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The hacker bringing autonomous vehicles to the masses


Is freedom of expression being suppressed on campus?


The environmental disasters hanging in your wardrobe WEEKLY February 24 -March 2, 2018

THE TAMING OF THE YOU How evolution turned humans into the original domesticated animal


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Volume 237 No 3166

News What does Facebook know about you? 4

On the cover


42 Drive my car The hacker bringing autonomous vehicles to the masses 20 Speech impediment Is freedom of expression being suppressed on campus?


36 Unclean clothes The environmental disasters hanging in your wardrobe

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Open book Social media knows even more about you than you think

28 The taming of the you How evolution turned humans into the original domesticated animal Plus New type of light (13). Sell your DNA (8). Landslides at sea (7). Electronic skin (7). Bird flu warning (6). Explosive exoplanets (10). Boozy evolution (6). Forgotten ideas (46)

The belief that universities are censoring ideas is wrong

News 4

THIS WEEK Is Facebook guessing millions of people’s sexuality? Wolves in France. Venezuela’s cryptocurrency


NEWS & TECHNOLOGY Novel bird flu turns up in China. We may lose the ability to drink alcohol. E-skins with pulsating hearts. Underwater mega-landslides. Making money from your genome. Psychedelic drugs and depression. Gorillas don’t just walk on their knuckles. Explosive exoplanets. Three-photon light. Transgender woman breastfeeds her baby. Quantum computing could predict elections. Surgery may spread Alzheimer’s proteins

Web development Director of technology Steve Shinn Maria Moreno Garrido, Tuhin Sheikh, Amardeep Sian


Publishing and commercial

17 IN BRIEF Virtual reality even if you are blind. Silence of the crickets. Stem cell cancer vaccine

Analysis 20 Trigger warnings Does the push for minding your words on campus have any basis in science? 22 COMMENT Time for a climate tantrum. Can smart specs shake off the “glasshole” problem? 23 INSIGHT How hairspray is making air pollution worse

Features 28 Survival of the tamest How evolution turned humans into the first domesticated animal 32 Work the crowd Get the right people together and predicting the future is a cinch 36 Dirty laundry The environmental disasters hanging in your wardrobe 42 Hatchback hacker The computer whizz bringing self-driving cars to the masses

Culture 44 Art of a paradox The internet is difficult territory for digital artists – a recent festival explored why 46 Ways of knowing We need reminding just how important knowledge and truth really are

Regulars 24 APERTURE Sky lines seeded by ship pollution 52 LETTERS The UK is failing on drug deaths 55 MAKE Split dessert in style 56 FEEDBACK Some cows are natural pessimists 57 THE LAST WORD Should you defecate inside or out?

24 February 2018 | NewScientist | 1



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Hate speech is not free The idea that UK universities are censoring ideas is madness IT IS hard to hear the phrase censoring free speech. “political correctness” these days If universities really are doing without reflexively appending the that, they ought to be ashamed of words “gone mad”. Thanks to self- themselves. But the case is weak. appointed guardians of liberty, A survey of 115 UK universities the inoffensive idea that people and students’ unions carried should try to avoid insulting out by online magazine Spiked language has been turned into supposedly found that 63 of a battleground over free speech. them “actively censor speech and This might sound like a silly ideas”. But a closer look reveals spat straight out of the pages of that the majority simply attempt the tabloid press, but people who to prohibit hate speech. care about science ought to be Consider Imperial College paying attention. Free speech is London. According to Spiked, this a vital ingredient of enlightened venerable institution has “banned scholarship and education. and actively censored ideas on The latest place PC has “The term ‘political supposedly run amok is the correctness’ is tarnished British university campus, where staff and students are increasingly beyond repair but the ideal it expresses is not” drawing red lines on what constitutes acceptable behaviour and speech. That has led to “no campus”. Its sins? A policy of platform” bans on controversial removing transphobic material speakers and the creation of safe and a dress code banning spaces where discrimination is offensive slogans or symbols. prohibited (see page 20). Many other institutions with a To critics, this amounts to an similar, measured approach are assault on freedom of expression, also tarred as “active censors”. and is further evidence that Whether hate speech ought to today’s youth are a snowflake be protected as free speech – as it generation unable or unwilling to is by the US constitution – is an deal with challenging ideas. The interesting debate. But at present, UK government has threatened in the UK, it is not. Hate speech is to fine universities deemed to be a criminal offence.

Admittedly some of the student union policies read like a parody of, erm, political correctness gone mad. But the world of student politics is a crucible for emerging political consciousness and some naivety is to be expected. You may think that banning “lad culture” is a bit silly, but it hardly constitutes snowflakes wrapping themselves in cotton wool. If anything, it is the opposite: engagement with contentious ideas. The term “political correctness” is probably tarnished beyond repair, but the ideal it expresses is not. Tolerating hate speech is not a courageous and principled defence of freedom any more than prohibiting it is censorship. Playing the free-speech card can often be a Trojan Horse for smuggling some deeply unpleasant and reactionary ideas back into society. If UK universities really were actively censoring ideas, then people who care about freedom of expression ought to be worried. But the true threat to enlightenment values comes from those who piously pretend that political correctness has gone too far. The madness lies in the exact opposite direction. ■ 24 February 2018 | NewScientist | 3


What’s not to like? The scale and scope of Facebook’s huge ad machine has been revealed Timothy Revell

FACEBOOK knows more about you than you might think. A study has for the first time revealed the scale of its data gathering, suggesting that the social media company has deduced sensitive information about 40 per cent of all EU citizens. By looking at what you click and the pages you like, Facebook can infer your sexual orientation, religion and political leanings, then use this information to target you with adverts. It has long been known that Facebook profiles its users in this way, but the process is hidden. Now Ángel Cuevas Rumín at Charles III University of Madrid, Spain, and his colleagues have shed some light on the practice. That matters, because the EU is increasingly cracking down on profiling. Last year, Spain fined Facebook €1.2 million for targeting adverts based on sensitive information without

first obtaining explicit consent. New EU-wide legislation, called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), comes into force in May, stating that users must be specifically asked before companies collect and use their sensitive information.

Sensitive interests Before starting the project, Cuevas was browsing Facebook when he saw an ad inviting him to connect with the gay community. Some digging revealed that Facebook had categorised him as interested in homosexuality. “I have never given Facebook information about my sexual orientation, nor given them permission to use this to target me with adverts,” says Cuevas. To show how easy it is to target people on the basis of sensitive information, the team purchased three Facebook ad campaigns. One targeted users

interested in various religions, another was aimed at people based on their political opinions, and the third targeted those interested in “transsexualism” or “homosexuality”. For €35, they reached more than 25,000 people. However, Facebook says that interests are not the same as sensitive information. For example, liking a page about homosexuality doesn’t mean you are gay. “This report is not accurate,” a Facebook spokesperson told New Scientist. “Like other internet companies, Facebook shows ads based on topics we think people might be interested in, but without using sensitive personal data. Our advertising is fully compliant with current Irish Data Protection law and we are actively preparing for the GDPR to ensure we are compliant when it comes into force in May.” Facebook’s European arm is based in Ireland.

All the independent dataprotection experts contacted by New Scientist expressed concerns about personal information being used in this way, because it probably doesn’t match people’s expectations. For example, many people would consider clicking on an advert for a sexually transmitted infection clinic sensitive information. “Context matters and it’s not black and white, but Facebook are wrong in my view,” says Pat Walshe, a data protection and privacy consultant. While it is true that a person can be interested in homosexuality without being gay, and vice versa, it is clear that there is a large crossover between these two categories. By selling ads based on the first category, Facebook allows advertisers to target a large number of people in the second. “Although there may be a semantic difference between

French wolves are on the rise

farmers. Under the new plan, farmers can apply for funding to protect their animals, but compensation will be contingent on them putting up fences and other protective measures. Wolves are protected in Europe by the 1979 Bern Convention. Environmentalists see their return as a positive, and many are opposed to the hunting of wolves (see photo).


FRANCE will let its wolf population grow by 40 per cent, despite anger from farmers worried for their sheep. Wolves were eradicated from France by hunting in the 1930s, but since the 90s they have been creeping back from Italy. There are now thought to be 360 wolves in France. The government announced a new strategy this week that will allow the population to grow to 500 by 2023. To appease farmers, 10 per cent of the population may be culled each year. Farmers are also authorised to shoot any time their flocks are under attack. Around 10,000 sheep were killed by wolves in the Alps in 2016, and France paid €3.2 million of compensation to 4 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

Measles makes a comeback MEASLES is making a return in Europe. More than 21,000 cases were reported in the region in 2017 – a 300 per cent increase on 2016, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

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

40 per cent of all EU citizens, some 200 million people, may have been targeted using sensitive interests (arxiv.org abs/1802.05030). Paul Bernal at the University of East Anglia, UK, says Facebook’s profiling makes a “mockery of data protection”, and that even


“Facebook can infer your sexual orientation, religion and political leanings, then target you with adverts”

You are categorised on the basis of what you do on your phone

profiling one’s interests and profiling their personal aspects, the effect is the same: an individual becomes affiliated with a class or type of identity in a manner that might permit discrimination or abuse of power,” says Carly Nyst, an independent consultant on technology policy.

Measles cases dipped to a record low in Europe in 2016. But last year saw large outbreaks in 15 countries that resulted in 35 deaths. Romania, Italy and Ukraine had the most cases, but outbreaks affecting more than 100 people were also seen in the UK, Germany and France, among others. It is thought that at least 95 per cent of a population needs to be vaccinated against measles to prevent outbreaks. Last year, the proportion of children in England receiving the vaccine dropped to nearly 91 per cent. In 2014, the WHO set itself the target of eliminating measles in Europe by 2020. “To meet the goal of eliminating measles, high rates of vaccination need to be sustained,” says Helen Bedford at University College London.

To work out how often sensitive interests are used to target adverts on Facebook, Cuevas and his colleagues created an internet browser extension that analyses how you interact with adverts. It also records why you were shown a specific advert. Between October 2016 and October 2017, more than 3000 people from EU countries used the tool, corresponding to 5.5 million adverts. The team

found in excess of 2000 reasons that Facebook gave for showing someone an advert that related to sensitive interests, including politics, religion, health, sexuality and ethnicity. About 90 per cent of the people who used the extension were targeted with ads based on these categories. By extrapolating from the demographics of the people using the browser extension, the team estimates that about

Venezuela debuts cryptocurrency

backed by a barrel of oil. Maduro claims that about 100 million petro tokens, worth around $6 billion, will be issued. But critics are unconvinced. “Who would give a vote of confidence to a bank that hasn’t even been [able] to maintain public confidence in the traditional currency?” Jean Paul Leidenz, a Caracas economist, told Colombian TV.

VENEZUELAN president Nicolás Maduro has launched the petro – a cryptocurrency in a similar vein to bitcoin. Maduro hopes that it will raise hard currency for the cash-strapped country, and help ease trade with foreign suppliers in the face of US sanctions imposed last year. There are already widespread food and medicine shortages across Venezuela. The International Monetary Fund predicts inflation could hit 13,000 per cent this year, causing the collapse of the currency, the bolívar. Unusually for a cryptocurrency, the petro will be administered by the central bank and each petro will be

Cyclone Gita strikes New Zealand CHRISTCHURCH and other districts on the South Island of New Zealand declared a state of emergency this week as Cyclone Gita tore through the country, leaving many without power. Last week, Gita reached wind

if the GDPR seems to make the practice illegal, it may not be enforced or interpreted that way. “Sadly, I am not optimistic that they will be brave enough to take this bull by the horns.” Europeans are worried about their personal data. A survey in 2015 found that 63 per cent of EU citizens don’t trust online firms, and more than half don’t like providing personal information in return for free services. But they often have little choice. “Companies like Facebook and Google have a monopoly. They offer services nobody else is offering, so your only options are to either take it or leave it,” says Cuevas. ■

speeds of 230 kilometres per hour and ripped through the Pacific island of Tonga. It was the worst cyclone to hit the country in 60 years, destroying or damaging an estimated 1400 houses. Arriving at New Zealand, the storm first hit the zone between the North and South islands, whipping up waves as tall as 9 metres. As Gita went south to Christchurch, it brought almost 30 centimetres of rainfall in places. Nearly 200 schools were shut, and New Zealand’s national airline cancelled all flights to and from the capital, Wellington. “Even though the deep low pressure system moves away from us early on Wednesday, the effects of Gita will last a few more days, with further rain likely about central New Zealand until Thursday,” said Lisa Murray at MetService in Wellington. 24 February 2018 | NewScientist | 5


Novel bird flu turns up in China says Wenqing Zhang of the World Health Organization. One such subtype – H7N9 – has infected more than 1500 people in China since it first emerged in the country in 2013. More than half of these cases occurred last winter and spring alone, and 40 per cent were fatal. H7N9 is now ubiquitous in Chinese poultry, but it doesn’t spread easily between people. The nightmare scenario is that this strain of the virus could hybridise

A NEW strain of avian flu has infected people for the first time. So far, the virus doesn’t seem to be especially threatening, but its jump from chickens to humans was unexpected: the World Health Organization says no similar strains have ever crossed to people before. Last week, the Hong Kong government announced that a 68-year-old woman in Jiangsu province in eastern China was hospitalised in January with severe respiratory symptoms. This turned out to be the first recorded case of an H7N4 flu virus infecting humans. The woman recovered after a month in hospital. She had handled live poultry before falling ill, so probably caught the virus from the birds or the market she bought them in. No one around her developed any symptoms. The case highlights the huge amount of unpredictable viral evolution taking place in livestock farming. “This reminds us that virus activity in animal reservoirs is very dynamic, and we should not just focus on one subtype,”

Evolution may stop us drinking alcohol HUMANS are still evolving, and alcohol may be helping to drive the process. A variant of a gene that protects us against alcohol addiction, possibly by making boozing intolerable, seems to be favoured by evolution. New gene variants have arisen and spread among humans in the recent past. One allows some people to tolerate the lactose in cow’s milk, 6 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

A quarter of poultry in Chinese markets carry several kinds of flu–


Debora MacKenzie

with a type of influenza that spreads more readily between people, and cause a severe pandemic. Such hybridisation can occur when one bird carries several kinds of flu – which a quarter of poultry in Chinese markets do. Flu viruses are named after two proteins they carry on their surface: H and N. These have a variety of numbered forms, but can vary further within those. Gene sequencing has revealed that, instead of being a close relative or hybrid of H7N9, the Jiangsu virus has an H7 that is more closely related to viruses

so they can digest dairy produce. Benjamin Voight at the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues looked for bits of the human genome that have evolved over the last few thousand years. They trawled the genomes of about 2500 living people from four continents, obtained by the 1000 Genomes Project. The team looked for gene variants that have emerged recently in disparate populations – such as in both western Europe and eastern Asia. Such variants are probably helpful, as they must either have spread rapidly across continents, or independently

arisen and stuck several times over. The team unveiled five hotspots of genetic change. One centred on a gene called ADH, which makes alcohol dehydrogenase. This enzyme breaks down alcohol into acetaldehyde, a toxin that is then changed into harmless acetate by another enzyme. New variants of ADH emerged independently in Asia and Africa in the last tens of thousands of years.

“New variants of the gene emerged independently and all seem to protect against alcoholism”

sampled from birds in South Korea a year ago. This is surprising news: this strain of virus has never been known to infect people before. “The solution to the flu problem will be knowing virus evolution well enough so we can make human countermeasures before a virus spreads in humans, not after, like now,” says Zhang. Such countermeasures would include vaccines – if we can spot viruses early, and make vaccines fast enough. However, that will require new technology, says Zhang. Meanwhile, H7N9 remains a concern. Last year it acquired a mutation that lets it spread more aggressively in poultry. In October, China launched a poultry vaccination campaign, which may reduce human exposure to the virus. But flu can still spread in vaccinated poultry, giving it new opportunities to evolve. Two studies last year found that H7N9 mutations had allowed limited spread among mammals. There could be more surprises in store, as thousands of people travel and eat freshly slaughtered chicken for Chinese New Year. This could increase the risk that novel bird flu strains will infect humans and spread further. Given the dozens of flu viruses now circulating in people and chickens in China, bird flu may go on to define the Year of the Dog. ■

All seem to protect against alcoholism (Nature Ecology & Evolution, doi.org/ cknv). It’s not clear how, but it may be that they break down alcohol so fast that the acetaldehyde accumulates in the body faster than it can be cleared. A person who metabolised alcohol like this would feel unwell after even small amounts of booze. The finding makes historical sense, as people have been drinking alcohol for thousands of years, plenty of time for evolution to respond. The other four hotspots of genetic change relate to other processes, like malaria protection. Andy Coghlan ■

For daily news stories, visit newscientist.com/news

WEARING your heart on your sleeve could take on a whole new meaning, thanks to an electronic skin that displays someone’s heartbeat while attached to the back of their hand. The e-skin displays the wearer’s electrocardiogram – a waveform representing the electrical activity of the heart – using data collected by an ultrathin, flexible sensor. The material the e-skin is made of can be stretched by up to 45 per cent, so that it is able to match the body’s contours and movements. A 16 × 24 array of micro-LEDs allows the device to create complex, moving images. Created by researchers at the University of Tokyo and Japanese company Dai Nippon Printing, it’s an improvement on a previous version that could only display a single digit or letter. The team believe that showing medical data or important messages directly on the skin rather than monitors is more accessible for those who are less tech-savvy. “People use and look at their hands much more frequently than smartphones,” says Takao Someya at the University of Tokyo, who presented the work last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas. This could be particularly helpful for displaying important information. “For example, elderly people forget to take medicine,” says Someya. “It would be nice if the skin display gently shows a reminder.” Someya’s demonstration only shows pre-recorded heartbeat data at present, but he says a live feed is feasible. The sensor can also be paired with a wireless module to transmit readings to the cloud so doctors can monitor patients remotely. Zhenan Bao, who works on e-skins at Stanford University in California, says the display is impressive. “I can imagine wearing our cellphone on the arm as if it is part of our skin,” she says. Edd Gent ■


E-skin wraps you in your own heartbeat

The tiny creatures that cause giant ‘landslides’ THE largest landslides on Earth zone is ooze, a “fluffy” substance happen in the oceans, and an made of dead single-celled ooze of dead plankton may be organisms called diatoms. It responsible. If so, it could help forms when diatoms – a major us predict the risk of devastating component of plankton – die tsunamis triggered by these and drift down to the seafloor. events. Urlaub’s team got lucky, she Far beneath the waves, huge says, because a now defunct “megaslides” can transport international research effort 3000 cubic kilometres of called the Ocean Drilling Program sediment at speeds of up to once collected a core from marine 80 metres per second. sediments off the north-west The largest such event on coast of Africa. It was right next record was the Storegga Slide to the site of the Cap Blanc Slide, 8150 years ago off the coast of a megaslide that happened about Norway. Dwarfing every slide “The one clue was that past known on land, it caused a megaslides had a smooth tsunami that flooded coastlines surface underlying them. around the North Sea by up to There the trail went cold” 20 metres. This may have been devastating for the prehistoric inhabitants of the area. 149,000 years ago. This gave Nobody knows what triggers the team access to deep-sea megaslides. The one clue was that sediments, where they discovered past events had a smooth surface a 10-metre-thick layer of ooze underlying them, suggesting the (Geology, doi.org/ckng). sediment must have slid over “We found that this diatom some kind of layer of weakness. ooze layer is also covered by clay,” But there the trail went cold. says Urlaub. The clay probably “The problem has been that trapped water beneath it, in the this weak zone vanishes with the porous diatom layer, and this landslide,” says Morelia Urlaub at water may have lubricated the Geomar Helmholtz Centre for the megaslide. Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany. A layer of wet ooze could help Now Urlaub and her colleagues explain why megaslides can believe that the cause of the weak happen on shallow gradients

Diatoms are microorganisms found in all the world’s oceans–

of less than 3 degrees. Someone walking on that “wouldn’t even notice that there’s a slope at all”, says Urlaub. The idea that diatom ooze could trigger a megaslide is not new, but this is the first time ooze has been found associated with a slide. Nevertheless, “one case is not sufficient to make it a scientific truth”, says geologist Gauvain Wiemer at the MARUM Center for Marine Environmental Sciences in Bremen, Germany. Although Urlaub’s study has “got the stone rolling”, he says, “we need to find and analyse more slides that were triggered by the same mechanism she describes”. Urlaub agrees, and plans to study other submarine landslide sites to see whether they also have layers of ooze. She also wants to find out if there are particular species of diatom that make the “right” kind of ooze, and how large a volume of diatoms is needed to make a layer thick enough to set off a megaslide. Once the science is settled, it could be in our interest to find out which parts of the seabed have lots of ooze – because megaslides in those areas could cause tsunamis. “Ooze layers might be used as a tool to estimate better which slopes might be prone to failure,” says Urlaub. Lucas Joel ■ 24 February 2018 | NewScientist | 7

Sell your genome for cryptocurrency Richard Kemeny

Payment to the data’s owner will be in the form of EncrypGen’s freshly minted cryptocurrency, DNA coin, which can then be traded or sold. Initially, there will be pricing guidelines, but David Koepsell, the firm’s co-founder, believes market forces will eventually dictate genomic value. The same laws of supply and demand should reward those with less common genomes. “Under-represented groups will benefit, so that in the future those from demographically disadvantaged populations and with rare diseases will better profit,” says Koepsell. EncrypGen will take a cut of DNA sales and will charge firms to access the database.

HOW much is your genome worth? Now you can decide. A number of start-ups are offering people the chance not only to own their genomic data, but to sell it to data-hungry scientists too. EncrypGen, one firm in the vanguard of this movement, is launching its first product this week. Essentially, this is an online database where an individual can upload their digitised genome. It can then be left there until they want to show it to their doctor, for example. Or, if they opt in to a service launching later this year, their data can be sold to researchers too. With this service, scientists scouring the database will see “Payment will come in anonymous profiles, along with the form of EncrypGen’s details such as hair colour or freshly minted medical conditions. If they find a cryptocurrency, DNA coin” profile of interest, they can ask for access. Users will then be able to negotiate a price for handing over There are already a lot of part or all of this genomic data. sequenced genomes out there. As drugs are twice as likely More than 12 million people to make it to market when they took DNA genealogy tests in are based on human genetics, 2017, double the number of the pharmaceutical firms are likely previous year. Firms like 23andMe to be willing to pay the most. that offer to reveal your

Can psychedelic drug help with depression? THE way you speak may reveal whether a psychedelic drug could help treat depression or anxiety. Robin Carhart-Harris and his team at Imperial College London have been testing psilocybin – a hallucinogen found in magic mushrooms – in people with treatment-resistant depression. Their pilot study found that when it was given to 12 volunteers 8 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

alongside psychological support, five of them no longer met the clinical criteria for a depression diagnosis three months later. But how can you tell if psilocybin might help someone? Working with the Imperial team, Facundo Carrillo at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina and his colleagues tested the idea that speech patterns give a clue. Speech analysis has already been used to identify people with a range of mental health disorders, including depression. They developed software to analyse interview responses given



predisposition to certain diseases based on your genetics are booming too. Most charge for these services and then also sell the data on to researchers and pharmaceutical companies. EncrypGen isn’t alone in trying to return some control back to source. Luna DNA and Zenome both have a similar business model to EncrypGen’s. And Nebula Genomics plans to include DNA tests in its offering, as well. In comparison, EncrypGen will suggest firms its customers can use to sequence their genomes. From a researcher’s point of view, the more data available the better, says Tim Frayling at the

University of Exeter, UK. However, there are risks. People may look to earn a quick buck “without really thinking about the consequences of knowing about what’s in their genomes, and what that could reveal about their health”. You may discover you have a mutation suggesting a predisposition to Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s disease, for example, but as neither of them has a cure, you may not want to know. There is also the risk of trusting a company with such sensitive personal data, says Natalie Smolenski at tech start-up Learning Machine. “Why should we trust one particular vendor’s ‘black box’ solution to not have back doors, side doors or other serious design flaws?” ■

by 17 people with treatment-resistant depression before psilocybin treatment, and 18 people without depression. The psilocybin treatment seemed to reduce the symptoms of seven of the people with depression by more than 50 per cent. Using the results to train their software, the researchers say it can predict whether a person with depression will respond to psilocybin with 85 per cent accuracy (Journal of Affective Disorders, doi.org/gcw8nb). They found that people with depression use significantly fewer

positive words than those without the condition. Those with depression who are likely to respond to treatment use fewer positive words than those who aren’t. This is a promising way to screen people, says Gabrielle Agin-Liebes at Palo Alto University in California. “It is a very intense treatment, so being able to screen for people who we think are the best matches would be a real asset.” She stresses that the tool, if shown to work in larger groups, should be used to aid doctors rather than replace them. Jessica Hamzelou ■

Individuals will set the price for access to their sequenced DNA

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Not merely a knuckle-walker options at their disposal. Sergio Almécija of the George Washington University in Washington DC and his colleagues set up video cameras to track mountain gorillas in the forests of Uganda and Rwanda. Over seven weeks, they filmed 77 gorillas: 8 per cent of the known population. Gorillas are normally classed as knuckle-walkers. In line with this, 61 per cent used only this method. However, the other 39 per cent also walked in other ways. They

OUR ape forebears might have been more versatile than we thought. A study of modern gorillas suggests that the common ancestor we share with them may have been able to walk in many ways, not just one or two. Within the last 20 million years, our lineage split from that of orangutans. Later, we also split from the African great apes: first gorillas, then chimpanzees and bonobos. However, we don’t know what our common ancestors with all these species looked like. One long-standing question is how those ancient apes walked. Understanding that would help us grasp how our two-legged method of walking evolved. For many years, it was thought that the common ancestors were knuckle-walkers: they walked on all fours, putting much of their weight on the knuckles of their hands. However, recent evidence suggests that bipedalism evolved early, in the tree-dwelling ancestor we share with orangutans, and not out of knuckle-walking. Now it is being suggested that our ape ancestors had many

Exploding air could form seas on alien worlds THE right combination of gases could put exoplanets through an explosive sea change. Hydrogen and oxygen in an atmosphere can ignite and leave behind water, dumping oceans onto a planet’s surface. John Lee Grenfell at the German Aerospace Centre in Berlin and his colleagues calculated how oxygen could build up in a large, rocky planet’s 10 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

These hands were made for walking, in many ways–


Richard Kemeny

flattened the backs of their hands against the ground, “fist-walked” by resting on a different part of the fingers and used their palms (American Journal of Physical Anthropology, doi.org/ckk8). The latter two were only anecdotally known in gorillas, but are common among orangutans. In light of this, the researchers argue that the common ancestor of humans and African apes – and possibly also the common ancestor of all great apes – could have walked in a variety of ways. Experts have welcomed the findings, but some question how they have been interpreted.

atmosphere and combine with pre-existing hydrogen to create water. They found that at high enough temperatures, the two could combust or explode, lighting up the sky in a ball of fire (arxiv.org/abs/1802.02923). Ignited by a burst of energy like a thunderbolt or cosmic ray, the hydrogen and oxygen would combine to form water. Depending on the temperature, the water could form big plumes of steam or pour down as if buckets of it were spilling from the sky. This is the same reaction that takes place in some rocket engines, creating thrust, flames and steam that billows

away as exhaust. Such a reaction in a planet’s atmosphere could form oceans on the surface at lightning speed. Life as we know it requires water, so this could enhance a rocky world’s habitability. But William Bains at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sees one big problem: the model requires the planet to have water in the first place, which

“The water could form huge plumes of steam or pour down like buckets spilling from the sky”

The findings remind us that neat categories, like gorillas being knuckle-walkers, are rare in biology, says Bernard Wood, also of George Washington University. That rule applies to our extinct ancestors too. “We need to get out of the bad habit of thinking that the only options for ancestral modes of locomotion are the simple categories embraced by conventional wisdom.” However, there is no sign of knuckle-walking in the human ancestral fossil record, says Robin Crompton at the University of Liverpool, UK. Most researchers agree that the common ancestor was not a pure knuckle-walker. “The majority of people working in locomotion research have rejected that idea a long time ago,” says Compton. Instead, maybe gorillas only evolved the other walking styles recently. We can test that by studying other apes, says Almécija. But his hunch is that “these are primitive postures common to all the great apes”. We may not be able to figure out what the common ancestor was like by studying living species, says David Strait of Washington University in St Louis. “This question is ultimately only going to be resolved by discovering more and better fossils that branched off near the origins of the chimpanzee, gorilla and human lineages.” ■

is ripped apart by ultraviolet light from the planet’s star to supply the oxygen for the reaction. “You do not end up with more water than you started with,” he says. Nevertheless, this is a way to get that water back to the ground. The development of life as we know it needs access to liquid water over long timescales, so if alien water cycles play out this way, oceans on other worlds could be replenished and stick around for longer. Obviously, a big explosion isn’t what you would intuitively think is good for life, but in this case it could be, Grenfell says. Leah Crane ■


The science of the Renaissance

Discover the great scientific minds and discoveries of the age on an eight-day cultural adventure across Florence, Pisa and Bologna






1 M A R C H 2 018, 15 N O V E M B E R 2 018

Join a group of like-minded, inquisitive New Scientist readers on an enlightening eight-day tour of Florence, Pisa and Bologna.


Led by art and architecture expert Andrew Spira, you will wander through echoing churches, study extraordinary museum collections and visit hidden Renaissance buildings. On this distinctive trip, you’ll also enjoy a special lecture from New Scientist’s editor-at-large, Jeremy Webb.

From the Ptolemaic planetarium in the dome of the Old Sacristy, San Lorenzo, to Bologna’s Anatomical Theatre, you will be guided through the astronomic, architectural, medical and mathematic discoveries of the period. The trip includes three evening lectures from our experts and four-star hotels throughout. The itinerary has been curated by New Scientist and is packed with insight.

WHAT’S INCLUDED ❭ Return flights with British Airways from London ❭ All hotels and transfers ❭ Entry to museums and tours ❭ Expert guide throughout ❭ Evening lectures from:

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Jeremy Webb






PHOTONS are sticking together like never before. The individual photons that make up a beam of light normally don’t interact, but a team of physicists has clumped three together for the first time, creating a new form of light. To make photons attract one another, Aditya Venkatramani at Harvard University and his colleagues first prepared a dense cloud of rubidium atoms at near absolute zero temperatures. Then, they shone a weak laser beam into the cloud, sending a few photons from it to interact with the atoms. When the photons came out the other side, they emerged in clumps of two or three, travelling 100,000 times slower than the usual speed of light (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aao7293). The team thinks the interaction is a result of the initial interplay with the rubidium atoms. When a photon is absorbed by an atom, it forms a matter-photon hybrid called a polariton. Although photons can’t directly interact with one another, polaritons are free to interact via the forces that govern the atoms. These atomic forces can bind the photons to one another, and once the photons leave the polaritons and the cloud of atoms, they continue to be attracted together in what is essentially a molecule of light. Because the photons remain linked after passing through the gas cloud, manipulating one of them could affect the other two. This makes these triplets potentially useful for quantum communications and cryptography. And if the process can be scaled up to a larger number of photons, there might be other, more outlandish applications. “You can make one lightsaber, but if you need two that can crash together in a fight you need the photons to repel each other,” says Venkatramani. He says that one of the team’s next missions is to figure out how to make photons push each other away. Leah Crane ■


Photons team up to make new form of light

Trans woman breastfeeds baby Jessica Hamzelou

Surgery in New York City. Her partner had no interest in breastfeeding, she explained, so she would like to do it instead. A hormone called prolactin usually stimulates the production of breast milk in women who have just given birth, but this chemical isn’t available as a lab-made drug. Instead, the woman decided to try using a nausea drug called domperidone to trigger breast milk. Anecdotally, some say

A TRANSGENDER woman has become the first officially recorded to breastfeed her baby. An experimental three-and-ahalf-month treatment regimen enabled the woman to produce 227 grams of milk a day. “This is a very big deal,” says Joshua Safer of Boston Medical Center, who was not involved with the treatment. “Many transgender women are looking to have as many of the experiences of non- “This could benefit other trans women, as well as transgender women as they can.” The woman had been receiving women who adopt or have feminising hormonal treatments difficulty breastfeeding” for several years before starting the lactation treatment. These this drug boosts their milk included spironolactone, which production, but the US Food is thought to block the effects and Drug Administration has of testosterone, as well as previously warned it shouldn’t progesterone and a type of be used for this purpose. oestrogen. This enabled her She took it with increasing breasts to develop. doses of the hormones oestrogen, When her partner was progesterone and spironolactone. pregnant, she sought treatment At the same time, she began to from Tamar Reisman and Zil use a breast pump to stimulate Goldstein at Mount Sinai’s Center her breasts. Within a month, she for Transgender Medicine and was able to express milk droplets.

After three months, this increased to 227 grams of milk per day. Once the baby was born, she was able to exclusively breastfeed the infant for six weeks – during which time a paediatrician confirmed the baby was growing and developing normally and healthily (Transgender Health, doi.org/ckfv). Although 227 grams is significant, this is below the average of around 500 grams a day that a baby consumes by the time the it is five days old. After six weeks, the woman supplemented her breastfeeding with formula. This is the first case of breastfeeding by a trans woman to be reported in the medical literature, say Reisman and Goldstein. Safer agrees. “It’s out there on internet forums, but there’s a lot on the internet that’s true or untrue to varying degrees,” he says. But he adds that it is unclear to what extent the drugs and hormones helped. “For all we know, breast stimulation alone might be sufficient.” If the treatment is proven safe and effective, it could benefit other transgender women, as well as women who adopt or have difficulty breastfeeding, says Safer. However, the woman’s breast milk has not been assessed yet, so we don’t know if it has the same mix of components as in milk from new gestational mothers. This means the practice cannot yet be recommended, says Madeline Deutsch at the University of California, San Francisco, who is herself a transgender woman with a baby. She says she can see the potential benefits of breastfeeding, but that the long-term impact of this milk on the baby – including on subtle measures like IQ – is unknown. “I am very sad not to be able to breastfeed her and at the same time I did not consider doing this for the above reasons,” she says. Nevertheless, Safer thinks there is likely to be demand for treatments like this. “This is very special,” he says. ■ 24 February 2018 | NewScientist | 13


Jennifer Ouellette

them. The states also each have a bias towards one outcome. The strength of the interactions between the nodes depends on the voting correlations between states in past elections: those that tend to vote together will interact more strongly. The sum of all those biases and weights influences the probability of a given outcome. QX Branch used a D-Wave quantum computer to train the network, drawing on polling data from forecasting site Five Thirty Eight and results from the past 11 presidential elections. It then ran simulations of the 2016 presidential race. The network confirmed that crucial swing states were strongly

PREDICTING the outcome of a general election is a challenge. But combining quantum computing with neural network technology could improve forecasts, according to a study that used just such a network to model the 2016 US presidential election. Most pollsters incorrectly predicted that Hillary Clinton would win this election. After, many analysts concluded that one reason for the inaccuracy was that the predictive models used did not take into account the fact that individual states are not isolated – correlations between them can have an effect. To correct this, a study “The quantum neural conducted by data analytics network did slightly better company QX Branch used a type than Five Thirty Eight in of deep-learning network made up of many interconnected nodes. predicting the outcome” Modelling the 2016 election required 51 nodes, corresponding correlated to the election to the 50 states and Washington outcome – that is, they were more DC. Each node can be in one of likely to influence the final two possible configurations, a outcome, compared with reliably Democrat or Republican outcome. Republican states like Alabama or Each state is connected to every Democrat ones like California. other so they can interact freely Overall, the quantum neural and signals can travel between network arguably did slightly

Surgery may be seeding brain diseases WE MAY need to rethink sterilisation procedures after the revelation that brain operations seem to have spread proteins linked to Alzheimer’s disease. People who have Alzheimer’s disease typically have plaques of sticky amyloid proteins in their brains, although it remains unclear whether these are a cause or a consequence of the condition. When amyloid builds up 14 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

in blood vessels in the brain, it can sometimes make them so brittle that they leak or burst. This condition, called cerebral amyloid angiopathy (CAA), usually doesn’t develop until people are at least 60. But Sebastian Brandner at University College London and his team have been investigating the cases of eight people who developed CAA at a younger age. Medical records revealed that all eight underwent brain surgery during childhood or their teenage years for a variety of reasons (Acta Neuropathologica, doi.org/ckmb). At least three of the


Quantum pollster called Trump win

better than Five Thirty Eight in forecasting the 2016 election outcome. It predicted a roughly 50:50 toss-up race, with a slight Trump advantage (arxiv.org/ abs/1802.00069). But the work is more a proof of principle. The study only included 49 of the 50 states, omitting Maryland and Washington DC due to limited computing power. If the D-Wave computer improves enough by 2020, the team hopes to test the model again in that election. Higher powered machines are not yet available because quantum computing is still in its infancy. And according to Elizabeth Crosson at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, it’s unclear that

using quantum machine learning for this problem offers a significant advantage over classical computing. “This is a very small problem with only 50 states, so you could use a classical computer to replicate everything in this study in a pretty rapid time frame,” she says. Maxwell Henderson, who led the QX Branch team, remains sanguine about the promise of quantum computers. “It’s not going to be a stand-alone, solveeverything application,” he says. “But it could help with the difficult problem of modelling correlated systems, and maybe steer forecasters to also experiment with some of these models in the future.” ■

eight have already died from strokes, which can be caused by CAA. None of these people carries known gene variants that would raise the risk of developing the condition early. Brandner’s team says the most likely explanation is that amyloid proteins were seeded into their bodies during childhood brain surgery, from instruments previously used for operations on people with Alzheimer’s disease. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a brain disease caused by prion proteins, is known to have been spread in a similar way. But the new findings are the first to implicate

surgical instruments as a means for transmitting amyloid. Brandner’s team reports that none of the eight people developed Alzheimer’s disease itself, or any other kind of dementia. But this doesn’t rule out the possibility that amyloid spread through surgery could prime the brain for Alzheimer’s in later life. Brandner says it may be wise to improve sterilisation procedures for brain surgery, or introduce single-use instruments. Studies in animals have shown that amyloid proteins resist boiling, drying and exposure to formaldehyde. Andy Coghlan ■

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IN BRIEF Silence of the crickets

People are killing orangutans and wiping them out BORNEO’S orangutan population has halved in just 16 years. Worse, it wasn’t a tragic by-product of the growth of farming, as many had believed. Instead, most of the lost orangutans were deliberately killed. “It’s not a good picture,” says Serge Wich of Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. “We really need to acknowledge that killing of orangutans is a big issue.” His team studied Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), gathering data from surveys of their nests from 1999 to 2015. Orangutans make fresh nests each night, so counting them is a good measure of numbers.

In 1999, surveyors found an average of 23 nests for every kilometre they walked. But by 2015 they only saw 10 nests per kilometre, so the team says the Bornean orangutan population fell from 300,000 to 150,000 over the 16-year period (Current Biology, doi.org/gcx4p2). It was thought that the main threat to orangutans was habitat loss, due to deforestation and oil palm plantations. But this accounted for only 10 per cent of the decline. Instead, almost 70 per cent of the fall occurred in primary forest or sustainably logged areas. Most losses are the result of people killing orangutans, says Wich. People either felt threatened by them or killed them for food, and farmers did it to prevent damage to their crops. In interviews with the researchers, some local people admitted to killings.

Stem cells vaccinate against cancer REWINDING skin cells back to their origins in the uterus has vaccinated mice against cancer. Cancers grow a bit like embryos do, reawakening genes vital for growth during pregnancy that are switched off after birth. Now Joseph Wu of Stanford University, California, and his team have found that stem cells can be used as a vaccine to help the immune system recognise such change.

The team took skin cells from mice and turned them into induced pluripotent stem cells: primordial cells similar to those in a fetus. These carry some of the same proteins on their surface as many cancer cells, says Wu. Wu’s team killed the stem cells with radiation so they wouldn’t keep growing and combined them with a substance that helps trigger an immune response. They then

injected the cells into the mice they had been made from. The mice received injections under the skin every week for a month, before being given implants of different tumours. In mice that hadn’t had the injections, the tumours continued to grow. But they shrank in all the treated mice, vanishing in seven of the 10 animals given breast cancer, and in five of the nine given skin cancer (Cell Stem Cell, doi.org/cknf).

CRICKETS on Hawaii still try to call for females, despite having lost their ability to sing. Male crickets woo by “singing” – vigorously rubbing their wings together so that bumps and ridges scrape, making sound. But in recent decades, up to 95 per cent of male oceanic crickets (Teleogryllus oceanicus) on the Hawaiian islands of Kauai and Oahu have evolved flat wings, leaving them mute. This hurts their chances of mating, but it protects them from a fly called Ormia ochracea. This parasite homes in on a male’s song and sprays the cricket with eggs. The larvae then eat the cricket. Nathan Bailey at the University of St Andrews, UK, and his colleagues have now found that silent males still rub their wings together, as if to call females (Biology Letters, doi.org/ckk7). Some animals have vestigial organs with no function. The crickets have vestigial behaviour.

Virtual reality even if you are blind YOU no longer need to be able to see to enjoy virtual reality. Microsoft’s “canetroller” is a walking cane that simulates the feeling of real objects with vibrations, letting people who are blind explore digital worlds. Auditory feedback helps complete the picture. One person who tried it said she felt like she was “hitting up against” a virtual room’s walls, even though she was actually standing in an empty 22-squaremetre room. Another said he could feel textured surfaces. “It could be used to practise navigating in the snow in advance of a storm, or rehearsing the layout of a place in a new city before travelling there,” says Meredith Morris at Microsoft. 24 February 2018 | NewScientist | 17

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



HONEYCOMB patterns, like the one pictured below, plaster the surface of rocks around the world, but how they form has long been a mystery. Now it seems they may be created by the action of water and salt. Jirˇí Bruthans at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, and his colleagues investigated why the “ridges” get preserved while the hollows they surround get eroded. They focused on an area just below the rock’s surface called the “evaporation front”. Here, water in the rock escapes into the air, leaving behind any salt it was carrying. Salt crystals then form. These expand when heated, causing cracks in the rock and helping it erode. The evaporation front is invisible to the naked eye, says Bruthans. So his team added a fluorescent dye to the surface of the honeycombs. The evaporation front quickly popped out, marked bright red. When the rock had only a little water in it, any slight protrusions jutted above the evaporation front. That meant water was evaporating from some patches of the surface but not others. Areas of evaporation accumulated salt crystals and were eroded, becoming hollows (Geomorphology, doi.org/ckmf). Bruthans says uneven surfaces of only a few millimetres between hollows and protrusions is enough to spur honeycombs to develop.

18 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

Electric eel-mimicking battery could power pacemakers THE future of medical implants may be fishy. A soft and fleshy electric eel-inspired battery could lie at the heart of next-generation pacemakers and other devices. To create a prototype of such a battery, Anirvan Guha at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and his colleagues spread thousands of hydrogel bubbles across a thin, pliable surface. They then placed a second sheet of this material over the first, before finally filling the space between them with a saline solution.

The ions in the salt water were enough to cause friction and generate electricity in the gel layers, providing 110 volts of electricity – nearly as much as is supplied by wall sockets in the US. The material’s structure is similar to the layers of skin that produce electric eels’ deadly jolts (Nature, doi.org/gcm4x8). But this voltage isn’t enough to power medical devices right now because the generated current is too weak, says Guha. He and his colleagues say the electrical potential of the device

could be driven up further by improving how the gels repel the ionised atoms and by making the gel layers even thinner. A 40-fold improvement – along with a higher current – is possible, they say. Because the battery is soft and flexible, it could be put into a person’s soft tissue, where it should be capable of providing a power source for a pacemaker or other medical device. The system is designed to provide continuous electricity, without any need to periodically replace the battery. REBECCABLOOMPHOTO/GETTY

Mystery rock formation solved

CRISPR may target a learning disability THE gene-editing technique CRISPR has been used in the lab to switch on a gene in human brain cells whose dormancy is behind a learning disability. Fragile X syndrome is the most common inherited form of cognitive impairment, affecting one in 4000 men and one in 6000 women. It is caused when a gene called FMR1 is silenced, which typically inhibits learning. Rudolf Jaenisch at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his colleagues have found a way to reactivate this gene by editing the epigenetic markers that keep it switched off. They did this in brain cells derived from stem cells from people with fragile X syndrome. It led to these neurons no longer displaying the over-excitability that disrupts the brain circuits of those with the condition (Cell, doi.org/gcx4p6). The team now plans to test the technique directly in the brains of mice with the condition. If it works, it may be useful for treating other disorders. For example, there is some evidence that genes are wrongly turned on or off in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Hairy tongues hit the sweet spot SOME bats use their hairy tongues to slurp up nectar from flowers, and now we know why these help them excel at it. To figure out how the hair-like protuberances on a bat’s tongue work, Alice Nasto at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her team moulded rubber into model tongues with differently spaced hairs on them – or no hairs at all. Then they dipped them into viscous oil. The hairy artificial tongues held onto 10 times more liquid than hairless ones (Physical Review

Fluids, doi.org/ckjj). The spaces between the hairs act like channels, directing the nectar’s flow and slowing it so it doesn’t drip away before it gets to the bat’s mouth. Closer hairs are the best at slowing the flow. However, the hairs need to be far enough apart to leave room for liquid. The researchers found that the optimum distance between these tiny hairs was 0.13 millimetres. Bats have a spacing of about 0.125 millimetres between their hairs on average, so they are getting about as much nectar from each dip as possible.

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Alert: May contain science WARNINGS before lectures. who know their triggers, akin to Speakers banned. Debate stifled. allowing students with conditions Students are increasingly making like ADHD extra time in exams – demands about what can and but requests for warnings go far can’t be said on campus. This beyond this. According to a survey month, online magazine Spiked by the US National Coalition revealed that 55 per cent of UK Against Censorship, students universities are censoring speech. want warnings for subjects such For many, it is a worrying sign “Do trigger warnings and that students are turning away microaggression policies from a diversity of thought that help prevent real would promote critical thinking, psychological harm?” the very thing university education is designed to support. But can students’ concerns as race, sexual orientation, be dismissed as mere political disability and colonialism correctness? Or do trigger (See “Diversity rises”, below). warnings and microaggression “People use [the phrase policies help prevent real ‘trigger warning’] in relation to psychological harm? anything that might upset you Trigger warnings originated or you might have trouble with,” online as a way to alert people says psychologist Guy Boysen with post-traumatic stress of McKendree University in disorder (PTSD) that what they Illinois. “That is 100 per cent were about to see might trigger a separate thing.” distressing flashbacks. They are Some argue that trigger now being used in universities as warnings help create a a heads-up to students that they constructive classroom might find course material atmosphere. Students are not upsetting. asking to disengage or avoid Although there has been no studying, says Katy Glenn Bass direct test of their effectiveness, it is well known that people are DIVERSITY RISES generally less stressed by Some see the new campus culture as threatening situations if they the culmination of a tendency in the know about them in advance, because they feel more in control. last 20 years for parents to be more protective, attempting to safeguard This may be particularly true for both their child’s physical safety and people with PTSD. A study found emotional comfort. that their startle response, a sign This, coupled with an ability to of anxiety, when exposed to ensconce themselves in an ideological unexpected loud noises was bubble of their choosing online, has significantly higher than that of created a generation ill-equipped to people with generalised anxiety disorder or no disorder. There was engage with world views that are no difference between the groups different to their own, says Craig Harper, a psychologist at Nottingham when the noise was expected. So, there may be a clinical basis Trent University in the UK. Others say the disputes are down for giving individually tailored to changing demographics and a warnings to diagnosed students 20 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

at PEN America, an organisation that has conducted a systematic investigation of the issues. Rather, they are just asking to be prepared. “Most people don’t think twice about a warning flashed before a violent or sexually graphic movie.” What’s more, says Arno Kumagai, vice-chair of education at the University of Toronto’s department of medicine, words can be traumatic: a discussion on racism that uses explicit racist language can traumatise people in a similar way to PTSD flashbacks, he says. Indeed, studies have shown that overt discrimination can have tangible, detrimental effects, so it is plausible that discussions involving discriminatory language could do the same. For example, there is evidence that perceived stigmatisation related to gender, race and sexuality is associated with depression, anxiety and higher blood pressure. Racism, it has been argued, could explain some racial disparities in health.

growing diversity of voices on campus. In the US, from 1972 to 2017, the proportion of Hispanic students rose from 4 per cent to 17.5 per cent, and of black students from 10 to 15 per cent. The proportion of white students fell from 84 to 58 per cent. The situation is similar in the UK. In 1996, black and ethnic minority students made up 13 per cent of first-year undergraduates. In 2016, it was 25 per cent. Throw in increasing acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, and perhaps it should be no surprise that as campuses get more diverse, we are seeing calls for change.


Talk of trigger warnings and microaggressions has taken over university campuses, but do they have any psychological basis, asks Jessica Bond

Some students say that more subtle forms of discrimination can cause harm, too. In a 2007 paper, psychologist Derald Wing Sue at Columbia University in New York and his co-authors defined microaggressions as an everyday slight that invokes negative attitudes towards a minority group, whether intended or not. The negativity comes from hidden or implicit bias, they asserted. Although any isolated incident may not seem so significant, the cumulative effect can take its toll. Since then, many studies have detailed microaggressions that specifically affect different minority groups, and found links with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, pain and fatigue.

For daily news stories, visit newscientist.com/news

Should speech you don’t like come with a health warning?

Some universities are using Sue’s work to develop awareness programmes, but Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, says the science is far from certain. In a paper published last year, he criticised the subjective nature of microaggressions. “If someone is convinced that they have been microaggressed against, they have,” he says.

Traumatic words Microaggression research also fails to account for individual differences, says Lilienfeld. It could be that people who say they receive regular microaggressions score highly for “negative emotionality”: a tendency to

perceive oneself and the world So how do we figure out who through a negative lens. What’s is right? Boysen wants to study more, because this trait is linked trigger warnings with a trial in to depression and anxiety, it which students are randomly makes it hard for researchers to selected to be warned about a determine the extent to which controversial topic. Their anxiety, microaggressions, by themselves, stress and mood could be cause mental distress. measured before and afterwards, Sue argues that Lilienfeld’s perhaps revealing unintended focus on the individual dismisses the real experiences of “If someone is convinced marginalised groups. He sees talk that they have been microaggressed of microaggressions as a tool for against, they have” highlighting mistreatment, in a similar way to how police body cameras have been used. “African consequences. “The warning may Americans [have been] saying for be sensitising to students who years that they have been treated wouldn’t normally be sensitised unfairly by police,” he says. to those things. Right now, “When body cameras catch what we just don’t know,” says Boysen. is going on, people begin to realise In terms of microaggressions, that maybe they were correct.” Lilienfeld says we should have

trials of awareness training programmes before rolling them out widely. It may be that they help reduce prejudice or, as some studies have suggested, they could result in a backlash as people rebel against being told what to think and do. “One thing we’ve learned over and over again in psychological and educational research is that good intentions simply aren’t enough,” he says. But Sue says the science is clear, and it is time to act. “Thousands of studies have established that microaggressions are real, that they do great harm to the targets and we need to concentrate on anti-racism strategies.” Waiting for scientific certainty that a programme reduces prejudice is a luxury that people who are affected by microaggressions don’t have, he says. “Very few social policies, in the US or elsewhere, are simply based on science. They are based on values of the society and politics.” Sue and his colleagues are developing “microinterventions”, subtle or overt strategies to counteract microaggressions, such as immediately expressing disapproval, enabling the receiver to feel in control and reduce rumination about what they could have said. Some might view microaggression policies as an affront to free speech. But this can be seen another way, says Glenn Bass. The free speech defence gets rolled out in favour of controversial viewpoints, but students making their own concerns heard are also exercising their freedom of speech, she says. “It is to everyone’s benefit that we continue to believe that open discourse and debate is healthier for the society as a whole,” says Glenn Bass. “But it is important to make sure that everyone actually believes that, rather than feeling like they have been badgered into going along with it”. ■ 24 February 2018 | NewScientist | 21


Time for a different story We can’t wait for the next generation to solve climate change, but today’s kids can still be a big driving force, says Michael E. Mann WHEN my daughter was 5, I read The Lorax by Dr. Seuss to her. Much of it is about unrestrained development and damage to nature. It is sad, and she cried at times. But it is also hopeful. Its message is that, in the end, we have a choice – an opportunity remains to save our environment, but it is up to us to act. My generation – in particular, our politicians – have so far failed to act sufficiently. We haven’t done what is necessary to avert the threat posed by climate change. If fossil fuel use continues as now, we will warm our planet to dangerous levels within a few decades, having released too much carbon dioxide to avoid this. We cannot, as some hope, wait for a more environmentally aware generation to follow and solve the problem, as in The Lorax. And yet children do have a role to play. They have the ability to

influence the environmental attitudes of adults for the better. It is this potential to engage across the generations that helped inspire The Tantrum that Saved the World, a book I co-wrote with Megan Herbert, an accomplished children’s author and illustrator. We have tried to create a mutual learning experience for parents and children. Our hero is a girl called Sophia, who is upset by creatures appearing at her door. They have been displaced by the impact of climate change on their habitat and are searching for a new home. At first, she is frustrated by the onslaught of uninvited guests. But as she learns their stories, she becomes increasingly concerned about them and sympathetic to their plight. She decides that she must do something. She makes signs and leads a demonstration, complains to local officials, rallies

Public spectacles Can a second wave of smart glasses succeed where Google Glass failed, asks Jamais Cascio ASK pundits what killed Google Glass’s mass-market dream and they will list various issues, from price to style. But the most frequently cited by far came to be known as the “glasshole” problem. It boiled down to this: eyewear sporting an obvious camera can trigger scorn or even violence. But it seems the idea of an everyday 22 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

facial computer based on glasses is too persuasive to go away. Successors such as Intel’s upcoming Vaunt were inevitable. It wisely has no camera, and is arguably the most normallooking of any smart glasses – the specs just happen to have a Bluetooth connection to your phone and a low-intensity laser

to draw text onto your retina. This is a relatively humble computer, suited to showing basic images and urgent messages. If this was all it could be, at worst it may be mildly disruptive to social interactions – “is this guy gazing into the distance thinking or checking his messages?” Restrictions would probably be situational, such as banning them from exam rooms. In public, they would be unlikely to cause a stir. But Intel already intends to add

“It is hard to imagine tiny lenses won’t find their way to these devices. Would it be a privacy nightmare?”

a microphone in a more advanced version, and better graphics are also likely. As capabilities like this are added, social issues will once again multiply. Most critically, the absence of a camera is probably just temporary. Harder to spot lenses have cropped up on other smart glasses. But what happens when the camera is virtually impossible to detect at a glance? It is hard to imagine that miniature lenses won’t find their way to these devices. Would it be a privacy nightmare? Or to take a different cut at this, what might activists and demonstrators be able to capture with this kind of set-up? As with many information

For more opinion articles, visit newscientist.com/opinion

Michael E. Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. The Tantrum that Saved the World, published by World Saving Books, is out in hardback next month

technologies, the capabilities that threaten privacy may also be tools of empowerment. There’s no guarantee that Vaunt (and its rivals) will be successful. Smart glasses may be a futurist trope akin to flying cars, appealing in the abstract, but with real-world problems too difficult to overcome. However, if they do thrive, we may be surprised by what happens next. Success based on eliminating a camera could, in turn, make cameras on our faces unstoppable. Glass began the debate, but it is far from over. Q Jamais Cascio is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future

INSIGHT Air pollution


friends and fellow townspeople, and ultimately takes her case all the way to the president. As someone who is dedicated to conveying climate change science and its implications, I am always looking for new ways to talk about it and new audiences to reach out to. Younger children in the 5 to 10-year-old target age group for the book will enjoy the story on its own. Older children will also benefit from the book’s second part, which provides some of the scientific backstory of how climate change is affecting the characters. The final third is an action plan detailing things to do to help solve the climate problem. Messages of doom and gloom can be paralysing. We wanted to tell a story that would empower, something that parents and children could read together and that might move them to act. We hope kids and adults alike will be inspired to become heroes of their own stories. An effort that spans the generations will be all the more powerful. Q

Is hairspray really wrecking the planet? Michael Marshall

spent indoors, there are potentially important health implications,” says Frank Kelly of King’s College London. It is important to put these findings in context, however. They apply only to highly developed places like the US and western Europe, where air quality has been improving for decades, says Michael Brauer at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Emissions from consumer products are significant only because those from transport and industry have fallen. For the locations in the world with the most severe air pollution problems such as China and India, the story

SAY air pollution and we tend to think of car exhausts, large factories and open fires. But in Western cities, it turns out the biggest source of air pollution is household items like your hair spray and shampoo. A team including Brian McDonald and Jessica Gilman of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Colorado examined data on air pollution from the US and Europe. Increasingly strict regulations mean that pollution from cars and other vehicles has fallen. As a result, a larger proportion of Western “Emissions from consumer pollution now comes from everyday products are significant consumer products that release a mix of carbon-based chemicals into the air. only because those from transport have fallen” To identify the types of product responsible, the team calculated the flow of chemicals in and out of the air remains unchanged, Brauer says. of Los Angeles. The largest source There, the main problems are was personal care products like hair “traditional” sources, like coal-fired spray, shampoo and deodorants, power plants, wood, coal and dung says McDonald. Other sources were burned for heating and cooking, paint and adhesives (Science, DOI: and agricultural burning. 10.1126/science.aaq0524). So the next time you see a report “As many of these emissions occur of horrendous smog in Delhi or Beijing, indoors, and given the amount of time don’t blame the shampoo. There is also

no reason to slow efforts to cut emissions from transport, both in the Western world and elsewhere. But now we know that these everyday products are clogging up our air, what can we do about it? We can all make a difference, says Gilman. “Using the smallest amount possible to get the job done, or using fragrance-free products, are easy ways to reduce emissions.” Even if this doesn’t make much difference on a large scale, it may well improve the air in your home. However, in the long run, public health specialists agree that new regulations must be passed to ensure that products emit less. That may seem a daunting task, because the pollution is coming from such a wide range of products, but it is not impossible. For instance, many paints are now based on water rather than organic solvents, so hardly emit anything. Kelly also highlights the UK’s recent ban on microbeads, an effort to tackle plastic pollution. “Changes can be made,” he says. Cutting these emissions may be a win-win situation, says Brauer. “The emissions are not waste products or by-products of combustion, but are essentially product that is being ‘lost’ to the atmosphere,” he says. “Reducing their release during use means less of these compounds need to be produced.” So manufacturers may ultimately make savings. Who knows, they might even pass them on to you. ■ 24 February 2018 | NewScientist | 23


24 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

Sky liners YOU won’t find this species in your average cloud-spotter’s guide. These fluffy strings might look like icy contrails left by aircraft, but they are actually created by ships plying the ocean. Clouds are collections of tiny water droplets, which need a speck of something solid to condense around. That can be anything from bacteria to salt particles. Ships throw out sooty particles as they burn fuel. These polluting particles seem to seed clouds with a greater density of smaller droplets than normal, so the ships leave highly reflective tracks. Like contrails, the ship tracks betray the paths of the vessels that created them. Here, off the coast of Portugal and Spain, many ships are forging north towards ports in Europe. Their tracks have merged into a band of cloud to the right of the photo. Other individual east-west trails, some of which stretch hundreds of kilometres, belong to ships crossing the Atlantic. They may be beautiful, but these clouds cast a dirty shadow. Cargo ships emit little carbon dioxide compared with other modes of transport. But they use bunker fuel, a cheap and sludgy oil that can emit about 3500 times as much sulphur dioxide as diesel does. Sulphur dioxide contributes to acid rain and can cause respiratory problems. That is one reason why bunker fuel is banned in many coastal shipping routes, including the English Channel. Joshua Howgego

Photograph NASA Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

24 February 2018 | NewScientist | 25


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Survival of the tamest Our ancestors domesticated dozens of animals – but only after doing the same to themselves, says Colin Barras

28 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

domesticated mammals – most of which weren’t selectively bred, but gradually adapted to live alongside humans – have similarities. Rabbits, dogs and pigs often have patches of white hair and floppy ears, for instance, and their brains are generally smaller than those of their wild relatives. Over the years, the collection of physical traits associated with tameness has been extended to smaller teeth and shorter muzzles. Together, they are known as the domestication syndrome. Many creatures carry aspects of the domestication syndrome, including one notable species: our own. We too have relatively short faces, small teeth and no

“Humans really may be the puppy dogs to Neanderthals’ feral wolves” prominent brow ridges. Our relatively large brains are smaller than those of our Neanderthal cousins – something that has puzzled many an evolutionary biologist. And like many domesticated species, young humans are also receptive to learning from their peers for an unusually long time. Some of these similarities between humans and domesticated animals were noted early in the 20th century, but there was no follow-up. It was only after Belyaev publicised his experiments that a few evolutionary biologists once more began to consider the possibility that modern humans might be a domestic version of our extinct relatives and ancestors. On its own, Belyaev’s work didn’t provide the hard evidence needed to convince the wider community of human >



IRST came the dog, followed by sheep and goats. Then the floodgates opened: pigs, cows, cats, horses and a menagerie of birds and other beasts made the leap. Over the past 30,000 years or so, humans have domesticated all manner of species for food, hunting, transport, materials, to control pests and to keep as pets. But some say that before we domesticated any of them, we first had to domesticate ourselves. Mooted by Darwin and even Aristotle, the idea of human domestication has since been just that: an idea. Now, for the first time, genetic comparisons between us and Neanderthals suggest that we really may be the puppy dogs to their feral wolves. Not only could this explain some long-standing mysteries – including why our brains are weirdly smaller than those of our Stone Age ancestors – some say it is the only way to make sense of certain quirks of human evolution. One major insight into what happens when wild beasts are domesticated comes from a remarkable experiment that began in 1959, in Soviet Siberia. There, Dmitry Belyaev took relatively wild foxes from an Estonian fur farm and bred them. In each new litter, he chose the most cooperative animals and encouraged them to mate. Gradually, the foxes began to behave more and more like pets. But it wasn’t just their behaviour that changed. The tamer foxes also looked different. Within 10 generations, white patches started to appear on their fur. A few generations later, their ears became floppier. Eventually the males’ skulls shrank and began to look more like those of the females. These were precisely the traits that Belyaev was looking for. He had noticed that many

24 February 2018 | NewScientist | 29


Wild abandon: in a Soviet experiment, foxes were bred to be less fearful and more like pets

evolutionary biologists. “You can imagine people not liking the idea,” says Cedric Boeckx at the Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona. At best, many see it as an analogy, he says. In part, that’s because until recently there was no good explanation for why tameness was linked with a suite of physical traits. In the early 2000s, Susan Crockford, now at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, suggested the thyroid gland might be involved, but the idea didn’t go very far. That changed in 2014 when Richard Wrangham of Harvard University, Adam Wilkins, now at the Humboldt University of Berlin, and Tecumseh Fitch at the University of Vienna, made a connection. They pointed out one thing that unites the various parts of

the body that are influenced by domestication: all derive from a tiny collection of stem cells in the developing embryo. The cluster of cells is called the neural crest. As the embryo develops in the uterus, and eventually forms a fetus, the cells of the neural crest are sent around the body to form different tissues, including ear cartilage, the dentin that makes teeth, and melanocyte cells that produce skin pigments. Significantly, the neural crest also gives rise to the adrenal glands, which play a key role in fear and stress. Wrangham and his colleagues outlined a simple idea. During the initial stages of domestication of any animal – pigs, for instance – our ancestors began by selecting individuals that were less fearful of them, and less aggressive towards them. That made them easier to breed in captivity.

Unwittingly, the tamers were selecting animals that had smaller, less active adrenal glands, a feature in turn linked to less active neural crest cells. Changes in the cartilage and other tissues derived from these cells were just inadvertent side effects. Crucially, the team predicted that dozens of genes with links to the neural crest should all change as a result of domestication. Domestic species should have distinct versions of these genes, not seen in their wild relatives. The idea, now known as the neural crest cell hypothesis quickly gained fans, including Boeckx. “Before they formulated [it], the idea of self-domestication was hard to test,” he says. But with a genetic definition in place, it became possible to hunt for signs of it in species not normally considered domesticated – species like our own. He and his colleagues looked at the genetic differences between modern humans and Neanderthals – the variations that, through the process of natural selection, caused our species to diverge. Remarkably, they discovered that many of the differences were linked to the neural crest. What’s more, the neural crest genes in several known domestic species were found to be distinct from those in their wild counterparts. In other words, some of the genetic differences that distinguish us from Neanderthals are the same as those that distinguish dogs from wolves and European cattle from European bison. This suggests there was an episode early in our evolution when our species underwent the same sort

CIVIL TONGUES The capacity for language is one of our most enigmatic traits. Could domestication help explain it? To understand how languages evolve, Simon Kirby at the University of Edinburgh, UK, and his colleagues ask volunteers to learn simple artificial languages using a computer program, then watch how they change as the volunteers learn from each other. Initially, two people learn a “language” and use it to converse with each other. A second group of volunteers learns the language from those conversations; a third learns from the second generation, and so on. Under these conditions, the researchers found that their initial, essentially random made-up language 30 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

evolves to become simpler and more structured, and thus a better vehicle to transmit meaning. “The structure of language comes essentially for free,” says Kirby. The results suggest that cultural transmission played a role in the evolution of human language. But if the process is so simple, why is it unique to humans? Kirby and his colleagues argue that we have two key skills: an ability to learn and imitate complex signals, and a sensitivity to signs that someone is trying to communicate. They searched the scientific literature for other species with the same skills and came across studies of songbirds. Many of them, such as the Bengalese finch, are excellent vocal learners.

The search also highlighted dogs, which show an almost human-like ability to recognise communicative intent in gestures. Even chimps struggle to follow a pointing finger, yet dogs do this easily. For Kirby, it was significant that both Bengalese finches and dogs are domestic species – especially when he came across the growing literature suggesting that we, too, are domesticated. “It was kind of spooky when I saw that,” he says. He now believes that our self-domestication may have primed us to develop language. “I agree that cultural evolution plays an important role [in language development] that has often been ignored,” says Tecumseh Fitch at the University

of Vienna, who studies the origin of language and has studied the evolution of domestication (see main story). But he wants to see more evidence before he is convinced self-domestication helped language evolve. Cedric Boeckx at the Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona thinks genetics might support Kirby’s work. One genetic change brought on by domestication, which appeared in H. sapiens, cats and horses through natural selection, plays a vital role in memory and learning. “That suggests self-domestication could really have had an influence on the way we learn things and build culture,” he says.

In your face Compared with Neanderthals, modern humans have facial features that are more similar to those of a domesticated animal

Smaller brain case

Shorter nasal bone or snout

Smaller teeth Smaller jaw

Wolf of domestication as these animals did. “The Boeckx result is totally cool,” says Wrangham. There is a crucial difference, of course, between humans on one hand, and dogs and cattle, say, on the other. Most domestic animals were tamed by another species – us. So what tamed humans? Evolution itself, says Boeckx. He and others distinguish between animals that are bred to be less aggressive, like horses, pigs and the Russian foxes, and ones that naturally evolve that way. Dogs, for instance, are thought by some to be partially self-domesticated. The idea is that some wolves were naturally bolder and less aggressive. They had an advantage because they could approach human settlements and dine on their leftovers. Only later did we selectively breed them and complete their domestication. It is possible that being less aggressive and more cooperative was also an advantage for early humans, giving those with these traits a better chance of surviving and reproducing. Alternatively, researchers have argued that humans became less aggressive and more cooperative simply as a consequence of their large bodies and brains. Animals with these features typically show more self-control, so it is conceivable that our ancestors became less impulsive or quick to anger simply by virtue of their size. Sexual selection could also have played a role, with females finding less aggressive males more attractive, perhaps because they provided better care for their young. Wrangham and Brian Hare at Duke University in North Carolina have suggested that a similar process could explain why bonobos have evolved to be so much less violent than chimpanzees. More work is needed to really pin down what ultimately drove self-domestication in humans, says Boeckx. He says the next step


Homo sapiens

is take lab animals and change some of the genes his team has identified, inserting the domestic versions in individuals that have the wild variants. If this produces offspring that look and act like a domestic species, but are otherwise unchanged, then we can be more confident that the genetic differences between Neanderthals and us really are down to self-domestication. That said, several researchers are already convinced that this process can explain several important events in our evolutionary history, such as the evolution of language (see “Civil tongues”, left), and the explosion of culture during the Stone Age. The objects archaeologists have found suggest that it was only within the past 100,000 years that jewellery, musical instruments and

“Most domestic species were tamed by humans. So what tamed us?” other cultural artefacts became a common feature of human life, 200,000 years after Homo sapiens first appeared. “That’s always been a puzzle,” says Steven Churchill at Duke University. In 2014, he and his colleagues speculated that this delayed cultural revolution might have been linked to an intense pulse of human self-domestication 100,000 years ago. They argued that our species had the capacity to innovate from the start, but that our ancestors lacked the social networks for ideas to spread from group to group. Instead, knowledge and good ideas lived and died in the family group. Genetic and archaeological evidence suggests population densities began to rise around 100,000 years ago. Until that time, it may well have been beneficial for


humans to be hostile towards strangers, perhaps to prevent others encroaching on their territories. But as people began to live more closely together, it would have been better to welcome them, say the researchers. Humans would have experienced an evolutionary selective pressure to be friendly and cooperative, potentially an episode of self-domestication. The idea predicts that H. sapiens should have begun to show some physical features of domestication around the same time. The team looked at dozens of ancient human skulls and found that it was indeed around then that brow ridges and long, powerfully built faces faded away to leave our species looking more feminine, just like Belyaev’s foxes. “To operate in [a wide social network], I think you need overt signals that you’re not going to behave aggressively,” says Churchill’s collaborator, Robert Franciscus at the University of Iowa. Smaller brow ridges and faces were probably just that, he says. It is a nice idea, but one that will need further work to explain away some contradictions. For instance, fossils show that several undomesticated mammals – bears, boars, even sea cows – also seem to have become more feminine over the past 100,000 years. And so many researchers still need to be convinced that self-domestication – perhaps even successive pulses of selfdomestication at different times – can explain profound mysteries of our evolutionary history. But advocates are undeterred. Wrangham is publishing a book on the subject later this year. Two millennia after Aristotle became the first person to compare people to domestic animals, the idea might be about to go mainstream. ■ Colin Barras is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan 24 February 2018 | NewScientist | 31


Work the crowd Get the right people together and predicting the future is a cinch, says Arran Frood

32 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018


VERY day after breakfast, Shannon Gifford would sit down at her computer for an hour and scour obscure corners of the internet for clues. The questions she was attempting to answer changed. Once she was trying to find out whether radioactive poison would be discovered in the body of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. At other times she was working out whether the price of oil would rise above $60 a barrel that year, or predicting the outcome of a forthcoming presidential election in Ghana. Gifford isn’t an investor, a spy or even an insatiably curious news junkie. Alongside hundreds like her, she was part of an extraordinary experiment to find out whether the wisdom of the crowd can predict the future. The answer surprised even the US intelligence officials behind the experiment. It turns out crowds really can make accurate predictions – so accurate, in fact, that they promise to permanently change how states analyse intelligence.

We have known some of the benefits of collective wisdom since Aristotle, but a slightly more recent example features in the 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds by journalist James Surowiecki. The opening pages tell the story of the day Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton went to a country fair. Galton, a formidable scientist himself, asked people to guess the weight of an enormous ox. Most got it absurdly wrong, but the median guess of the 800-strong crowd was just 1 pound off the true weight of the ox, which for the record was 1198 pounds, or 543 kilograms. The wisdom of crowds is an integral part of life today. We try suspected criminals by jury. We use crowdfunding websites to back new products. We follow the throng to popular restaurants. Now it even seems it may be possible to predict the future using the masses. One existing way of doing it is with prediction markets. This is a form of gambling in which people buy shares in the outcome of a future event, commonly sports fixtures and

elections. Unlike a run-of-the-mill bet, the market owners put the share price up or down depending on demand from buyers. That means the shares with the highest price are a de facto prediction of the future. So how accurate are they? In 2008, Joyce Berg at the University of Iowa and colleagues analysed the long term-performance of the Iowa Electronic Exchange, a prediction market set up in 1988. Looking at the predictions on five US presidential elections, the researchers found they were more accurate than polls 74 per cent of the time. That’s not too shabby a record, although beating a poll might not seem that impressive

Will the UK have a new prime minister before 1 October 2018? Yes


in today’s febrile political climate. And the prediction markets have a downside: they can be rigged. Rajiv Sethi, an economist at Columbia University in New York, showed that in one prediction market for the 2012 US presidential election, a single trader accounted for a third of all bets on Mitt Romney. They may well have been trying to manipulate public confidence in him winning. Despite this flaw, the US intelligence community became interested in prediction markets in the early 2000s. Hit hard by their failure to know the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were coming, they wanted better ways to make geopolitical forecasts. The Pentagon’s research arm DARPA launched a predictions market that allowed real money bets on assassinations, uprisings and future terrorist attacks. It proved rather unpalatable, however. One senator called it “ridiculous and grotesque”. The programme was shut down before it had a chance to properly get going. Then in 2005, a book called Expert > 24 February 2018 | NewScientist | 33

Political Judgement brought crowd predictions to the fore again. The author Philip Tetlock, a psychologist now at the University of Pennsylvania, had studied expert predictions for two decades. In one experiment, he surveyed about 300 professional political and economic forecasters, asking them a series of questions about the future and getting them to pick answers from a range of options. He also asked them to assign a probability to their stance. He amassed tens of thousands of predictions and compared them with what really happened. The experts performed terribly: worse than if they had assigned equal odds to each outcome every time. Surprised? Don’t be. We know that humans are routinely blinded by cognitive biases. For example, we tend to undervalue new information that contradicts our established beliefs. But Tetlock went further. He also asked ordinary people similar questions and found their predictions were more accurate than those of the experts – possibly because they didn’t have the same ingrained, subjectspecific biases. The work caught the eye of Jason Matheny, who has long worked at, and is now director of, IARPA, a US agency that funds intelligencerelated research. So he wrote to Tetlock suggesting they set up a forecasting trial. This time it would be a tournament, pitting teams of people against each other. Would Tetlock’s findings hold on a bigger scale where anyone could take part?

First, IARPA set about 100 questions on geopolitics (the questions on these pages are illustrative examples). These were given to four teams of academics, one of which was the Good Judgment Project (GJP), with Tetlock and others at the helm. Each team then put out a call for ordinary people to volunteer to answer the questions. Once the responses were in, the academics used them to produce a final prediction, which was later compared with

Before 1 January 2019, will any other EU member state schedule a referendum on leaving the EU or the eurozone? Yes


what really happened. The competition was repeated with new questions each year between 2010 and 2015, by which time some 2800 volunteers had taken part across the four teams. The GJP team quickly developed a strategy that would win over and over again. As the group received more and more answers, and looked at what actually came to pass, it used an adapted version of a metric called the Brier score, originally developed to quantify the accuracy of weather forecasts, to rank correct

I PREDICT THE END OF FAKE NEWS Prediction markets that essentially allow people to bet on particular events coming to pass have been around for decades (see main story). But a new breed is rearing its head – and promising the earth. These markets, with names such as Augur, Gnosis, Bitcoin Hivemind and Stox, are based on blockchain technology. That gives these markets two potential advantages. First, because blockchains are decentralised, markets using them can sidestep regulations. In the US, prediction markets are considered gambling,

so bets are taxed. The size of bets can also be capped. “Prediction markets have a lot of baggage,” says Paul Sztorc, creator of Bitcoin Hivemind. Remove that, and the potential market size increases, meaning that in theory the accumulated bets will be better predictors of the future. Second, blockchain-based markets are run by their users. This means anyone can create stocks in any future event they wish. Some see this as chaos compared with established prediction markets, which often focus on events like elections with well-defined outcomes.

34 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

But proponents claim these markets offer something revolutionary. “I think prediction markets in general can help us fight fake news – but particularly the blockchain ones,” says Sztorc. They provide a mechanism for crowds to verify the outcome of any event, with the best verifications earning cryptocurrency as a reward. Sztorc thinks people will consider that verification more trustworthy than, for example, a partisan media brand, political party or fact-checking blog. “You could have a place,” he says, “where people could see objective validity.”

predictions. Those made far in advance, for instance, or of rare events, scored more highly than obvious short-term predictions. This enabled the group to work out who the best performers were. Among the top 2 per cent was Gifford. From her home in Denver, Colorado, the 59-year-old would play with her predictions every day, enjoying the new websites that the stream of questions took her to. “It made me look at the news in a less passive way,” she says. It turned out she had just the right characteristics to effectively predict the future (see “Are you a superforecaster?”, right). Once the GJP team had identified the cream of the crop, it put them in teams and began using their predictions. This gave them barnstorming success. “To say the GJP exceeded our wildest expectations might even be underplaying it,” says Seth Goldstein at IARPA. The GJP superforecasters beat the other teams in the competition by a mile and were 50 per cent more accurate than a control crowd assembled by IARPA. Research comparing the GJP’s superforecasters against professional intelligence analysts is expected to be published soon. Gifford says the professionals only did better on questions where classified information was valuable. “In general, I think we beat them,” she says. We knew that crowds could beat experts, so if you take the smartest bit of the crowd, it stands to reason that they will beat them harder. But now a new possibility has suggested itself to the intelligence services: if the secret to assembling a wise crowd is to avoid bias and use the smartest heads, then perhaps icy machine minds could do the job. We already use machine learning to make predictions. IARPA’s Open Source Indicators project, which ran between 2012 and 2015, used computers to identify patterns in online searches and social media activity to predict significant societal events. The project successfully forecast the surges of civil unrest during protests in Brazil in June 2013. Now IARPA is launching a competition that will see teams of humans and machines work together to generate what the agency hopes will be the best crowd predictions yet. It is called the Hybrid Forecasting Competition. Silicon circuits are known for being coldly calculating, so you might think the wisest possible crowd would be formed exclusively of machines. But that isn’t necessarily true for two reasons. First, machines are programmed by humans and a touch of our bias often gets imparted. Second, we have all sorts of tacit knowledge that is hard to teach a machine:

ARE YOU A SUPERFORECASTER? Crowds of ordinary people can be good at predicting the future (see main story). But the most accurate predictions come when you identify the best 2 or 3 per cent of a crowd and team them up. Nearly all these superforecasters have a university degree, a wide range of interests and a curious mind. They also tend to have a few other key characteristics. INTELLIGENCE

Superforecasters are smart, particularly when it comes to fluid intelligence – the ability to apply past knowledge to new situations SHREWDNESS

Making good predictions involves absorbing lots of generic information and working out its significance to particular questions. Superforecasters are great at making those calls MOTIVATION AND COMMITMENT


The best forecasters tend to think about their predictions every day and work to refine them Algorithms predicted surges in Brazil’s civil unrest in 2013

that mental alarm bell that sounds when you come across a fact or report that sounds unreliable, for example. “We want to learn to what extent humans and machines can help each other,” says David Huber, a computer scientist at HRL Laboratories in California, who is leading one of the teams in the competition. Participants assigned to Huber’s team will log on to a website and watch the machine forecast running. They can also explore the data it is using and use it to inform their own predictions, discrediting it if they feel they should. So what happens if the competition replicates its predecessors and produces a step change in the accuracy of forecasts – then a system based on it predicts a terrorist strike or a North Korean missile launch? Politicians already have to make fraught decisions on the basis of uncertain intelligence. It is possible that an accurate human-machine forecasting programme

will make those decisions less uncertain. The jury’s out for the time being. But all three teams in the Hybrid Forecasting Competition say getting people to understand how the machine has made its predictions is key to gaining trust. Crowd forecasting will probably bring even bigger gains in other fields. “Prediction markets have enormous promise for revolutionising business and corporate governance,” says Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University in Virginia.

Before 1 October 2018, will the US provide notice of intent to withdraw from North American Free Trade Agreement? Yes



It’s good to talk. The best forecasts come from teams that discuss questions, then arrive at a communal decision

He thinks investors should be running such markets. You might set up two: one predicting a firm’s stock price if its CEO stays, the other where they quit. The difference is “the market estimate of whether the CEO should be dumped”, says Hanson. One complication could be the observer effect: if that CEO saw the data would they up their game? But done right, Hanson thinks it could dramatically improve our ability to find the value of changing course in a host of arenas, from product prices to politics. In fact, it is already happening. The GJP now has a commercial spin-off that offers the services of the world’s superforecasters to corporate clients. Gifford was offered a place, but for now she has decided to take a break. “The commercial questions didn’t seem as much fun,” she says. Q Arran Frood is a science journalist in Bristol, UK. Questions in this article are based on examples from the Good Judgment Open website 24 February 2018 | NewScientist | 35

Dirty laundry How do we turn one of the most polluting industries on the planet green, asks Sandrine Ceurstemont




T WAS a rookie error. Two decades ago, Gary Cass had just finished a degree in viticulture and was working at a friend’s winery in Western Australia when he forgot to add carbon dioxide to a vat of wine. Oxygen seeped in, feeding bacteria that caused a thick skin of sludge to form on its surface. Grateful not to be sacked, Cass threw it away in disgust. He couldn’t have guessed that, 20 years on, he would be using that same sludge to make more environmentally sound clothes. Dressing ourselves is a necessity that has spawned one of the most polluting economic activities on the planet. The clothing industry creates carbon emissions of 1.2 billion tonnes a year – more than aviation – and making and maintaining our clothes consumes shedloads of water, energy and non-renewable resources, too. Concern about clothing sustainability is suddenly in vogue. In November 2017, designer Stella McCartney spoke out against her industry following a report on clothing’s environmental impact by the sustainable economy think tank the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Cass is just one of many trying to respond to such concerns, finding ways to make clothes greener at all stages of their lives, from production and processing to washing and disposal. And although there is no single easy solution, it turns out there is quite a lot we can all do to help. 36 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

Across the planet, more people are wearing more clothes for shorter times. Those garments tend to start their lives in factories in South and East Asia, often far from their end users. Meanwhile, the equivalent of a truckload of clothing is thrown away globally every second, the vast majority ending up either in landfill or being burned. Most of those clothes are made from synthetic fabrics, above all polyester – essentially plastics made from oil. These materials don’t biodegrade after disposal, but every time they are washed they shed minuscule fibres that pollute rivers and seas (see “Microfibres, megaproblem”, page 39). Cotton and other natural fibres based on plant cellulose do at least break down, but aren’t necessarily any greener. Cotton uses up 2.5 per cent of the world’s arable land and requires huge quantities of pesticides, fertilisers and water to grow. It also takes more energy to spin and weave into fabric than artificial fibres. Some 10 years ago, Cass was working as a technician at the University of Western Australia in Perth when a chance conversation with Donna Franklin, an artist interested in unconventional clothing, reminded him of his botched wine job. That slimy skin was cellulose, too – cellulose produced not by growing a crop, but simply by bacteria acting on a sugary liquid. >

In the UK, almost three-quarters of discarded clothing ends up in landfill or being burned, with less than 1 per cent being recycled into other garments. In part, that’s because recycling clothes isn’t easy. “There is a lack of thought at the design stage, which makes it challenging for recycling to be viable,” says Richard Thompson at the University of Plymouth, UK. Buttons, toggles and other parts have to be removed, but the materials themselves are also tricky to break down and reuse. That could soon change. A Japanese company called Teijin has developed a way to chemically decompose polyester so it can be used again as a raw material, while a European Union-funded project called Trash-2-Cash is investigating how new, high-quality fibres can be created from unwanted clothing. And in 2017, Herbert Sixta from Aalto University in Finland and his colleagues found an ionic liquid that could be applied to polyester-cotton blends to separate the two types of fibres. Without any further processing, the cotton could then be used to make new clothing.

It is one of the most famous serendipitous discoveries: challenged in 1856 to synthesise the antimalarial drug quinine, 18-year-old chemist William Henry Perkin ended up producing an unknown compound with an intense purple colour. Eventually christened mauveine, this was the first synthetic dye. Owing to their wide range of hues, resistance to fading and ability for mass production, synthetic dyes have gradually replaced their natural, usually plant-derived, counterparts. But that has come at a cost. Making synthetic dyes uses large quantities of water, energy and chemical salts, and often creates toxic by-products. Widely used azo dyes, for example, are made up of aromatic amines that can harm animals and plants. One option is to get back to nature. Richard Blackburn at the University of Leeds, UK, and his colleagues have developed techniques that use by-products from food processing. “We’ve been dyeing wool and silk with dyes we extract from blackcurrant waste,” he says. “They make beautiful shades.” The researchers are also looking into how industrial dyeing processes can be made more efficient. By pretreating cotton with a polymer, they were able to eliminate salt from the process, halve water use and reduce the dyeing time. But it’s not just industrial processes that need scrutiny. Initial tests by a member of Blackburn’s lab show that dye components invisible to the naked eye come off in domestic washes, even after wash cycles. Multiplied by millions of households, the effect adds up. “It’s ironic that there is strict legislation for manufacturers, yet the consumer impact never comes under scrutiny,” says Blackburn. A radical alternative would be to get rid of dyes altogether. Subtle textures, for instance, could be incorporated into fabrics so hues are produced when they interact with light, rather as butterfly wings are iridescent. “It’s an exciting idea,” says Blackburn. “You could 3D print a colour by creating a specific topography.” 38 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

Clean-up job Emissions associated with how people in the UK wash clothes were lower in 2016 than they used to be because of changes in habits Previous washing behaviour

Ironing less often Ironing frequency down from 43% of total washes to 38% Washing at lower temperature More people are washing at 30°C Tumble-drying less Tumble-drying down from 32% of total washes to 26% Actual 2016 emissions


1 24 25 26 Million tonnes CO2 equivalent


So why not try making a fabric out of that? The encounter led to a collaboration in which Cass and Franklin “grew” haute couture dresses from wine and beer. One of them was displayed at the World Expo in Milan, Italy, in 2015. They were just curiosities – brittle, and with a limited shelf life. But Cass also founded a company, Nanollose, to commercialise the idea. In December 2017, the firm announced that it had created rayon fibres from vat-grown cellulose made by feeding Acetobacter bacteria on waste from coconut processing. These fibres have the potential to be stronger and lighter than their plant-based

counterparts, and should feed into the existing industrial process for making viscose, a cellulose fabric produced from wood pulp. “We’re hoping that consumers won’t be able to tell the difference,” says Cass. Others are pursuing similar ideas. Bolt Threads, a company based in California, is using sugar, water and genetically modified yeast to make an artificial silk that is more stretchy and water-resistant than spider silk. German company Qmilk is producing clothing fibres from milk proteins, while Italian firm Orange Fiber is making textiles from citrus fruit waste. “Lots of people are starting to do this and I think it’s a wonderful thing,” says Cass. There is still work to be done before such unconventional fibres can be produced on an industrial scale for a reasonable cost, especially as established players have a huge amount invested in existing production plants, technology and equipment. A quicker win might be to see how current processes could be improved to benefit both producers and the environment. Danish company Novozymes is pursuing one option: using more enzymes to increase the efficiency of chemical reactions employed during fabric processing. Some enzymes fill in for bleach to stonewash jeans, for example, while others prevent the formation of unsightly bobbles of loose fibres, or “pills”, on cotton fabrics. The enzymes typically work at room temperature, saving energy, and come from various biological sources. One of the latest antipilling enzymes was found in cow dung. “It was like finding a needle in a haystack,” says Christian Wieth of Novozymes. >

Worse for wear Overall UK carbon emissions associated with clothes are rising, and come from three main sources: production of fibres, their processing and how people clean finished garments – where there have been some cutbacks Overall emissions (million tonnes CO2e)






In use

Spinning, dyeing, finishing

Washing, drying, ironing


10 2012

8 6 4 2 0


Fibre production

12 Emissions/tonne clothing (million tonnes CO2 equivalent)


Agricultural production (natural fibres), polymer extrusion (unnatural fibres)



Microfibres snag plankton (left); and acidic dyeing waste enters Bangladesh’s rivers (below)

A good yarn World fibre production has been booming – with most of the increase in plastic-based polyester Polyester Cotton Wool Other fibres (cellulose, polypropylene, acrylic, polyamide)

140 120

60 40 20 0 1980






Million tonnes


MICROFIBRES, MEGAPROBLEM A handful of countries including the US, Canada and the UK have recently enacted bans on microbeads in cosmetics. These tiny plastic pellets slip through sewage treatment processes and contaminate rivers and seas. Yet according to a 2017 analysis by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, microbeads are just a drop in the ocean compared with microfibres released when synthetic textiles are washed. These fibres could account for over a third of all plastic reaching the open ocean, where their teeny size, typically a fraction of the width of a human hair, wreaks havoc. “Microfibres are so small that even the tiniest animals can take them up,” says Nick Mallos from Ocean Conservancy, an environmental charity based in Washington DC. In 2016, to figure out what influences microfibre shedding, marine biologist Richard Thompson at the University of Plymouth, UK, did a load of laundry. The type of fabric was the single biggest factor. “Some garments were releasing about five times more fibres than others in a single wash,” says Thompson. “That’s what surprised me the most.” Acrylic jumpers were the worst offenders, followed by polyester tops and polyester-cotton blends. The kind of washing powder and the water temperature were only minor factors. Besides changing our clothing and clothes-washing habits (see “Wash yourself green”, page 40), there are some quick fixes. Mesh laundry bags designed to catch minuscule escaping threads are already on sale, as are filters for washing machine waste pipes. Another possibility is to protect fabrics with a finishing coating during garment production to limit fibre release. Changes to waste water treatment have also been proposed. Thompson thinks more research is needed, too, on whether the length of fibres used to make fabrics or the way they are spun into a garment might affect the amount of shedding. “We need to go back to the drawing board,” he says. 24 February 2018 | NewScientist | 39


40 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018


“Ultimately, making clothes greener depends on us changing our own habits” Other environmentally problematic processes are the waterproofing of outer garments and the colouring of clothes (see “Dye another day”, page 38). Waterproofing often uses fluorochemicals, which can have toxic by-products. Richard Blackburn at the University of Leeds in the UK and his team have found that hydrocarbons, which are relatively innocuous, could work just as well. Unlike fluorochemicals, they aren’t oil repellant, but for most purposes, that doesn’t matter. “If you talk to people who buy outdoor clothing, they don’t want oil repellency,” says Blackburn. “It’s completely over-engineered.”

Oceanic plastic Some countries have banned the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics – but fibres shed by synthetic textiles during washing are a far bigger source of ocean microplastics Cosmetics

Plastic pellets



Ship coatings

3.7% Road markings


Synthetic textiles


City dust*


Tyres *includes abrasion from footwear, plastic cooking utensils, etc.



Laundry habits are often overlooked when considering the environmental impact of our clothes. Analysis undertaken by the Waste and Resources Action Programme in the UK suggests that carbon emissions associated with washing, drying and ironing account for about a third of the lifetime emissions of clothing (see “Worse for wear”, page 38). Early results from Richard Blackburn’s lab at the University of Leeds in the UK reveal that cutting down on laundering time is the best way to curb water and energy consumption. “I think it’s a learned behaviour that you have to wash your clothes for a long time to get them clean,” says Blackburn. “Nowadays, how dirty are we actually getting?” To minimise the impact, Christiane Pakula at the University of Applied Sciences and Rainer Stamminger at the Institute of Agricultural Engineering, both in Germany, suggest filling the washing machine to its capacity and using low temperature cycles. Washing powders are now packed with enzymes that can remove most stains at 30°C, says Christian Wieth from Novozymes in Denmark. Checking the total energy and water use of different machine settings is key. “Eco” cycles often take more time, but may save energy because they soak clothes for longer and so require less mechanical action. A 2016 review concluded that the front-loading washing machines used in Europe tend to consume less water than the top-loading models found in the US. Ultimately, though, your best bet is to reduce laundry frequency, especially for outerwear, by simply wearing clothes for longer before washing. That not only saves water and energy, but also extends each garment’s lifetime, while limiting the hazardous microfibres dumped into the oceans. Blackburn says he does his bit – he wears his socks two days running.

Bagfuls of cheap clothes come with other costs

Ultimately, making clothes greener depends not just on industries changing, but on us altering our own habits, too. We tend to wear garments for less time, disposing of them when they fall apart or go out of fashion – and very little of the clothing we do discard gets reused (see “Want not, waste not”, page 36). “All the environmental issues associated with clothing are magnified by that consumption,” says Blackburn. “And it pushes retailers to use cheaper processes and materials.” In the UK, the non-profit Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has been working with government and industry since 2012 to reduce the carbon emissions, water use and household waste associated with clothing by 15 per cent each by 2020. That includes encouraging manufacturers to use better-produced cotton and making it clear to consumers that they are paying more for an item because it has been made to last. Investing in fewer, more durable garments is one way to reduce resources and waste, as is giving more thought to how we use clothes after purchase (see “Wash yourself green”, left). Donating used clothing to friends or charity shops rather than just chucking it out also helps. But Wieth thinks consumers need to start making more noise, for example by complaining if their T-shirt starts pilling after a few washes. “Launching a consumer campaign would be a way to create more awareness,” he says. ■ Sandrine Ceurstemont is a writer based in Morocco

Humanity will need the equivalent of 2 Earths to support itself by 2030.

People lying down solve anagrams in 10% less time than people standing up.

About 6 in 100 babies (mostly boys) are born with an extra nipple.

60% of us experience ‘inner speech’ where everyday thoughts take a back-and-forth conversational style. We spend 50% of our lives daydreaming.

AVAILABLE NOW newscientist.com/howtobehuman



I’ll make your car drive itself Notorious hacker George Hotz is helping people turn standard vehicles into self-driving ones – but his eyes are on a bigger prize, he tells Niall Firth

42 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018


EORGE HOTZ is hungry. He missed breakfast so we are prowling through a Lisbon mall on the hunt for espressos and Portuguese custard tarts. His hoody displays the logo for his new start-up, Comma.ai, a company arming a growing number of hobbyists in the US with the ability to turn standard cars into self-driving vehicles. We talk as we walk through the tide of shoppers, looking for a cafe. “I define making an impact the way a meteor does,” Hotz says, with trademark modesty. He has yet to destroy any dinosaurs, but his approach to developing AI for autonomous vehicles is certainly making waves. His ultimate goal? To corner the software market for self-driving cars. Hotz shot to fame in 2007 as “geohot”, a trash-talking 17-year-old who was the first to unlock the original iPhone so that it could be used by a variety of phone companies. Later,

Back in the cafe, I ask him what his motivations are. “I solve puzzles,” he says. “And self-driving is an incredible puzzle – probably the best use of applied AI there is.” It’s a challenge that the entire automotive world is tackling, from Ford to Tesla, and Apple to Uber, with varying degrees of success. Hotz’s set-up is a long way from fully autonomous driving, but his software is always improving, thanks in large part to a constant stream of data from drivers who have elements of Comma.ai’s system installed.


Sony threatened him with legal action when he released a hack of the Playstation 3. A dropout from Carnegie Mellon University – “There are only five worthwhile courses you need to take. I figure you take them, then get out of there” – his latest obsession is hacking cars to turn them into semiautonomous vehicles. Tech-savvy drivers in the US with, say, a recent-model Toyota, can buy hardware from Comma.ai’s website – a dashboard camera, an interface to the car’s electronic systems – and combine it with the firm’s open-source software, openpilot, to create a car that can automatically control acceleration, braking and power-steering systems in specific circumstances, such as driving on a highway. In driving terms, the set-up essentially provides a sexed-up cruise control that keeps you in lane and a safe distance from the car in front. It is a modest degree of autonomy, so the driver must remain vigilant; every 6 minutes the system prompts them to move the steering wheel or touch other inputs to prove they are paying attention. What if the driver doesn’t respond? “Steering and braking are controlled [by openpilot] as before. It just stops accelerating, and slows until you take control back,” says Hotz. In late 2016, Hotz cancelled his first project, a $999 self-driving kit called Comma One, shortly before it was due to launch when he got a letter from transportation authorities in the US expressing concerns. The legal status of self-driving cars is a work in progress, notes Hussein Dia of Swinburne University of Technology’s Smart Cities Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia. “The regulators are still struggling with how to license or validate [self-driving] software.” Presumably to avoid a regulatory swamp, Hotz is now at pains to point out that he isn’t selling a self-driving “system”, per se, but merely providing a variety of hardware and software components and what people do with them is their call. His fans enjoy this balancing act. Later, as he roams the stage in front of more than 1000 people at the Web Summit conference, he raises an audience chuckle when he talks about the software you can run on some of Comma.ai’s in-car hardware. “Maybe you can run open-source software that drives your car,” he says, with a knowing look and heavy emphasis. “It’s up to you.” So far, openpilot can control most new Honda and Toyota vehicles. Hotz’s goal for 2018 is to have developed software for six of the 10 bestselling cars in the US.

“Luddites don’t win. It’s just a case of how long you want to hold things back” In 2016, Comma.ai collected input from more than 3 million kilometres of self-driving on roads, Hotz says, mostly in the US. Alongside data from the tens of thousands of people who have downloaded the firm’s chffr (“chauffeur”) smartphone app – which turns users’ phones into a dashcam that records and uploads all the road action – this information allows openpilot to constantly train and be updated. That’s why Hotz thinks his software will ultimately have an edge over the giant car manufacturers. “The automakers just don’t understand software, they don’t do updates,” he says. He doesn’t believe it is possible to write code from the top down that will create self-driving cars for the masses. “Driving is like a dance,” he says. It evolves. Within two years, he says, Comma.ai’s machine learning will be advanced enough so that users will only need to get their car onto the highway, then “hit a

button and read a book while it gets you to your exit”. From Hotz’s perspective, firms like Alphabet’s Waymo – aka Google’s self-driving car project – and Tesla are going about things the wrong way. Waymo uses a variety of costly lidar and other sensors on its fully automated custom-made cars. Tesla’s Advanced Autopilot system has eight cameras, 12 ultrasonic sensors and forward-facing radar to create a highly autonomous self-driving vehicle. “There’s no [mass] market for $100,000 self-driving cars,” he says. But as Comma.ai develops openpilot to higher levels of automation, requiring more complex driving, “it will quickly run into the limitations of cameras”, warns Srikanth Saripalli, who researches autonomous vehicles at Texas A&M University. “I’m hoping they will combine their current system with other kinds of sensors.” Tesla CEO Elon Musk need not be concerned about Hotz, if he ever was. Hotz likens Tesla to Apple’s exclusive operating system, iOS, and styles Comma.ai more on Google’s Android, which can be run on lots of different hardware. In other words, Tesla can do its thing, Hotz wants the rest of the market. Ultimately, he expects the big car firms to license Comma. ai’s software for their cars, just as phone manufacturers license Android. And while the lane-keeping, adaptive cruise control and other basic self-driving services will be free, Hotz envisages drivers paying a subscription to get the latest innovations. “You get to be a member of the Comma.ai premium club,” he says, magnanimously. A kind of techno-idealism pervades Hotz’s world view and he gets heated when discussing anyone who dwells on the more negative aspects of technology. “Luddites don’t win,” he says to me, leaning forward. “You’re going to lose, it’s just a case of how long you want to hold things back.” Hotz bucks the trend of many commentators on artificial intelligence because he is convinced that we will have some form of general AI in the next decade or two – and that the impact will be huge. “The real question will be what place in the world do humans have?” he says, casually, tucking into his prized custard tart. This vision doesn’t worry him. “AIs are like your children, you want them to surpass you.” And his role in that? “I’ve wanted to solve AI since I was 15. It’s only recently I thought I had a shot.” Hungry indeed. Q Niall Firth is New Scientist ’s chief news editor 24 February 2018 | NewScientist | 43


Art of a paradox The internet poses an impossible paradox for digital artists: the tech that delivers so much also filters out challenges that make ideas vital. Simon Ings looked for answers at a recent festival

to look at the world. Much of this work resembles anthropology more than art. Take Lisa Rave’s film Europium, which flits between trading floors, TV showrooms and a wedding ceremony in Papua New Guinea to trace the material connections and cultural gulfs that distinguish different kinds of money, from seashell dowries to plastic banknotes. In so doing, she

BERLIN’S festival of art and media culture Transmediale is an annual reminder that art is more than a luxury good. It gives us the words, images and ideas we need to talk to each other about a changing world. Big social changes involve big shifts in how art is made and consumed. It is a nerve-racking process for artists, who can have “The internet sorts. It archives. Many of its no idea, as they embark on their artists are, in consequence, ventures, whether the public good little bureaucrats” will come to appreciate and enjoy their work. And at this year’s Transmediale, the chickens constructs a microhistory of the came home to roost. rare element europium that To begin at the beginning, wouldn’t look out of place in a back in the 1950s, Andy Warhol high-end magazine, and brings and the pop art movement looked the hackneyed link between at the world through the prism capitalism and colonialism to life. of advertising hoardings and But there is a problem: artists television. A new generation of working with the materials of the artists has been making art out internet are further removed of the internet. from physical reality than their Some artists have attempted to imagine the internet itself, paying attention to developments in data management and artificial intelligence, so they can better imagine what the internet is and what it might become. The performance premiering at the festival this year, James Ferraro’s Dante-esque Plague, was work of this sort: a credible, visceral and downright terrifying portrayal of consciousness emerging from the audio-visual detritus of social media. Other artists have used the internet as a tool through which 44 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

forebears. They are looking at the world through what is, really, a single, totalising, bureaucratic machine. (It’s called the World Wide Web for a reason.) And in art, as in life, you are what you eat. The internet sorts. It archives. Many of its artists are, in consequence, good little bureaucrats who offer “findings”, “research” and “presentations” (at Transmediale we even had an “actualisation”, from artist and gay activist Zach Blas), but rarely anything as trite as finished work. Nothing ages on the internet; nothing dies. Nothing is ever resolved. Similarly with its art: Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s A Becoming Resemblance, which uses DNA from Chelsea Manning, the former US soldier who leaked classified documents, is to all intents and purposes a brand new piece, but it is still presented as a fragment of a work begun in 2015.


Transmediale, 31 January to 4 February, Berlin, Germany

Does the open-endedness of this art make it bad? Of course not. But internet art hardly ever gets finished. There’s always more data to sort, a virtual infinitude of rabbit holes to hurl yourself down, and very little that is genuinely new has had a chance to emerge. I defy a newcomer to tell the difference between the work premiering here and work that is 20 years old. The field has, as a consequence, turned into the art world’s Peter Pan: the child that never grew up. And we treat it as a child. We tiptoe around anything resembling a negative opinion, as though every time one of us said, “I don’t believe this piece is any good”, a video artist somewhere would fall down dead. In other words, the world of media art has suffered the same Nick Thurston’s Hate Library is an attempt to let in the big, bad world

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


Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s A Becoming Resemblance uses DNA from Chelsea Manning

fate that has befallen the rest of enjoy and talk about and theorise the internet-enabled planet. The over actually exists only to very technology that promised sustain museums of media art? us the world on a screen has Is that what you’re saying?” been steadily filtering out the And Voropai, perhaps challenges and contrary opinions figuring that she may as well be that made our interests and ideas hung for a sheep as a lamb, let so vital in the first place, leaving rip: “The extraordinary thing us living in an echo chamber. about media art,” she said, It was Lioudmila Voropai, “is that the moment it was a Ukrainian art historian, who got the gathered artists, curators “If the internet disappears, our lives will be held and academics at Transmediale hostage by an invisible to confront some chilly realities infrastructure” about their field. We knew the book she was launching contained institutionally established, it was dynamite because it was entitled declared conceptually obsolete.” Media Art as a By-Product – no This was only the beginning. punches pulled there. Another Speaker after speaker made reason was that she spent all her sincere efforts to get the left-wing, time telling us what her book countercultural, transgressive didn’t do. It didn’t criticise. Transmediale participants to look It didn’t take a political position. at themselves in the mirror. It It asked a few questions. It didn’t have answers. Nothing to see here. took courage to try to get media artists to admit that their radical Finally someone piped up: “So chic has been stolen by the likes of the media art we’ve come here to

the just-as-countercultural farright Breitbart News Network; that they have forgotten (as rightwingers like Donald Trump have not) how to entertain; and that they exist chiefly to sustain the institutions that fund them. These efforts were received with seriousness and courtesy. Attempts to puncture the “new media art” bubble from the inside might have seemed a bit laughable to outsiders. Occupying most of the venue’s impressive foyer, Hate Library was a printout of the results (pictured left) artist Nick Thurston obtained when he typed “truth” into the search box on the online bulletin board of the white-supremacist Stormfront Europe group. The idea, I think, was to confront the Transmediale crowd with the big, bad world outside. But to the rest of us, this felt like old news. If you go there, and type that, surely you get what you deserve?

Even so, I am inclined to admire people who take their social and artistic responsibilities seriously enough to ask uncomfortable questions of themselves, and risk a bit of awkwardness and ridicule along the way. After all, much of this work does get under your skin. It does make you look at the world anew. As I was leaving, I looked in at Yuri Pattison’s installation Vitra Alcove (some border thoughts). Pattison has mashed up videogamegenerated coastal cities and garbled news tickers to capture the queasy liquidity of mediated life. Sitting there, bombarded by algorithmically generated fake news and dizzy from the image blizzard, I was reminded of the few fraught days I once spent sitting among New Scientist’s news team as it fished for real stories in a web-borne ocean of alarmism, self-promotion and misinterpretation. Pattison’s work says at least as much about my life as L. S. Lowry’s paintings of matchstalk men and cats and dogs said about my grandfather’s. In January 2015, Eric Schmidt, then executive chairman of Google, declared that the internet was destined to disappear. He was talking about the internet of things: how the infrastructure that is beginning to weave together the materials and objects of daily life would burrow its way into our lives, and so become invisible. But if, in the act of becoming ubiquitous, the internet also disappears, then our lives will be held hostage by a bureaucratic infrastructure we can no longer see, never mind control. Media art explores and shines strong light onto this complacent, hyperconformist, not-so-brave world. Of course the art is strange, hard to explain – and a work in progress. How could it not be? That is its job. ■ 24 February 2018 | NewScientist | 45


Ways of knowing We need reminding just how important knowledge and truth really are, finds Simon Ings

LITERARY agent and provocateur John Brockman has turned popular science into a sort of modern shamanism, packaged non-fiction into gobbets of smart thinking, made stars of unlikely writers and continues to direct, deepen and contribute to some of the most hotly contested conversations in civic life. This Idea Is Brilliant is the latest of Brockman’s annual anthologies drawn from edge.org, his website and shop window. It is one of the stronger books in the series. It is also one of the more troubling, addressing, informing and entertaining a public that has recently become extraordinarily confused about truth and falsehood, fact and knowledge. Edge.org’s purpose has always been to collide scientists, business people and public intellectuals in fruitful ways. This year, the mix in the anthology leans towards the cognitive sciences, philosophy and the “freakonomic” end of the non-fiction bookshelf. It is a good time to return to basics: to ask how we know what we know, what role rationality plays in knowing, what tech does to help and hinder that knowing, and, frankly, whether in our hunger to democratise knowledge we have built a primrose-lined digital path straight to post-truth perdition. Heart over head: what role does rationality play in our decisions? 46 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

Many contributors, biting the civic life becomes opaque and bullet, reckon so. Measuring the arbitrary: a lottery. “To combat decline in the art of conversation digital distraction, they’d throttle against the rise of social media, email on Sundays and build apps anthropologist Nina Jablonski for meditation,” Krumme writes. fears that “people are opting for “Instead of recommender leaner modes of communication systems that reveal what you because they’ve been socialized “In democratising inadequately in richer ones”. knowledge, we may have Meanwhile, an applied built a primrose-lined path mathematician, Coco Krumme, to post-truth perdition” turning the pages of Jorge Luis Borges’s short story The Lottery in Babylon, conceptualises the most want to hear, they’d inject way our relationship with local a set of countervailing views. The and national government is being irony is that these manufactured automated to the point where gestures only intensify the hold fixing wayward algorithms of a Babylonian lottery.” involves the applications of yet Of course, IT wasn’t created on more algorithms. In this way, a whim. It is a cognitive prosthesis


This Idea Is Brilliant: Lost, overlooked, and underappreciated scientific concepts everyone should know Edited by John Brockman, HarperCollins

for significant shortfalls in the way we think. Psychologist Adam Waytz cuts to the heart of this in his essay “The illusion of explanatory depth” – a phrase describing how people “feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence and depth than they really do”. Humility is a watchword here. If our thinking has holes in it, if we forget, misconstrue, misinterpret or persist in false belief, if we care more for the social consequences of our beliefs than their accuracy, and if we suppress our appetite for innovation in times of crisis (all subjects of separate essays here), there are consequences. Why on earth would we imagine we can build machines that don’t reflect our own biases, or don’t – in a ham-fisted effort to correct for them – create ones of their own we can barely spot, let alone fix? Neuroscientist Sam Harris is one of several here who, searching for a solution to the “truthiness” crisis, simply appeals to basic decency. We must, he argues, be willing to be seen to change our minds: “Wherever we look, we find otherwise sane men and women making extraordinary efforts to avoid changing [them].” He has a point. Though our cognitive biases, shortfalls and the like make us less than ideal rational agents, evolution has equipped us with social capacities that, smartly handled, run rings round the “cleverest” algorithm. Let psychologist Abigail Marsh have the last word: “We have our flaws… but we can also claim to be the species shaped by evolution to possess the most open hearts and the greatest proclivity for caring on Earth.” This may, when all’s said and done, have to be enough. Q

Where did we come from? How did it all begin?

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The UK is also failing on drug deaths

From Alex Stevens, Whitstable, Kent, UK You are right to highlight the Trump administration’s failure to take effective action to reduce record levels of opioid-related deaths in the US (3 February, p 5). Unfortunately, the same criticism applies to the UK. Great Britain is experiencing its highest

ever level of drug-related deaths, with 4611 registered in 2016. In December that year, the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs sent ministers a report, Reducing opioid-related deaths in the UK. I was its lead author, but write only on my own behalf. The report’s recommendations included investing in opioidsubstitution treatment; expanding access to naloxone to reverse overdoses; providing central funding for heroin-assisted treatment; and opening medically supervised drugconsumption clinics in areas with high concentrations of injecting drug use. None of these recommendations has been implemented by any UK government. On both sides of the Atlantic, failure to follow the evidence is causing many avoidable deaths.

Genome research has opened many doors From Hannah Maude, London, UK I was saddened to read your review of a book on genomics with its Craig Venter quote: “we have learned nothing” from the genome (27 January, p 42). In the same 2010 interview, he said: “That’s where we are with the genome.” In 2018, we face a new problem, and such articles such as this reinforce a sceptical and pessimistic view towards genomics research. One problem is inaccurate representation by policy-makers and money-driven scientists who write sparkly, visionary (but scientifically flawed) promises and receive more grant money and media coverage as a result. Lydia Nicholas concludes her review by saying that our democratic institutions “aren’t



even framing sensible questions”. I believe it is important to save the reputation of what is an exciting and beautifully complex field. Ask any genomic scientist and you will soon understand why the integration of their field into healthcare may be possible for rare diseases, but may take decades for common diseases such as diabetes. The Human Genome Project didn’t teach us “nothing”. It has caused a cascade of doors to open and presented more questions than answers. The non-coding genome plays a crucial role: it will be years before we understand its relation to common diseases. Researchers should grasp the science before making unrealistic claims. Realistic scientists should be given policy-making positions before the world turns away from scientists for failing to deliver on promises they didn’t even make.

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52 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

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“Too crude. Better to gently nudge them away into a different, safe orbit using thrusters” Anirudh Shobhanan disagrees with the Deflector Selector algorithm on nuking Earth-threatening asteroids (17 February, p 6)

Human cloning is bound to happen in the end From Larry Constantine, Rowley, Massachusetts, US Cancer researcher Peter Andrews wonders why anyone would do human cloning (27 January, p 4). Really? We need dig no deeper than arrogance, narcissism and fear of the void. Why would anyone seek to have their personality “uploaded” to a computer system or their head frozen in liquid nitrogen? Cloning, frozen heads and dreams of “uploading” minds are variations on a common human theme: desperate bids for some dubious form of immortality. With the super-rich, mostly men, already queuing up to place their bets on one game or another in the race to cheat death, human cloning is all but inevitable. The first such clone will almost

certainly be of some member of the 1 per cent of the 1 per cent, abetted by renegade researchers. With enough money, even the most challenging of technical problems will yield, and the ethical and legal barriers will be circumvented.

Why efforts to clone us shouldn’t be banned From Meredith Lloyd-Evans, Cambridge, UK Marcy Darnovsky argues that human cloning should stay off limits (3 February, p 24). Similar points were made about IVF in its early days, incidentally when the failure rate was also over 90 per cent. That more than 70 countries ban therapeutic cloning attests only to ignorance, religious intolerance and overcautiousness, and not to rightness. And to seek

to ban it on the basis that it would get misused by the affluent would mean we weren’t doing so for any fundamental moral reason. We do need a discussion of cloning in humans, but it requires more breadth and depth.

Further mixed responses to a vegan diet From Brian Edwards, Uralla, New South Wales, Australia Chelsea Whyte argues that the way to feed billions more is to eat more of the plants we grow (27 January, p 26). A long time ago, I looked into Soviet agriculture at the time of collectivisation. A Russian word appeared at that time that roughly translates as “greasybeard”: rather than allow their cattle to be taken into the collective farms, many peasants ate them. As I recall it, the number of cattle more than halved and

large amounts of grain previously fed to them became available for people to eat and for export. The Soviet Union was thus better able to circumvent the European and US trade boycotts. From Jon Atack, Radcliffe on Trent, Nottinghamshire, UK Our food production might indeed be much greater if plants took over farmland given over to animal husbandry. But wouldn’t this lead to the disappearance of domesticated species? Of course, we should seek out food approved by animal welfare organisations, but I can see no way in which farm animals would survive a vegan revolution. From Emily Wolfe, Bristol, UK Phil Nicholls is unclear about the advocacy of total commitment to veganism (Letters, 10 February). >

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LETTERS He seems to consider only the environmental motivation. So while he is right to suggest that 90 per cent veganism would be a good effort, many people adopt a 100 per cent vegan lifestyle because they don’t want to collude with an industry that inflicts unnecessary suffering and early death on animals. To such people, it is clearly not acceptable to say “I only debeak chickens and castrate lambs one day in 10”. From Bing Jones, Sheffield, UK Chelsea Whyte makes a convincing factual case for a vegan diet. Sadly, I found your editorial patronising (27 January, p 3). A vegan lifestyle, or something similar, has been the norm for most of humanity rather than a “trendy diet”. It is misleading to stress the small risk of dietary deficiency while ignoring the risks of cancer, vascular disease and so on associated with the dietary status quo. A vegan lifestyle looks to me more like a lifeline for humanity than a trendy diet for cautious consideration. TOM GAULD

The editor writes: Q While researching the feature, we looked for places or times where veganism was or is the norm. We didn’t find any.

Making more electricity from indoor light From Eric Kvaalen, Les Essarts-le-Roi, France Ben Haller calculates that a 25-square-centimetre solar panel in a room lit by a 100-watt incandescent bulb will gather about 0.0001 watts (Letters, 23/30 December 2017). He assumes that the bulb converts 2.2 per cent of the electrical power into light, but the figure is more like 5 per cent. He also implicitly assumes that the walls, ceiling and floor of the room absorb all the light falling on them.

Monuments could have been memory aids From Peter Turner, Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia Laura Spinney reports Carl Lipo’s theory that the construction of ancient monuments at Poverty



Point, Stonehenge, Göbekli Tepe and other sites were “teambuilding” exercises (13 January, p 38). Another recent explanation of these structures also involves hunter-gatherer communities coming together cooperatively, under the leadership of their elders, the holders of enormous amounts of essential knowledge that enabled these non-literate societies to thrive. In The Memory Code, Lynne Kelly addresses how such peoples learn extraordinary amounts of information using landscape features, song and dance. She argues that as agriculture slowly developed, indigenous cultures needed local structures that could be used as memory aids, and that features of monuments could be used in place of the landscape features that appear, for example, in Aboriginal Australians’ practice of “songlines”.

into place using logs, and that Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt showed that moai could have been walked into their upright positions by small, cooperating bands of people using ropes, with no need for trees. But in the 1980s, explorer Thor Heyerdahl and his group recounted being shown by the Rapa Nui how the moai were raised from a prone position and walked from the quarry to their final resting place.

From Rosemary Sharples, Sydney, Australia Spinney says that the prevailing idea in 2001 was that the colossal statues or moai on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) had been rolled

The editor writes: Q SpaceX reports that the Falcon 9 has aluminium vessels to store helium to maintain fuel and oxygen pressure, each with a carbon-fibre wrap into which oxygen leaked. Breaking fibres or friction “can ignite the oxygen” and “the loading temperature of the helium was cold enough to create solid oxygen”. So it was aluminium or carbon burning.

Radical new chemistry in SpaceX missions? From Guy Cox, St Albans, New South Wales, Australia You write that an investigation into the 2016 explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket found that “liquid oxygen leaked… then ignited” (20 January, p 6). This is radically new chemistry! I’d like to know what actually caused the blast.

For the record Q None of the wild bandicoots in Tasmania are bilbies (6 January, p 38). Q The post of “queen of England” has been vacant for only 300 years (Letter, “There is no queen of England, so show respect”, 20 January).

Letters should be sent to: Letters to the Editor, New Scientist, 25 Bedford Street, London, WC2E 9ES Email: [email protected] Include your full postal address and telephone number, and a reference (issue, page number, title) to articles. We reserve the right to edit letters. New Scientist Ltd reserves the right to use any submissions sent to the letters column of New Scientist magazine, in any other format.

54 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

MAKE Do try this at home


Spectacular wall art from astro photographer Chris Baker

Split dessert in style Sharing pudding is a piece of cake with this knife-wielding robot “I make a mean Victoria sponge,” says A. Baker. “Trouble is, after dinner, everyone wants a slice and splitting dessert between seven is no piece of cake. How do I keep them all sweet and distribute the pudding with precision?”

Game theory has given us some fascinating algorithms for cutting cake in the fairest way. Some have even appeared on the pages of New Scientist. But break out the protractor at the dinner table and you might find yourself with a simpler solution – eating alone. If you have neither a steady hand nor a head for sums, the obvious alternative is to automate. To craft a robot with slicing skills, I first attached a knife to a motorised arm, like any responsible adult might do. Next, I cobbled together a motorised lazy Suzan from Lego to rotate the cake under the hovering knife. I now had a way to precisely control the angles of my cake slices. The simple maths required is handled by a microprocessor brain in an adjacent control box. Just enter the number of slices you want, and Cakebot works out how far to spin the plate between cuts. It calculates the

exact angle of attack by rounding slices to the nearest degree. After all, what’s a few degrees between friends? Literally crumbs. Everything is better with buttons, chocolate or otherwise, so I added a big panel of digits below a screen to make it easier to tell Cakebot how many guests I have. There’s always an awkward individual, however, who wants a half-sized piece or an extra large one to “share” with their beau. A manual override lets me become a cake dictator and tell Cakebot exactly how many degrees each slice should be. And it’s not just cake. Pies, pizzas, wheels of cheese all work too – your only constraint is the circularity of your food. To show off my invention, I invited a group of friends for dinner and told them to all bring cake – only to see them turn up with loaf cakes and square tins of brownies. Just great. Still, the cheese course offered a chance to shine. Unfortunately, in my excitement, I added an extra zero, so 10 of us got to watch my robot obliterate a round of brie. At least we all got an equal portion of mangled cheese. Hannah Joshua ■

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a month for those under 30 but $19.99 a month for everyone else. Candelore appears to be in a long-term relationship with the litigation system. Identified by both Salon and Mother Jones as a men’s rights activist, Candelore previously used the same anti-discrimination laws to sue two different women-only networking events for excluding men, contesting that they “had the right to meet and mingle” with the women there. Watch out when Candelore comes courting.

SOME might be jumping over the moon, but other cows are natural pessimists, according to researchers at the University of British Columbia. Marina von Keyserlingk and her colleagues trained 22 calves in a pen kitted out with five feeding stations. At one end was a bottle containing a tasty slurp of milk, at the other, an empty one that also blew a disconcerting puff of air in the animal’s face. The team then moved the milk to one of the three middle stations. Some calves approached for a drink, even when the milk was placed perilously close to the trick bottle. Others ignored all bottles not in the right place, wary of being blown a raspberry. Keyserlingk hopes the study will bolster the case for a more individualised approach to animal welfare down on the farm. For Feedback the take-home message from these cows is that when you’re feeling pessimistic, take a gamble: that glass of milk might turn out to be half-full.

STOP us if you’ve heard this one. A team at Aalto University in Finland used the film Memento to probe how the brain organises memories. Twenty-five volunteers watched the 2000 thriller for the first time while inside an MRI scanner. As you might know, the film unfolds in reverse, and key scenes overlap, allowing the audience to mentally assemble the narrative in chronological order. Janne Kauttonen and his colleagues used this movie device to identify the parts of the brain where recent memories help to make sense of what might happen next, a skill essential for navigating daily life (and following movie plots). A MAN has successfully sued the makers of dating app Tinder for age discrimination. Salon reports that Allan Candelore was aggrieved by the tiered pricing model for Tinder’s premium service, which costs $9.99

At Wallington Hall in Northumberland, the Comptons spotted a sign for “The Stable Coffee Shop”. They tell Feedback “it’s good to know we won’t spill our cuppas”. 56 | NewScientist | 24 February 2018

SCIENTIFIC papers with racy titles continue to light a spark in our inbox. Arthur de Jong writes: “My PhD thesis adviser works on a set of genes collectively called SM genes. These regulate communication between neurons by controlling vesicle trafficking.” For a review on the topic, says Arthur, “he opted for the title ‘Vesicle trafficking: pleasure and pain from SM genes’.”

organza and dotted swiss, I attended the large, formal wedding of the daughter of the family across the street.” Thus Virginia concluded it was the wedding ceremony that made it possible for a woman to have babies. What other examples of childhood theories do readers have?

FOUR years ago, New Scientist discussed the old Lappish distance measure known in Finnish as poronkusema, or reindeer’s piss (22 March 2014). This is about 7.5 kilometres, and is the typical distance these animals are said to walk before stopping for a comfort break. While learning about Vikings, reader Heikki Oja came across another obsolete measure of distance called veckosjö. This Swedish word is the distance a Viking could row before stopping for a breather or handing over the oars to someone else.

PREVIOUSLY Alan Fowler spotted a cleaning agent that promised “4D action”, aided by “magic and physics”, that he assumed sent dirt into the future for someone else to deal with (3 February). “Wouldn’t projecting the dirt into the past be better, so it never needs to be cleaned again?” says Tom Eggers. “Or would projecting it into the past result in cleaning it over and over again?” Perhaps our descendants are using such a technique, Tom – it would certainly explain why we’re locked in an endless battle with dust.

And the length of veckosjö? About 7.5 kilometres as the Viking paddles. Do we see here signs of a hidden universal law?

AN INFRARED thermometer purchased by Jamie Murley boasts an impressive feature for the digitally disconnected. “Aim the thermometer outside the area of the internet,” it tells him, then “scan up and down until you locate the hot spot.”

THE Nottingham Post informs Perry Bebbington that fire crews tackled two fires within an hour of each other, and “both blazes happened in Arnold and Bulwell”. It must have been confusing, says Perry, “having two fires, both of which were in two different towns almost concurrently.”

WE HAVE discussed how young children maintain a popular belief that it is birthdays that cause ageing and not the other way around (6 January). Virginia Trimble writes “aged about four and a half, dressed in frilly white

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

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Diseases we rarely hear about today such as typhoid and cholera were rampant before sanitation. So please, do your business inside and flush it away for treatment. Secondly, urine can be valuable or harmful depending on how it is handled. It is loaded with nitrogen and phosphate, which fertilise plants. If it can be collected

separately from other waste, which is why it is so off-putting it can easily be treated and even though everyone does it. farmers can spread it on crops. Some microbes do get wafted into But urine is difficult to the air we breathe, but too few to remove from wastewater, make us sick. and it is harmful if discharged No matter how carefully we into waterways, where it fertilises wipe ourselves, some microbes algae. Decomposing algae will get onto our hands and consume a lot of oxygen, creating hence onto any surface we then dead zones in the waterways. “Defecating outside You can spread your urine prevents our dung’s thinly in your garden and watch your plants grow. However, disagreeable odour from tainting the air inside” if it is concentrated, it can burn the plants. Peter Jacobson touch. They can also be splashed Davis, California, US from the lavatory bowl when we flush it, and from the bidet or QWhen I was growing up in the basin when we wash ourselves. 1950s, I often visited a cottage that If we or other people then touch had an earth closet. This consisted these surfaces and pick up the of a bucket under a wooden seat, microbes, they could get with a container full of soil from transferred to kitchen surfaces the garden beside it. Having used and so on to food. the bucket, you shovelled some But a big hole in the ground soil on top. The contents of the contains no water that can splash. full buckets were later buried in The outdoor air disperses the the garden, which produced smell more quickly. The dung wonderful, very large vegetables. can be covered with soil to trap In past centuries, this “night soil” the smell and prevent accidental was collected from toilets in contact. If the home has an towns, and was used to provide outside tap, then this and the fertiliser for market gardens. spade handle will be the only Greg Nuttgens thing our dirty hands might Bridgend, Mid-Glamorgan, UK touch, and any splashes we make while washing them will be away QYour granny is right. At the from indoor surfaces. very least, defecating outside Before flushing toilets were prevents our dung’s disagreeable invented, folk would do their odour from tainting the air inside. business in chamber pots, which Indeed the word “poo” comes they would empty onto the streets from the French verb “puer”, below. They were clearly hygiene which means to stink. conscious back then, for it is said We instinctively connect this that the English word “loo” comes bad smell to the risk of disease, from their warning cries of

We pay £25 for every answer published in New Scientist. To answer a question or ask a new one please email [email protected]. Questions should be scientific enquiries about everyday phenomena, and both questions and answers should be concise. We reserve the right to edit items for clarity and style. Please include a postal address, daytime telephone number and email address. You can also send questions and

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Inside or out My French granny says it is more hygienic to poo in a big hole in the garden, like she did when she was growing up, than it is to go inside. Is this true? She also said that in olden days, people collected pee and used it to make plants grow better. Could we do this now?

There’s a dispute over whether the practice is healthy or harmful, but there’s certainly a lot of information out there – Ed QWe need to remember just how bad it was before modern sanitation. London experienced The Great Stink in 1858 – hot weather that exacerbated the smell of untreated excrement in and around the Thames – which led to plans for the treatment of human and industrial wastes. So maybe it is best to avoid using the garden outside an isolated dwelling, and certainly not in towns, let alone cities.

“London experienced The Great Stink in 1858 – hot weather that exacerbated the smell of excrement”

“l’eau!” – French for “Water!” – as they tipped it out, so as not to surprise passers-by. Defecating into the ground is also better for our insides. The usual sitting position on a toilet can put a strain on our bowels as we open them, and lead to health problems. But going in a hole requires us to squat, which allows our bowels to open more easily. We certainly could water our gardens with urine. It is rich in salts and minerals that plants find useful. It is also especially rich in urea, a more complex waste substance that soil microbes start breaking down. Plants can then take up these nutrients through their roots, and use them to grow and thrive. Len Winokur Leeds, UK QExcrement was collected in barrels at the end of streets in 18th-century London and shipped up the coast for the alum industry around Whitby. Derek Morris Harpenden, Hertfordshire, UK

This week’s question EGGSTRAORDINARY CLAIM

I’ve just read that eggs should not be stored in a rack on the back of a fridge door, the exact place where most fridge manufacturers put the egg rack. Before I revamp my fridge, is there any truth to this? And if so, what could it be? Peter Francisco London, UK

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