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ZAP TO THE FUTURE? Ray guns promise cleaner way to frack

WEEKLY August 15 - 21, 2015


How minor human errors turn into major disasters


It’s other people that make us conscious

TOADS OUT OF A HOLE Amphibians bounce back from killer fungus


Computers become comedy critics

Science and technology news US jobs in science No3034 US$5.95 CAN$5.95


Sniffing out aliens with weird biochemistry

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Volume 227 No 3034

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News 5



Life, but not as we know it



Sniffing out aliens with weird biochemistry

We need new rules for the accident blame game

On the cover


34 Zap to the future? Fracking with ray guns 26 The we in me It’s other people that make us conscious 38 Toads out of a hole Amphibian bounce-back 19 Think you’re punny? Computer comedy critics 8 Life, but not as we know it Sniffing out aliens

When things falls apart How minor human errors turn into major disasters

Cover image Patrik Svensson

UPFRONT Could iodine raise UK’s IQ? Japan powers up nuclear station. NASA buys pricey ride to ISS 8 THIS WEEK The first animals gene-edited to reduce suffering. Iron Age Britons’ trotter festivals. Eyes dart about dream scenes. Neutrinos spotted underground and in deep space. Urine test can predict risk of miscarriage 14 FIELD NOTES Fires blaze way for Arctic carbon time bomb 16 IN BRIEF Russian doll parasite. Birds fly 8000 km for no good reason. Stellar bubbles shield alien worlds. First venomous frogs found

Technology 18 Smart office uses lights to communicate. Computer that thinks it’s punny. Humans teach machines to spot danger in photos

Aperture 22 Hog in the limelight

Opinion 24 Bee critical Ban on bee-harming pesticides isn’t a farming disaster, says Dave Goulson 24 No game Mark Avery on silent grouse guns 25 One minute with… Mike Mason Why I’m backing prickly pears to power the planet 26 Not all about you Peter Halligan and David Oakley’s surprising theory on consciousness


38 Toads out of a hole

Features 28 When things fall apart (see above left) 34 Zap to the future? Ray guns promise cleaner way to frack 38 Toads out of a hole (see left)

Amphibians bounce back from killer fungus



Coming next week… Oddball particles Dark matter is just ordinary matter in disguise

Exercise yourself smart

42 Gods of tomorrow? It’s time to take responsibility for the technology we design 43 Let them roam Saving large ecosystems is more complex than we thought

Regulars 54 LETTERS Crash courses in economics 56 FEEDBACK Vibrational food ingredients 57 THE LAST WORD Spinning wheel

The all-body workout to fine-tune your mind

15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 3

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Accidents will happen It’s the blame game that urgently needs new rules

Telephone 1-888-822-3242 Email [email protected] Web Mail New Scientist, PO Box 3806, Chesterfield, MO 63006-9953 USA One year subscription (51 issues) $154 CONTACTS Contact us Who’s who General & media enquiries [email protected] Editorial Tel 781 734 8770 [email protected] [email protected] [email protected] Picture desk Tel +44 (0) 20 7611 1268 Display advertising Tel 781 734 8770 [email protected] Recruitment advertising Tel 781 734 8770 [email protected] Newsstand Tel 212 237 7987 Distributed by Time/Warner Retail Sales and Marketing, 260 Cherry Hill Road, Parsippany, NJ 07054 Syndication Tribune Content Agency Tel 800 637 4082 © 2015 Reed Business Information Ltd, England. New Scientist ISSN 0262 4079 is published weekly except for the last week in December by Reed Business Information Ltd, England. New Scientist at Reed Business Information, c/o Schnell Publishing Co. Inc., 225 Wyman Street, Waltham, MA 02451. Periodicals postage paid at Boston, MA and other mailing offices. Postmaster: Send address changes to New Scientist, PO Box 3806, Chesterfield, MO 63006-9953, USA. Registered at the Post Office as a newspaper and printed in USA by Fry Communications Inc, Mechanicsburg, PA 17055

NAPOLEON, one of the greatest minutely detailed assessments of forward thinkers the world has responsibility. Left to the lawyers ever known, said there was no and insurers, there might soon be such thing as an accident, only a no blame-free “accidents”at all. failure to recognise the hand of This is unfamiliar territory. fate. But while he might have lived Existing laws cover some of the by that maxim, society doesn’t issues that arise (14 September have much time for it now. 2013, page 40), but we can expect Consider traffic accidents, the some perplexing cases to come commonest of potentially serious before the courts. As they do, we mishaps. Nowadays, they are should remember that pointing often euphemistically branded as the finger isn’t always productive: “incidents”, and copious research it can lead to defensiveness that is under way to identify factors stymies change, and hamper implicated in a crash, from car attempts to improve safety. colour (silver is said to be safest) to phone usage and even parasites “In chasing down blame, we should recall that error is that can alter drivers’ behaviour. Our responses have been just as the flipside of taking risks and thus part of progress” disparate, ranging from revised laws to redesigned dashboards. This has been recognised by (No one has proposed mandatory the law for more than a century. screening for parasites – yet.) In 1884, Prussian Chancellor Otto Minor, and deeply human, errors of judgement are often at the root von Bismarck – an improbable reformer – introduced “no-fault” of catastrophic failures (see page settlements, allowing workers to 28), so we are increasingly using automation – self-driving cars, for be compensated for often novel example – to take our error-prone industrial injuries without having to demonstrate their employers’ selves out of the loop. negligence. No-fault is still being That won’t stop the blame built into law today: Scotland is game. Someone, somewhere, can always be blamed: if not the users contemplating it for medical negligence claims. of automated systems, then their The trouble is that no-fault goes manufacturers, programmers or those who maintain the networks against our social instinct to seek out causes and allocate blame. they often rely on. Increasingly This has generally served us well. omnipresent sensors allow for

Without it, we would live in a much more dangerous world than we do. But in chasing down blame, we should recall that a propensity for error is the flipside of the capacity to take risks. And risktaking is a vital component of any conception of progress. Much of the time, humans are driven by goals other than safety, which is added as an afterthought or at best a counterweight. When the balance shifts too far, derision of intrusive “nanny states” or overweening “health and safety” regimes is the inevitable result. So despite what technocrats might hope, we won’t ever wipe out accidents. “It will become next to impossible to contract disease germs or get hurt in the city,” Nikola Tesla predicted in 1915. He was wrong. The risks he knew were simply replaced by new ones. To err is human, to forgive divine. Our secular society may have no more time for divinity than for the Napoleonic hand of fate, and recklessness should of course be penalised. But we shouldn’t punish every trace of blame just because we can. As machines take over from humans, we must strike a balance between learning from their errors and prosecuting the humans who make and run them. That won’t happen by accident. ■ 15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 5



Nuclear rebirth in Japan JAPAN is returning to nuclear power. All of the country’s 48 reactors were shut down following the catastrophic Tohoku earthquake on 11 March 2011. The tsunami it triggered caused a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi complex. In the south of the country, workers at the Sendai nuclear complex in Kagoshima prefecture, Kyushu island, pulled out control rods to begin booting up the plant’s Number 1 reactor on Monday. Households are expected to begin receiving nuclear-sourced electricity by Friday, after the reactor has booted up. It is the first move in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s quest to restart nuclear power stations and redress a chronic shortage of power that has led to hikes in electricity prices. He wants

nuclear to provide 20 to 22 per cent of the country’s electricity by 2030, compared with 30 per cent before the Fukushima disaster. But distrust of nuclear power in Japan is unabated. Around 100 anti-nuclear protesters gathered outside the plant as it was being restarted. A poll of 1000 Kagoshima residents earlier this month for the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper showed that 57 per cent were opposed to the restart, with 30 per cent in favour. Another problem is where to put highly reactive nuclear waste. According to The Japan Times, about 17,000 tonnes is languishing in temporary storage pools around the country, with some tipped to reach capacity within three years.

Lettuce from space

balsamic vinegar. The rest were set aside, to be frozen and sent to Earth for analysis. Veggie produced its first lettuce crop a year ago, but all of that was sent for analysis to make sure it was safe for consumption. Growing vegetables is a key step towards providing future missions with fresh food. “There’s a benefit to getting to eat food we grow up here,” says Lindgren. “A space station is a kind of a sterile environment. It’s really fun to see green growing things here that we’re intentionally growing for sustenance.”

–Powering up –

Iodine baby smarts

basis it could mean quite a lot,” says Kate Jolly of the University of Birmingham. But there is not much data on the effects of supplementing iodine in areas where deficiency is only mild, such as the UK. Some observational studies suggest supplements could even lower IQ, perhaps because excess iodine might harm the thyroid gland. Until the evidence is clearer, a safer option could be for pregnant women to ensure they eat enough iodine-rich foods. They are advised to eat three portions of dairy a day, and two of fish a week.

COULD a pill raise a nation’s IQ? Some researchers suggest women in the UK should take iodine supplements during pregnancy to make their children brainier, but others say the evidence is unclear.

Iodine is used in the body to make thyroid hormone, which is vital for fetal brain development. Severe deficiency has a marked effect on intelligence, so iodine is now added to salt in many areas of the world. The UK was not thought to need this, but a group of researchers has calculated that if all women in the UK took iodine supplements from three months before pregnancy until they finished breastfeeding, IQ would increase by 1.2 points per child, on average (The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, “We are talking about very small differences, but on a population 6 | NewScientist | 15 August 2015


“If all women in the UK took iodine supplements while pregnant, IQ would rise by 1.2 points per child”

IT TASTES like rocket, aptly enough. On Monday, astronauts took their first bites of romaine lettuce grown aboard the International Space Station. “Awesome,” said astronaut Kjell Lindgren. “Tastes good,” added Scott Kelly. “Kind of like arugula.” The seeds had been planted 33 days earlier in a microgravity farm system nicknamed Veggie. Astronauts harvested the leaves, cleaned half with citrus-based wipes, then ate them plain or drizzled with olive oil and

Trans fats risk HERE’S something to chew over. Eating more trans fats is linked to coronary heart disease, while eating saturated fats is not. That’s according to an analysis of 123 studies of dietary fat and cardiovascular health. Most dietary advice recommends limiting saturated fats, which are found in animal products, due to the risk of heart disease. But Russell de Souza of –Best not to– McMaster University in Ontario,

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Australia cuts short

Canada, and his team were unable to find a clear association between these fats and the chances of heart or cardiovascular disease. This wasn’t the case with industrial trans fats, which are in margarine and some processed foods like cake. The analysis suggests that eating more trans fat is associated with a 21 per cent rise in the likelihood of developing heart disease, and a 28 per cent rise in the risk of dying of this condition (BMJ, DOI: 10.1136/bmj.h3978). But don’t reach for the butter just yet. “Sources of saturated fat may pose other health risks,” says de Souza.

THE heat is on for Australia. The country has been criticised for setting weak targets for carbon emissions ahead of the UN’s climate change summit in Paris this December, contrasting with a push by the US, China and other countries towards more ambitious cuts. Prime minister Tony Abbott said on Tuesday that Australia would aim to cut emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. This is much less than is recommended by the country’s Climate Change Authority.

Scotland to ban GM

“This is a responsible and achievable target,” Abbott said. “It is comparable to the targets of other developed countries and allows our economy and jobs to grow strongly.” But using the same baseline year of 2005, the US aims to cut emissions by 41 per cent by 2030 and the UK by 48 per cent. John Connor, CEO of Australian NGO The Climate Institute, said the target would not allow the nation to play its part in keeping global warming below 2 °C. If other countries took similar action, he said, warming would be between 3 and 4 °C by the end of the century.

US buys more Russian ISS trips


SCOTLAND’S government plans to CAN I get a lift-off? A shortfall in funding for private space-flight firms prohibit the growth of genetically means that NASA has been forced modified crops. to pay Russia nearly half a billion The move takes advantage of dollars to transport US astronauts recent EU regulations that allow to the International Space Station, individual nations and devolved despite frosty relations between territories to ban the growth of the two nations. such crops, even if pan-European When the US retired its space clearance has been granted by shuttles in 2011, NASA made plans European safety authorities. to fly its astronauts on privately The Scottish government’s developed spacecraft made by the rationale is to prevent premium likes of SpaceX. The aim was to exports, such as whisky, being start the space-taxi service this adulterated with GM material. year, but US Congress has given “Allowing GM crops to be grown NASA about a billion dollars less in Scotland could damage our than it requested for the programme clean and green brand and our since 2011, and the first launches £14-billion food and drink sector,” are now due in 2017. a government spokeswoman told In the meantime, NASA has New Scientist. The government said it would shortly submit a request for Scotland to be excluded from any European consents for the cultivation of GM crops. Ian Sands of the Scottish National Farmers Union says the ban is unnecessary as neither the GM maize approved for European farmers to grow nor the six other products under consideration are suitable for growing in Scotland. “It seems mad to ban it when we’re not using it anyway,” he says. “Surely if things come up in the future, our farmers should –Waiting to fly– be able to use them.”

relied on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to reach the ISS, paying the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) for the privilege. The Russian annexation of Crimea last year has made this politically more difficult. NASA administrator Charles Bolden has written to Congress warning that it has been forced to extend its contract with Roscosmos, at a cost of $490 million for six seats on Soyuz spacecraft over the next two years. That works out at nearly $82 million per ride, up from the $71 million NASA paid in 2013. “While I understand that funding is extremely limited, it is critical that all of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts be supported,” wrote Bolden.

Dinner over sex An octopus likes to be wined and dined during sex. A study looking at the larger Pacific striped octopus shows that, unlike most octopuses, the male and female face each other when mating – a pose that may allow them to feed together at the same time (PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/ journal.pone.0134152).

Privacy glasses Now glasses can hide you from prying eyes. A team at Japan’s National Institute of Informatics has developed a pair of glasses whose patterning foils face recognition software. The Privacy Visor is expected to go on sale in June 2016 for about $240.

Dingos from above Drones could soon be monitoring the world’s longest fence, the 5400-kilometre-long “Dingo Fence” that separates livestock from wildlife in remote farmland in central Australia. The idea is to raise the alert when dingos and wild dogs breach it, preventing losses to farmers.

Smallest ever lemur Nosy Hara, a small island off the coast of Madagascar, is home to a previously unrecognised group of tiny, tame lemurs. The dwarf lemurs are unafraid of humans, suggesting they may have been isolated for a long time. Their island abode is already home to the world’s smallest chameleon (Primates,

Alphabet launch Sergey Brin and Larry Page founded Google to catalogue the world’s information. Now they own the Alphabet. The pair have started the company to hold all of the futuristic spin-offs the search giant is working on, like driverless cars and longevity treatments. Google itself will be owned by Alphabet as well. The conglomerate will allow the pair to start “new things”, they say.

15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 7


Garden of unearthly delights To find alien life, we may have to hunt for every molecule we can smell Joshua Sokol


I’M WITNESSING the future of the search for alien life. In a dimly lit office on the 17th floor of MIT’s tallest building, with shades drawn over the Charles river below, Sara Seager and six other researchers are showing me the foundation stones of a vast library of molecules – a few of which may be the first to alert us to the presence of life on another world. Seager and her colleagues are building a cache of biosignatures – chemicals that would suggest an alien planet is playing host to life. Seager is casting her net as wide

8 | NewScientist | 15 August 2015

as possible. Because we can’t predict what the biochemistry and ecology of alien planets will be like, she’s looking at all small molecules, not just the ones linked to life as we know it. “Is there any limit to what sort of gas life can produce?” asks biochemist William Bains at the University of Cambridge. “Conceptually, the answer is no.” Finding such signals is no pipe dream. Two upcoming NASA missions – the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), slated for launch in 2017, and the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for 2018 – will work

together to catch starlight filtering through a handful of exoplanet atmospheres. Later missions may allow us to see dozens more. Written in that starlight will be unique signatures of the molecules those atmospheres contain, some of which may be produced by life. The question is, how will we know? Seager is perhaps the ideal person to ask. She started her career by modelling the

atmospheres of gas giants around other stars – long before exoplanets were a hot field of research. So she is used to working blind and waiting years to check her models against real data. But her spectral database is joining a crowded field. Astrobiologists have generally focused their attention on a few key molecules that might show up in an alien atmosphere as signs of life, and spent their time planning how to interpret them. “Is there any limit to “There are three major steps what sort of gas life can in making a biosignature,” says produce? Conceptually, Victoria Meadows of the Virtual the answer is no” Planetary Laboratory (VPL) at the University of Washington, Seattle. “One, life has to produce it. Second, it has to build up in the atmosphere to detectable levels. And the third one, which I think is really important, is how detectable is this with the technologies we’re planning to build?” To that end, Meadows’s team at VPL is simulating exoplanet atmospheres containing biosignature gases to predict the best candidates for sniffing out life. And a team at Cornell University’s Carl Sagan Institute is collecting spectra from algae and other organisms that might resemble the vegetation growing on an alien planet. Seager’s innovation is to take a messy problem from biology and geophysics, and break it down into pure chemistry. “VPL and others are business as usual,” she says. “There’s no guarantee that those molecules are the only biosignature gases.” Take oxygen. It may be life’s most famous gas, but Seager questions its role as a good biosignature. It can be produced by geological activity, she says, and even life on Earth hasn’t –Life’s a gas on other earths– always made enough of it to be

In this section ■ The first animals gene-edited to reduce suffering, page 10 ■ Fires blaze way for Arctic carbon time bomb, page 14 ■ Smart office uses lights to communicate, page 18

Signs of life in space Small, smelly molecules could reveal the presence of alien life by imprinting their signatures in starlight filtering through the atmosphere of exoplanets Spectral signatures


detectable from space. Methane alone would be suggestive, says Bains, but geologists might be able to explain it away as well. So Seager and her team are starting with basic chemistry to expand the realm of possible biosignatures. Seager, Bains and Janusz Petkowski of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, have created a list of every chemical with a backbone of six or fewer atoms by linking together elements like carbon, phosphorus, nitrogen, oxygen, sulphur and hydrogen – the most abundant elements of life. They narrowed the list down to molecules that exist as gases, and are reasonably stable over time. Seager suspected that life on Earth could make every single gas, although that hunch was only partially borne out in a thorough study of gases with known links to life. But the various chemical footprints of terrestrial creatures are so wild and weird that her team thinks all of these small molecules should stay in play in the search for life elsewhere. Seager and Bains lump their possible biosignatures into three categories ( abs/1309.6014). There are gases released when organisms exploit chemical gradients for energy, like methane, and inputs and outputs in the chemical pathways creatures use to build biomass, like carbon dioxide and oxygen.


Planet with atmosphere

Frequency Methyl chloride produced by algae or marine bacteria, smells like sea foam or salt marsh

Methyl bromide produced by seaweed, used as a poison

Then there’s everything else – all the scents, perfumes, poisons, and other concoctions of life. Gases in the third category may be ideal biosignatures. Terrestrial life makes smaller amounts of them, but they are probably less likely to be mimicked by geological processes.

Library of life One example is methyl chloride, a toxin produced in large amounts by marine bacteria – or methyl bromide, another toxic chemical seaweeds employ in interspecies warfare (see diagram, above). Meadows had suggested earlier

ALIEN APOCALYPSE Why haven’t we seen signs of alien life yet (see main story)? Perhaps because the aliens are already dead. If civilisations don’t stick around very long, there should be signs of dead aliens all over. Some will have succumbed to “natural” causes, but that could also happen on worlds with no intelligent life at all. So Duncan Forgan at the University of St Andrews, UK, and his colleagues suggest looking for signs of technological apocalypses. “We thought quite hard about the ways

that we could snuff ourselves out,” he says ( Global nuclear war turns out to be hard to notice from a distance, but a killer plague or biological warfare is more promising. Nanotechnology gone horribly wrong could cover a world in nanodust called “grey goo”, which would have a odd signature. Putting a figure on the number of dead aliens could tell us how long we’ve got to live. “It will tell us what we expect the typical lifetime of a civilisation might be,” says Forgan.

Isoprene made by trees, smells like petrol

Dimethyl sulphide smells like cabbage or Brussels sprouts

that methyl chloride could build plans to incorporate the library up to detectable levels in of spectra into simulations of the atmospheres of exoplanets, exoplanet atmospheres to make far beyond what we see on Earth. sense of the first evocative whiffs Other pungent gases include of alien chemistry. dimethyl sulphide, part of the Other efforts, for their part, will scent of cooked cabbage; isoprene, probably prove complementary. a gas trees make to resist heat Meadows’s VPL group is stress that smells a bit like petrol; cataloguing the ways oxygen and methanethiol, familiar could be made on a lifeless world from bad breath and flatulence. to help rule out false positives Observations of a single (Astrobiology, biosignature gas will never be “I think the key science is going enough to discern its true origin. to be in not so much broadening But the hope is that an ensemble our outlook but in trying to focus of molecules on a single world in on the gases that are most likely or across several worlds might to be there,” she says. make a stronger case for alien life. Whatever signals telescopes “If you had methane and methyl pick up, there’s sure to be debate chloride and dimethyl sulphide in the atmosphere, trying to explain “Seager’s team are starting from basic chemistry all that from geochemistry is just to expand the realm of staggeringly difficult,” Bains says. possible biosignatures” Armed with the list, Seager’s team has spent the last three months hunting down spectra about what they mean – and if for several thousand of these the aliens are still there at all (see small molecules – which hasn’t “Alien apocalypse”, left). For now, been easy. A few hundred are Seager thinks the work harks back available in chemical company to her time on the unexplored databases and digitised reference frontier, when she was modelling books from the 1960s and 1970s, giant exoplanet atmospheres. but most remain missing. “We got some things right, Other spectra will be modelled some things wrong,” she says. in computer simulations or “We didn’t know it at the time, but measured by hand. instead of making predictions, we Once it’s finished, Seager were generating a framework.” ■ 15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 9


SPECIAL REPORT GENE EDITING The hornless animals were created specifically to improve the welfare of cattle. Next up could be ways of ensuring that dairy cows produce only female calves and chickens lay eggs that can be sexed long before they hatch, so ending the mass slaughter of male calves and chicks.

“Gene editing could end the routine slaughter of animals simply because they are the wrong sex” Genetic techniques are also making farm animals resistant to infectious diseases, which will benefit people and wildlife. Researchers are already working on TB-resistant cattle, potentially ending the culling of wild animals blamed for spreading the disease, such as badgers. Flu-resistant chickens and pigs, also in development, would help prevent the emergence of new viral strains capable of causing a human flu pandemic. “If an animal is resistant to a virus, that is good news,” says Bruce Whitelaw of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, UK. In June, his team announced the birth of pigs gene-edited to be –Horn free– resistant to African swine fever, a highly contagious and deadly virus. “It’s good news to the producer, it’s good news to the person who pays the money to buy the food in the supermarket, it’s good news to the animal.” Cattle have been born without horns, thanks to gene editing. There is still opposition to genetically modified food, even Will it transform animal welfare in farming, asks Michael Le Page in countries like the US where it has long been grown and eaten. a new wave of farmed animals Fahrenkrug hinted that the But Whitelaw thinks the potential Michael Le Page developed using techniques company will this year begin benefits of gene editing are so TO THE casual eye, they look no that, unlike conventional selling semen from bulls with great that it will win over some different to other dairy cows. But genetic engineering, involve the hornless trait for breeding. critics. “Genome-edited livestock where most dairy cows have scars no “foreign” DNA (see “How to Recombinetics has used gene is the biggest thing that’s ever hit from where their horns have been tweak a genome”, opposite). editing to make existing breeds genetically engineered livestock, removed, these have none. Thanks “We already have numerous hornless without affecting any of and I do think it’s big enough to a tiny tweak to their DNA, they cattle in more than one location,” their other traits. This approach to trigger [a change in] public will never grow horns. the founder and head of could eliminate the common opinion.” Created by a Minnesota-based Recombinetics, Scott Fahrenkrug, practice of dehorning, Fahrenkrug In the case of the hornless company called Recombinetics, told New Scientist. And while he says – and farmers would be very cattle, there is no doubt the gene the hornless cattle are the first of would not discuss the details, happy if it did. edit will improve welfare. To

Dawn of edited animals

10 | NewScientist | 15 August 2015

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prevent injuries to farm workers and other animals, cattle routinely have their horns sawn off, or else a hot iron or caustic paste is used to destroy the “buds” on a calf’s head that develop into horns. The process is painful and is usually done without anaesthetic. It is possible to create hornless cattle by crossing a horned breed with a hornless one, and indeed this is being done. But the offspring lose some of their desirable traits too, so many further crosses are required to get them back. Gene editing massively speeds up the process, achieving in a couple of years what would take a century with conventional breeding, Fahrenkrug says. What’s more, gene editing can improve welfare in ways simply not possible with conventional breeding. For instance, it is standard practice in many countries to castrate pigs to prevent “boar taint”, an unpleasant odour that develops in meat from some sexually mature males. Recombinetics has instead disabled a gene essential for testicular development, so there is no need for castration.

Climate-ready cattle Fahrenkrug says that the pigs appear to grow faster than ordinary pigs during puberty. Once again, the idea is that the company will sell semen with this disabled gene to farmers for use in artificial insemination. Another major welfare issue in farming is the routine slaughter of unwanted animals. Dairy cattle have to be female, for instance, whereas more muscly males are preferred for beef. “If we’re having to kill thousands of the wrong-sex animal, that’s a welfare issue,” says Whitelaw. Several groups around the world, including Fahrenkrug’s, are working on ways of producing only offspring of the desired sex.

HOW TO TWEAK A GENOME Conventional genetic engineering involves adding extra genes to organisms, like adding whole new recipes to a recipe book. Gene editing, by contrast, involves making precise changes to existing genes - tweaking a recipe rather than adding a new one. There are several ways to edit genes but all are based on cutting a gene in a particular spot. The cell’s DNA repair proteins can then be

Recombinetics has also identified the mutations responsible for several traits that make cattle more comfortable in warm climates, such as having shorter hair, more active sweat glands and a paler coat colour. Adding these traits would allow some breeds to thrive in places that are now too hot for them, and also help maintain production as global warming continues. Obviously, gene editing could also be used to make changes that will worsen animal welfare. But conventional breeding is no different. It has already produced many breeds that suffer, from chickens whose muscles grow so fast they develop deformities, to bulldogs that struggle to breathe because of their deformed faces. There’s still some way to go before we create cows that walk up to tables in restaurants and beg to be eaten, like the one in Douglas Adams’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. But we do now have the genetic know-how to make major improvements in livestock welfare over the coming decades – should we choose to allow its use. Although genetically modified crops are now grown and eaten in most of the world, genetically modified animals have yet to be officially approved for food production in any country. This is partly because creating GM animals was very difficult and expensive until recently, and partly because of concerns over

tricked into making the precise change you do want, from slightly altering the gene to disabling it. Gene editing used to require designing a specific DNA-cutting protein for each desired change, making it slow and expensive. Now a method called CRISPR has made it cheap and easy. As a result, gene editing could soon be used to treat human diseases as well as improve crops and livestock.

the safety of taking whole genes from one species and putting them into another. Because gene editing is different, there is no reason to think there will be any safety issues with milk or beef produced by gene-edited hornless cattle, for instance. The tiny change in one gene that results in

hornlessness is identical to one already found in a few breeds of beef cattle. “We already eat them,” Fahrenkrug says. The US Department of Agriculture has said that crop plants produced by gene editing will not require special regulation. It regards deliberately making plants with a desirable mutation as no different to selecting plants that just happen to have desirable mutations – something farmers have been doing for at least 10,000 years. The US Food and Drug Administration has yet to make it clear whether it will adopt a similar position on gene-edited animals, or require approval in advance as it does with transgenic animals. “If any of these projects come good, then the regulatory system has to address it,” says Whitelaw. “And I suppose society has to say, do we want this?” ■

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Tel: +44 (0)1223 746262 15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 11


Iron-Agers loved a pig trotter festival but the feasts that occurred there are unlike any others we know of from that time period. Excavations led by the National Museum Wales between 2003 and 2010 recovered a haul of 73,000 bone fragments, 70 per cent of them from pigs. Analysing them, Madgwick and his colleague Jacqui Mulville found a curious pattern: almost three-quarters of the limb bones came from the

IT WASN’T so much bring a bottle to British Iron Age parties, as bring a pig’s leg. At a site in south Wales people apparently feasted almost exclusively on the right forelegs of pigs – a mysterious ritual they kept up for centuries. The dawn of the Iron Age in Britain, beginning about 2900 years ago, was a time of upheaval. The social order in the preceding centuries was based around trade in bronze artefacts – but bronze suddenly lost its value, leading to cultural and economic collapse across Europe and Asia. “Without this trade network that has been sustaining social order, things get turbulent,” says Richard Madgwick at the University of Cardiff, UK. New cultural and economic systems emerged, which in the south of Britain seem to have been characterised by large gatherings. “That is demonstrated in vast feasting events,” says Madgwick. “We see a number of mounds that preserve the remains of feasts.” An Iron Age site at Llanmaes in the Vale of Glamorgan was a particularly important location –

Eyes dart about a dream scene in REM sleep YOUR body may be still, but as you dream, your eyes can flicker manically. The rapid eye movement stage of sleep is when we have our most vivid dreams – but do our flickering eyes actually “see” anything? It is a question psychologists have been asking since REM sleep was first described in the 1950s, says Yuval Nir at Tel Aviv University in Israel. “The 12 | NewScientist | 15 August 2015


Colin Barras

idea was that we scan an imaginary scene,” says Nir. “It’s an intuitive idea, but it has been very difficult to provide evidence for it.” Some evidence comes from a previous study that monitored the sleep of people who have a disorder that means they often physically act out their dreams. Their eye movements matched their actions around 80 per cent of the time – a man dreaming about smoking, for example, appeared to look at a dream ashtray as he put out a cigarette. But most of the REM sleep these people had was not accompanied by

right foreleg. Radiocarbon dates on some of the bones suggest that gatherings were held at Llanmaes for at least 700 years – and always featured the right forelegs of pigs (Antiquity, “It’s an odd pattern and it’s really stringently adhered to for centuries,” says Madgwick. Isotopes in the bones suggest some pigs were reared locally, but others were brought to the site from elsewhere in south-west Britain. Madgwick says this hints at a highly formalised ritual that might have been important for maintaining social cohesion. Pigs were slaughtered, carefully butchered, the right forelegs were

cooked and eaten, and the bones displayed in what eventually became a large pile or midden. Brian Hayden at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, says that rituals associated with the right foreleg, though curious, are surprisingly common – occurring even into modern times in South-East Asia. “This part of hunted or prized animals is considered quite special and typically goes to the most important men of a community,” Hayden says. Exactly why is unclear, but one theory suggests it might be connected with the movement of the sun. “In many societies going sunwise is standard protocol in rituals,” says Hayden. “If you face the sun that means going from left to right, hence the right may be the preferred symbolical sector.” Though rituals may have focused on an elite, Madgwick says, the sheer number of bones suggests the feasts were for the entire community. The practice might also give us a window into the Iron Age mind. Madgwick thinks that if the right side was such a big aspect of the way people consumed food, that must have been true more generally too. “We can only assume that superstitions against handedness were important within British populations – taboos on handedness were –Only the right foreleg is important– probably overt.” ■

body movements, making it hard to know for sure. To investigate further, Nir and his colleagues monitored people who have epilepsy and have electrodes implanted deep into their brains to help with treatment. These electrodes were mostly in a region that responds strongly to pictures, and allowed the team to record the activity from around 40 neurons in each volunteer’s brain

“We are sure the brain is alternating between different mental imagery in the mind’s eye”

as they slept. They found that activity seemed to spike around a quarter of a second after an eye flicker, just as it does after seeing an image when awake (Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/ncomms8884). “It is very plausible that they are looking at a dream image,” says Nir. Because the researchers didn’t wake their volunteers, they can’t be sure what they were dreaming, Nir says. “But we are sure that the brain is alternating between different mental imagery,” he says. “Every time you move your eyes, a new image forms in the mind’s eye.” Jessica Hamzelou ■

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Seeking ghost particles high and low

“We want to inform parents of their potential success of going on to have a healthy child”


MASSIVE particle detectors in Italy and the South Pole are closing in on ghostly visitors from deep beneath Earth’s crust and far out in space. These barely there particles, called neutrinos, are nearly massless, neutrally charged and produced during radioactive decay. They rarely interact with other particles – trillions pass through your body every second. That hasn’t stopped physicists trying to spot them. The Borexino detector in Gran Sasso, Italy – a giant metal sphere full of liquid scintillator that flashes when a neutrino interacts with it – has just confirmed the existence of neutrinos coming from Earth’s crust and mantle. Such particles had been seen before, but only faintly. Borexino now has 2056 days of data and the team says there is about a 1 in 275 million chance that it’s wrong (Physical Review D, The extra information has also allowed the team to better measure the ratios of radioactive uranium and thorium within Earth responsible for producing the particles, and for the first time distinguish between neutrinos from the crust and those from the deeper mantle. While Borexino looks down, the IceCube detector at the South Pole is looking up. It is searching for high-energy neutrinos thought to originate outside our galaxy, from sources like gamma-ray bursts and burping black holes. The first two were spotted in 2013 and nicknamed Bert and Ernie, after the Sesame Street characters. Many more discovered since have continued the trend with names like Big Bird. The latest neutrino, reported last week, has the highest energy yet. But IceCube is now getting so much data that the team has given up naming individual detections, says detector lead Francis Halzen of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We are in the happy situation that there are not enough Muppets,” he says. Jacob Aron ■

released by embryos to predict their health. Embryos secrete proteins that appear in IVF culture medium or the urine of their mothers. Rather than a pee stick, Butler’s test uses a small mass spectrometer, commonly found in hospitals, to identify all of these proteins in urine. To make their predictions, the team use an algorithm they developed by analysing samples from 121 women who were

between 6 and 10 weeks pregnant. By identifying differences in the protein profiles of the samples, the algorithm could work out which patterns seemed to be linked to miscarriage. Their findings were presented at the European Society of Human –Brace yourself for twins– Reproduction and Embryology annual meeting in Lisbon, Portugal, in June. Other algorithms can predict twins, or if the fetus is likely to be carrying chromosomal abnormalities. But before the test The test analyses the proteins in is offered widely, the team wants a woman’s urine, and can predict to fine-tune the algorithms. They the chances of a successful birth, are planning to analyse around a miscarriage, or pre-eclampsia, 10,000 samples to improve as well as whether a woman is detection of chromosomal pregnant with twins. abnormalities that cause Down’s The test was inspired by IVF. syndrome, for example, before Traditionally, the healthiest developing a home-testing kit. embryos are chosen by eye A test for miscarriage risk for implantation in women would be useful, but only if it undergoing this treatment. were extremely accurate, says Newer approaches remove a Zev Williams at the Albert Einstein cell from each early embryo and College of Medicine of Yeshiva use a genetic test to screen for University in New York. “You abnormal chromosome numbers wouldn’t want a lot of women or genetic mutations linked to being unnecessarily stressed poor pregnancy outcomes, but or falsely reassured,” he says. these tests are expensive, invasive The causes of many and can get it wrong. miscarriages are a mystery and Non-invasive approaches are can’t always be prevented. Still, the way forward, says Francisco Dominguez thinks urine-based Dominguez at the IVI Foundation predictive tests hold important in Valencia, Spain, who has also promise. “This is the future,” been trying to use proteins he says. Jessica Hamzelou ■

Pee test lets mums-to-be see into the future HOME tests can tell you if you’re pregnant – but what if they could also reveal if you’re expecting twins, or likely to miscarry? Using algorithms to predict the outcome of a pregnancy based on the proteins in a woman’s urine could make this a reality. Pharmacy kits today can tell a woman if she’s pregnant and how far along she is, but many uncertainties remain. Threequarters of miscarriages occur in the first three months of pregnancy, and many women refrain from sharing their news until after this time. But that may change, thanks to a test developed by MAP Diagnostics in Hertfordshire, UK. “We want to inform parents of their potential success of having a healthy child,” says the firm’s founder, Stephen Butler.

15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 13


On the trail of the Arctic’s time bomb Eli Kintisch

carbon: the rise of Arctic wildfires. “Welcome to Cherskiy,” our host Nikita Zimov says minutes after we disembark the Antonov-24 propeller plane that brought us here. Zimov directs the Northeast Science Station. “I understand you want me to take you to that hellhole,” he says as he points to a ghost of a forest that will soon enchant the scientists, despite its bugs, muck and fallen trees.

ON A July afternoon in the eastern Siberian town of Cherskiy, 220 kilometres north of the Arctic circle, it is a warm 27 °C. The vista features silver-blue rivers bisecting green swathes of boreal forest – Earth’s biggest ecosystem. But drive a metal rod into the soil and roughly 75 centimetres below the surface you hit a layer that’s as hard as steel – and perhaps as dangerous as dynamite. “Arctic fires may be creating Arctic permafrost holds more new methane sources that than twice as much carbon in its frozen soil as Earth’s atmosphere. could be the new fuse on the Arctic carbon bomb” Which is what brings me here, accompanying seven US scientists from various labs, led by the The trees at Hellhole – the Woods Hole Research Center in moniker sticks – were burned a Falmouth, Massachusetts. We decade ago and could provide have travelled 7000 kilometres an important clue in the debate and 15 time zones to Cherskiy over the impact of Arctic fire. to study a phenomenon that There is no question that warmer might hasten the release of that temperatures, drier conditions

and, possibly, an uptick in lightning are catalysing a rise in blazes across the Arctic. This summer over 9 million hectares of forest in Alaska and Canada have burnt – a record – drawing thousands of firefighters to help. Fires devour the organic layer of leaf litter and shrubs on the floor of boreal forests and tundra alike. As this layer offers insulation during the summer, burned sites could see an increase in the depth of the soil that thaws in summer, before refreezing in winter. More thawed soil could mean more microbial respiration of ancient Arctic carbon into the atmosphere, eventually turning the boreal forest from a carbon sink into a source. The science on this is far from settled, however. For example, some research suggests that the uptick in fires could actually reinforce the permafrost by helping regenerate trees, which insulate the soil and prevent erosion. Larch, the dominant tree species, is fire-tolerant and its seedlings benefit from underbrush-burning blazes. This is where Hellhole comes in. To reach the forest we take a skiff

Hellhole forest A burnt forest near Cherskiy, Russia, could hold clues to what will happen to a huge carbon sink in the Arctic permafrost as wildfires there pick up CHERSKIY ALASKA ARCTIC CIRCLE


Boreal forests

North Pacific Ocean

across the Kolyma river. Trees lean left and right, forming crosses one must traverse. Most are lifeless, but the place is hardly dead: thick mosses and tussock grasses are thriving. The most striking thing is how bumpy and wet the ground is. Unlike the smooth floors one finds in normal boreal forests, the fire thawed the permafrost in a wild zigzag pattern. The low areas are where the permafrost was mostly ice, while the segments comprised of actual soil now form the high ground surrounding endless pools, each maybe a metre deep. McKenzie Kuhn, a recent college graduate, checks one of a series of funnel-shaped bubble traps she set in the pools days ago. In the anoxic conditions found in the soil beneath the ponds, microbes can create methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The team is now trying to measure emissions from the ponds and determine if they come from the carbon locked in the permafrost. Back in Cherskiy, preliminary lab tests of the gases emitted by the soils below Hellhole’s ponds show surprisingly high amounts of methane. So by destabilising the soil and creating microponds, the scientists hypothesise, fire may be creating a new fuse on the Arctic carbon bomb. ■


Reporting for this piece was supported –Not good for climate– by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting 14 | NewScientist | 15 August 2015

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IN BRIEF Asteroids flank far-off worlds too

World’s first venomous frogs kill with stiff upper lip THEY’RE armed and dangerous. Two Brazilian species are the world’s first known venomous frogs. They have tiny spines on their heads – particularly on their upper lips – that enable them to inject lethal venom into the bloodstream of an assailant. A single gram of venom from Bruno’s casque-headed frog (Aparasphenodon brunoi) would be enough to kill 80 people, or 300,000 mice. The frog’s venom is 25 times more poisonous by weight than that of a Brazilian pit viper. Venom from Greening’s frog (Corythomantis greening, pictured above) is less dangerous, but still twice

as potent as a pit viper’s (Current Biology, Edmund Brodie of Utah State University in Logan and his colleagues tested the potency of the venoms and scanned the frogs’ flesh, skin and skeletons. This revealed the spines on the faces of both species that take venom from neighbouring glands. Unusually for frogs, these species can wiggle and flex their heads up, down and sideways, injecting their venom by jabbing their spiny upper lips into their attacker’s flesh. This takes amphibian defences to a new level, says Brodie. The findings change how we view these incredible animals, says Deborah Hutchinson of Seattle University, Washington. So far, we only knew of frogs that secrete poison onto their skin. “There are likely more species of venomous frogs awaiting discovery,” she adds.

It’s a virus inside a parasite inside a fly IT’S a Russian doll of a tropical disease. Leishmaniasis is passed to humans by sandflies infected with the leishmania parasite. Now it seems that a virus hiding inside is silently helping the parasite do its dirty work. Leishmaniasis affects 12 million people and causes lesions that can be hard to heal. People often relapse after treatment, and drug resistance in the parasite was 16 | NewScientist | 15 August 2015

considered the most likely culprit. In Latin America, at least, it looks like there’s an alternative explanation – a virus that infects the parasite. An international team went looking for people in Bolivia and Peru infected with viruscontaining parasites. Of those, they found 53 per cent relapsed after drug treatment. Only 24 per cent of people with virus-free

parasites did so. There was no link between treatment success and drug resistance (Journal of Infectious Diseases, “Leishmania is already known to subvert the immune response,” says team member Jean-Claude Dujardin of the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium. “The virus adds another layer of subversion, leading to treatment failure.” Using antiviral drugs might boost treatment success.

THE exo-asteroids are lurking. In our own solar system, asteroids called Trojans settle in Lagrange points – gravitational oases that remain a set distance ahead of or behind a planet as it circles the sun. We expect that Trojans should flank planets in other solar systems, too – we just hadn’t found them yet. Now, Michael Hippke of the Institute for Data Analysis in Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany, and his colleagues have looked at data from the Kepler spacecraft, which finds planets by detecting a dip in starlight as they cross in front of their star. Asteroids should block light too, but not as much. Combining observations of more than 1000 planet-hosting stars, the team found dips in starlight that could correspond to an asteroid with a radius of 970 kilometres around each star, or many smaller bodies added up (

Birds’ love of butts harms their chicks THERE’S always a butt. Birds that line their nest with cigarette stubs can cut parasite numbers, raising their chicks’ chances of survival. But there’s a downside too. Constantino Macías Garcia of the National Autonomous University of Mexico reported the effect on parasites in 2012. Now his team finds that the more butts are present in Mexican house finch nests, the greater the number of chromosomal abnormalities in the chicks. The damage might have adverse effects on the birds as they age, the team told a meeting of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology in Lausanne, Switzerland. They are now studying whether birds add more butts when there are more parasites.

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Birds fly 8000 km Fish oil pills could help young people stave off schizophrenia for no clear reason TWELVE weeks of fish oil pills may acids, levels of which are low in (Nature Communications, DOI:


stop schizophrenia progressing beyond the first signs. People with schizophrenia are usually diagnosed in their teens or 20s, but may experience symptoms for years beforehand, such as paranoid thoughts. Only about a third of them will develop psychosis, however, and antipsychotic drugs can cause nasty side effects, so these are rarely given as a preventative. Fish oil supplements may be a benign alternative. They contain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty

people with schizophrenia. The trial followed 81 people aged 13 to 25 with early signs of schizophrenia. Roughly half took fish oil pills and half took placebo tablets for three months. A year later, those given fish oils were less likely to have developed psychosis. That was seven years ago. The researchers have now followed up 71 of the participants and found that just 10 per cent of those given fish oils went on to develop schizophrenia, compared with 40 per cent of the placebo group

10.1038/ncomms8934). “We may have put them on a different trajectory,” says team member Paul Amminger of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Nigel Barnes of Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust in the UK says the study needs repeating in a larger group, but that it’s reasonable for people to give fish oils a try. However, he warns that over-the-counter products may not have the right dose of the right fatty acids to be of use. NASA

WHO actually enjoys long-haul flights? The ancient murrelet seems to. This bird travels almost 8000 kilometres across the North Pacific then does the whole slog in reverse – for no obvious benefit. Most migrating birds travel long distances from north to south, or vice versa, to spend the winter in warmer climates. Some travel east-west, to areas where they can get more food. But the ancient murrelet (Synthliboramphus antiquus) is unique, migrating from breeding grounds in western Canada to winter in seas between Japan, China and Korea, before heading back – the only bird known to cross the entire North Pacific, despite the climate and food sources appearing to be similar in both places. “The whole thing is a bit of a mystery,” says Tony Gaston at the National Wildlife Research Centre in Ottawa, Canada. “It seems like an awful long way to go for no obvious profit.” The migration was recorded in three geolocator tags Gaston and his team recovered from birds they tagged in 2013 (Ibis, Given that ancient murrelets are thought to have originated in Asia, one explanation is that the birds are retracing the route by which the species colonised North America. ”There doesn’t seem to be any other suitable explanation,” Gaston says.

Star bubbles shelter planets DISTANT planets may be swaddled in a protective bubble of magnetism and charged particles, courtesy of their parent star. Our sun’s wind of charged particles and radiation forms a bubble called the heliosphere, which repels cosmic rays that can affect Earth’s weather, eat away at the ozone layer and damage DNA. Likewise, “astrospheres” guard faraway worlds from the ravages of the cosmos, says Marshall C. Johnson, an astronomer at the University of Texas in Austin. Whether a planet is within its star’s astrosphere could have a big impact on its ability to support life. Johnson and his team used data from the exoplanet-hunting Kepler spacecraft to analyse the environs of stars known to have planets. They found that one possibly habitable planet, Kepler186f, might orbit outside its star’s astrosphere. But some stars with a few planets, including Kepler-437 and KOI-4427, might offer some protection (The Astrophysical Journal, That may matter to any aliens living on these planets, but having a magnetic field or an atmosphere is much more significant, says Sarbani Basu at Yale University.

Sat-nav to fly you to the moon AT THE next space station, turn left. GPS and other navigation satellites could help spacecraft reach the moon. You can’t just point your rocket at the moon and be sure of getting there in one piece – you need to navigate. “It’s not possible to predict the trajectory accurately,” says Vincenzo Capuano of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. “That’s why you need to know where the spacecraft is.” Currently, spacecraft communicate with tracking stations on Earth to monitor their positions. But these are expensive to run, and there are a

limited number dotted around the planet. If we are ever going to travel to the moon on a regular basis, we will need an autonomous system. Enter GPS. Some spacecraft in low Earth orbit already use GPS to navigate, but missions to the moon fly well above the GPS satellites. Now Capuano and his colleagues have calculated a way for moonbound spacecraft to combine signals from GPS satellites on the distant side of Earth with those from Galileo, a European navigation system currently under construction (Acta Astronautica,

15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 17


TECHNOLOGY temperature in their vicinity. And it’s not just useful for workers; it helps building managers save power and money. For example, when an area is empty, ventilation and lighting levels can be instantly minimised. Deloitte has 2400 employees at The Edge, and 1100 are so far

“Using an app, workers can find their way and change the lighting levels and temperature around them” using the app. Two UK companies are thought to be considering adopting it. Power-over-ethernet lighting is also safer to install than higher –Edging towards a greener office– voltage systems, says Jesse Foote, a lighting analyst with Navigant Research in Boulder, Colorado. The fact that the light units tell the network where workers are means that managers can collect data on how the building is being used. Are there areas where too Flickering lights are usually annoying. Not in this office, where they are many people congregate, or used to communicate with workers’ smartphones, finds Paul Marks indeed are there underused areas that could be rented out? AS YOU walk into The Edge, to deliver power. The computer and light levels – together they For the future, Tim Sluiter Amsterdam’s greenest office system can also send data to each provide an indoor positioning property manager for Deloitte, building, you find all the LED, making them blink on and and monitoring system. When a would like to be able to offer trappings of an airy corporate off. A flicker rate around 2000 phone connects to the LEDs in a people real-time information on edifice: the glass atrium, times a second is imperceptible to certain lighting unit, the network their colleagues’ location. But he tastefully placed indoor trees, a the workers, but can be picked up can keep track of which device is realises that is a privacy minefield gym and a vast cafe and chill-out by smartphone cameras. The connecting at which location. that would require people to opt area. But take the lift up to the phones then interpret the blinking Through an app called Mapiq, in to such a system. “We don’t open-plan office floors owned by as 0s and 1s, allowing the lights to workers can use this to find their monitor movement in the toilets business consultancy Deloitte, beam signals to the devices. way around the sprawling for instance,” he says. and there’s a quiet revolution Since each lighting unit has a building and its meeting Deloitte is also showcasing a taking place above your head. unique position in the building rooms, restaurants and gyms, host of other green technologies The 14-storey building has and is coupled with an array of as well as changing the lighting at The Edge. For example, two become the first in the world to sensors – for motion, temperature levels, air conditioning and sides of the building are covered have LED lighting powered by a with solar panels, providing computer network, instead of enough energy for all the phone, A LIGHT SHOPPING TRIP mains electricity. Not only is it laptop and electric car charging LEDs don’t have to be on a France – where the firm has replaced greener, since it reduces power its workers need. It also uses computer network to offer more 2.5 kilometres of conventional aisle consumption, it also means that geothermal energy from a than just light. lighting with coded LEDs. Customers the 6000 LED lights can be used borehole for heating and collects Mains powered LEDs can create can download an app that directs for more than just illumination. rainwater to flush the toilets. an indoor positioning system by them to the goods they want. They Called connected lighting, the Everything is connected to each beaming a unique signal that can even type in a recipe and the app idea comes from Philips, based in the internet for analytic can be picked up by a smartphone. will guide them around the correct Eindhoven, the Netherlands. It purposes: from the coffee That’s what Dutch technology aisles to collect the ingredients. uses a variant of ethernet – the machines to the hand towel company Philips is testing at a US chain Target is trialling kind of network that connects dispensers in the toilets. “I think similar systems. your router to your PC – to harness Carrefour hypermarket in Lille, of The Edge as a computer with a unused wires in the internet cable roof,” says Sluiter. ■

Office of coded light

18 | NewScientist | 15 August 2015

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MY BATTERY had an alkaline problem, so it went to AA meetings. Hilarious, eh? Don’t blame me, a computer model predicted that you would find this pun amusing. Its makers hope to use it to give robots a sense of humour. We use humour every day, whether to ease tensions, cheer people up or forge romantic relationships. “A big part of language is making other people laugh,” says Justine Kao, a cognitive psychologist at Stanford University in California. But computers have always been terrible at understanding humour. The ability to comprehend or tell a joke relies on a detailed knowledge of language, culture, stereotypes and personal experiences – something computers do not have. Another issue is that there aren’t very clear definitions of what makes a joke funny, says Kao.

So she and her colleagues decided to begin with a particularly clear-cut type of humour: the pun. “We started out using our intuition,” she says. Kao’s team believes that there are two key ingredients to a good pun. Firstly, to be a pun, a sentence must have a degree of ambiguity – you should be able to draw multiple meanings from it. To be funny, a pun should also score highly on what the team calls “distinctiveness” – the degree to which each of the multiple meanings is supported. “The magician got so mad he pulled his hare out” would score highly, for example, because both potential interpretations of hair and hare are likely. Puns with higher scores of distinctiveness are funnier, says Kao. For example, the pun: “The rower could not choose either oar” works, but adding the word “indecisive” before “rower” to support the “or”

interpretation more strongly makes it funnier. “You’d bump up the distinctiveness,” says Kao. With this in mind, Kao and her colleagues aimed to develop a program that could identify whether some text is a pun, and then predict how funny it is, based on its ambiguity and distinctiveness. To help learn about ambiguity, the team asked a group of 100 volunteers to judge the similarity of pairs of words used in puns taken from a joke website, phonetically and in meaning. The team also asked the participants to rate how funny they

“Another issue is that there aren’t very clear definitions of what makes a joke funny”

found each of the puns, so that they could test and hone their model by comparing the predicted funniness to the answers from the volunteers. “It is the first model to give a fine-grained prediction of funniness,” says Kao. She intends to develop the model further to enable it to generate its own puns, as well as other types of jokes. While Kao hopes to use her model to give robots a sense of humour, it could also be incorporated into an app that allows people to test out their puns and even improve them. Not everyone likes that idea, however. “I absolutely would never use a computer to tell me what is funny,” says Tim Vine, the awardwinning comedian famous for his one-liners and puns. “I use one thing and one thing only. The audience. And it has to be an audience of humans.” Given the importance of humour in forming relationships, robots’ inability to grasp wordplay and sarcasm could hamper their ability to integrate into our lives, whether as toys, appliances or carers. “We have talking computers all around,” says Julia Taylor at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, who is also investigating ways to enable computers to communicate informally with people. “For that communication to be on a human level, humour has to be integrated, no matter what.” –My PC predicted you’d laugh– Jessica Hamzelou ■

Roar achievement No two tigers sound the same. If the Prusten Project, a US-based conservation initiative, is right about that, then tiger voices can be used to track the animals in the wild. The project aims to tell individuals apart by analysing the pitch and duration of their roars – a method they think will prove more reliable than using hidden cameras or tracking pawprints. They have already installed recording equipment in a forest in Thailand.


The percentage of people on Facebook who use "haha" to indicate laughter, according to data released by the company. Only 1.9 per cent use "lol".

Selfies spawn avatars Soon a few selfies will allow you to create your own digital avatar, to represent you in video games or virtual reality meetings. A team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne has devised a way to use smartphone shots taken from different angles to map out details such as skin pores and hairs. Short videos of your facial expressions are then used to build dynamic details, like the avatar’s smiles or frowns.

15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 19


Comedy critic computer is a pun-hit wonder



TECHNOLOGY might want to manipulate a particular image, highlighting one technical tool or shelving another that’s rarely used. In another study, presented last week at the Human-Computer Interaction International conference in Los Angeles, the Sandia team hooked airport security officers up to an electroencephalogram (EEG). The EEG recorded the officers’ brain activity while they watched X-ray images of luggage – some safe, some containing dangerous material – flash by on a screen at a rate of 10 images per second. Some of the suspect images triggered a meaningful spike in brain activity known as a P300 wave. This suggests it would be possible to build a “triage system” powered in part by brain data. –Humans are good at spotting anomalies– Experienced analysts would plug in to brain scanners, rifle through data at speed, and let the system throw out the bulk of the images – the ones their brain indicated weren’t worth a second look. A few years ago, the US Humans and computers in harmony can do more than each alone military’s research arm, DARPA, suggested just such a device for imagery of enemy land to spot intelligence analysts. Essentially, the brain is doing, but we know Aviva Rutkin a tank or a weapons cache. you would “turn a human brain that what it’s doing is good.” IN A world of algorithms, Their expertise is tricky for into a sensor” for the machine, The researchers at Sandia there are still a few places a computer to mimic, in part says Laura Matzen, also at Sandia. want to develop a joint cognitive where humans reign supreme. because what they are looking for system: a human-machine hybrid As well as security and At a US government lab in can be a little different every time. that combines the numbermedical scans, the combination Albuquerque, New Mexico, Even the experts have trouble of human and machine could crunching power of computers researchers aren’t interested in explaining how they do it. In a help analysts of synthetic with human idiosyncratic replacing our brains with fancy series of experiments, the Sandia aperture radar, an imaging intelligence. neural networks or machine team studied how specialists and system that generates highThis month, the lab teamed learning software. Instead, they novices evaluate images – when resolution pictures of large up with EyeTracking, a California are using eye-tracking and brain and where they zoom, pan or swathes of land. It is often used in software company, to develop a analysis to create a system that toggle buttons on the computer, tool that can keep track not only of the military and requires a lot of lets our natural intelligence shine. or how their eyes move as they training to be able to interpret “Essentially it turns the “It’s a human and machine data scan the screen. correctly. Environmental brain into a sensor for the system that collectively makes They found that each expert scientists also use it to search for machine, to indicate which oil and create maps of sea ice. everything better,” says Laura had a distinct style, often images need a second look” McNamara, an organisational eschewing the techniques they Matzen cautions, though, that anthropologist at Sandia National had been trained in. what’s important is that second Laboratories. “Human beings are “If you watch a radiologist, look: the chance for a human to where our eyes are roaming, but supremely good at pattern they can go through a whole chest also how an image is moving or analyse the data and make the call. recognition, but what overwhelms X-ray in 2 seconds, 5 seconds. You “Even if you had a really good being manipulated on screen. that is having way too much data.” see them do that and you think, automated computer system, They hope to develop software What we’re so good at is finding how is that even possible?” says a lot of times you wouldn’t want to better filter noise and leave the signal in the noise. Intelligence Trafton Drew who studies visual people with manageable amounts it making the ultimate decision,” analysts, for example, can comb attention at the University of says Matzen. “There’s a need for of data. Or it could be designed to through troves of satellite Utah. “We might not know what human judgement to come in.” ■ anticipate how an individual

Hybrid dream team

20 | NewScientist | 15 August 2015



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Hog in the limelight


THIS guy had a hipster beard long before it was cool. Taken by nature enthusiast Edwin Giesbers at the Bako National Park in Malaysia, this close-up of a bearded pig’s khaki-coloured eye and leaf-shaped ear also shows off its rather unkempt facial hair. Bearded pigs (Sus barbatus) live in the tropical forests and mangrove thickets of the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, Sumatra and surrounding islands. They are the only pig species known to migrate. Some groups go on mammoth annual journeys in search of trees that are about to bear fruit. It can take many weeks, and the pigs travel at night for hundreds of kilometres. Bearded pigs are omnivores. They consume fruits, roots, tubers, seedlings, earthworms and carrion. On one occasion, a bearded pig was spotted feasting on a freshly dead Borneo python. The pigs are a vulnerable species and are hunted by local people, tigers, leopards – and pythons. Extensive logging, particularly in Borneo, has also dramatically reduced their habitat. Tosin Thompson

Photographer Edwin Giesbers NaturePL

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Sowing confusion Critics of Europe’s ban on bee-harming pesticides said it would ruin crops and cost billions. Fact or fiction, asks Dave Goulson AMID growing evidence that neonicotinoid pesticides harm bees, in 2013 the European Commission announced a moratorium on their use on crops that attract these insects. The UK was in the minority of countries voting against. Perhaps the government was swayed by glossy reports funded by the agrochemical industry, declaring that the ban would slash crop yields and cause huge job losses. One such document states that if the moratorium went ahead, in five years the European Union could lose at least €17 billion, 50,000 jobs could go, and “more than a million people engaged in arable production… would certainly suffer”. We can start to evaluate this claim now that we are in the second year of the moratorium – keenly watched by the US, which has so far resisted calls for a ban.

Crops sown in spring 2014, mainly sunflower and maize, were the first not to have the pesticides applied. Across the EU, their yields were higher than the five-year average, in some regions more than 25 per cent higher. So the predicted devastation starts to look like hot air, although we shouldn’t base too much on one year’s data. Debate in the UK has focused on oilseed rape. Here it is mainly autumn-sown, so the first neonicotinoid-free crop wasn’t in the ground until August 2014, and is being harvested now. However, the UK’s National Farmers Union (NFU), which opposes the ban, pointed to Sweden and said that up to 70 per cent of spring-sown oilseed there had been wiped out by pests. As it turned out, it was down 5 per cent overall. The NFU also highlighted claims that on some UK farms up

Grouse game over Climate science and tracking technology may silence grouse guns, says Mark Avery THE “Glorious 12th” of August marks open season for red grouse in the UK. Blasting these birds as they are flushed out of the undergrowth on managed moorland estates has been big business for 150 years – a day’s shoot can cost more than £5000. But this controversial field sport is looking endangered as 24 | NewScientist | 15 August 2015

endangered raptors such as hen harriers and golden eagles continues, despite it being illegal. This year, there are only about a dozen hen harrier pairs nesting in England when the habitat should support more than 300. Five males disappeared even though their nests were watched – they are vulnerable when they leave to gather food. Conservationists don’t know what happened, but technology is making it harder for persecutors to avoid detection.

evidence of its environmental impact mounts, and technology promises to curb wildlife crime. There is no love lost between grouse shooters and birds of prey. A study in Scotland in the 1990s showed predatory birds can thin “Grouse shooting damages ecosystems and the costs out the grouse population to the fall not on shooters, but extent that shoots are not viable. on the wider community” As such, persecution of

Tiny GPS transmitters can now monitor raptors in real time. One hen harrier was tracked up and down the length of the uplands of Britain before she was shot in the Yorkshire Dales. While no one was caught on that occasion, increased investment in tagging will clarify where the killing happens and sometimes who is doing it. The intensive heather burning and land drainage needed to support red grouse numbers way above natural levels have wider environmental impacts. A study by the University of Leeds of 10 river catchments showed that such practices increase greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution,

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to half of the autumn crop was being lost to flea beetles. Recent figures show that overall 3.5 per cent of the sown area was lost. But remember that some crops are lost every year, even with neonicotinoids. Although the final yields are not yet available, projections for this crop are promising across Europe. In the UK, yield forecasts are also good and harvest figures so far back this up, suggesting final yield is set to top the 10-year average. In highlighting losses, the NFU was attempting to garner support for an application to allow UK farmers to ignore the ban. This has now been approved for a limited part of southern England, despite a 400,000-signature petition opposing it. So why was it approved? Getting an answer is hard. The NFU’s case is being kept secret on the grounds that it is “commercially sensitive”. That means we cannot see why environment secretary Liz Truss decided some farmers could again use chemicals that the European Food Safety Authority says “pose an unacceptable risk to bees”. ■ Dave Goulson is a biologist and bumblebee expert at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, and the author of A Sting in the Tale (Jonathan Cape)

reduce aquatic biodiversity and may raise flood risk. Grouse shooting damages ecosystems and the costs fall not on the shooters, but on the wider community – through water bills, home insurance premiums and, ultimately, climate change. Improved detection of wildlife crime with technology as well as a better grasp of environmental impacts will put grouse shooting under new pressure. As the shooters head out on the moors, they should not count on too many more years of sport. ■ Mark Avery’s new book is Inglorious: Conflict in the uplands (Bloomsbury)


Prickly pears to the rescue Desert plants could help power the planet without upsetting food supplies, says eco-entrepreneur Mike Mason when the sun comes up. Some use only a tenth of the water to produce the same amount of biomass. My team at the University of Oxford is trialling plantations of prickly pear and Euphorbia tirucalli in Kenya. So far the yields look promising. How much land is suited to these plants? Worldwide, we think there are perhaps 300 million hectares of semi-arid land available in places where there is little other use for it. That’s an area the size of India. After being fermented to produce biogas, CAM plants could in theory generate as much electricity as is currently produced globally from burning natural gas.

PROFILE Mike Mason is an engineer and eco-entrepreneur. He founded and later sold carbon-offsetting business Climate Care and is now working at the University of Oxford on ultra-lightweight electric motors and better anaerobic digesters

What’s your approach to energy generation? I am using anaerobic digestion – the breakdown of organic material in the absence of oxygen – to turn plant biomass into gas for generating electricity. Aren’t biofuels discredited, partly because their production displaces food crops? That’s why we need plants that grow fast in areas where food crops don’t grow. The solution is a largely overlooked category of plants that includes cacti such as prickly pear and other succulents (Energy & Environmental Science, They grow in semi-arid places too dry for rain-fed food crops. What’s the succulents’ secret? They produce a lot of biomass for very little water. Conventional plants lose loads of water to evaporation when they open their leaf stomata during the day to capture carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. These plants – known as CAM plants – get round that by capturing CO2 in the cool of night and storing it for photosynthesis

How long until this technology is available? CAM plants are already viable for biogas production, but they are at the same stage of plant-breeding development as food crops were 8000 years ago. I am sure yields can be improved a lot. But the biggest problem is that anaerobic digestion is slow and relatively expensive. The rumens of cows do the same thing up to 30 times as fast. If we could copy that, we could slash costs. Surely the land you are targeting isn’t empty. There’s little completely unused land, but lots of relatively unproductive land. East Africa, the Sahel and nations around the Mediterranean contain some of these areas. CAM plants could transform these places. They collect energy, water and nutrients. Anaerobic digestion releases this nutrient-rich water as a by-product – hugely valuable in semi-arid places. We’re looking at using this water to grow Lemna, tiny floating plants that produce lots of protein, which can be fed to fish or livestock. We ought to be able to produce energy, protein and water all from the same land. What does this mean for the climate? I’m ambitious. My aim is billion-tonne emissionreduction projects, to keep serious amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere. The emissions from creating all this energy will be low. It could have a real effect on curbing climate change. Interview by Fred Pearce

15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 25


Consciousness isn’t all about you, you know Your unconscious mind tricks you into believing you have a sense of self, say psychologists Peter Halligan and David Oakley. And it does this for an unexpected reason

THERE is no denying the reality of consciousness. For most of us, it is so self-evident that it requires no explanation. Your conscious self is the owner of your private reality, and your actions stem from conscious choice. However, the more that is discovered about consciousness, the less obvious its role appears to be. For example, measurements of brain activity reveal that muscles and brain areas prepare for an action, such as a reaching out for an object, before we are even aware of our intention to make that movement. As noted by the psychologist Jeffrey Grey and others, consciousness simply occurs too late to affect the outcomes of the mental processes apparently linked to it. So where does this powerful sense of self come from? We suggest it is the product of our unconscious mind, and provides an evolutionary advantage that developed for the benefit of the social group, not the individual. A close examination of your own conscious experience reveals how little control, if any, you have over it or its contents. When you regain consciousness each morning, after losing it the night before, it arrives without effort. Likewise, your thoughts and memories arrive ready formed and you can’t really exercise control over that experience: a blue shirt remains a blue shirt even if you wish it to be different. We proposed 15 years ago that consciousness is an elaborate creation and that everything experienced in consciousness has already been formed backstage by unconscious processes (New Scientist, 18 November 2000). Relevant information is broadcast from the unconscious to form the contents of conscious experience. This means that self-awareness, thoughts, feelings and intentions are simply 26 | NewScientist | 15 August 2015

broadcasts of unconscious brain outputs. This occurs in much the same way that having the experience of seeing the colour blue or feeling the emotion of sadness is the product of a series of uncredited unconscious brain processes. We hold that our very real experience of the contents of consciousness is a characteristic of this internal broadcasting and hence conscious awareness has no specific or generic cognitive function.

PROFILE Peter Halligan was professor of psychology at Cardiff University, UK, where he researched neuropsychological and psychiatric disorders. David Oakley is honorary professor of psychology at University College London where his main research is on hypnosis.

Unconscious control So if the actions that we attribute to our consciousness are in fact under the control of unconscious processes, why do we believe we have a “self” with executive control over our cognitive functions? We consider this perception of a self to be the result of at least two powerful, automatic psychological predispositions. The first relates to perceptions of causality. There is a strong link between the conscious experience of intending to move a limb and experiencing the movement. But being aware that you intend to move your limb is not the same as saying that your awareness made your limb move – especially when the intention to move precedes awareness of that intention. However, our unconscious thought systems generate the belief that it was the self’s awareness of the intention that brought about the movement. It does this to maintain a consistent conscious narrative featuring a self that is in control. This perceived causal

“What does this mean for free will and personal responsibility?”

Time to see the light: consciousness evolved to benefit society, not you

relationship also applies to thinking and thoughts, feelings and moods. The second psychological predisposition is anthropomorphism, a tendency to attribute human characteristics and intentionality to animals and inanimate objects. We believe that humans anthropomorphise their own consciousness, attributing agency and meaning to vividly experienced phenomena. So why did this powerful sense of conscious awareness that we feel on waking evolve? What purpose does it serve? Although our conscious experience feels personal and intimately real to us, we suggest that it is a product of evolution that provides a survival advantage for the wider social group, rather than directly for the individual. We think that consciousness emerged alongside other developments in brain processing that


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conferred a powerful social evolutionary benefit of communicating our internal thoughts to others. In order for this to happen, it was necessary to generate a personalised construction of self and attribute to it the essential cognitive abilities of awareness and agency, as well as the creation of inner perceptions of the world. It is our capacity to tell others of the contents of our consciousness that confers the evolutionary advantage – not the experience of consciousness itself. Why should this ability be advantageous? It lets you share with other people, via unconsciously driven systems, selected contents from your consciousness including beliefs, prejudices, feelings and decisions. This in turn enables the development of adaptive strategies such as predicting the

behaviour of others, which could be beneficial to species survival. This sharing of unconsciously generated, consciously experienced self-narratives also allows for the possibility that the mental content of individuals can be changed by outside influences such as education and other forms of socialising. This is important for disseminating ideas regarding norms and values. In fact, we argue that none of the social systems that human societies depend on would be possible without our compelling sense of self awareness. If consciousness and the sense of self are elaborate contrivances by unconscious systems designed to benefit the group, what are the implications for free will and personal responsibility? Importantly, we are not dispensing with these concepts, which are

central to most democratic systems, we are just saying they are embedded in unconscious brain systems. This new understanding of consciousness as serving the needs of the social group rather than the individual allows us to move from seeing ourselves not as individuals but as “dividuals” whose interests and personhood are shared with others. As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche noted, “consciousness is really only a net of communication between human beings... consciousness does not really belong to man’s individual existence but rather to his social or herd nature.” Consciousness therefore provides a powerful evolutionary advantage by allowing shared communication, and extending each individual’s understanding of the world. ■ 15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 27




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The human brain is capable of great creative feats – and the odd catastrophic piece of decision-making. We lose focus or focus too much, we get scared or overconfident – we succumb to bias: minor human errors that in our complex world can lead to major disasters. Fortunately, our growing understanding of what makes us tick is giving us new ways to avoid these glitches and more – and so harness our minds to avoid damage to life and limb





HEN BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded in 2010, the flames were visible 50 kilometres away. Before the blowout, rig staff had tested the concrete seal on a freshly excavated well before removing the 1.5-kilometre drilling column. The results indicated that the seal was not secure and removing the column might result in a catastrophic blowout. So why were the signs ignored? Disaster analyst Andrew Hopkins of the Australian National University in Canberra says the workers viewed the test as a means of confirming that the well was sealed, not finding out whether it was or not. When the test failed, workers explained it away using the “bladder effect”, which attributes elevated pressure in a drilling pipe to a flexing rubber seal rather than rising oil and gas. The effect was subsequently dismissed as a plausible explanation by an independent inquiry into the spill commissioned by President Barack Obama. The rig workers’ reluctance to take their test result at face value is nothing unusual. Most of us have trouble believing evidence that contradicts our preconceptions. Psychologists call this confirmation bias. Where does it come from? Michael Frank, > 15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 29


WE MISS THE WOOD FOR THE TREES a neuroscientist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, says the bias may have a physical basis in the neurotransmitter dopamine, which acts as a reward signal in the brain. Acting on the prefrontal cortex, it inclines us to ignore evidence that challenges long-held views, keeping us from having to constantly revise the mental shorthand we use to understand the world. In another part of the

IN 2005, 37-year-old Elaine Bromiley went to hospital for a minor sinus operation. When her airway became blocked, three doctors tried to insert a tube down her throat. When that failed, they should have performed a tracheotomy, cutting open her windpipe so that she could breathe. Instead, the doctors kept trying to get the tube in, not noticing that their patient was being starved of oxygen. She never woke up. This type of mistake – fixation error – was famously highlighted in a 1999 experiment by psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris. They asked volunteers to count how many times a group of people in a video passed a basketball between them. During the clip, a gorilla-suited woman appeared in the frame and thumped her chest. So absorbed were the volunteers that half didn’t even notice. “We have a remarkably good ability to focus attention on the things we care about or that are relevant to our task,” says Simons. But sometimes it means we miss things. The aviation industry has dealt with this in part by encouraging crew to communicate. If one person misses something, the logic goes, others can point it out. This isn’t as simple as it might seem. Before airlines introduced this culture in the 1980s, the cockpit tended to be hierarchical,

p&QRCOKPGoUCEVKQPKP|VJG brain inclines us to ignore contrary evidence”

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Safety checklists reduce complications and deaths in the operating theatre


brain, the striatum, dopamine has the opposite effect: its level spikes in response to novel information, and that makes us more likely to be open to these details. In most of us, the net result of the two effects is to favour longheld beliefs. But Frank has carried out experiments showing that some people have a gene that causes dopamine to be broken down more quickly in the striatum. That means they get a bigger dopamine hit from new facts, rendering them less susceptible to confirmation bias. Would it be worth genetically screening employees to find those individuals best at making decisions in high-risk situations? It probably isn’t a good idea – at least not yet, says Frank. A single gene can’t predict the range of behaviours people might exhibit, whether under pressure or not. Yet there are things we can do to help cut out confirmation bias in critical situations, says Hopkins. For example, oil firms could employ a “devil’s advocate” tasked to put across a counter-argument, forcing the decision-maker to consider alternative points of view. Joshua Howgego

and crew sometimes felt unable to challenge the captain when something went wrong. Those dynamics can occur in the operating theatre too. During Elaine Bromiley’s surgery, several nurses noticed that she was turning blue but felt they couldn’t tell the doctors what to do. As a pilot himself, Bromiley’s husband Martin saw how aviation safety practices might be useful in healthcare. He is campaigning for the introduction of safety protocols, including checklists. Checklists require medical teams to introduce themselves and verbally confirm key details of the surgery they are about to perform. One study by researchers at the University of Toronto, Canada, of 80 surgical staff over 170 procedures showed that checklists reduced miscommunication, the top cause of healthcare mistakes, by twothirds. And the move to adopt them is picking up speed. The World Health Organization’s surgical safety checklist, launched in 2008, is now required in UK public hospitals. “The evidence is unequivocal that the use of safe surgery checklists reduced complications and the potential for death by a significant amount,” says Bromiley, who set up the non-profit Clinical Human Factors Group to push for change. They are not a panacea, however. “Unless people are trained to use checklists properly, the potential for big gains is going to be much harder to achieve.” Penny Sarchet




Underwater evacuation drills accustom crews to the shock of an emergency

FEAR evolved as a survival mechanism. When we encounter danger, our hearts race and the stress hormone cortisol floods our system, giving muscles access to extra energy in the form of glucose. The trouble is that cortisol also knocks out cognitive functions such as working memory, which allows us to process information and make decisions, and declarative memory – our ability to recall facts and events. In evolutionary terms, this makes sense. “When you’re running away from a tiger, it’s not really that important to remember how you did it,” says Sarita Robinson, a neuropsychologist at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, UK. But in our complex modern world, where cognitive dexterity can be more

important to survival than physical feats, our fear response can leave us compromised. That doesn’t mean that we can’t perform complicated tasks under stress. Cortisol doesn’t disable procedural memory, which allows us to do things like walk or open a door. That’s why most of us can automatically execute ingrained behaviours such as unbuckling a seat belt, even when we’re afraid. Procedural memory is also what allows highly trained pilots and firefighters to perform under difficult conditions. “They’re not having to generate everything from first principles in that really high-stress environment,” says Robinson. But without that training, our cortisol-compromised mind may cause us to freeze or engage in automatic behaviours entirely

unsuited to the situation. In experiments involving underwater helicopter evacuation drills, Robinson found that trapped passengers attempted to release their harness from the side as they would do with a car seat belt, rather than from the middle, where the clasp was located. “They know they’re wearing a harness,” she says, “but they’re not able to construct a new behaviour in time.” Something similar may account for what happened one September night in 1994, when the MS Estonia, a nine-deck cruise ferry bound for Stockholm, sunk in the stormy waters of the Baltic Sea, killing 852 of the 989 people on board. According to the official accident report, some passengers were “petrified” as the ship listed, and “did not react when other

passengers tried to guide them, not even when they used force or shouted at them”. Even practising contingency routines over and over again may not avert disaster. In a 2013 study, Steve Casner of NASA found that Boeing 747 pilots could make critical errors when presented with simulated emergency scenarios that differed slightly from the ones they had encountered in training. For example, in standard simulator training, pilots regularly practise dealing with a single engine failure during take-off after the aircraft is already travelling at high speed. However trainers rarely present pilots with this problem on the first take-off of the session, Casner says. In the study, he and his colleagues attempted to surprise half of the pilots by doing just that. The correct action is to continue with take-off, yet 22 per cent of the pilots who were faced with the emergency at the beginning of their session tried to abort. In a real-world situation, this could result in the plane careering off the end of the runway. The solution may be to train our brains to handle the unexpected, by incorporating more surprises like this into practice drills. It is difficult to do in practical terms, says Casner. Still, the US Federal Aviation Administration has new guidelines that would incorporate surprise events in routine pilot training by 2019. This would make pilot preparation more realistic and effective, says Randall Bailey of NASA Langley Research Center’s Aviation Safety Program. “The unexpected happens every day in the real world.” Sonia van Gilder Cooke > 15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 31


ON 23 January 2003, a NASA flight director in Houston, Texas, emailed astronauts on the space shuttle Columbia, notifying them that a piece of foam insulation had ripped off the fuel tank during take-off and struck the shuttle’s wing. “We have seen this same phenomenon on several other flights and there is absolutely no concern for entry,” he wrote. Nine days later, Columbia disintegrated on re-entering the atmosphere, destroyed by heated air that entered through the damaged wing. How could NASA, an organisation bristling with experts, have seen a problem time and time again and not paid heed to it? Our tendency to ignore warning signs is something that Robin Dillon-Merrill at Georgetown University in Washington DC has spent years investigating. Humans are often

“If we get good outcomes, over time we ignore near misses, more and more” very bad at thinking critically about near misses or errors, she says, so long as things turn out well – a phenomenon known as outcome bias. “When there are obvious things wrong, people recognise it and notice it,” she says, “but when there are littler things wrong and people get good outcomes anyway, over time they ignore them more and more.” It’s only when catastrophe strikes that we suddenly wake up and smell the coffee. Why are we so easily seduced by success? In a 2012 study, Tali Sharot of University College London and colleagues found a correlation between our tendency towards unrealistic optimism and dopamine levels in the brain. From an evolutionary perspective, says Sharot, this has probably been advantageous. “It enhances motivation. If you think you’re more likely to succeed, you’re more likely to explore,” she says. As for how to manage this bias, DillonMerrill has a suggestion to help us take note of negative details. “One of my colleagues at NASA holds what he calls ‘pause and learn’ workshops,” she says. The aim is to appraise the process before the result is known. “Because you know when you see the outcome in the future you’ll be biased about it.” Chris Baraniuk 32 | NewScientist | 15 August 2015


WE ARE WIRED TO CONFORM IT HAS long been known that people tend to bend their opinions toward those of the majority. In 2011, Jamil Zaki, a psychologist at Stanford University in California, and colleagues discovered why. It involves the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain’s reward centre that lights up when we encounter things we want, like a chocolate bar. Zaki’s team found that it also activates when people are told what others think. And the more this part of the brain responds to information about group opinion, the more someone will adjust their opinion towards the consensus. Conformity can be useful in our day-to-day lives, letting others serve as a guide in unfamiliar situations, says Lisa Knoll, a neuroscientist at University College London. But it can also lead us into danger. Earlier this year, Knoll published a study in which she asked people to rate the riskiness of texting while crossing the street, driving without using a seat belt and An avalanche caught 16 expert skiers at Tunnel Creek, Washington in 2012

so on. After seeing a number that supposedly represented the evaluations of others, all the volunteers moved their ratings in the direction of the majority, even if that meant downgrading their initial estimate of risk. That dynamic may have been at work in February 2012, when three members of a skiing group, including pros, sports reporters and industry executives, died in an avalanche on a backcountry slope in Washington state. Keith Carlsen, a ski photographer on the trip, told The New York Times that he’d had doubts about the outing but dismissed them: “There’s no way this entire group can make a decision that isn’t smart.” How can group errors be avoided? The solution is similar to that proposed for confirmation bias: find ways to spark debate (see page 29). When Zaki meets with members of his lab, he encourages people to voice conflicting views. He also says it can be useful to have people vote on big decisions privately rather than voice opposition publicly. “It’s important to encourage dissent more than anything,” he says. Aviva Rutkin




EVERY driver has been there – you hit a quiet stretch of road and your thoughts turn to dinner or an upcoming holiday. As soon as the environment becomes predictable, safe or boring, your mind starts to wander. “After about 15 minutes, we find it irresistible to start thinking about something else,” says Steve Casner at NASA. Daydreaming has been implicated in train derailments, air accidents and, according to a 2012 study by French researchers of almost 1000 drivers, as many as half of all car crashes. When our thoughts drift, a set of brain structures known as the default mode network kicks into gear. Exactly what it does remains a mystery, but it seems to play an important role in helping us organise our thoughts and plan our futures, says Jonny Smallwood at the University of York, UK. However, that’s not necessarily useful while you are operating heavy machinery. Thankfully, there are a few strategies you can use to keep your mind on a task. One way is to be aware of your body clock. Research suggests that early risers pay attention for longer earlier in the day, whereas night owls are better at staying focused in the evening. Drivers may find that taking an unfamiliar route improves focus. A recent study found that people driving the route they always use inched closer to cars in front of them and were less alert to pedestrians, effects the researchers put down to daydreaming. Chewing gum and consuming caffeine, too, have been shown to help people stay focused on tedious tasks. Alerting people to their waning focus is something that researchers are also exploring. Some car companies are moving in this direction: in June, the car maker Jaguar announced a research project to monitor drivers’ brainwaves for signs they are losing concentration. Jessica Hamzelou





ONE of the worst friendly-fire incidents involving US troops in Afghanistan was set off by a low battery. In 2001, a member of US Special Forces entered the coordinates of a Taliban position into a GPS unit and was about to relay them to a B-52 bomber when the device’s battery died. He replaced the battery and sent the location. What he didn’t realise was that on restart, the device had automatically reset the coordinates to its own position. A 900-kilogram bomb homed in on the American command post, killing him and seven others. In an increasingly automated world, misunderstandings between human and machine are an urgent issue, says Sarah Sharples, a researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. Part of the challenge is making it easy for humans to grasp what computers and devices are up to – in other words, presenting information clearly. The GPS unit involved was criticised for its poor user interface, with soldiers saying its readings were easy to confuse in the fog of war. Technological confusion has contributed to other major accidents. When a Turkish Airlines aircraft crashed on approach to Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in 2009, a faulty altimeter made the flight computer slow the plane down as if it were about to touch down. In fact it was over

Engineer-speak isn’t the best way to communicate flight information to pilots

1000 feet up. The first indication of this “autothrottle” mode was a small word that appeared on the flight display, “RETARD”, which the cockpit crew, busy with other tasks, could not have been expected to notice. In 2013, Asiana Airlines flight 214 crashed on approach to San Francisco, in part because the flight crew did not know how the plane’s complex computer would behave in certain flight modes. Part of the difficulty, says Michael Feary, a research psychologist at NASA, is the use of “engineer-speak” in flight computer displays. “We need to improve the interfaces to better communicate the complex systems on modern airplanes.” It’s a problem that we are just beginning to understand and tackle. Nadine Sarter at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and colleagues at technology company Alion, for instance, have worked on a NASA-funded tool that tries to find flaws in proposed cockpit designs. The software, called ADAT, checks a number of details including whether crucial flight information is presented clearly. “We’re trying to use everything we’ve learned in the past,” says Sarter, “and hopefully prevent accidents rather than explain them after the fact.” Sonia van Gilder Cooke ■ 15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 33


HEN Peter Kearl waxes lyrical about microwaves, he’s not thinking about rustling up a quick dinner. An engineer who once worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Kearl sees microwaves as the answer to our energy woes. As the world debates whether fracking for oil and gas is an economic godsend or an environmental nightmare, Kearl thinks zapping the ground with microwaves could provide a cleaner, greener way to get those fuels out. He also knows how the idea will sound to most people. “We’re still trying to convince people that this is not something out of Star Wars,” he says. Perhaps not for much longer. Big names such as BP and ConocoPhillips are also warming to an idea that, its proponents argue, could provide a cheap new source of oil and gas to bridge the gap while renewables get off the ground. Not only that, it could also store carbon, keep us from digging up pristine areas – and even generate clean water. Too good to be true? Fracking, too, was once described as a “blue bridge to a green future”, but many would argue that any plan to extract yet more carbon-producing fossil fuel from the ground can never be a good idea. With microwave zapping, are we heading for fracking mark two? Fracking is a corrosive and violent way of getting oil and gas from the ground – because it has to be. Hydraulic fracturing, as the technique is more properly known, involves injecting water and chemicals into the ground, and is often combined with horizontal drilling to extract oil and gas from difficult geology, most notoriously shale, a fine-grained sedimentary rock. In the US, it has transformed the energy landscape, aiding a switch from coal-fired power plants to natural gas, which emits half the carbon dioxide of 34 | NewScientist | 15 August 2015

coal. Indeed, fracking may be one reason that, in 2012, the US met the emissions targets of the Kyoto protocol without ever having ratified it. But there’s still a price to pay, not least that fracking requires a lot of water. Every year, 35,000 US fracking wells use up to 525 billion litres, about what 3.8 million US citizens would use in a year. Opponents of fracking highlight how the practice depletes underground aquifers, or depends on water brought in from afar in diesel-exhaust-belching trucks. And fracking fluid is a nasty cocktail, containing hydrochloric acid to clear out cement debris from drilling or to break down limestone, plus corrosion inhibitors, friction-reducing agents, viscosity reducing agents and biocides, to name just a few. Although concerns about fracking-induced earthquakes have proved largely overblown, the escape of large amounts of greenhouse gases from poorly sealed wells also gets many people hot under the collar. Add all that together and it’s easy to understand the interest in microwaves. Microwaves can exploit an underappreciated feature of some hydrocarbons: while they can be an asphalt-like solid at room temperature, they become liquid with a little heating. The trouble is getting the heat down into the kinds of permeable rocks that trap oil and gas. We’d never found a good way to do it. Porous rock is an excellent thermal insulator, so electric heaters don’t work. Injecting steam – a technique sometimes used in conventional wells to make heavy crude oil and bitumen less gloopy – can heat up a section of rock but won’t work past obstructions. The best option could be to lower a high-power, 2.45-gigahertz emitter – essentially a supercharged microwave oven – into the ground. >


Could microwaves clean up the messy way we get fuel out of the ground, asks David Hambling

15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 35

The idea that a microwave antenna might do the job has actually been around for a while. However, equipment that can create, steer and stabilise the beam was too bulky to fit down a narrow well. Now, designs that will soon make the technology cheap and commonplace are emerging from small outfits, including one Kearl has set up, and from the defence industry. But just as a ceramic mug in a microwave oven remains cold to the touch while its contents warm up, porous rocks don’t heat up when zapped with microwaves. The trick is that any water trapped in their pores will. If that is mixed up with solid hydrocarbons, the boiling water will heat and liquefy these. The water then turns to steam, and everything can flow through the cleared pores and cracks to be collected at the surface (see diagram, below). The overall effect is similar to fracking, but with none of the chemicals or contaminated water. The steam ensures oxygen stays at levels too low to be easily flammable, meaning there is no risk of underground fires. And while the beam might cook any microorganisms in its immediate path, it will do less damage than the acidic mix in fracking fluid. “It’s more efficient, with less impact on the environment,” says Kearl. After developing his microwave system at Oak Ridge, in 2013 Kearl formed a company called Qmast in Grand Junction, Colorado, to

bring the technology to market. He’s not the only one. Last year, ConocoPhillips published a patent to use microwaves to liquefy and extract subterranean oil. But Kearl thinks there is another, immediate use for his technology: to unblock existing oil and gas wells that have become too sluggish to be worth operating. In oil wells, this happens when paraffin wax and other impurities build up in the conduits to the pipe. Similarly, fracking well production declines quickly when the shale absorbs water, causing the rock to swell and squeeze into the fractures and block the gas’s exit. Many of these wells are abandoned despite there being

Kearl’s method is not the only way that microwaves can clean up after the oil and gas industry. John Robinson and his colleagues at the University of Nottingham, UK, are developing a system to dislodge oil trapped in drill cuttings, the contaminated sand left by the drilling process in a conventional well. When the team zaps the mix with microwaves, the heating of any water mixed in with the heavy oil makes oil dribble out, leaving basically clean sand. BP has funded Robinson’s team to extract oil from cuttings left by its ocean platforms, making the cuttings safe to put back into the ocean. The same process can coax oil from tar sands, a forbidding mixture of sand, clay, water and bitumen – a heavy oil sludge that has resisted all efforts to pump it from the sands. The only way to do it is by strip mining or open pit mining, which means tearing up the ground with large hydraulic shovels. This has led to protests in tar sand hotspots like Canada, where mining has razed thousands of square kilometres of boreal forests. Like shale, however, these “low-grade” tar sands might succumb to zapping – thanks to their payload of water, trapped in this case within the crystal structures of small particles called clay fines. Robinson says his group’s long-term goal, like QMast, is to use microwave heat for large-scale production of hydrocarbons. “If microwave technologies can eliminate the need for water and chemicals in hydraulic

“Microwave extraction can yield not just oil, but water pure enough to drink” plenty of remaining oil or gas, and new wells are dug. If microwaves can melt paraffin and boil off water, blocked wells will flow like new. “They could be effectively rehabilitated by microwave heating,” says Kearl. This could help protect environmentally sensitive areas. “If we can produce more oil from old wells, that would lessen interest in drilling for new sources of oil,” says Stephen Brown, an energy economist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Why frack when you can zap? Microwave heating can release oil and gas from porous rock – and unlike fracking, the process liberates rather than consumes water

How it works 1 A high-powered microwave

Gas or Oil + water

emitter is lowered down a shaft AQUIFER

2 Microwaves heat any water

within range 3 Water in the porous rock turns

to steam, warming liquid and solid hydrocarbons and freeing trapped gas


escapes from the pores and flows up the pipe




4 Oil or gas (including steam)


5 Microwaves can now pass

through the emptied porous rock to reach more distant hydrocarbons


2 1 Microwave emitter

36 | NewScientist | 15 August 2015



A question of scale

For all its benefits, the controversies over fracking are mounting up


fracturing, that would be a significant advance,” says Rob Jackson, an earth systems scientist at Stanford University in California. Indeed, rather than consuming vast quantities of water as fracking does, zapping could even unlock fresh water supplies. When Robinson’s technique turns the water in tar fines to steam, it yields not just oil but water pure enough to drink. Tar sands are only about 1 per cent water, but oil shale’s water content can approach 20 per cent. Current methods of oil and gas extraction use two to five barrels of water per barrel of oil produced, says Eleanor Binner, an engineer on Robinson’s team. By contrast, Kearl says, oil-producing rocks – for example the Green River formation in the western US, which contains the largest oil shale deposit in the world – would yield a barrel of water for every two barrels of oil. “The hydrocarbons and water can be easily separated once condensed,” says Robinson.

A far bigger hurdle is the technique’s hunger for energy. In principle, microwave zapping “uses less energy than conventional extraction”, says Robinson. However, that saving is lost once you factor in inefficiencies associated with running the microwave antenna on electrical power. Kearl says microwaving should produce oil for $9 a barrel – cheaper than other niche methods, but merely on a par with fracking and other conventional extraction. So while there are reasons to adopt microwave zapping, saving on the cost is not among them. For the same reason, microwave extraction offers no cuts in carbon emissions. To improve on this, Kearl plans to use the cavities created during microwave heating to store carbon dioxide produced by the antenna’s electrical

Still, there are reasons not to be wildly enthusiastic just yet. Jackson, for one, points to the small scale of the microwave testing done so far in the lab. “Bench-top experiments are a good first step, but they’re a long way from a well that’s a mile deep and a mile wide,” he says. So far, a complex mixture of chemical agents has been needed to get hydrocarbons to flow over that distance. Kearl insists that the technique can scale “Fracking, too, was once up, and says QMast has extensively modelled described as the bridge to and lab-tested the interaction between microwaves and shale. Like fracking, he says, a carbon-neutral future” microwaves can reach deep into the rock surrounding a borehole – and the more liquid is removed, the further into the rock they power source. Combining fracking with CO2 sequestration has been proposed before to penetrate. “Once the water and oil are bring emissions down, but mining firms have removed, the rock is basically transparent been slow to take it up. to the microwaves and heating continues at Another way to lower emissions would be increasing distances from the well,” he says. to power the antenna on renewable energy. For now, the beam has a range of around For example, Colorado’s oil shale deposits lie 25 metres. in a windy region, one where turbines would His claims are backed up by Matteo provide ample power. Bientinesi and his group at CPTM , a research Others see a broader philosophical centre in Cecina, Italy – albeit with some problem. Although microwave heating caveats. When they used 2.45-gigahertz microwaves to heat 2 tonnes of oil sand to over would make existing oil and gas extraction more environmentally acceptable, there is 200 °C in the lab, they identified a potential no guarantee that it won’t allow mining to problem. Just as in microwaved lunch pots, some areas may overheat while others remain encroach on new areas – for example, the vast volumes of inaccessible bituminous oil in undercooked. They solved the problem shallow deposits like Green River, that would with better antenna design and reservoir otherwise never leave the ground. modelling, but the lesson was clear: “The That would be a disaster, says James Hansen, technique must be adapted to the properties a climate scientist at Columbia University in of the reservoir,” says Bientinesi.

New York. “Discovering new ways to extract still more fossil fuels is crazy from a global or national strategic perspective,” he says, because it will increase emissions and discourage the development of renewables. But Robinson doesn’t see it that way. Emissions or not, he and others view the microwave process as a necessary bridge to a low-carbon economy. “We need to keep going with hydrocarbons, to drive the economy and enable investment in renewables,” he says. “Renewables are in no shape to take over just yet. The only way we can afford to develop them is by extracting hydrocarbons.” Enthusiasts for fracking, of course, made a similar argument, describing it as the bridge to a carbon-neutral 21st century. We now know that although fracking has enormous benefits, horizontal fracturing is being used to access deep coal seams previously beyond our reach. That provides access to enough fuel to warm the Earth by many degrees. What unforeseen consequences will microwaves bring about? For now, it may be a moot point: the biggest obstacle to microwave extraction is not technical, political or environmental, but the state of the oil market. Having been at more than $100 a barrel for some years, the price of oil began to plummet late last year and is now teetering around $50 a barrel, with little prospect of regaining its previous heights. Faced with an oversupply of oil, there is little incentive for companies to invest in new extraction technologies. That means the funding pipeline is sluggish – except for remediation projects, says Bientinesi. For now, his team, like Robinson’s, is focusing on environmentally beneficial applications over possibly damaging oil extraction. To extend Kearl’s Star Wars metaphor, it remains to be seen whether higher oil prices tempt microwave zapping to the Dark Side. ■ David Hambling is a writer based in London 15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 37

38 | NewScientist | 15 August 2015


Amphibians are under attack. Climate change, habitat loss and the effects of the deadly skin disease caused by the chytrid fungus have wiped out many frog and toad populations worldwide. Some entire species are missing, presumed dead. But in a few spots in the forests of Central America, a fightback has begun. Meet the Lazarus toads

Atelopus limosus Panama Discovery of spawn from this toad species – known as “harlequin frogs“ – (pictured in the main photo, left) in the streams of the Cocobolo reserve indicated the revival of a species thought almost gone. The toad’s colourful skin harbours bacteria that produce a neurotoxin also found in blue-ringed octopuses and the notorious “fugu” pufferfish. Until the advent of chytrid, this was sufficient protection against most enemies.

Photographs by Clay Bolt and Twan Leenders. Words by Catherine Brahic

In March 2013, Twan Leenders and a student were hiking in the Cocobolo reserve in central Panama when they spotted a precious jewel: a delicate string of white pearls floating at the bottom of a rocky puddle at a stream’s edge. “That was absolutely tremendous,” says Leenders. “Everything fit for Atelopus, there was nothing else it could be.” Leenders, a herpetologist at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History in Jamestown, New York, has spent his career studying tropical frogs and toads. That had mostly meant documenting their astonishing decline. Climate change and human encroachment on the amphibians’ favoured habitats were a major part of the problem – as was the advance of the deadly chytrid fungus. Since the chytrid strain Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis was identified in 1999, it has been seen in amphibian populations across Europe, Africa, Australia and Central and South America. The fungus accumulates in the outer skin layers of amphibians, overstimulating production of the protein keratin and hardening the skin. That prevents >

Atelopus varius Costa Rica Before the arrival of the chytrid fungus, more than 100 populations of this harlequin species were once known in the mountains of Costa Rica and adjoining Panama. One population is now known to have survived and thrived in a single stream valley on an isolated mountain in Costa Rica’s Pacific coastal plain. What conferred it with resistance to chytrid is a mystery.

15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 39

the uptake of water and essential minerals – and is normally lethal. The tiny, colourful toads of the Atelopus genus – known colloquially as harlequin frogs – suffered badly. “Harlequin frogs were particularly hard hit by the fungus, and dozens of species disappeared rapidly in the 1980s and 90s,” says Robin Moore of Global Wildlife Conservation and the Amphibian Survival Alliance, both based in Austin, Texas. Hence the reaction of Leenders and his crew to that pearl-string of spawn. It came from a species, Atelopus limosus, thought to have been wiped out in Panama. Here was a population that hadn’t just survived, but was reproducing in the wild. A few days later, the team spotted juveniles further upstream. In the following years, more and more sightings were made around Cocobolo. A. limosus is one of a small number of “Lazarus” amphibian species. In Costa Rica, Moore and Leenders are watching the recovery of Atelopus varius, a species thought extinct until one was found sitting on a rock a few years ago. We still can’t fully explain the comebacks. One theory is that long-term exposure to non-lethal levels of the fungus may confer individuals with resistance to the fungus. The Cocobolo reserve may also have been unsuitable for chytrid when it first took hold in Central America 10 to 20 years ago. At the time, it was pasture – too hot and dry for the fungus, which thrives on the cool surfaces of riverside rocks, just like the toads. A. varius, meanwhile, lives in a valley surrounded by a belt of agricultural land and plantations, which perhaps formed a protective barrier against the fungus. The fact that the threatened amphibians have 40 | NewScientist | 15 August 2015

“This species hadn’t just survived – it was reproducing” prospered in habitats that are far from pristine may point to new ways to protect them – for example, by managing farmed landscapes to create new habitats. “I would like to work with local farmers to help them restore some of the stream corridors,” says Leenders. The amphibians aren’t out of danger yet. “A few frogs have reappeared after massive declines and seem to be hanging on in relictual populations,” says Ariadne Angulo, who co-chairs the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Amphibian Specialist Group. “They are not the norm, but there are some remarkable cases.” As if to underline the point, Leenders’s team is now getting reports of amphibian declines in areas just outside the Cocobolo reserve. But Lazarus species give room for hope. “The fact that some of these species are reappearing years or even decades after they were last seen is enormously encouraging,” says Moore – and an opportunity to understand what sets these populations apart. “After decades of witnessing rampant declines, these glimmers of hope are much-needed morale boosters.” ■

An estimated


of amphibian species have decreasing populations


amphibian species have had their extinction risk assessed

1961 species are currently listed as “threatened” SOURCE: ARIADNE ANGULO/IUCN

Dream stream Cocobolo is a small, privately owned nature reserve in central Panama established in 2006. Photographer Clay Bolt first visited in March this year and fell in love. “Each night we would go out into the field and discover scores of incredibly beautiful, bizarre, wonderful creatures hanging onto every limb and rock,” he says.

Fungal menace Many tropical amphibians had hardly been studied before the chytrid fungus kicked in, and population declines were initially put down to natural cycles. The Lazarus toads give a much-needed chance to see what factors influence survival in the wild. “This is where Cocobolo becomes a pivotal point in the research and conservation of these most at-risk species,” says Leenders.

Desirable residence Leenders and his students monitor temperature, humidity, water chemistry, sun exposure and other environmental parameters in two 1-kilometre-long sections of stream in Cocobolo, one that houses Atelopus limosus and one that doesn’t. By superimposing that data on a biological and physical habitat map they hope to pinpoint the qualities of an ideal toad home.

Tiny survivor Harlequin species such as this Atelopus varius, pictured in Costa Rica, have unique dorsal patterns that allow individuals to be “fingerprinted” and tracked throughout their lives. Skin swabs are used to test for chytrid fungus, allowing the researchers to assess how factors such as age and habitat use affect susceptibility to the fungus – and so how best to protect these species.

Toads in a hole Faced with a worldwide collapse in frog and toad numbers, researchers around the world have begun to collect vulnerable species and try to get them to reproduce in captivity. Given the upbeat title of “reassurance colonies”, these safe houses provide an environment to study the species’ biology and perhaps understand why they are susceptible to chytrid fungus. But they are a counsel of desperation as long as the captive populations have nowhere to go. “The longer we wait, the more generations have passed of frogs that have lived entirely in captivity,” says herpetologist Twan Leenders. “To some extent [the projects] are a desperate measure to try and keep the last survivors of several species around.” Conservationist Robin Moore agrees, but points out that collecting species ahead of a wave of chytrid in Panama probably prevented their extinction there, and in general conservation activities help to educate the public about the amphibians’ fate. And he sees room for optimism in stories of amphibian species rendered vulnerable to extinction through habitat loss that have bounced back. The Mallorcan midwife toad, a “living fossil” thought to have been extinct for 2000 years before it was rediscovered in 1977, was revised from critically endangered to vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2004, thanks to a programme that integrated breeding, reintroduction and habitat management. And Tanzania’s Kihansi spray toad, driven to extinction in the wild around 2004 following the construction of a dam, has bred well in colonies. Preliminary reintroductions are promising.

Catherine Brahic is a feature editor at New Scientist

15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 41


Gods of tomorrow? To avoid techno-dystopia, we must act now, finds Regina Peldszus

AUTONOMOUS weapons, self-driving vehicles, robotic manufacturing plants. If these technologies are transforming our future, wouldn’t it be wise to know what makes their designers tick, and what roles they envision for their human operators? What these roles turn out to be, argues New York Times science writer John Markoff, involves not a technical but an ethical choice. In his new book Machines of Loving Grace, he X-rays the artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction communities to discover their robotics developers have surfed respective value systems. the wave of military spending, With remarkable access to most notably by the US Defense the archives, test sites and Advanced Research Projects conference rooms ranging from Agency (DARPA). Its dual-use the Massachusetts Institute of inventions find civilian and Technology to Silicon Valley, Markoff probes the philosophical “Both books contain fault line that runs through urgent calls to consciously university and commercial labs, embed our values in and has divided organisations the systems we design” since the 1950s. It turns out that the two camps roughly subscribe to either military purposes – think autonomous vacuum cleaners automating humans away, or versus their “milspec” cousins assisting them by augmenting sniffing out roadside bombs. their capabilities. The deep rift And it is defence where Markoff is epitomised by the debate on sees the struggle as most evident: crewed versus robotic space trading the cost-effectiveness and exploration: even if you decide precision of autonomous systems in favour of an astronaut, should with the “consequences of she or he be an active supervisor approaching the line where or a passive passenger? humans are no longer in control Markoff also documents how 42 | NewScientist | 15 August 2015


Machines of Loving Grace: The quest for common ground between humans and robots by John Markoff, HarperCollins, $26.99 A Dangerous Master: How to keep technology from slipping beyond our control by Wendell Wallach, Basic Books, $28.99

in decisions on life and death”. Will we become the servants of the technologies we create? Markoff’s concluding question is the starting point for Wendell Wallach, an ethicist and scholar at Yale University. The title of his book, A Dangerous Master, warns what will happen if we fail to establish formal measures to anticipate and address the implications of technologies during the design process. Broadening the scope, Wallach includes cybersecurity, 3D printing, nuclear energy, bio, nano and geo-engineering, surveillance, and robotic surgery. Each of these technologies has a big impact on society, for good or ill. Wallach picks out warfare as one of the drivers of what he calls

Will we become the masters or the servants of our technologies?

a “techstorm”, the torrent of innovation so fast, complex and untransparent that societies are in peril of losing – or rather ceding – control, of being swept away into a future that is unpleasant at best. Take one technology being developed: lethal autonomous weapons systems, LAWS, that are “capable of initiating actions with little or no human involvement”, says Wallach. Here he is not worried about remotely operated drones, but rather about combat aircraft, such as Northrop Grumman’s X-47B prototype, that are capable of autonomous takeoff and landing. Such new weapons, he argues,

For more books and arts coverage, visit

Let them roam free

land use where mutual trust and strong social ties were key. A government edict in 1880 ended New Mexico’s 400-year-old tradition of mobile pastoralism. In Kenya, government and social pressures have been eroding the Masai’s legacy. Curtin shows how the creation of human-free reserves can lead to rapid land degradation. Establishing Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, for instance, also meant the loss of traditional grazing for the Masai, whose presence “protected the elephants from the poachers, and whose… cattle are documented to contribute to ecological richness”. Curtin’s book is winningly written, acutely observed and draws on his work in communitybased conservation. He expertly documents the revival of old methods, such as the Masai’s olopololi or “mobile reserve” system, geared to landscapes that are an ecological patchwork. These days it has been augmented by technologies such as wells and fixed areas of sellable crops. It may not work everywhere, but the communal approach clearly offers some hope of achieving sustainable land management in large ecosystems. ■ Adrian Barnett is a rainforest ecologist at the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus, Brazil


should be debated by scholars, designers, policymakers and an informed public. Today’s arms control, however, is not an ideal blueprint for regulation. Instead, Saving large ecosystems is more complex Wallach recommends setting up than we thought, finds Adrian Barnett “governance coordination committees” to monitor technologies and liaise between stakeholders. consulted. Collective ownership The Science of Open Spaces: Theory Such foresight, he stresses, was especially problematic as it and practice for conserving large, must be undertaken at “inflection simply did not fit with the complex systems by Charles G. Curtin, points”, windows of opportunity mindset of those beneficiaries of Island Press, $40 before a technology is deployed, individualistic capitalism. IN THE UK, land to allow us to think through Their ways were exported managers are seen globally. And that, says Charles scenarios for its use (and abuse), as benign despots: Curtin in The Science of Open and intervene if necessary. This guiding hands, need not endanger development Spaces, is where modern ubiquitous and of a technology since short-term conservation scientists have often strong, forever drawbacks may be outweighed got it very wrong, at least when manipulating by benefits in the long run, and they attempt to maintain the downland or both must be anticipated. ecosystems of very large areas. woodland, and holding its ecology Wallach and Markoff deliver Among other examples, Curtin in stasis for the benefit of a sobering assessments of today’s explores Kenya’s savannahs and favoured species or habitat. engineering culture. Augment or the drylands of New Mexico. Each To the wealthy founders of the automate? Seek-and-destroy is rich in natural resources but robot or search-and-rescue rover? conservation movement, focused these are distributed patchily. and scientifically informed Far from being black and white, The key to their preservation as management was an extension of functioning ecosystems, stresses this choice is “a design decision the kind of estate administration that will be made by individual Curtin, lies with continued many of them grew up with. human designers,” Markoff says. human use based on collective For them, unlicensed human Thinking stuff through ownership and decision-making, activity was a problem. If they sounds like a no-brainer, not individualism. couldn’t be banished, people living but apparently it’s not, as Both ecosystems have highly in areas of conservation interest Wallach underscores: “Many seasonal rainfall. For centuries, were to be controlled rather than scientists and engineers do pastoralists have raised cattle on not believe that the ethical and them, roaming in search of the The Masai’s collective pastoralism policy challenges arising from richest pasture. The result was a can help sustain the savannah their work is their problem.” flexible and communal form of Neither alarmist nor affirmative, both books contain urgent, compelling and relevant calls to consciously embed our values in the systems we design, and to critically engage with our choices. Unless we design ourselves out, humans are part of any technical system that we commission, develop, use and hack. Don’t fancy a future of selfinflicted overcomplexity and unpredictability? Before welcoming our robotic overlords, read these books. ■ Regina Peldszus is at the Institute of Advanced Study on Media Cultures of Computer Simulation, Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany

15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 43

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          ǡ     ǡ       ϐ        of appointment and be eligible to teach physics courses. You will be given preference if you have completed a dissertation in qualitative or quantitative physics or science education research. The successful candidate will demonstrate outstanding teaching and mentoring skills, excellent writing skills, and the ability to work collaboratively with diverse students, researchers, faculty, and staff. The initial appointment will be for one year with a possible second year term appointment contingent upon performance and availability of funding.         " #    ǡ " ǡ ϐ       ǡ        ǡ "  #  #ϐ     ϐ Ǥ   

   #         #  Ǥ        ##    situated in the beautiful Flint Hills region of Kansas. Candidates should submit a packet including: a letter of application; vita including a list of publications; and a research statement describing the candidate’s relevant background, interests in physics or science education research, and the relation of the position to the candidate’s long-term goals. Send your packet to the PER group’s search email, [email protected], in PDF format. You should also arrange for three letters of reference to be sent to the above address. If you have questions about the position, the research group, or the institution, contact Dr. Ellie Sayre at [email protected].

Here, success is measured in discoveries made, processes perfected, and technologies advanced. In major medical breakthroughs and small acts of kindness. And in colleagues who have your back and patients who have your heart. As the teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, our reach is global and our impact is profound. Join our acclaimed research team and realize your greatest goals in an environment as committed to research and technology as we are the lives it changes.

 #  " '(ǡʹ*'(  ϐ Ǥ Kansas State University is an Equal Opportunity Employer of individuals with disabilities and protected veterans. Background check required.

Explore research careers.

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


46 | NewScientist | 15 August 2015

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15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 47

The University of Alabama at Birmingham


Unleashing Human Potential



48 | NewScientist | 15 August 2015

The UAB Department of Genetics seeks applicants for a faculty position in the field of biochemical genetics. The Department of Genetics has an established biochemical genetics program consisting of clinical diagnostic and laboratories, and a clinical consultation service. Faculty rank will be Assistant or Associate Professor and may be either tenure or non- tenure earning. UAB faculty appointment and compensation are commensurate with qualifications and experience. Qualified candidates will have M.D. and/or Ph.D. credentials, and be board certified in Clinical Biochemical Genetics or Medical Biochemical Genetics. This individual will be Director of the Biochemical Genetics Laboratory, and will also be responsible for teaching, research and/or clinical pursuits. Prior experience should include managing and interpreting biochemical lab results including standard biochemical testing and lysosomal disease screening and testing. Applicants with research interests will have demonstrated ability to conduct significant independent research, and a successful track record of grant funding. UAB is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer committed to fostering a diverse, equitable and family-friendly environment in which all faculty and staff can excel and achieve work/life balance irrespective of, race, national origin, age, genetic or family medical history, gender, faith, gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation. UAB also encourages applications from individuals with disabilities and veterans. A pre-employment background investigation is performed on candidates selected for employment. The University of Alabama at Birmingham offers an excellent benefits package including medical/dental insurance and dependent tuition. Interested applicants please send curriculum vitae including references, and a description of your teaching, clinical or research portfolio to: Bruce R. Korf, M.D., Ph.D. Professor and Chairman c/o Dee Blakely-Stoudermire UAB Department of Genetics 720 20th Street South, KAUL 230 Birmingham, AL 35294-0024 [email protected]



Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, MA Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology TENURE-TRACK PROFESSOR Position Description: The Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology seeks to appoint a tenure-track assistant professor in the open field of chemistry and chemical biology. The appointment is expected to begin on July 1, 2016. The tenure-track professor will be responsible for teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Basic Qualifications: Doctorate or terminal degree in chemistry or related discipline required by the time the appointment begins. Additional Qualifications: Demonstrated excellence in teaching is desired. Special Instructions: Please submit the following materials through the ARIeS portal (http://academicpositions. Applications must be submitted no later than October 15, 2015. 1. Cover letter 2. Curriculum Vitae 3. Teaching statement (describing teaching approach and philosophy) 4. Outline of future research plans 5. Names and contact information of 3-5 references (three letters of recommendation are required, and the application is complete only when all three letters have been submitted) 6. List of publications Harvard is an equal opportunity employer and all qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, disability status, protected veteran status, or any other characteristic protected by law. Contact Information: Helen Schwickrath, Search Administrator, Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, 12 Oxford St., Cambridge, MA 02138. Phone: (617) 496-8190. Contact Email: [email protected]

Call for Applicaons Chair, Department of Medical Biophysics The Schulich School of Medicine & Denstry, at Western University, is inving applicaons for the posion of Chair in the Department of Medical Biophysics. As Canada’s first Department of Biophysics, the Department has grown to become one of Canada’s leading centres for medical biophysics research with approximately 20 primary faculty members and over 70 ac%vely collabora%ng cross appointed faculty leading interna%onally recognized research programs in medical imaging, microcircula%on, computa%onal modelling, biomechanics, and cancer. The department is the academic home to both undergraduate and graduate programs, including CAMPEP accredita%on. It draws on a rich city­wide infrastructure incorpora%ng two research Ins%tutes, three hospitals, and five University Facul%es. Research programs benefit from close collabora%ons between clinical and basic science faculty, with unique training programs in diverse fields. The successful candidate should have a demonstrated track record of leadership and research and teaching excellence with a proven reputa%on for effec%ve interpersonal and administra%ve skills. The new Chair will facilitate collabora%on and be expected to support the research, educa%onal and interdisciplinary ini%a%ves of the Department. The successful candidate will build on the strength and forward momentum of the Department’s graduate and undergraduate programs and promote the development of new ini%a%ves in research, scholarship and educa%on. He or she must have a PhD, MD, DDS or equivalent, and will receive a tenured academic appointment at the level of Associate or full Professor. Candidates with a research program complemen%ng exis%ng research strengths are par%cularly encouraged to apply. The posi%on of Chair is for a five­year term, renewable. Western University is located in London, Ontario, with a metropolitan census of 530,000. As Canada’s 11th largest city, London boasts an extensive educa%onal and health care community. With full %me enrollment of 32,000, Western graduates students from a range of academic and professional programs. Further informa%on about the Schulich School of Medicine & Den%stry and Western University can be found at, and hp:// Western’s Recruitment & Reten%on Office is available to assist in the transi%on of successful applica%ons and their families. Details about the Department of Medical Biophysics can be found at hp:// Interested candidates should submit a CV outlining their research, teaching, and administra%ve experience and interests, including future direc%ons, together with the names and addresses of three referees to: Dr. Michael Strong, Dean Schulich School of Medicine & Denstry Room 3701A, Clinical Skills Building Western University London, Ontario N6A 5C1 FAX: (519) 850­2357 selecon.commi[email protected] Please ensure that the form available at hp://­FullTime­Faculty­ Posion­Form.pdf is completed and included in your applica%on submission. Applicaons will be accepted unl the posion is filled. Review of applicants will begin aer September 30, 2015. Posi#ons are subject to budget approval. Applicants should have fluent wri%en and oral communica#on skills in English. All qualified candidates are encouraged to apply; however, Canadians and permanent residents will be given priority. Western University is commi%ed to employment equity and diversity in the workplace and welcomes applica#ons from all qualified individuals, including women and men, members of visible minori#es, aboriginal persons, persons with disabili#es, and persons of any sexual orienta#on or gender iden#ty.

15 August 2015 | NewScientist | 49

Assistant Professor of Chemistry


The Department of Chemistry at The University of Chicago invites applications from outstanding individuals for the position of Assistant Professor of Chemistry. This search is in the areas IYVHKS` KLÄULK HZ PUVYNHUPJ VYNHUPJ HUK WO`ZPJHS JOLTPZ[Y` Applicants must apply online to the University of Chicago Academic Career website.

Training in Botanical Approaches to Combat Metabolic Syndrome

Inorganic chemists apply to Organic Physical

Postdoctoral fellowship on an NIH Institutional Training Grant entitled Botanical Approaches to Combat Metabolic Syndrome, VHHNV0'RU3K'ZLWKVWURQJVFLHQWL¯FFUHGHQWLDOVDQGLQWHUHVW in animal or human metabolic research using botanicals. Fellowship provides up to three years of funding for training in lab skills and coursework necessary for establishing an independent research career. Must be a US citizen or green card holder.

This training program is sponsored by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (formerly NCCAM) and is located within the Botanical Research Center (BRC) on the campus of Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. T32 postdocs will work toward enhancing research interactions between botanical characterization and molecular/genetic/ physiologic approaches in both the basic science and clinical research areas. Trainees working in the laboratories of our basic DQGFOLQLFDOVFLHQWLVWVZLOOEHQH¯WIURPFROODERUDWLYHUHVHDUFK with botanical scientists. Learning about multiple areas of PHWDEROLFUHVHDUFKDQGKRZERWDQLFDOVLQWHUDFWDQGLQˊXHQFH metabolic and cellular pathways will likely promote creativity and inspire trainees to transcend the boundaries that limit current research. We want our trainees to gain exposure to at least two specialty areas (e.g., genetics of metabolic syndrome, molecular regulation of insulin action, biochemical botanical characterization, botanical therapeutics) as we anticipate this will encourage future interdisciplinary research efforts needed to understand this complex and challenging syndrome. * NIH requires applicants to be US citizens or have resident alien status for this training program.

Please apply to one search only. Applicants must upload a cover SL[[LY H J\YYPJ\S\T ]P[HL ^P[O H SPZ[ VM W\ISPJH[PVUZ H Z\JJPUJ[ outline of research plans and a one page teaching statement. 0U HKKP[PVU [OYLL YLMLYLUJL SL[[LYZ HYL YLX\PYLK  ([ [OL [PTL VM hire the successful candidate must have a Ph.D. in Chemistry or H YLSH[LK ÄLSK  1VPU[ HWWVPU[TLU[Z ^P[O V[OLY KLWHY[TLU[Z HYL possible. Review of applications will continue until all positions HYLÄSSLK Referral letter submission information will be provided during the application process. (SSX\HSPÄLKHWWSPJHU[Z^PSSYLJLP]LJVUZPKLYH[PVUMVYLTWSV`TLU[^P[OV\[YLNHYK[VYHJL JVSVY YLSPNPVU ZL_ ZL_\HS VYPLU[H[PVU NLUKLY PKLU[P[` UH[PVUHS VYPNPU HNL WYV[LJ[LK ]L[LYHUZ[H[\ZVYZ[H[\ZHZHUPUKP]PK\HS^P[OKPZHIPSP[` ;OL