polymer beads.

of cotton terry towelling that had to be folded and safety-pinned in place.

Some modern cloth nappies have two parts: a waterproof cover and

Modern cloth nappies are far easier to

an absorbent insert. Only the insert

use because they come pre-shaped studs or Velcro. They are often made

needs to be washed and dried. Cloth nappies are about $20 each, which is 10 times more than plastic

from bamboo or hemp, which are

disposables, but because they are

more absorbent than cotton. But they

reused, they end up costing about

are less effective than disposable

half the amount overall from birth

plastic varieties, which contain

to toilet training.

and are usually fastened with press

comes with a major caveat. UK, to test the idea. They deliver Although some eco-disposables compostable nappies to the centre, are marketed as having a then collect used ones at regular flushable insert, most only intervals for composting. All break down efficiently when nappies can be composted with composted. If they end up in this set-up, no matter what they landfill, the lack of oxygen means are soiled with. “It’s completely even plant-based nappies may zero waste,” says Graham-Nye, take decades to decompose. who hopes to eventually expand Moreover, the types of bacteria the service to households, that degrade them under such although it’s not yet clear how low-oxygen conditions release the potent greenhouse gas methane “For stay-at-home parents as a by-product. In fact, a life-cycle in a house, cloth nappies are feasible, but it is harder assessment by Nadia Mirabella if you work, or live in a flat” at the University of Milan in Italy found that eco-disposable nappies were no better than plastic ones if much this service will cost parents. they went into landfill. For the time being, however, To get around this problem, parents face an unavoidable some parents use home trade-off between eco-friendliness composting systems to turn and convenience. The greenest used eco-disposable nappies options appear to be cloth nappies into fertiliser. “We hear neat that are laundered with minimal testimonials of people whose energy and eco-disposables that gardens are powered by their kids’ are composted at home, although nappies,” says Jason Graham-Nye, they require bigger investments of co-founder of US-based company time and effort. Plastic disposables gDiapers, which sells ecomake life easier, but only at the disposable nappies. Each nappy expense of the environment. takes about 40 days to break Fortunately, governments down in home compost, he says. and companies seem to be But this can only be done for increasingly motivated to find urine-containing nappies, due solutions. After Gove made his to the risk of spreading faecal initial comments about needing pathogens. It is also unlikely to to tackle plastic nappy waste, he appeal to time-poor parents or clarified that the UK government those without a garden. would be looking at green The answer may be to introduce alternatives rather than an pick-up services that take outright ban. If these take the households’ used nappies away form of eco-friendly recycling to commercial composters, says or composting schemes for Graham-Nye. This month, his disposable nappies, the babies of company started a trial at a today may become the guilt-free childcare centre in Southampton, parents of tomorrow. ■ 24 November 2018 | NewScientist | 23


Nuclear power play The Union of Concerned Scientists has warmed to nuclear power. Environmentalists should too, says Mark Lynas


CHANGING your mind on a controversial topic isn’t easy, especially when you have spent decades campaigning against your new position. Which is why the decision by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) to drop its long-standing opposition to nuclear power is so important, and why the organisation deserves great credit for having the courage to take this step. The US advocacy group isn’t campaigning for new nuclear plants to be built, however. Its president, Ken Kimmel, has called for funding “to preserve nuclear power from existing plants that are operating safely”. The rationale, laid out in the UCS’s latest report, being that shuttered nuclear plants are often replaced with ones burning fossil fuels. This switch from nuclear to coal and gas happened most clearly in Germany, where Chancellor

One track mind The brains of men and women aren’t fundamentally different, says Dean Burnett LAST week, a widely reported study claimed to show “very clear” differences between the brains of men and women. It was trumpeted in the media as “proving” that male and female brains are inherently different. The actual evidence falls way short of such claims. Distinctions do exist. Genetic 24 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018

differences due to the sex chromosomes, varying hormone regulation during development and obvious anatomical differences are all reflected in the structure of the brain. But whether these have any impacts on the functioning of the mature adult brain is a lot harder to determine. There are just too

many other factors and variables that can affect how we use our brains, which cannot be screened out by modern research methods. We all grow and develop in a society that imposes countless differences between males and females from birth. Given how our brains grow in response to our environment – they are the most “plastic” organ in our bodies by far – any of these could turn out to be a big influence over how our brains work as adults.

“Sex difference studies often seem like attempts to justify the status quo, rather than question it”

Angela Merkel’s decision to phase out all nuclear power generation has led to an increased reliance on fossil fuels. The sight of a nation that once led the fight against climate change bulldozing forests to expand open-cast coal mining serves as a warning of where antinuclear ideology can lead. In its report, the UCS recognises that nuclear is the single largest source of low-carbon electricity in the US. Yet many US reactors are threatened with closure due to competition from cheap fracked gas and a power market that puts no value on low-carbon electricity. The UCS estimates that if at-risk nuclear plants are closed early – as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth demand – then US power sector emissions could increase by 4 to 6 per cent. The truth is that nuclear power will be an essential component of any rapid transition away from

Why is so much energy, which could be better used elsewhere, ploughed into an effort to show functional differences between the brains of men and women – especially when it is far from certain such things even exist? An optimistic view is that uncovering them could be valuable to medicine, mental health, user interfaces, workplaces and more. But something being useful to us isn’t evidence that it should exist. A more cynical view is that there is a strong gender imbalance in our society, with men holding the majority of power and control in almost every field. Studies

For more opinion articles, visit newscientist.com/opinion

Mark Lynas is an environmentalist and author of Seeds of Science: Why we got it so wrong on GMOs

trying to show that the brains of men and women are functionally different – and their inevitable wide coverage in the media – often seem like attempts to justify the status quo, rather than question it. Our brains develop in a culture that keeps insisting men and women are different, and so we behave accordingly. And this includes, unfortunately, carrying out and reporting research that confirms such beliefs. ■ Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist and honorary research associate at Cardiff Psychology School, UK. His latest book is The Happy Brain

ANALYSIS Data privacy


fossil fuels. Renewables like wind and solar will hopefully provide the bulk of future global energy, but without nuclear, any lowcarbon pathway is a dead end. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report issued a stark warning: global emissions must fall by 45 per cent in just 12 years if a reasonable chance of a 1.5°C pathway is to be retained. It would be immensely foolish to begin a colossal effort to decarbonise the world’s economy by getting rid of the largest existing source of lowcarbon electricity. Nuclear’s problems of waste, cost and safety are trivial compared with the threat posed by unmitigated global warming. The UCS’s decision will be seen as a hugely significant moment in the battle against global warming, when environmentalists began to wake up to the sheer magnitude of the global, low-carbon energy challenge. The next step is for all of us to unite to demand the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels and their replacement with lowcarbon energy sources – including nuclear – before it is too late. ■

Google to take control of app used by NHS Douglas Heaven

ANOTHER tech company doing something it said it wouldn’t. Another eye roll, another shrug? Last week, the London-based artificial intelligence company DeepMind announced that the team behind Streams – an app designed to monitor people in hospital with kidney disease – will be joining DeepMind’s sister company Google. The tech giant wants to turn Streams into an AI-powered assistant for doctors and nurses. To test Streams, DeepMind used the identifiable medical records of 1.6 million people obtained in a deal with the Royal Free London NHS Trust, as first revealed by New Scientist. The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) later said the data sharing agreement “failed to comply with data protection law”. The transfer appears to renege on promises made by DeepMind. Co-founder Mustafa Suleyman wrote in July 2016, for example: “DeepMind operates autonomously from Google, and we’ve been clear from the outset that at no stage will patient data ever

be linked or associated with Google accounts, products or services.” So, it is no surprise that the announcement has led to a chorus of complaints on social media, with many people feeling particularly strongly about a powerful private firm putting its hands in the NHS cookie jar. DeepMind argues that Google will have no access to identifiable patient data. True, DeepMind is only handing over synthetic data – made-up medical records generated from the real NHS ones – and the algorithms that

“Many people feel strongly about a powerful private firm putting its hands in the NHS cookie jar” were trained on it. But this valuable information only exists because of that identifiable data. One question is whether Google should have its own data sharing agreement with the NHS. In its ruling on DeepMind’s original deal, the ICO concluded that patients hadn’t been adequately engaged in giving informed consent. Do they need to give additional consent for Google to

profit from their medical records? Dominic King, clinical lead at DeepMind’s health division, seems to suggest so. “At this stage our contracts have not moved across to Google and will not without our partners’ consent,” he wrote on Twitter on 14 November. “The same applies to the data that we process under these contracts.” Yet the legal issues are murky. DeepMind’s contract with the Royal Free says it cannot transfer intellectual property (IP) derived from patient data obtained under the terms of that deal. Exactly how much of Streams counts as data-derived IP can be spun in different ways, however. “Our contractual agreements with existing partners, and their restrictive rules on patient data, are still in force and unchanged,” a DeepMind spokesperson told New Scientist. Google has long had its eye on healthcare but if it had tried to make a deal with the NHS, it would probably have been blocked because of privacy concerns. AI is capable of amazing things and there is little doubt that eventually the technology will help save many lives. But it will also make the companies offering such services vast sums of money. The NHS giving Google a legup for free is at the very least anticompetitive. Inviting a tech giant into the heart of the healthcare system could also lead to a loss of control in how care is provided and cost the NHS more in the long run. ■ 24 November 2018 | NewScientist | 25


26 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018

The amber spyglass SOME 50 million years ago, an ant was foraging on a tree trunk growing on what is now the Baltic coast of Russia. A trickle of resin oozing from the tree trapped the insect, killing it and sealing it off from the world. And yet here it is. Fossils invoke a sense of wonder because they connect us physically to the distant past. When organisms are trapped in tree resin and fossilised as it turns to amber, this dehydrates their body and drastically slows decomposition, forming beautifully preserved specimens. But the captured organisms, literal time capsules, have never been so clearly seen as in new images by photographer Levon Biss. Previously, Biss specialised in photographing insects with a microscope by stitching together thousands of close-ups to create ultra-high resolution images. Looking for another challenge, he has now turned his attention to insects trapped in amber, and the first finished print is this ant, from an unknown species. These fossil subjects are smaller than those Biss usually photographs and are in a material that makes the camerawork more difficult. “To overcome the effects of refraction within the amber, the stone is suspended within an oil of a similar refractive index,” he says. “This allows me to produce images of a far higher clarity. Creating unique and beautiful imagery should not be easy. If it was, the final photograph would be worthless to me.” The images are printed using a process called carbon transfer, which should stop the colours fading for 1000 years. They are framed in wood from trees preserved in peat bogs, carbon-dated to 5300 years ago. The piece of amber used is presented in a cavity in the frame, to provide the viewer with a sense of scale. “I adore the fact that this project essentially began millions of years ago when these creatures were encapsulated within the tree sap,” Biss says. “It began long before me, and because of the longevity of the printing process, it will continue long after I have gone.” Rowan Hooper

Photographer Levon Biss microsculpture.net

24 November 2018 | NewScientist | 27


28 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018




deconstructed There are 37 trillion cells in the human body. Now we’re finally working out what they all do, says Jeremy Webb

T IS one of biology’s dirty little secrets: we don’t really know what we are made of. The human genome may have been decoded back in 2003, but we still can’t list all the types of cells in our bodies. Everything we do, from moving to thinking, digesting food to sleeping, depends on a vast array of different cells: disc-like red blood cells, spindly nerve cells, stretched-out cells that make our muscles, the list goes on. These specialised units come together to form our tissues and organs, and make us the complex organisms we are. And yet so many of them remain mysterious. Now, for the first time, we are set to make a comprehensive inventory – an aim every bit as ambitious as the Human Genome Project that decoded our DNA. The Human Cell Atlas project plans to identify and locate every type of cell we possess, and so revolutionise our understanding of the body in the same way that the first atlases transformed our view of the world. The first results are already showing how this can help us find our way around healthy bodies, not to mention finding routes to new treatments for conditions like cancer that occur when cells turn bad. “Knowing cells is knowing life,” says Aviv Regev of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “If you do not know which cells are there, and understand how they operate, you can’t really say you understand biology.” Easier said than done. For more than 150 years, researchers have categorised cells by all manner of methods: their size and shape, their location in the body, the way they react to dyes and, most recently, by the proteins they produce. Look in a textbook today and it will probably divide the body’s 37 trillion-odd cells into about 300 types (see “What is a cell anyway?”, page 30). But each time a novel way to look at cells has come along, more differences have emerged, and the number of distinct types has continued to rise. The Human Cell Atlas will use an even more powerful way to classify cells, by the genes that are switched on inside them – their “transcriptome”. Barring a few exceptions, all our cells contain identical copies of our genetic code. Each cell controls which of our 20,000 genes it expresses, and different types of cell express different selections of genes. Knowing which genes are active and at what levels should go beyond the promise of the Human Genome Project. This allowed us to compare people’s genomes and understand better than ever which genetic changes are involved in > 24 November 2018 | NewScientist | 29

various diseases. But exploiting that knowledge means first knowing which cells these changes are expressed in. To do that, biologists needed to be able to read the gene expression profiles of individual cells. Until recently, that process needed a fair-sized chunk of tissue that inevitably contained many different types of cell. These cells then got mushed together into what Regev describes as a fruit smoothie. What was really needed instead, she says, was a fruit salad in which every individual piece of fruit could be identified.

Previously unknown cells called ionocytes (shown in orange, right, and green, far right) may be at the root of cystic fibrosis

In 2011, that became a real prospect, when Regev and her colleagues managed to create gene-expression profiles from the tiny amount of genetic material in a single cell. They used their method on apparently identical immune system cells – called dendritic cells – and immediately picked up differences between them that signalled unknown fruits in the salad. “We found two new subsets of cells we didn’t know existed before,” says Regev. Since then, there has been a revolution in transcriptomics, with new and faster techniques emerging. Most rely on separating out individual cells in a sample and adding a unique barcode, in the form of a DNA tag, to each one’s genetic material. The tags allow the output of individual cells to be traced even when many cells are mixed together for sequencing. There has been an explosion too in the number of cells that can be profiled


Unknown fruits

at once, from just 18 to a whopping 250,000. “These single-cell methods are really transformational,” says Ed Lein at the Allen Institute in Seattle, who specialises in mapping brain cells. “You can input a large number of cells from a tissue and get a molecular classification of the cell types in a way that supersedes 100 years of prior research.” While Regev was busy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Sarah Teichmann of the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK, had also seen the potential of profiling the gene expression of single cells. “I would really love to see a periodic table of our cells,” she

says. In 2013, she helped to found a centre within the Sanger Institute to develop the field. “The obvious question in a place like this is how big can we take it? Can we scale it to a whole organism?” In 2014, Regev started to think about a systematic project to sequence all the cells in the body. She began to evangelise about the idea in talks and seminars. In 2016, the two researchers spoke. They decided to gather specialists from a range of fields – medics, pathologists, cell and computational biologists, genomics technology developers and big data analysts – to gauge their interest. A hundred

WHAT IS A CELL ANYWAY? Cells don’t exactly broadcast their

responsible for generating energy;

roles. Nerve cells receive, process

and hence to develop into different

importance. Most are invisible to

and the endoplasmic reticulum,

and transmit information through

the naked eye, yet without them

where proteins and fats are made.

electrical and chemical channels.

there would be no life. It was the English scientist

All this paraphernalia is surrounded

Hair cells in the ear turn vibrations

cell types. The number of active genes vary even in mature cells. “If you have

by the cell membrane, which acts

into impulses that we perceive as

a rapidly proliferating cell, you’re

Robert Hooke, looking at slices of

like a national border, allowing only

sounds. Natural killer cells carry

talking 5000 to 6000 genes,” says

cork through his home-made

deadly chemicals inside them,

Sarah Teichmann of the Wellcome

microscope in the 1660s, who first

certain commodities in and out. Human cells are nothing if not

with which they eliminate infected

Sanger Institute in the UK. “But if

saw cells and named them. It took

diverse. Among the smallest is

or cancerous cells. This is to name

you have a quiescent cell, that’s just

another 200 years for scientists to

the 50-micrometre-long sperm.

but a few. Each type depends on

minding its own business and not

realise their true significance. The

Compare that with the egg. With

others to sustain them. Nearly all

doing much, you can be talking a

cell is the most basic unit of life – all

a diameter of 1 millimetre – or

cells, for example, depend on red

couple of thousand genes.” Cells

living organisms are made of one or

1000 micrometres – it is just visible to the naked eye. A nerve cell that

blood cells to bring them oxygen. The types emerge in the embryo,

can also change their outputs in

more of them. Our cells contain an astonishing array of tiny structures, such as

runs from the lower spinal cord to

where cells in the various regions

surroundings. Teasing apart all

the big toe can reach more than a

are exposed to different cocktails

these signals and reactions is a

the nucleus, which is home to

metre in length.

of proteins, driving them to express

key aim of many Human Cell Atlas

a particular combination of genes

researchers (see main story).

the genome; the mitochondria, 30 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018

There is similar diversity in their

reaction to signals from their

SINGLE CELL, BIG DATA When it comes to profiling the

than 500,000 cells, this April.

genes within a cell, the numbers

One technique popular with the project’s biologists is a data

are mind-boggling. Different cell types express different genes, and to quantify the

(pronounced tisnee), which groups

activity of each could mean 20,000

cells according to similarities

scores per cell. The Human Cell Atlas

between their thousands of

project expects to profile billions of

gene-expression scores. It then

cells. Making sense of data at this

displays them in two dimensions. This tool played a crucial role in


scale is going to need methods that

people came to the resulting meeting and they were enthusiastic about the proposal. The idea of the Human Cell Atlas was born, with Teichmann and Regev at the helm. “There was that zeitgeist thing,” says Regev. “It was an idea whose time had come.” Over 1000 scientists are now involved in the project, representing 584 institutes from 55 countries including Ecuador, Kenya, Nigeria and Russia. Atlases of the cells of the immune system, skin and lungs are already under way. The effort faces many technical challenges (see “Single cell, big data”, above). Uncertainty still surrounds a second pillar of the project, that of locating cells in the body. Regev’s analogy of its structures being like a fruit salad isn’t entirely accurate. “Biology is beautifully structured. It’s actually a fruit tart,” she says. “It’s not everything mixed together or we would look kind of messy.” So to really understand how our bodies work, we need to be able to pinpoint individual cells within tissues. The past five years have also seen huge advances in these location technologies. Cells in a slice of tissue can be flooded with fluorescent probes that latch onto a specific gene sequence. Or the details of each cell’s location can be encoded into its genetic material using DNA tags before tissue is broken up for profiling. In June, researchers at Stanford University in California described a technique for sequencing single cells embedded in a 3D tissue sample. But these methods cannot yet cope with the sheer number of cells and genes the Human Cell Atlas needs to analyse. Instead, some

visualisation tool, called t-SNE

don’t yet exist. The project has received funding from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative,

the discovery of a new kind of lung

set up by Facebook owner Mark

were plotted using t-SNE, the graph

Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.

showed a blob distinct from all the

The money will go towards creating

other cells. This led researchers to a

software tools and a platform where

previously unknown cell type, which

researchers can upload results and

they called an ionocyte, that has now

analyse data. The project released

been implicated in the disease cystic

its first tranche of data, from more

fibrosis (see main story).

samples – which come from a range of sources, from operating theatres to tissue banks – will be stored and examined later once the technology catches up. Eventually, the atlas will bring together data from many labs relating to one organ or point within it. This will enable researchers to run analyses that encompass all the latest information. That is where its real power lies, says Lein. Despite it being early days, the project is making groundbreaking discoveries. Single-cell profiling has already been used to investigate the earliest stages of pregnancy, as the fetal placenta implants into the mother’s uterus. It revealed the locations of fetal and maternal cells across the interface and the protein signals they use to

“There was that zeitgeist thing. It was an idea whose time had come” communicate. These findings should shed new light on the causes of miscarriage and disorders such as pre-eclampsia. Teichmann has also been working with Sam Behjati at the Sanger Institute and others on the gene-expression profiles of kidney cells. In August, they published research showing that cells from Wilms’ tumour, the most common childhood kidney cancer, resemble cells that haven’t matured properly. Today, Wilms’ is treated with toxic chemotherapy. Behjati suggests a better alternative would be to give

cell. When all the different cell types from the lining of the lung

the cancerous cells the correct protein signals to nudge them into becoming mature kidney cells. “This could lead to an entirely new model for treating childhood cancer,” he says. Perhaps most surprising of all, in August, two teams discovered a previously unknown cell type in the lining of the lung that may well be at the root of cystic fibrosis. This is the most common single-gene disorder in people of northern European descent, and develops when the body doesn’t make enough of a protein called CFTR. The deficit causes sticky mucus to build up in the lungs, repeated infections and early death. For 30 years, we thought CFTR was made in the lungs mostly by ciliated cells. Existing drugs and gene therapies for cystic fibrosis were designed assuming this to be true. Yet the new research shows that the lion’s share of CFTR is made by the newly discovered cells, now named ionocytes. These findings suggest a way to boost the number of ionocytes, which should help some people with cystic fibrosis. Improved treatment for cystic fibrosis and Wilms’ tumour, and better understanding of why pregnancies fail are significant steps in their own right. But this is to miss the broader value of the Human Cell Atlas, reckons Sten Linnarsson at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, one of the project’s organising committee. “The atlas is not enabling one specific thing,” he says. “It’s a foundation for exploring all human biology.” ■ Jeremy Webb is a former editor in chief of New Scientist 24 November 2018 | NewScientist | 31

Hunting the ghost particle To fix fundamental physics we may need to raise the sterile neutrino from the dead, says Abigail Beall

32 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018


HIS is the story of a particle that has refused to die. For 50 years, it has haunted particle physics, with hints of its presence appearing in maddeningly ambiguous ways. Some believe they have seen it. Others think it is a figment of our imagination. But every time we think it is definitely not there, a sudden gust of wind knocks over the furniture and once more there is room for doubt. Elusive though it is, the sterile neutrino would be a real boon. It could make sense of experimental anomalies stretching back decades, and give us the first confirmed glimpse of physics beyond what we know. It could even explain the strangely low masses of the ordinary neutrinos, as well as offering a convincing candidate for dark matter. The bad news is that the latest round of experiments set up to look for it claim that it can’t possibly be there. Some physicists think that’s the end of the story. Others still believe in a mystery particle, but conclude it is


nothing like we imagined. However, for some, a combination of experimental uncertainties and flawed analyses means that maybe – just maybe – the sterile neutrino could be alive and kicking after all. The problem starts with the neutrino bit. Neutrinos are notoriously hard to pin down. They have no charge, almost no mass and can pass through matter by the millions without leaving a trace. The first inkling we had that they were out there came in 1930, when physicist Wolfgang Pauli was struggling to make sense of the decay of certain radioactive atoms. Atoms consist of a nucleus made out of protons and neutrons, orbited by much lighter electrons. When an atomic nucleus undergoes beta decay, it morphs into a daughter nucleus, emitting an electron in the process. The problem perplexing Pauli was that the two decay products went in directions that seemed to violate the cast-iron law of conservation of momentum – suggesting some third particle was needed to make sense of the results.

The tiny, chargeless particle Pauli dreamed up was subsequently called the neutrino, and was spotted in the wild in 1956. Over the following decades, experimentalists gradually worked out that neutrinos came in multiple types, or flavours. There were neutrinos that Pauli had predicted, with an intimate connection to the electron, but also those with similar relationships to the electron’s heavier cousins: the muon and the tau. These three neutrinos neatly slotted into the standard model, the grand blueprint of particle physics, and that appeared to be that. But the neutrinos were only getting started. As it happens, we have a massive source of neutrinos right next door, in cosmic terms. The sun is a nuclear fusion reactor, powered by beta decays that pump out electron neutrinos by the billion – some of which come our way, passing straight through Earth on their journey out into the wider universe. As long ago as the 1960s, however, physicists measuring the quantity of electron neutrinos

The neutrino beamline at Fermilab could help in the hunt

reaching Earth found a major shortfall, with one experiment detecting only 25 per cent of the expected number. Solving the mystery involved conceding that the standard model of particle physics, which had guided the field for decades, was incomplete. Rather than being massless, each neutrino did in fact have a tiny amount of mass, no more than a millionth that of an electron. This mass gives neutrinos a remarkable ability to switch between flavours, morphing from one into another as they zoom along, in a process called neutrino oscillation. That meant electron neutrinos produced in the sun’s core could transform into either muon or tau neutrinos, evading our searches on Earth. “If we had not realised this could happen, then we would never have been able to figure out what was going on,” says Janet > 24 November 2018 | NewScientist | 33

THE SECRET LIFE OF MUONS Neutrinos have always been the black sheep of the particle family. They come in three “flavours”, each associated with heavier cousins called the electron, the muon and the tau. These heavier particles were long thought of as well-behaved, but now it seems the muon may have a dirty secret. In 2001, an experiment at the Brookhaven National Lab in New York measured a quantum property of the particle known as its magnetic moment and found that it exceeded theoretical predictions. This could have been a statistical fluke, but we will have a better idea once more sensitive experiments start collecting data in February next year. Meanwhile, experiments at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva have also seen muons behaving oddly. Decays of particles known as B-mesons should produce muons in roughly the same quantities as electrons, but the detectors are spotting far fewer than expected. This raises interesting parallels

The generation game The standard model classiies elementary matter particles into three generations. The sterile neutrino would be the irst sign of new physics



Charge 0

Charge –1











Charge –⅓ Charge +⅔ DOWN


ie e d u


with the fact that muon neutrinos don’t disappear as often as electron neutrinos do (see main story), a major problem for neutrino physics. The two anomalies could be connected, says Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies in Germany. “You get the impression we are missing something here, but no one has a clear idea just what we are missing,” she says. “It’s as frustrating as exciting.”

Conrad, an experimental physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Granting neutrinos the ability to transform into one another solved the solar neutrino problem, but other mysteries remained. The most vexing of these dates from the 1990s, when an experiment called the Liquid Scintillator Neutrino Detector (LSND) in Los Alamos, New Mexico, found that the antimatter versions of muon neutrinos were oscillating into electron antineutrinos faster than expected. The result was confirmed by a second experiment, MiniBooNE, which ran at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, from 2002 to 2017. Either the experiments were both plagued by the same design flaw, or something deeper was going on. “The LSND/MiniBooNE anomaly is a genuine mystery,” says Raymond Volkas at the University of Melbourne. Another set of confounding results comes from radioactive decays within nuclear reactors. Much like within the sun, these decays are a strong source of neutrinos. For some unexplained reason, though, nuclear reactors on Earth appear to produce about 6 per cent fewer electron antineutrinos than the standard model predicts. So: too many electron antineutrinos being produced on the one hand, and not enough on

i+ + s c io o b t



34 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018


the other. What on earth is going on? That’s where the sterile neutrino comes in. Instead of the neat trio of neutrinos, the idea is to invent a fourth, “sterile” flavour of neutrino capable of shape-shifting into any of the other three. This seems like a big deal given that the notion of three “generations” is deeply baked into the standard model (see chart, below left). But with the reasons for this magic number still a mystery, inventing a whole new generation of particles, or even assuming the sterile neutrino is a lone misfit, might be no more puzzling. Unlike its siblings, though, which interact via the weak nuclear force, the sterile neutrino would only feel the pull of gravity. This idea was proposed in 1958 by Italian nuclear physicist Bruno Pontecorvo, as a way to allow neutrinos to morph into antineutrinos. But the sterility of his proposed particle meant it would be almost impossible to detect. Interest rapidly waned, until the anomalies revived it. The logic goes that MiniBooNE and LSND saw more electron neutrinos than predicted because of all the extra sterile neutrinos that decayed into this kind. And the reason the reactor experiments saw all those electron neutrinos go missing was because they had decayed into their sterile counterpart. Genius! Summoning the sterile neutrino into existence could exorcise a number of other problems as well. Neutrino masses are tiny, over a million times smaller than for the next lightest particle, the electron. The reason for this gap is unknown, but a heavier fourth neutrino could offer a solution. Via a process known as the seesaw mechanism, its increased mass would drive the masses of the others down, like toddlers going up and down on a seesaw. The same particles have also been proposed as a plausible candidate for dark matter, the mysterious stuff known to make up 27 per cent of the universe. Others say sterile neutrinos could also solve the question of why antimatter, produced in equal quantities to matter at the start of the universe, has now all but vanished. If so, “three puzzles of modern physics would find their explanation within one theory,” says Oleg Ruchayskiy at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. Alas, nothing involving the neutrino is ever simple. For each experiment suggesting hints of a sterile neutrino, there is another offering evidence that it does not exist. The most emphatic is the universe itself – the presentday arrangement of stars and galaxies, and the faint surviving echoes of the big bang.


Sterile neutrinos are even ghostlier than the regular kind, which took 26 years to detect

If sterile neutrinos had existed throughout the universe’s history, says Volkas, then their presence would have caused the cosmos to look different than it currently does. What’s more, the reactor anomaly has recently been called into question. Several experiments now under way have put neutrino detectors closer to the nuclear reactors than before, allowing for a more accurate measurement of electron antineutrino disappearance. Although the statistical analysis of the data is not yet sufficiently advanced to say anything for certain, preliminary results suggest the anomaly might have disappeared. MiniBooNE’s latest results, released earlier this year, muddied the waters still further: they showed a larger anomaly than before. Some hailed this as strong evidence for the existence of this hypothetical particle. But if a sterile neutrino exists, then muon neutrinos shouldn’t just transform into electron neutrinos on their way to a detector – some should disappear as well. Yet muon neutrino disappearance has never been seen. “The recent strengthening of the MiniBooNE anomaly actually makes the situation worse, because the stronger appearance signal implies a stronger disappearance signal as well,” says Volkas. During the 15 years MiniBooNE was ticking away, physicists set up a number of smaller experiments to probe for this disappearance explicitly. One of the biggest is called MINOS+,

based at Fermilab. Over the 10 years it and its predecessor have been running, muon neutrinos have steadfastly refused to vanish. This places severe limits on what any potential sterile neutrino may look like, if it even exists. For all the stakes hammered through the sterile neutrino’s heart, it still keeps lumbering on. Conrad says that experiments that conform to our expectations, like MINOS+, historically receive less scrutiny than those like LSND and MiniBooNE, which show signals we were not expecting. “Limits always get a lot less scrutiny than anomalies.”

Ghostbusters This time, however, someone has stepped up to do the scrutinising. Bill Louis, a physicist at Fermilab, combed through the results from MINOS+ and how the team analysed them. “The MINOS+ collaboration has worked very hard on the data analysis,” says Louis, who stresses the quality of the experiment and the complexity of the mathematics involved. That being said, he believes that errors in the data may have been overlooked, leading the team to rule out disappearances with greater certainty than is warranted. The most recent paper from MINOS+ has been awaiting publication since October last year, held up because of issues including those raised by Louis, says Conrad. “Bill only touches on about half the obvious problems,” she says.

Karol Lang, spokesperson for the MINOS/ MINOS+ collaboration, says the team has been in contact with Louis and others while auditing and dissecting its results to better explain the underlying trends, and the resulting constraints on the sterile neutrino. So where do things stand? If the results from both MiniBooNE and MINOS+ survive further scrutiny, then a sterile neutrino on its own is just not going to cut it. We need something else to help explain why the same particle causes both muon and electron neutrinos to appear, but only electron neutrinos to vanish. Some models invent a new force that could resolve the discrepancy. Or perhaps, says Conrad, we don’t need to invent anything beyond the standard model. “It might be nuclear physics – we really don’t understand nuclear effects that well,” she says. When experiments like MiniBooNE search for neutrino oscillations, the nature of the oscillation depends on the energy of the neutrinos observed at the detector. But neutrinos can interact with other particles on their way, changing their energy. We assume most neutrinos are interacting with free neutrons in atomic nuclei, but some neutrinos can hit a neutron-proton pair instead, and this changes the amount of energy they have. Conrad says we don’t fully understand this effect yet, so our analyses could make it look like there are oscillations when there aren’t. If this is the case, we might not need a sterile neutrino at all, just an improved calculation. However, says Conrad, such effects could be working in the other direction, shielding a sterile neutrino signal that would otherwise be much stronger. This could be enough to rescue the sterile neutrino from its deathbed, she says. While theorists develop ever more exotic ideas about what could be out there, experimentalists will keep on searching. Using detectors around the world, from Russia to the UK and even under the Antarctic ice, they hope to place ever tighter bounds on the disappearance of muon and electron neutrinos, as well as the rate at which one turns into the other. Whether these experiments wind up discounting previous results or backing them up is yet to be seen, but it is an exciting time. Volkas believes current experiments could provide a definitive answer to these questions within the next few years. If Louis’ hunch is right, the zombie particle could rise from the grave once again. ■ Abigail Beall is a writer based in Leeds, UK 24 November 2018 | NewScientist | 35

ACCESS ALL AREAS An audacious plan to make research freely available could transform science as we know it, says Graham Lawton


S SCIENTIFIC wagers go, Lenny Teytelman’s isn’t up there with the greats. It doesn’t have the celebrity appeal of Stephen Hawking’s bet on black holes or the intrigue of the wager between Christof Koch and David Chalmers on consciousness. But the outcome will, arguably, have greater impact than any of them. In February last year, Teytelman bet $100 that, by 1 January 2030, all biomedical research will be published in open-access journals. In other words, it will be freely available to read as soon as it is in print. No subscription, no paywall, no restrictions – ever. This may sound like the beginning of a tedious story of interest only to academics and publishers. I suspected so too when I started looking into it, but I soon discovered I was wrong. The battle over scientific publishing is a tale of big money, piracy, hacking, infighting, fake news and free speech. At stake is the soul of science itself. And after bubbling away for 20 years, it is about to boil over, with unpredictable consequences for all of us. To understand what is going on, it is helpful to hark back to the late 1990s, when a notorious website called Napster was spreading panic 36 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018

through the music industry. Napster and its many imitators were in the business of music piracy. Their technology allowed people to access play lists on each other’s computers, making almost any song freely available to anyone with an internet connection. The industry rightly regarded this as a criminal, existential threat, and sued Napster. The site was shut down in 2001. However, it is credited with forcing the industry to rethink its business model, first by embracing legal digital download stores such as iTunes and eventually subscription-based streaming services such as Spotify. Today, scholarly publishing is facing its own Napster in the shape of a website called Sci-Hub, which lets anybody download almost any academic paper free of charge. And there is an awful lot of research out there: according to a recent estimate, it runs to 2.5 million papers each year, and rising. Most are published by traditional publishing houses and available, legally, only with a subscription or on payment of a one-off fee. Neither option is cheap. For instance, an annual subscription to Biochimica et Biophysica Acta – required reading for biochemists and biophysicists –

costs £4574. Access to a single research paper is likely to set you back £30 or more. This all adds up to a very lucrative business. In 2013, academic publishing generated global revenues of $25.2 billion. Profit margins are reported to be between 30 and 40 per cent: the figure is hard to verify, although not disputed by the industry’s leading trade body, the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers. Indeed, last year Elsevier, the world’s largest academic publisher, reported a profit margin of nearly 37 per cent, amounting to £913 million. In other words, academic publishing is one of the most profitable businesses in the world. It is also one of the most controversial, because it is built on privatising assets created by public money and free labour. Here’s how it works. Research funders receive taxpayers’ money, which they dole out to scientists, who then submit their findings to journals in an attempt to get them published. If a subscription journal accepts a paper (usually on the recommendation of peer reviewers who aren’t paid for their work), it publishes and then charges people to read it. Taxpayers often pick up these charges too, for example >


24 November 2018 | NewScientist | 37

THE MANY FACES OF OPENNESS Under open-access publishing anyone can read a research paper free of charge. However, open access takes a variety of forms. GOLD: Articles are published in online open-access journals. Authors pay the processing costs and retain copyright. PLATINUM: Like gold but article processing costs are met by a third party, such as a philanthropic body. DIAMOND: Like gold but without article processing costs; the publication work is done by volunteers. GREEN: Articles are published in a paywalled journal but authors are permitted to deposit a copy in an open online repository. HYBRID: Articles are published in a paywalled journal but authors pay a fee to lift the paywall for everybody. DELAYED: Articles are behind a paywall for an embargo period of between 6 and 12 months and then the journal makes them freely available. LIBRE: Articles are published under a creative commons licence so they are free to read and even reprint, provided they are republished under creative commons.

when a university library buys a subscription. That is if they can afford to. Many universities, even in the US, lack the resources to buy all the journals that scientists need to keep up with their field, says Teytelman. “It’s an absurd situation.” Sci-Hub was set up in 2011 as a direct (although illegal) challenge to the status quo. Since then, its founder, Kazakhstani graduate student, hacker and activist Alexandra Elbakyan, has begged, borrowed and stolen millions of paywalled research papers. Sci-Hub’s technology isn’t the same as Napster’s, but its effect is. The site claims to have 70 million papers in its repository, and growing. Accessing them is simple: you just input the web address or digital identifier of the paper you want. Both are easy to discover. According to Elbakyan, last year there were 150 million downloads, with users in China and India leading the way. Sci-Hub has been playing legal cat-andmouse as the academic publishing industry tries to take it down. Elsevier and the American Chemical Society have won lawsuits against it. Elbakyan is in hiding to avoid extradition. And, of course, Sci-Hub isn’t an alternative to the traditional way of publishing research because it doesn’t produce any papers itself. Nevertheless, like Napster before, it may be the catalyst that changes how an industry works. In fact, a small group of Davids began fighting the Goliaths of academic publishing two decades ago. They argue that the traditional, subscription model undermines one of the accepted norms of science: openness. Scientific progress depends on

“Everyone agrees that flipping to open access is the right thing to do” open communication, so research shouldn’t be locked behind paywalls. They have shed blood, sweat and tears to invent a new way of publishing openly while still covering the cost. “Open access” comes in various forms (see “The many faces of openness”, left) but they all have one thing in common: a paper can be read for free by anyone, anywhere. From small beginnings in the 1990s, open-access publishing has grown into a thriving industry. The Directory of Open Access Journals lists more than 12,000 quality, peer-reviewed journals from 62 publishers, including pioneers such as the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and eLife, as well as traditional

38 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018

publishing powerhouses such as Sage, Wiley and Springer Nature. Veteran publishers are increasingly “flipping” their business models from subscription to open access, or at least a mixture of both. What is more, many open-access publishers make a decent living – not from subscriptions and paywalls, but by charging authors a fee to publish their papers. The highly respected PLoS Biology, for example, charges $3000. “Nobody is arguing that publishing should be free. It does cost a lot, and you need a source of revenue to cover the expenses,” says Teytelman, who is CEO of protocols.io, an open-access repository of experimental methods in life science. On the other hand, the aim isn’t to make big profits and, in fact, both PLoS and eLife registered losses in their most recent financial reports. In addition, although open-access journals still rely on unpaid peer reviewers, many academics see this as part of their duty and they feel less exploited working for open-access publishers. Admittedly, some scientists are wary of this model too, arguing that high publication fees create inequalities. “That removes barriers for reading, but creates barriers for publishing,” says Lynn Kamerlin, a biochemist at Uppsala University in Sweden. She leads a growing campaign group that supports open science in principle but has concerns about it in practice. “Getting published should be about the quality of your research, not the size of your wallet,” she says. Some open-access publishers make a living by publishing large volumes of mediocre papers and that should

Free for all Advocates of open access point out that these journals have essentially the same quality controls as traditional ones, including reputation and impact factors, which measure how frequently the average paper is cited in a year. But there is another problem with open access, as they see it. The original ambition was to totally replace traditional publishing, and that is far from happening. “Most research is still published in subscription journals,” says Teytelman. In 2016, just 15 per cent of journals were pure open access; 38 per cent were pure toll access. Most of the rest were “hybrid” journals: subscription journals that will also publish papers as open access, for a fee. This hybrid model is the bugbear of openness purists who argue that it gives traditional publishers two bites of the cherry, so no incentive to fully embrace open access. Perhaps surprisingly, traditional publishers are quick to profess admiration for open access. “We are highly supportive of all forms of sustainable open access,” says Matt McKay of the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers. “We’re aiming for as much open access as possible.” So why hasn’t it happened? Is it a case of

Printing money Like many traditional academic publishers, the RELX Group’s scientiic publishing arm Elsevier rakes in money and has big proit margins 2500

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concern us all, she adds. “We’re living in a world where we have a big problem with fake news. There are problems in academic publishing, but we do have systems of checks and balances and gatekeepers on how information is disseminated.”

“please God make me good, but not just yet”? When I put this to McKay, he replied that what may look like stalling is actually an attempt to engineer an “orderly transition”. There are risks associated with flipping to open access, he says, not least preserving the integrity and continuity of the scholarly record. That will not be aided if the transition is badly executed or journals go bust. “I don’t see any real disagreement over whether open access is a good thing or a bad thing – the key differences are over how we get from A to B,” says McKay. The latest bid to break the logjam came in early September, when a group of 12 European research funders delivered what they hope will be a decisive shock to the system: as of 1 January 2020, any research they pay for must be published in an open-access journal. Subscription publishing will be totally banned, including in hybrid journals, but beyond that the details are negotiable. “We do not advocate any particular open publication model. The research communities can take over and design publication models that fit their needs best,” says Marc Schiltz, president of Science Europe – an umbrella organisation of science funders, including the group of 12 that signed up to the move. The group calls itself cOAlition S, where OA stands for open access and S for “science, speed, solution, shock”, according to Schiltz. “It was a working title and it kind of stuck,” he adds. Between them, they control more than €18 billion of annual research funding. And the coalition is growing. The Wellcome Trust

Pounds sterling (millions)


Human progress depends on discoveries made in the lab getting out into the world

has said it will implement the plan. Two more European funders have also joined and, according to Schiltz, there is interest from many of Science Europe’s 29 other members and from research funders worldwide. This looks potentially transformative. “It took nearly 20 years to get one funder to commit to immediate open access – the Gates Foundation – so to suddenly get 12 more is quite an outcome,” says Teytelman. “I’m sure the other bodies will join.” What if they don’t, though? This worry is one reason the plan hasn’t been met with universal acclaim. If funders in the US and Asia won’t follow suit, that would create disadvantages for European researchers by locking their work out of prestigious journals such as Nature and Science. Some members of Science Europe may also demur, leading to the Balkanisation of the European research landscape. But, if that happens, the journals stand to lose too, and cOAlition S is gambling that the publishers will blink first. “This is basically a line in the sand saying, if you don’t flip to open access you’re going to lose the output from our grantees. And if you reject top research you cannot be a top journal, your impact factor will slide, your brand will be damaged,” says Teytelman. Not everyone is convinced. Kamerlin and her campaign group dislike the ban on hybrid publishing, which they say will exclude them from some of the most prestigious journals in their fields, and so restrict academic equality and freedom. She is also nervous about the assumption that research communities will come up with new models to make this work. “It’s a shove into the unknown,” she says. But perhaps a shove is what is needed. Everyone, whatever their position, agrees that flipping to open access is the right thing to do. The benefits will go far beyond science and publishing. “Most people are not researchers, but they care about things like advances in medicine and technology. And a lot of public policies depend on evidence that is turned up by researchers,” says Peter Suber of Harvard University, a leading expert on open-access publishing. “Open access helps researchers do their work, and so helps the benefits that flow from research.” Teytelman agrees: “At this point, coming out and saying that subscription publishing is good for society is a bit like saying smoking is good for you.” I know who I’m rooting for to win $100. Q Graham Lawton is a staff feature writer at New Scientist 24 November 2018 | NewScientist | 39


The plant whisperer It’s not just animals that can learn, adapt and remember – Monica Gagliano has coaxed the same behaviour from plants, she tells Joshua Howgego


ONICA GAGLIANO was diving on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef one day in 2008 when she had an epiphany. She was carrying out ecological experiments on reef fish that required her to kill them afterwards to harvest tissue samples. The fish had been swimming in and out of her hands for weeks. But that day they seemed to be hiding – almost as if they knew. It was the moment at which Gagliano decided not only never to kill another animal for scientific purposes, but also to devote her research time to the sentience of other life forms. That led her to plants. Since no models existed for studying their behaviour, she applied her existing knowledge. “I looked at them as if they were my animals,” says Gagliano, who is due to take up a post at the University of Sydney this year. The approach has revealed that plants have a surprising range of abilities – and Gagliano is convinced she will discover more.

People often think plants don’t do much. Are they wrong?

The main reason we don’t appreciate them is that they operate at a different pace. It isn’t just a slower pace. Some plants are too fast for us, like the ones that explode to fire out their seeds. Plants also have a different way of manoeuvring in the environment. Animals move from A to B, but plants grow from A to B. They need to detect as much as possible beforehand to avoid growing in the wrong place, so they have very fine-tuned 40 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018

senses. The more we have looked, the more we have realised that they have a suite of behaviours.

The sentient abilities of plants fascinate Monica Gagliano

What kinds of abilities do they have?

One that might come as a surprise is their acoustic abilities. Plenty of organisms have mechanoreceptors that respond to mechanical forces, and we now know plants have one that can pick up vibrations. Some can even “hear” the vibrations of a caterpillar munching their leaves and strike back by emitting repellent chemicals. You say plants can learn. Why do you think that?

My idea was to take something that plants might consider a threat and see whether they could learn not to bother about it. Mimosa was a good plant to use because it quickly folds up its leaves when it feels threatened. I created a set-up that allowed me to drop a mimosa from about 15 centimetres high. It sounds terrible! But it actually wasn’t. I put it in a pot and it would slide down a bar onto some foam. The first couple of times, the plant was like, “What’s happening?” It closed up its leaves. Usually with animals we need to do lots of repetitions before they learn what’s going on. So I was quite surprised that some of my plants started reopening their leaves after two to six drops. How did other researchers react when you said that plants are good learners?

Plant biologists told me that I’m using the

wrong words. But “learning” is exactly what I mean. Whether it is an animal, a plant or bacteria, if it ticks the boxes that we agree define learning, then that is what it is doing. Does this go beyond the most basic learning?

The next level up is Pavlovian learning. In the famous example of Pavlov’s dogs, the dog learns that the bell always comes before dinner. I tried it with pea plants. The plant’s “dinner” was light and the “bell” was a little fan. I tested the fan first and the plant couldn’t

last – not just sometimes, 100 per cent of the time. So, if 60 per cent go the other way, that is a high proportion. You used the word “remember”. Are you saying plants have memories?

Memory is intrinsic to learning. And by the way, the pea wasn’t the first to show that plants have memory. In the mimosa drop experiment, I left my plants for almost a month and then went back to repeat the experiment. The plants responded exactly as if the last drop had been 5 minutes before. If plants have memories, where are they stored?

The neat thing about plants, and the thing that makes them challenging for us to understand, is that they are totally decentralised. That means memories won’t be in a specific place like the leaves or the roots. The plant functions as a total brain, if we want to put it that way. Our memories are stored in the brain, in patterns of electrochemical activity. Plants

“Plant memories are decentralised – the whole plant is a total brain” are masters of electrochemical signalling. A lot of electricity and a lot of chemical signals are running through plants. They have the same kind of channels that power our own cells’ electrical signalling and very similar chemicals are involved.


Could we ever see such signals?

care less about it. It was a meaningless cue, just as the bell was for the dog. I put the peas in Y-shaped chambers that, once the plants have grown to a certain height, forced them to grow either left or right. I let the fan blow down one arm of the chamber then followed it with light. I did the same for two more days, each day changing the side the fan and light came from. On the fourth day, I turned on the fan, but not the light. The instinctual response would be for the plant to grow towards the side where

light was the day before; plants are good at remembering where they saw light. But would it learn to go against its instinct and follow the fan, which is a precursor of where the light is going to be? That is exactly what the peas did.

If this were an animal, we would challenge it with a task and monitor what is occurring at the electrochemical level. We can plug a human into a machine and see how brain activity changes when they view happy or sad pictures, for example. I am planning to try something similar in plants soon. Why have we been so slow to appreciate plant abilities?

How could you tell that plants weren’t just choosing randomly which way to go?

We assume that humans are the golden template: anything that operates as we do gets a big tick. But that assumption is proving quite bad for the environment. It is also a hypothesis that doesn’t hold because the evidence is showing that the brain isn’t the only thing to produce learning. Plants are revealing that. ■

Around 60 per cent of the peas grew towards the fan on the fourth day. That might appear not much more than random, but normally plants always go towards where they saw light

Joshua Howgego is a features editor at New Scientist. Thus Spoke the Plant, by Monica Gagliano, has just been published (North Atlantic Books) 24 November 2018 | NewScientist | 41


Poles apart We love heroic explorers, but there are richer stories to be found, says Alun Anderson North Pole: Nature and culture by Michael Bravo, Reaktion Books; Kristian Gerhard Jebsen Gallery: Polar Worlds, National Maritime Museum, London

AT THE start of his book, Michael Bravo promises to “treat the mysterious power and allure of the North Pole in a way you will not have seen before”. It is a promise he fulfils in North Pole, a narrative that avoids the usual histories of exploration. His mission is to chart the layers of meaning that the pole has accumulated in our minds and that motivates the explorers who try to reach it. He asks: “Why has the North Pole mattered, and to whom?” Before considering his answers,


Polar Worlds shows equipment used by the great explorers

42 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018

let us add context. Helpfully, London’s National Maritime Museum has recently opened a Polar Worlds gallery, which provides a straightforward history of polar exploration. There are plenty of heroes, from Martin Frobisher, who sailed to the Arctic in the 16th century, to William Parry and George Nares, who tried and failed to reach the North Pole in the 19th century. Then there are the very famous – Scott and Shackleton in Antarctica, and Franklin – who all died on their expeditions. And finally, the American Robert Peary, who claimed to have reached the North Pole in 1909. Thanks to its treasure trove of objects – sledges, telescopes, mittens, chronometers, snow goggles and much more that tell the stories of 500 years of

exploration – the exhibition succeeds magnificently. And you can gaze into the eyes of the heroes, portrayed in oil paintings. However, to explore what the North Pole “means”, we must return to Bravo. There is a link: in one exhibit of quotes from polar diaries, a sailor complains

“Explorers faced pressure not just to reach their destinations, but to deliver stories with mass appeal” of having to take snapshots of icebergs “on the sly” because the crew signed away rights to record the expedition. That, the diarist continues, is so the leaders can “spin their tales without being contradicted by the sailors”. Explorers faced tremendous pressure not just to reach their

destinations, but also to deliver stories with mass appeal. This inevitably shaped their psyche. Bravo tells of David Buchan, commander of the 1818 North Pole expedition, who was so busy “being pummelled by the brutal and crushing force of the polar ice pack” he made the ultimate mistake of not writing his journal. He lost support from his backers and vanished from history. We also learn more about the real Peary. He cultivated a nationalistic, masculine image to feed “an audience hungry for tales of heroic purity and suffering”, writes Bravo. Peary wrapped himself in the Stars and Stripes, scattering strips cut from the flag as he neared the pole “as a ritual act of territorial possession”. Like the other explorers, Peary saw the “epic voyages of classical heroes as their ancestry and inheritance”, identifying with Hercules in his fight to reach “the summit of the world”. All the great explorers were visionaries, but were they gifted or selfdeluded, Bravo asks. Certainly, explorers inherited a long history of obsessions about the pole’s cosmic significance. In the 16th century, new maps provided a fresh world view, looking down on the pole to show Earth in relation to the heavenly spheres. Peter Apian, from Saxony, printed a string of bestsellers. His Speculum cosmographicum of 1524 even came with a paper wheel that could be used to track the sun’s path once mounted on the map. At its centre, holding Earth and the universe together, was the North Pole. This view of the pole made it a fertile ground on which to site lost Edens, spirit worlds and

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

Simon Ings explores the Victoria and Albert Museum’s ambitious plans for east London

Read In The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist, Ben Barres recaps a stellar scientific career and his gender equality advocacy. It was after transitioning to a man that he realised how differently male and female scientists are treated.

Listen The inaugural meeting of the Mars Society’s London chapter will be at RocketSpace on 26 November. Among the speakers will be Robert Zubrin, a founder of the society.

Visit Artist and “private ear” Lawrence Abu Hamdan interviewed former Syrian prisoners for a human rights probe. They could only provide sonic evidence as they were kept in the dark or blindfolded. In Earwitness Theatre at Chisenhale Gallery, London, to 9 December, Abu Hamdan examines the politics of listening.

THE director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Tristram Hunt, has recently revealed dramatic plans to expand into the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London. The development will comprise a five-floor museum and the relocation of the V&A’s research and storage facility to the nearby Here East building, once part of the Olympic Games complex. Announcing the plans, Hunt called the development a “cultural sourcebook”, rather underselling such a colossal logistical and architectural undertaking. The US’s Smithsonian Institution will join forces with the V&A to provide around a quarter of the new site’s attractions, when it opens in 2023. It is a significant moment for the US behemoth (which boasts 19 museums, 21 libraries, nine research centres and a zoo). V&A East will be its first overseas outpost, and will make some of the Smithsonian’s scientific collection available outside the US for the first time.

The plans for V&A East include a museum due to open in 2023

Faced with global troubles and a fourth industrial revolution, science, art and design are rejoining forces, Hunt argued, to deal with “problems we can only address by working on them together”. Collaboration between nations and across disciplines was, agreed the Smithsonian’s secretary, David Skorton, “sorely needed in the world right now”. Meanwhile, the V&A’s storage and research facility is also a big headline. Architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro plan to remove part of the Here East building, creating a kind of panopticon from which the public can view the museum’s vast and closely packed holdings. Even the main gallery’s floor will be transparent, allowing for some vertiginous inspection of treasures below. Hunt and Skorton are right: collaborations are needed. The V&A’s plan proves they can also be expensive, ambitious and very pretty indeed. ■

Listen Alastair Hay, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Leeds, UK, is Jim Al-Khalili’s guest on BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific on 27 November at 9 am. He will talk about eliminating chemical weapons.

Visit This is your last chance to see Deconstructing Patterns (pictured) at London’s Francis Crick Institute, which ends on 1 December, with its riveting science-art collaborations examining microscopic phenomena.


Alun Anderson is an editor emeritus of New Scientist

Iconic investment


imaginary utopias. The most extraordinary is that envisioned by proto-feminist Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. In her 1666 novel, she is propelled through the pole into an alternative world where power is “gendered female not male”. Bravo paints other pictures of the pole. Its allure is seemingly lost on the Inuit. Their vast network of trails takes them around the Arctic’s rim, and the constellations that guide them lie just above the horizon, where sled drivers can see them. The Pole Star above is of little use and the concept of “north” is foreign to them, he writes. Among the explorers, we find different visions of the pole, too. My hero, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, lived with Inuit. After Peary’s “victory”, Bravo writes that he asked, “What if the North Pole were celebrated for the values and way of life found in the Arctic itself, rather than by images of conquering the environment?”. Stefansson mapped a new “pole of inaccessibility” so much farther out from land that no Western conqueror could lay out enough supply depots to reach it. For him, only hunters who lived in harmony with the Arctic could arrive there. Sadly, his utopian view was shattered when the nuclear submarine Nautilus passed below his pole in 1958. Bravo notes the comment by its master:“Who cared? We were safe, warm, and comfortable.” The Arctic may have been conquered by technology, but the values of Stefansson and Peary are still in opposition. The North Pole hasn’t become a cartographical dot – it remains a sacred place for adventurers. Bravo has written a rich and insightful book about our ideas of the pole. Although his focus is the North Pole, it left me thinking about the stories we all tell ourselves in our everyday lives. ■


24 November 2018 | NewScientist | 43


The drugs may work… Medical use of hallucinogens is controversial. But a hit show runs with it, finds Rowan Hooper

MANIAC, a Netflix 10-part series, is like an epic dream where you get to inhabit very different personas and go on wild adventures. But fun dreams can have a deeply personal and disturbing edge. So it is for Maniac: it is really about a method – more pharmacological than psychiatric – of exploring memory, sadness and trauma. It’s the latest in a line of recent shows and films – from Westworld to Inside Out to Inception, that draw heavily on science to bolster their narrative foundations. The show is set in an uncanny valley, 21st-century New York. Robots trundle along sidewalks scooping up dog mess, but people use dot-matrix printers and monochrome monitor displays from the 1980s. New York harbour is dominated by a huge, winged Statue of Extra Liberty, and Blade Runner-style neon ads can be seen through apartment windows. Our heroes are Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill), who is the depressed, neglected, possibly schizophrenic fifth son of a wealthy Manhattan family, and Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone), a penniless young woman who can’t move on from a terrible family tragedy. In an attempt to rid themselves of their psychological baggage, they sign up for a drug trial at the sinister Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech and their paths cross. There is more than a hint of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind here. But rather than simply erase memories, the Neberdine Actors Jonah Hill and Emma Stone have fun dumping their baggage 44 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018

trial uses pills to put subjects into episode, Annie is a wood elf in a deep dream state, then monitors a Lord of the Rings world. Seeing and guides their dreams using a Emma Stone with pointed ears supercomputer – programmed playing a world-weary elf with to develop empathy – to try to rid a booze problem and a British them of a few demons. There is accent is one of many highlights. evidence that dreams may partly Maniac is fantasy, of course, but serve to process emotionally real-world psychedelic drugs are powerful experiences, so this being used to treat psychological is a solid start. disorders. Psychoactive medicine What follows is basically a has a long history, but perhaps sequence of extended dreams “It is good that the show in which, mysteriously, Owen takes seriously the idea and Annie meet up and have that psychedelics have adventures. Director Cary Joji a role in medicine” Fukunaga and writer Patrick Somerville have obviously had a lot of fun, and Stone in particular the drug most relevant to relishes the actor’s dream of Maniac is ibogaine. A highly playing many different roles. psychoactive chemical derived In one adventure, set in the from the central African 1980s, Owen and Annie are a rainforest shrub Tabernanthe married couple trying to rescue a iboga, ibogaine is illegal in most captured lemur. In another, they countries, although it has been are con artists attending a 1940s used in some clinical trials. seance. In the most spliffed-out As reported in New Scientist in

2013, there is anecdotal evidence that even a single dose of ibogaine can reduce cravings for heroin and other drugs. Despite its illegal status and the so far unverified claims made for it, the drug is used in guided, hallucinatory therapy in many countries. Other trials have shown promising results for the use of psychoactive drugs such as LSD or psilocybin to treat depression, and there is evidence that they can lead to personality changes. Recent research also shows that psychedelic drugs can help the brain form new connections. Maniac is not a vehicle aimed at promoting the use of psychedelic drugs to treat mental health issues: it is a clever and thoughtful piece of entertainment. But I applaud it for taking seriously the idea that psychedelics have a role to play in medicine. ■


Maniac, Netflix, written by Patrick Somerville and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga

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Causes of tipping points in risk perception

From Hillary Shaw, Newport, Shropshire, UK Bryn Glover wonders what causes switches in perception such as that over smoking (Letters, 10 November). Tipping points in risk perception are not unlike triggers that set off revolutions. It may be a single event or news report. One Tunisian market

trader, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself alight to protest corruption and his inability to make a living – and triggered the Arab Spring. Sympathy for refugees to Europe rose after publication of a photo of a Turkish police officer holding a drowned child by the Mediterranean. The TV programme Blue Planet II alerted us to the damage plastic does to the oceans and wildlife, and with an earlier media campaign built support for such measures as the EU plastic bag charge. At every possible tipping point, vested interests quickly try to dampen things down. Will there be a trigger for climate change that overcomes this? I fear it will instead take a prolonged heatwave with high humidity in a large south Asian city, causing heat-stress deaths maybe in the millions.

Gravity wave researchers respond From David Shoemaker, LIGO Scientific Collaboration spokesperson, Boston, Massachusetts, US, and Jo van den Brand, Virgo spokesperson, Amsterdam, The Netherlands The LIGO and Virgo collaborations wish to give our perspective on what we see as inaccurate claims about the robustness and transparency of our research in a recent article by Michael Brooks (3 November, p 28). We did contact Andrew Jackson’s team both before and after the posting of their article on the event labelled “GW150914”, and had extensive email and in-person exchanges with them. LIGO signal data are in fact available to all. The time series from all LIGO’s signals are posted on the Gravitational Wave Open



Science Center; also software and tutorial links are found there. In our article in Physical Review Letters on GW150914, Figure 1 demonstrated the clear presence of a signal compatible with general relativity in LIGO data. Small correlations in “residuals” are not indicative of a lack of signal. A wealth of peer-reviewed papers cited in that article provide many answers to questions raised in your article. Those interested in how the “glitch” was removed from the data for event GW170817 can read our Science Summary for the paper on it. We are preparing a paper for peer review that explains the approaches the LIGO/Virgo collaboration uses. Science thrives on scepticism and a desire to understand deeply how a result has been obtained. We welcome efforts to further replicate and extend the work

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“One imagines that people on those planets once had a vote to be better off on their own” Jennie Kermode responds to our report of the discovery of two new rogue planets that do not orbit stars (17 November, p 19)

we have done in interpreting the gravitational-wave data, and are continually working to make our data and tools even more accessible. The Virgo and LIGO laboratory and collaboration leaders endorse this letter.

Wealth, education and lifespan in Africa From Mariam Al Khalifa, Manama, Bahrain Debora MacKenzie reports a finding based on data from 174 countries that more education is what makes people live longer, not more money (28 April, p 12). I used this as a springboard for a school maths assignment. I calculated the correlation of wealth, education and life expectancy, using data only for Africa. I found that education – measured by the literacy rate for over-15s – had a low correlation

to life expectancy (r = 0.3782). Furthermore, I found a stronger correlation between wealth – GDP per capita – and life expectancy (r = 0.4036). Both are relatively low correlations, given that a direct correlation is r = 1. I conclude that economic empowerment is a stronger factor than educational empowerment when determining life expectancy in Africa.

electricity used was generated from gas and coal, while 69 per cent came from wind and nuclear. The car provides information on energy use, helping me to drive more economically. Its limited range makes me plan journeys more carefully: can I combine several errands into one journey? I am not changing the world here. But I am making a small step forward.

Using my electric car is a small step forward

Consider a wind farm as a sort of forest…

From Robin Shipp, Bristol, UK I accept that electric cars are a cause of carbon emissions, as Tom Watts points out (Letters, 29 September). But I note that the UK’s national grid averages suppliers across the country. While my Nissan Leaf was on charge between 2 am and 4 am this morning, 31 per cent of the

From Greg Nuttgens, Porthcawl, Glamorgan, UK Sean Confrey raises some interesting questions about wind farms and their possible effects on the weather (Letters, 3 November). While it must be true that any obstruction to the wind will have an effect, such effects must surely be very small, on the same order

as the effect a row of very tall trees has on the wind. In the case of trees, the wind will create movement of the branches and leaves, and possibly the roots in the ground. These movements will emit a small amount of heat, which will be released into the atmosphere. Downwind of the trees, the speed of the wind will be reduced, so that any loss of energy from the ground to the air will be reduced. Do these two processes cancel each other out? In the case of the turbines, because there is little friction in the system, most of the wind’s energy will be converted into the movement of the blades and thus into electricity. There will be a reduction in wind speed downwind of the turbines, but I imagine this would be small. One of the great advantages of using wind, tide or solar power is surely that there is an >

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LETTERS abundance of energy in these sources, and that we only need to use a fraction of what is available to satisfy all of our energy needs.

Explaining origins as the common people do it From Peter Scott, Bolton, Lancashire, UK Philip Ball says Stephen Hawking told us that God is all about explaining the origin of the universe and responds that no theologian ever did this (20 October, p 44). As a former Christian who regularly debates such things with theists, it seems to me that Ball is out of touch and struggling with the reality of at least part of the argument. Hawking is referring to common people’s views. Cosmological arguments for the existence of deities hold that whatever begins to exist has a cause; the universe began to exist, therefore the universe has a cause. Like other first-cause arguments, they are used by apologists around the world, of all theistic faiths. Many now quote the “Kalam cosmological argument”

set out by William Lane Craig. The person on the street will often say “How else have we got here?”. Ball isn’t correct to refer the argument to theologians or to deny this is a cause of belief.

Stable and unstable locations in space From Eric Kvaalen, Les Essarts-le-Roi, France You say the Earth-moon system has a set of five gravitational balance points, where the gravitational forces from Earth and the moon balance out, and that objects can get trapped in these regions, called Lagrange points (3 November, p 8). You could have made it clearer that objects cannot get trapped in three out of the five, which are unstable.

What kind of radio bursts are these? From Ray Vickers, Ipswich, Queensland, Australia As a radio-communication engineer, I am surprised at the choice of the term “fast radio burst” (FRB) for the mysterious

bursts of radio-frequency energy detected in space (27 October, p 8). Surely these emissions travel at the same speed as any other electromagnetic energy? Better terms would be: brief radio burst (BRB) or short radio burst (SRB.) An appropriate adjective starting with “F” would preserve the acronym, but a quick – or, better, a brief – search found nothing suitable.

The extraterrestrial hunt is a never-ending story From David McKenzie, Summerhill, Tasmania, Australia Douglas Heaven says our hunt for alien life is far from over (6 October, p 15). The frustration felt at the absence of alien life detection thus far needs tempering by a thought not mentioned. The writer Arthur C. Clarke is reported to have observed that “we are either alone in the universe, or we are not”. We can have a definitive answer on whether there is life out there only if we detect transmissions from an exoplanet – or if someone travels here and makes a dramatic



entrance. There will never be a scenario in which we can declare there is no alien life. All we can conclude is: there is no other life, or we haven’t found it.

Excessive hours are a failure of economies From Richard Mellish, London, UK Michael Cook complains, rightly, about games developers working excessive hours (27 October, p 24). He notes that the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that automation would lead to shorter working weeks and this hasn’t come to pass. The problem is by no means confined to the technology sector. Those in employment are expected to work long hours while others are unemployed. That is a clear failure of current economic systems. Notably, total working hours per year vary considerably between countries, even those with generally similar economies.

Electrical repairs put me in a trance-like state From Sarah Brocklehurst, Maidstone, Kent, UK Michael Marshall thought he was weird experiencing autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) while watching towelfolding (3 November, p 35). In a life spent in laboratories, I used to get exactly that tingle when engineers came to fix or service any piece of electrical equipment. I would find myself in a trance-like state that was quite hard to shake off. Even the Bosch engineer working on the washing machine at home could induce it. Letters should be sent to: Letters to the Editor, New Scientist, 25 Bedford Street, London, WC2E 9ES Email: [email protected] Include your full postal address and telephone number, and a reference (issue, page number, title) to articles. We reserve the right to edit letters. New Scientist Ltd reserves the right to use any submissions sent to the letters column of New Scientist magazine, in any other format.

54 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018

CROSSWORD Set by Wingding

Cryptic crossword No1 This is the first New Scientist cryptic crossword. Let us know what you think at [email protected]. Answers and the next quick crossword from Richard Smyth will appear in the 8 December issue ACROSS

7 Boyfriend goes around ancient city to find office (6) 8 Augmented reality in medicine? It’s poisonous (6) 9 Mediterranean island half destroyed for marine animal (4) 10 Extended greeting on outdated broadcasting technology (4,4) 11 Teddy dreaming of mathematical law (7) 13 Soldiers chasing article have a brain wave (5)

15 Extremely likely measure of speed in body fluid (5) 16 Hot drink unfinished on southern sites for 2 (7) 18 Dog eats heads of any other mammal (3,5) 19 Writer repeated: “it gets passed around” (4) 21 Soft metal produced from rum and ice (6) 22 Fruit, a type of berry containing nitrogen (6)



1 Seed pod’s raised edge (4) 2 Homo primates evolved before first sapiens – a major transformation (13) 3 Headless seabirds caught by fishing equipment? There’s nothing in it (4,3) 4 Smell of sulphur and small change (5) 5 Doping agent found in the wrong hotel room, somehow (6,7)

6 Hypothetical particle resembles old lady embracing godfather (8) 12 Spooner’s elf-like tugger has allergy (3,5) 14 Pens put resistance in sea creatures (7) 17 Units of matter switched ends for opening (5) 20 Birds make sound of gardening tools (4)


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for Big Chinese Tech”, “Amazon is Recalling 1 Trillion Jobs” and the open question: “Should I Pay My Workers?” Others sound like practical advice and explainers we really would like to read, such as “How to Make a New Tax Law for Your Boss”, and the enigmatic “5 Ways to Trump on Chipotle Industry is the Random Wedding”.


MORE slipping standards: “In your item on a gas tax increase in New Zealand, you write ‘assuming a mileage of 10 kilometres per litre’,” says Robert Wills (29 September). “Surely that should be kilometrage? Or is there some quantum blue whale conversion that I missed?”

NOT for the first time in Paris, a cabal of plotters has dethroned a king. This time, however, the coup is bloodless: Le Grand K, a 1-kilogram lump of platinum-iridium alloy kept in a vault outside Paris, is no longer the canonical weight from which all others are derived. From now on, scientists will define the kilogram based on the Planck constant, making Le Grand K little more than a paperweight. This got Feedback thinking: isn’t  it time we standardised our

Catching our standard London bus ought to be easier, and less legally troublesome. Given their habit of coming in threes, we can also distribute these to aid scientists (or is that journalists?) the world over. The passengers, however, might be upset to find themselves in Timbuktu instead of Tooting. Finally, standardising an area the size of Wales ought to be easy, as there is only one Wales, and no matter what size it is, it is always the size of Wales. Who said science was difficult?

own favourite units of measurement? That is easier said than done, given that removing blue whales from the ocean, even in the interests of science, is frowned upon these days. What’s more, Le Grand K was kept inside a trio of nested, vacuum sealed bell jars, and only removed once every 40 years for calibration and a bit of light dusting. That sort of timescale isn’t likely to challenge the lifespan of a blue whale — hereon referred to as  Le Grand B — but where will we find a set of jars big enough?

FAKE news! AI researcher Janelle Shane, who previously gave us AIgenerated April fool’s pranks, fed 8500 headlines drawn from the pages of CNN Business into an algorithm that imitates text. The results aren’t particularly believable, but they do tell us something about the world of business. Many of the fake headlines allude to companies behaving badly, such as “CocaCola is Scanning Your Messages

Signage in a public bathroom warns Giuseppe Sallazzo that a running tap “wastes the equivalent weight of 250 penguins or £22 a day”. But what’s that in blue whales? 56 | NewScientist | 24 November 2018

FRUITLOOPERY abounds in all sorts of places, as Brian Darvell discovered while he queued in his local pharmacy. There he spotted a box of Revitale Deeply Absorbent Nose Strips, which promised “each cleansing strip has a unique magnetic system, seeking out unwanted blackheads and unclogging pores”. Who knew skin blemishes were magnetic? Having already paused to apply fridge magnets to our face, Feedback reads on to find that the strips are powered by “natural charcoal extract”. However, says Brian, the ingredients list not charcoal but carbon black, a delightful material synthesised from smouldering coal tar, and used mostly to make tyres more robust. “I would not be inclined to put that on my face, or anywhere,” says Brian. Not so fast, says Feedback: a magnetic carbon black adhesive patch could make an excellent puncture repair kit.

ANOTHER bright idea: Volkart Wildermuth sends news of an exciting development in the Harmonie lamp, which claims to be “specifically designed to enhance brightness and to minimize at the same time electromagnetic light rays, which occur in most conventional LED lamps and are harmful”. It is true that most lamps produce electromagnetic rays – you might say it was the distinguishing feature of a lamp. Though their only health risk to our knowledge is allowing you to stay up all night reading when you should be asleep. “I hope the people behind Harmonie lamp will tackle global warming next,” says Volkart, “enhancing power output at the same time as minimising that dangerous electricity.”

THE Irish Aviation Authority is investigating an unidentified flying object spotted by three pilots in the early hours earlier this month. “We saw a bright light and it then just disappeared at a very high speed,” said one perplexed pilot. Aliens? Astronomer Apostolos Christou had a more prosaic explanation. “It was most likely what are commonly called shooting stars,” he told BBC News. “It must have been

READERS may recall Feedback’s discussion of a font that makes writing unforgettable, and our proposed opposite (27 October). “Surely the typeface used for election manifestos has the unique property of causing those who write them to forget the contents?” says Brian Reffin Smith.

quite a large piece of material… the size of a walnut or an apple.”

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

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THE LAST WORD One for the eggheads I like hard-boiled eggs. When I peel one, the shell and underlying membrane sometimes separate cleanly from the albumen, leaving a perfectly smooth white egg. At other times the shell, membrane and first layer of the albumen all stick together and are impossible to separate, so I end up with a pitted mess. Why the difference? Is it something to do with the egg itself, the way I cook it, or the way I leave it to cool afterwards?

Q The reason some eggs are difficult to peel is because they are too fresh. The shells of such eggs are always difficult to remove cleanly. Those a few days older are much easier. This is all down to how the chemistry of the albumen, or egg white, changes over time. This is also why, if you ever try to make meringue with fresh egg whites, they won’t easily whisk up and become thick. Use older egg whites for them. Jackie Jones Brighton, East Sussex, UK Q This only happens with very fresh eggs. We have chickens and are familiar with this problem. It is the same whether the egg is hard or soft-boiled. The albumen of fresh eggs is more acidic, and this makes it stick to the inner shell membrane more strongly. Fresh egg white has a pH between 7.6 and 7.9 and a cloudy appearance due to the presence of dissolved carbon dioxide, which is a weak acid. As the egg ages, the shell’s outer

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

coating slowly wears off and the egg becomes more porous. The carbon dioxide dissipates and the pH increases to around 9.2. At this pH, the inner membrane doesn’t stick as much to the albumen so the shell peels off more easily. Jo Watson Tadley, Hampshire, UK Q If you want to find out how old your eggs are, put them in a bowl of water. Fresh eggs will sink on their sides (too fresh for hard-boiling), older eggs will sink at a tilted or in an upright position (perfect for hard-boiling). Eggs that are too stale to use will float. Katherine Miller Toronto, Canada Q I have a method for peeling eggs that works well even if they are very fresh. Run cold water into the pan to cool the egg, then crack it round its middle. With spoon and egg in the water, lever up a section of shell using the tip of the spoon. Slide the spoon into the crack between the white and the membrane, and rotate it around

“Ships don’t just mark their paths on the water. Their routes can be traced by contrails in the clouds too” the egg making sure both egg and spoon stay wet. You should then be able to remove the half shell intact. Do the same with the other half. This works even for soft-boiled eggs. David Newton Ipswich, Suffolk, UK

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/

Watery trails Ferries and other craft crossing Sydney Harbour naturally leave a distinct wake, signified by trails of a lighter colour than the surrounding water. These sometimes persist for more than 30 minutes after the craft has passed through, and the surface takes on an appearance reminiscent of ski trails through virgin snow. How can this be so on a body of water that is in constant, albeit gentle, motion?

Q The wake has two main components: the bow wave that spreads out at an angle behind the boat and turbulence created by the craft and its propellers, which produces eddies or swirls in the water. These eddies have angular momentum that is slow to dissipate, so the disturbance lingers and is visible for some time after the boat has passed. Ships don’t just mark their paths on the water, but in the air too. Their routes can be traced by a phenomenon similar to aircraft contrails (condensation trails). Known as ship trails, these are strings of cloud induced by particulate pollution from the exhaust fumes of boats (24 February, p 24). David Muir Edinburgh, UK Q The trails persist because there isn’t much mixing of the disturbed water in the wake by wind and waves. Water gets stretched a bit in one direction and compressed in another when deformed by waves, but each

portion of water remains in about the same place relative to each other. And although wind may cause the surface water to flow in a particular direction, it doesn’t normally cause a lot of mixing. Eric Kvaalen Les Essarts-le-Roi, France Q Sydney Harbour is nearly surrounded by land. Its complex shoreline damps currents, wind and waves, leaving vertical oscillations that do little to scramble anything writ in water. Other factors help trails persist. In clean water, bubbles soon escape, but pollutants that are distressingly common in such areas weaken the bubbles’ surface tension. The shearing action of high-speed propellers can then split bubbles so finely that some become microscopic and remain submerged long after the boat has passed. The frothiness of these small bubbles scatters light, giving a pale cast to boat trails. Jon Richfield Somerset West, South Africa

This week’s question THE SOUND OF VINYL

We often hear from enthusiasts that analogue vinyl audio sounds better and fuller than that of digital systems. If this is a real difference, why isn’t the digital signal tweaked to mimic the characteristics of a vinyl disc? Andrew Brooker Dursley, Gloucestershire, UK