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Tech billionaires race to build orbiting internet
Revealed: True cost of world’s most stunning fossils
SEEING DOUBLE The village with too many twins
WEEKLY 4 May 2019
OUR FIRST WORDS The astounding story of how humanity found its voice
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This week’s issue 9 Magma splash Our moon’s origin
8 Denisovans in Tibet Our extinct cousins lived at extremely high altitudes
34 Our first words We may finally know how human languages arose
12 Climate protesters Extinction Rebellion’s plans for negotiating with the UK government
38 Blood amber Exquisitely preserved fossils are fuelling a bloody war 44 Space-wide web The race to build an internet accessible from anywhere
18 Tackling big tech Should Amazon, Facebook and Google be broken up?
On the cover
The back pages
44 Space-wide web Tech billionaires race to build orbiting internet
23 Comment Greenland is going green
51 Maker The first week in our 10-part robot-building course
15 Seeing double The village with too many twins 34 Our first words The astounding story of how humanity found its voice 10 New stick insects 14 Weird ice on Titan 13 Killing crows 51 How to become a maker 8 Landmark Denisovan discovery
24 The columnist Annalee Newitz on why criminals will love e-scooters 26 Letters Is a lack of free will behind readers’ correspondence? 28 Aperture A white-tailed eagle in all its glory 30 Culture Magic relies on brain trickery, as a book and an exhibition reveal
52 Puzzles Quick crossword, a quiz and a teaser about infinity
OXFORD UNIVERSITY IMAGES/JOBY SESSIONS
38 Blood amber Revealed: True cost of world’s most stunning fossils
53 Feedback Adverts in space and AI astrology 54 Almost the last word Dog senses; insomnia and blindness
56 Marcus du Sautoy
56 Me and my telescope Marcus du Sautoy answers our questions
A note on today’s new-look magazine
Vol 242 No 3228 Cover image: Matt Chase
New Scientist is devoted to innovation, and occasionally we need to turn the mirror on ourselves. It is more than a decade since the magazine has seen significant changes, and even we had to admit that parts of it were looking a bit jaded. We know from talking to you, our readers, that you love the magazine and aren’t looking for wholesale change. So we hope you enjoy this first issue of a modestly refreshed New Scientist. First off, we have slightly updated the design, with what we hope is a fresher, brighter feel.
And we have created a dedicated “Views” section between our news reports and in-depth features. This brings together your letters with comment and reviews on science, culture and society. We have an exciting roster of new columnists, too, starting today with Annalee Newitz on novel tech. (Keep an eye out for James Wong on food myths, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s adventures in space-time and Graham Lawton stalking the environmental front line.) There are also now columns in the culture pages, kicked off in this issue by Jacob Aron on games.
For a bit of light relief, our expanded “Back Pages” feature a cornucopia of delights. Besides old favourites Feedback and The Last Word – now Almost The Last Word – we have a weekly crossword, plus a new puzzle (good luck!) and quick quiz. Over the next 10 weeks you can also learn how to be a “maker”, in a course designed for all ages. On the very back page, there is now a light-hearted Q and A slot. Do please let us know what you think of the changes by emailing me at: [email protected] ❚ Emily Wilson Editor 4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 3
SCENICS & SCIENCE/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
Some fossils may be scientifically priceless, but is the human price too high? PALAEONTOLOGY often finds itself embroiled in debates about the buying and selling of fossils. The most notorious case was that of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton called Sue, which was the subject of a protracted ownership battle before being bought by the Field Museum in Chicago for $8.4 million. Such controversies are common. Last month, a collector angered scientists when he listed the skeleton of a juvenile T. rex on eBay for $2.95 million. The fossil had been on loan to the University of Kansas but may now enter a private collection, beyond the reach of scientists. Because of the risk of losing access, many palaeontologists choose not to work with privately owned specimens. The US Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) encourages this: its by-laws state that “the barter, sale, or
Burmese amber contains stunning fossils but may fund a civil war in Myanmar–
purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is not condoned, unless it brings them into, or keeps them within, a public trust”. There is an ethical as well as a scientific dimension to this. Fossils should be part of humanity’s collective heritage, not playthings to be hoarded for profit. For one globally important fossil deposit, the debate is even thornier. Burmese amber is the hottest property in palaeontology, stuffed full of incredible
fossils from 100 million years ago, including dinosaurs and birds (see page 38). But, as we reveal, the specimens are part of a lucrative and largely illicit trade in gemstones. They change hands for huge sums of money, some of which is funnelled back into Myanmar to fund a civil war that the United Nations has described as a genocide. Most of the pieces of Burmese amber that contain important specimens do end up in public trust, and hence conform to the SVP’s guidelines. They are scientifically priceless. But is the human price too high? Researchers may argue that someone is going to buy the material, so why not them. But as with ivory, until somebody makes a stand, nothing will happen. It is certainly time to bring global attention to the trade in Burmese amber. ❚
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Investing in your future In a few decades, many of us could be living well beyond 100. In the second of a two-part series, we explore the profound implications of rising life expectancy for our societies and economies and the way we work, live and invest. MOST of us live our lives in three stages. We spend our childhood and adolescence learning, our adulthood working and our twilight years in retirement. But rising life expectancy and advances in biomedicine could transform all that. If living to 110 or 120 becomes common, it will have a profound impact on our old age and on our entire lives. The biggest change could be to the way we work. Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, says the idea of a linear progression through education, career and retirement will seem less relevant. “We will see something more flexible, where you come in and out of education and work all through life. We’ll see more freelancers taking advantage of new work platforms to work when they want.” The rise of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will require people to acquire new skills regularly, which means tapping into education throughout our lives rather than just in our youth. The global market for workplace learning was worth $362 billion in 2017. Rajeeb Dey, founder and CEO of Learnerbly, which helps employees of every age learn new skills, predicts that this will soar in coming years as companies are forced to retrain employees to keep up with advances in technology. Higher life expectancy is also likely to trigger changes to traditional living. “We’re going to see more experimentation in housing, and more co-living,” says Gratton. “Marriage is happening later, people are having fewer children, so being single will take up a bigger proportion of your life, and co-living may become very important.” Co-living arrangements are being pioneered by the property start-up Common, which offers shared accommodation in several US cities. Residents get a short-term lease on their own room, as well as access to a range of communal facilities where they mingle with fellow residents. The concept remains niche, but it reflects changes in
“It’s hard to predict the changes from another 30 years of life expectancy” society that are already happening. The seismic shifts in work, education, housing and demographics will have fundamental implications for the global economy. Ageing populations are often considered an economic burden, yet we could all benefit if people stay healthy and remain in work. “Rising life expectancies mean long-term economic growth will probably increase,” says Antonio Garcia Pascual, Chief European Economist at Barclays. “Governments will collect more taxes and be able to spend more.” Another possibility is that flexible working patterns will encourage people to save more and borrow less, with implications for monetary policy. “As a population ages,
savings tend to rise and that brings down interest rates,” says Pascual. “That’s one reason why we are already seeing central banks struggling to lift interest rates.” It’s hard to predict all the changes that another 20 or 30 years of life expectancy would bring, but it seems clear that the demographic shift will affect us throughout our lives, not just at the end. Barclays Private Bank can help you take advantage of complex new trends shaping the global economy, ensuring you make the most of your wealth and investments. “Barclays has a long history supporting innovation,” says Barclays Private Bank and Overseas Services CEO Karen Frank. “It is ingrained in our DNA and will help our clients navigate the opportunities innovation presents, now and in the future.”
To discover more about the challenges and opportunities of living beyond 100, search ‘See beyond’.
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News Extreme weather
DIVA MARHA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Black hole shoots jets all over place
More deadly floods
ASTRONOMERS have seen a wonky black hole blasting plasma in various directions. The black hole, in the V404 Cygni system some 7800 light years from Earth, is sucking gas off a nearby star. This gas forms a disc of matter around the black hole. Such discs are usually thin and flat, but in V404 Cygni the black hole is feeding so rapidly that the inner region of the disc looks more like a doughnut (Nature, doi.org/gfz36n). Black holes normally fire plasma jets from their poles. A likely explanation for the wonky jets in V404 Cygni is that the black hole’s rapid feeding caused the gas disc to puff up. This misaligns the disc and black hole, pushing jets in different directions. ❚ Ruby Prosser Scully
Dozens of people have died in Indonesia and Mozambique as a result of storms, reports Michael Le Page
Australia cuts codeine sales
IT HAS been another week of extreme weather around the globe. In Indonesia, heavy rain led to flooding and landslides in the western part of the country (pictured above). At least 29 people have died, including 22 in a single landslide in Bengkulu on the island of Sumatra. The clearance of forests to plant palm oil has increased the risk of landslides. Two people also died in flooding in the capital Jakarta. This coastal megalopolis of 10 million people has long battled flooding, as the city is sinking fast due to the extraction of the groundwater beneath it. Most of the city could be underwater by 2050. This week, the government announced plans to move the capital elsewhere, though several previous plans to do this have come to nothing.
SALES of codeine have halved in Australia since it became a prescription-only drug, and the change doesn't appear to have pushed people towards stronger opioids, as was feared. The decision to ban over-the-counter sales of the opiate painkiller came amid growing concern over opioid deaths in the US. While the ban in Australia was popular among doctors, critics said it could lead to an uptick in higher strength opioid sales. Since the ban began in February last year, 7000 kilograms less of codeine has been purchased. Sales of the higher strength version have remained the same. ❚ RPS
Meanwhile, in Mozambique at least 38 people have died, 35,000 homes have been destroyed and 160,000 remain at risk as flooding triggered by cyclone Kenneth continues to worsen. Category 4 Kenneth was one of the strongest tropical cyclones to strike Africa in terms of wind speed when it reached land. It flattened some villages on the coast and then stalled over the interior, dumping immense amounts of rain. Kenneth struck just six weeks after cyclone Idai wreaked even more havoc, killing at least 1000 people. It is the first time Mozambique has ever been struck
by two strong storms in one year. Storms in the region are growing stronger due to climate change, says climate scientist Jennifer Fitchett at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. “We’re always very cautious not to pin one particular storm to climate change, but in terms of the pattern of Idai, and now Kenneth, there’s this regional intensification of storms that we are seeing quite clearly,” she says. Other parts of the world are facing extreme heat. Vietnam recently recorded its highest ever temperature: 43.4°C. The warm season usually peaks in July. ❚
More news online Keep up to date with the latest science news www.newscientist.com/news
4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 7
Denisovans in Tibet
“It is mind-blowing that they could have lived in such an extreme, low-oxygen environment” He and his colleagues examined a jawbone discovered in 1980 in Baishiya Karst cave, in Tibet's Jiangla river valley (pictured, right). They found that the shape of the jaw and large size of the teeth are different to those of modern humans. Radioisotope dating suggested that the fossil is 160,000 years old at least, which is tens of thousands of years before our own species is thought to have reached the Tibetan Plateau. 8 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
No DNA could be extracted from the fossil, but analysing collagen protein in its teeth confirmed the jawbone came from a Denisovan, because modern humans and our other extinct cousins the Neanderthals have different genes for collagen (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/ s41586-019-1139-x). The finding could explain the 30,000-year-old stone tools discovered in Tibet last year. It is mind-blowing that hominins could have been living in such an extreme environment, says Hublin. “Even today, Tibet is not an easy place to live. There aren’t many resources and there’s a lack of oxygen.” The study is the first time that protein analysis has been used as the sole way of identifying an ancient hominin, says team member Frido Welker at Lanzhou University in China. This technique will prove increasingly useful for fossils without any DNA left, says Murray Cox of Massey University in New Zealand. “As we move away from hominin remains
in the cold parts of Eurasia, we simply have to get used to the fact that we often won’t have any ancient DNA to work with.” Hublin says several previously discovered fossils from sites in China have features that don’t match those of modern humans or Homo erectus, another ancient hominin which is, like the Denisovans and Neanderthals, thought to have left Africa long before we did. “I predict that most of the Chinese hominin fossil record younger than 350,000 years and older than 50,000 is made of Denisovans,” says Hublin.
DONGJU ZHANG, LANZHOU UNIVERSITY
THE first fossil of our cousins the Denisovans ever to be discovered outside Siberia has been identified in Tibet. It hints that fossils from these extinct humans are more widespread than we thought, and may help settle a long-running debate about our origins. Denisovans were discovered in 2010, when the DNA from an ancient bone fragment found in Denisova cave in Siberia was sequenced. Since then, a few other fossil fragments have been uncovered in the cave, and genetic analysis has discovered that many people in China and South-East Asia carry a little Denisovan DNA. This reveals that our ancestors must once have lived alongside and interbred with our cousins. Studies like these also found that people in Tibet carry a specific Denisovan gene that allows red blood cells to cope with low oxygen levels, helping people to live at high altitude. Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, wondered if any human remains previously found in Tibet might really be Denisovan.
DONGJU ZHANG, LANZHOU UNIVERSITY
Landmark discovery of the first Denisovan remains outside Siberia could help settle the debate over our own species’ origins. Clare Wilson reports
This jawbone suggests that Denisovans lived in Tibet 160,000 years ago
“We probably have lots of Denisovan remains sitting in museums all over the world, but they have different names on them,” says Cox. If Hublin is right, these fossils could help settle the debate over whether our ancestors evolved solely in Africa, or whether important steps took place in Asia too. Previous discoveries of fossils in China have been interpreted by some as intermediate species between H. erectus and modern humans, suggesting that we evolved in eastern Asia. But this idea will lose ground if the fossils turn out to be Denisovan. However, Sheela Athreya at Texas A&M University says that linking such fossils to Denisovans would be putting the cart before the horse. We know so little about the Denisovans’ physical characteristics and where and when they lived, she says. “We don’t know what ‘Denisovan’ is.” ❚
Google’s AI mathematician Artificial intelligence learns to prove a thousand theorems Leah Crane
says Christian Szegedy at Google. For now, the AI’s main application could be filling in the details of long, arduous proofs. Mathematicians often make intellectual jumps in proofs, without spelling out how to get from one step to the next. “You get maximum precision and correctness all really spelled out, but you don’t have to do the work of filling in the details,” says Jeremy Avigad at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. “Maybe offloading some things that we used to do by hand frees us up for looking for new concepts and asking new questions.” AIs like this could one day solve maths problems we can’t decipher, or that are too long and complicated. But that would take a much larger training set, more tactics and a simpler way to plug the theorems into the computer. “I think it could happen in our
YOU don’t need a human brain to do maths – artificial intelligence can now write airtight proofs of mathematical theorems. An AI created by a team at Google has proved more than 1200 mathematical theorems. Mathematicians already knew proofs for these particular theorems, but eventually the AI could start working on more difficult problems. One of the core pillars of maths is the concept of proof. It is an argument, based on known statements, assumptions or rules, that a mathematical statement, such as a theorem, is true. To train its AI, the Google team started with a database of around 10,000 human-written mathematical proofs, along with the reasoning behind each step, known as a tactic. The team then tested the AI on 3225 theorems that it hadn’t seen
before, and it successfully proved 1253 of them. The remaining problems couldn’t be solved because the AI had only 41 tactics at its disposal (arxiv.org/abs/1904.03241). “Where we want to get to is a system that can prove all the theorems that humans can prove, and maybe even more,”
lifetime,” says Szegedy. “Pretty much anything that you can state and try to prove mathematically, you can put into this system,” says Avigad. “You can distil just about all of mathematics down to very basic rules and assumptions, and these systems implement
Google’s AI proved this many theorems out of a list of 3225
those rules and assumptions.” All of this happens in a matter of seconds per proof, and the only source of error is the translation of the theorem into language that the computer can understand. The team is now working on creating an automatic translator so that it is easier for mathematicians to interact with the system. ❚
Magma splash on Earth made the moon and Technology and his colleagues performed a new set of simulations that may solve this conundrum. In this modelling, instead of hitting a solid planet, Theia hits an Earth covered in a magma ocean. The magma would splash into space much more easily than a rocky mantle, making the moonforming cloud 70 to 80 per cent Earth material, enough to make the moon and Earth match (Nature Geoscience, doi.org/c45q). In this scenario, about half of the magma ocean would be ejected into space, and Theia’s core would eventually sink into the young Earth. The magma would eventually crystallise to form rocky crusts like the two worlds have today.
“It’s not impossible that there should be a magma ocean, but the timing is critical if this was the mechanism for the moon’s formation,” says Jay Melosh at Purdue University in Indiana. If this hypothesis turns out to be true, it could help us figure out exactly when the moon formed, says Melosh, as Earth’s surface We think the moon was once part of Earth, before a massive collision
THE moon may have been born from a fiery magma ocean that covered the early Earth. The leading hypothesis for the birth of the moon is that a Mars-sized object called Theia hit Earth, blasting up a cloud of debris that coalesced to become the moon. In many simulations of this process, most of the cloud comes from Theia, making the moon unlike Earth. In reality, the compositions of Earth and the moon are extraordinarily similar, so planetary scientists think the cloud should have contained lots of material from our planet. Natsuki Hosono at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science
would need to have been molten. The simulations also matched two other important properties of the Earth-moon system: the moon’s relatively high speed as it orbits the planet, and the fact that the moon has more iron oxide than Earth – this chemical would have been more abundant in liquid rock than solid. If this is truly how our moon formed, it could make us rethink other moons in our solar system, says Melosh. We might have to consider whether Mars had a magma ocean when its moons were formed by an impact, or whether Pluto’s subsurface ocean was closer to the crust and helped to form its huge moon, Charon. ❚ Leah Crane 4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 9
Hiding in plain sight Entomologists rejoice as flamboyant new stick insects discovered Donna Lu
DR FRANK GLAW
TWO new species of stick insect have been found in the far north of Madagascar. They were previously thought to be examples of two existing giant stick insect species. Achrioptera maroloko (pictured) and Achrioptera manga were discovered when Sven Bradler at the University of Göttingen, Germany, and his colleagues analysed the insects’ DNA. They found that the species are in fact more closely related to other types of Madagascan stick insects than to Achrioptera species elsewhere (Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, doi.org/c4nv). Named for their brightness – in the Malagasy language, the word maroloko means colourful – Achrioptera maroloko males develop their vivid colouration at sexual maturity. Before then, they resemble twigs. The team believes A. maroloko’s unusual colours may attract females or deter predators. ❚
Neanderthals may have prized golden eagle talons THE claws of golden eagles may have had a special value to Neanderthals. Clive Finlayson at the Gibraltar National Museum and his colleagues looked at bird remains at prehistoric human sites, which often include cut-marked bird talons and wing bones with feathers removed. One Neanderthal site in Croatia also has three talons from a whitetailed eagle with small matching notches, suggesting that they were strung on a necklace. The team noticed that cutmarked talons and bones were especially common from golden 10 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
eagles, with nine such finds reported from Neanderthal caves. For most bird species, the number of cut-marked remains correlated with the general prevalence of unmarked bones. But golden eagle talons were more likely to show marks from human intervention – as if they were preferred (Quaternary Science Reviews, doi.org/c43d). This suggests that the claws had symbolic value, adding to the growing evidence that Neanderthals had more sophisticated lives than we thought, says Finlayson. However, the number of cut-marked remains from each species was small. And golden eagles might have been hunted more because they nest on cliff ledges, which would have been
close to Neanderthal caves. It is significant that Neanderthals weren’t just hunting the birds for food, says Finlayson. “If you’re doing things with feathers and claws, it’s going beyond purely functional and there’s something symbolic there.”
“Golden eagle talons were more likely to show marks from human intervention – as if they were preferred” He says that the Neanderthals may have revered the bird. This wouldn’t be totally unheard of, as some modern cultures also venerate golden eagles, and catch the birds for their talons and feathers. “Everywhere that there are historic examples of people
using eagles, they were treated as a symbolic species,” says David Frayer at the University of Kansas. Neanderthals didn’t view eagles as meat, they chose them for their talons and feathers, he says. “I think that’s a strong piece of evidence that Neanderthals had the same kinds of feelings about eagles as more recent people.” When modern humans came to Europe 40,000 years ago, they overlapped with Neanderthals, our prehistoric cousins, for a few thousand years before Neanderthals went extinct. For a long time, it was assumed that we survived because we were smarter, but that idea has been challenged by recent discoveries of Neanderthal cave art and what may have been shell jewellery. ❚ Clare Wilson
Bad sense of smell linked to death in next decade
Banning Huawei from 5G infrastructure Around the world, countries are closing doors to Chinese tech firms, but there is little evidence that is necessary, says Chris Stokel-Walker
Ruby Prosser Scully
THE UK government is happy for equipment made by Chinese firm Huawei to be used in the UK’s 5G network – just not in any of the crucial parts, according to leaked discussions from the National Security Council. The US and Australia have taken a much more hard-line approach, with complete bans on using Huawei kit to form any part of their 5G networks. What is all the worry about? According to telecoms firm Qualcomm, 5G mobile internet gives a massive speed boost – at least 10 or 20 times faster than our current 4G networks. As devices start sharing more and more data, from self-driving cars to phones streaming data-rich video, speedier connections will be vital. Countries across the world are currently planning their 5G networks. As one of the world’s largest technology firms, Huawei is vying for business – but finding doors closed. The main fear is that Huawei An engineer testing Huawei 5G kit in London in March
SIMON DAWSON/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY
A POOR sense of smell in older people is associated with a higher chance of dying in the next 10 years. A growing body of research suggests a bad sense of smell can foreshadow the onset of Parkinson’s disease and even premature mortality. To investigate, Honglei Chen of Michigan State University and his colleagues analysed data from more than 2000 people aged 71 to 82. Each person was tested to see if they could identify 12 common odours, including cinnamon, lemon, petrol and smoke. They were then tracked for the next 13 years. Compared with people who scored highly on the smell test, those who identified no more than eight odours were 46 per cent more likely to have died 10 years later, and 30 per cent more likely to have died by the end of the 13 years. Analysing the data, the team found that a poorer sense of smell wasn’t linked to deaths from cancer or respiratory illnesses. However, it was strongly associated with deaths from Parkinson’s disease and dementia. There was also a modest link with deaths from cardiovascular disease (Annals of Internal Medicine, DOI: 10.7326/ M18-0775). It had been thought that a worsening sense of smell might lessen a person’s interest in food, leading to weight loss and deteriorating health. But the team found that weight loss, dementia and Parkinson’s disease together only explained around 30 per cent of the higher mortality associated with a poorer sense of smell. Unfortunately, people are often unaware of their sense of smell degrading and doctors rarely test for it. “In the future, as these potential health implications are unveiled, it may not be a bad idea to include a sense of smell test as part of your [doctor’s] visit,” says Chen. ❚
will install snooping devices at the behest of the Chinese government, a worry that stems from a belief that it is impossible to operate in China without engaging with the state and acting as an arm of its spy network. It is a concern stoked by Chinese plans to pass a cybersecurity law. This will require Chinese companies transferring data to store “important data” in China, where outsiders fear it could be easily accessed by the state. The UK regularly monitors Huawei’s equipment as part of the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre Oversight Board, a body set up to allay fears about the technology being tampered with. The apparent decision by the UK’s National Security Council would give Huawei access only to the edge of the 5G network, which doesn’t involve the transmission of sensitive information, keeping the core of the network “safe”. However, other countries have gone further. Last August, Australia’s communication and home affairs ministers said in a joint statement there is a risk that firms subject to foreign
governments may be asked to give unauthorised access to their networks. Although the statement didn’t name Huawei, the company later said it had been banned from Australia’s 5G infrastructure. Similar noises have been made in the US. A state department official warned in February that Huawei and other Chinese tech companies posed a “threat” and shouldn’t be allowed to engage with key communications infrastructure, such as antennas
“The main fear is that Huawei will install snooping devices for the Chinese government” and mast-based equipment used to access the network. The European Union has yet to take a stance, asking each member state to submit its own cybersecurity assessment of Huawei’s involvement in Europe’s 5G network by the end of June. In March, a representative of the German intelligence service said Huawei shouldn’t be involved in the country’s 5G network. The fears may be unfounded however. Sensitive data should never be sent over a public network without being encrypted anyway. This means that even if a message is intercepted, it would be nearly impossible to read. Additionally, so far no evidence has made it into the public domain showing that Huawei has mishandled data or is tied up with the Chinese state. No single company should be entrusted with something as critical as the 5G network because if something goes wrong, whether intentionally or otherwise, it could have devastating effects. But if the infrastructure is distributed among many different firms, others can pick up the slack if needed. ❚ 4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 11
News Climate change
What protesters want The science behind Extinction Rebellion’s three demands Adam Vaughan Police arrest a climate change protester on Waterloo Bridge
NIKLAS HALLE’N/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
HUNDREDS of climate change campaigners left the streets of London last week, after 11 days of protests that brought parts of the capital to a standstill and led to more than a thousand arrests. Attention is now focused on the demands of the group behind the demonstrations, Extinction Rebellion, which is hoping to negotiate with the UK government. The group is meeting with London mayor Sadiq Khan and environment secretary Michael Gove this week. Any government talks will follow an extraordinary fortnight, which saw thousands of schoolchildren strike for a third time, Greta Thunberg address MPs and party leaders, and David Attenborough warn of climate change’s grave threat on prime time TV. Extinction Rebellion has three demands for the UK. It wants the government to “tell the truth” about climate change, create a citizens’ assembly to guide action and set a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to Achieving net-zero emissions net zero by 2025. in six years’ time is unrealistic, Rupert Read, who is part of says Mark Maslin of University the movement’s political strategy College London, UK. “2025 is group, says Extinction Rebellion’s too close, as many of the changes founders wanted a set of clear require changes to infrastructure, and unassailable requests, ownership and, of course, rather than a detailed manifesto. “To not get bogged down in a detailed programme, but to have something everyone could Number of consecutive days agree on,” he says. of protests in London To call a 2025 net-zero greenhouse gas target radical would be an understatement. replanting trees and rewilding, The UK’s current goal is to, by all of which take decades,” he says. 2050, emit 80 per cent less than Some members of Extinction it did in 1990, but the country Rebellion told New Scientist that, while challenging targets are is already off-track for interim necessary, it is naive to suggest targets. On 2 May, the that the 2025 goal could be government’s climate advisers achieved. Read concedes that are expected to recommend the 2050 target is changed to net zero. some in the group thought a later
12 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
target, of around 2029, would be more credible. “I’m 100 per cent behind the 2025 demand myself, as are most people in Extinction Rebellion,” he says. Read believes 2025 could be achieved with a “green new deal” to replace gas boilers in millions of homes. He says that old cars would also have to be permanently taken off the road, and not be replaced by electric models. Being honest about climate change would help reach the 2025 goal, he says. Extinction Rebellion is demanding that the government “tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency”. Energy minister Claire Perry responded this week that “what counts is actions”. Read says one aspect of this demand is about language and
conveying the scale of action required to tackle climate change. “Declare a climate emergency. Tell the public this is an existential threat. This isn’t just about the environment, but about everything. We will have to change an awful lot,” he says. A second aspect of the movement’s “truth” demand is about accounting. Official figures state that the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen 44 per cent since 1990. But this doesn't include emissions related to the goods and services we consume, nor those from international air travel or shipping. Thunberg attacked that omission in her speech to MPs on Tuesday, which she described as “very creative carbon accounting”. Extinction Rebellion’s last request is the creation of citizens’ assemblies to guide climate action and policies. Oxford City Council has become the first local authority to promise one. But what if such forums reveal that many people are actually quite conservative about action on climate change, as some studies suggest? “We don’t know. We’d be very disappointed and would have to think again,” says Read, though he believes the assemblies would probably demand radical action. Even if none of the demands are met, the group has arguably had an impact already. The Labour party has endorsed it, and politicians like Conservative MP Boris Johnson are now talking in detail about the action needed to tackle climate change. “One way of putting what Extinction Rebellion exists for is: ‘to make the politically impossible politically possible’,” says Read. ❚
Farmers furious after losing licence to kill millions of birds Michael Le Page
Why did this happen? In February, conservationists Mark Avery, Ruth Tingay and Chris Packham launched a legal case asserting that the system of issuing general licences is unlawful. On 23 April, Natural England conceded they were right. And people are unhappy about this? Many farmers and landowners are furious, saying they have to kill pigeons to protect crops, carrion
in the UK over the past 50 years – that is due to farming practices destroying songbird habitat.
LICENCES that allow people in the UK to shoot 16 species of bird were cancelled last week – a decision that has upset some people. People in the European Union can only usually kill wild birds if they have a specific licence to do so, but every January, Natural England issues general licences that allow holders to target a range of birds, including wood pigeons, Canada geese, parakeets and several species of the crow family, including rooks (pictured) and jays. Now that these types of licences have been revoked, individuals will probably have to apply for specific permits.
crows to protect lambs, and so on. “These general licences are absolutely necessary at this time of year when crops are particularly vulnerable to pests,” said Guy Smith of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) in a statement. Crows are also killed to protect groundnesting birds such as threatened curlews and lapwings. Do the conservationists want all the shooting to stop? Absolutely not, says Avery. The trio accepts that landowners sometimes need to kill birds that
are causing problems. Rather, the aim is to get everyone to agree on a system that is legal, fair and based on science, he says. Can you give examples? Farmers ought to be able to shoot wood pigeons if they are damaging crops, says Avery. They are the main target already – up to 3 million pigeons are killed each year. By contrast, Avery says there is no reason why people should be able to kill jays. While they do kill songbirds, they aren’t to blame for the decline in songbird numbers
What about crows? This is the most contentious area. Besides sometimes attacking vulnerable farm animals such as newborn lambs, crows are the second biggest UK predator, after foxes, of ground-nesting birds. “There’s definitely a case for controlling crows around ground-nesting birds,” says conservationist Mary Colwell. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds kills several hundred crows each year for this reason. If people will still be able to shoot birds, why is everyone so upset? It is partly because the general licences have suddenly been revoked, with just two days’ notice and no plan B. Natural England says it will work out alternative measures for the lawful control of bird species over the next few weeks. The NFU wants new licences issued as soon as possible. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time, says Colwell. ❚
Chewing gummy bears could be a check-up for kids DON’T tell the dentist, but electrical engineers want to give sweets to children to check how well they can chew. A team has used Haribo gummy bears to build a cheap medical device to measure the pressure exerted by teeth. It could be used to help measure how children are developing. Donghyun Lee and Beelee Chua, who created the device at Korea
University in Seoul, believe the idea will catch on because the youngsters get to eat the gummy bear afterwards. Conventional devices used for measuring bite pressure often alarm children because they are metallic and weirdly shaped, says Lee. Familiar materials should help, “especially knowing there is a sweet treat at the end”, he says. The device is designed to be recyclable, with the gummy bear held between bamboo cantilevers wrapped in conducting aluminium foil. Its name is a mouthful though: a gnathodynamometer.
Munching on a soft sweet could reveal whether a child’s jaw muscles are developing correctly
The duo ran tests with three adults, asking them to bite down on the sweet for five seconds. The results showed a predictable change in voltage, which, though imperceptible to the chewer, could be recorded and monitored via two wires connected to the device.
This happens because, when the gummy bears are squeezed, their conductivity changes (Sensors and Actuators A: Physical, doi.org/c42w). This new gnathodynamometer is still in early development, but the hope is it could be used to measure how hard children can bite, enabling healthcare workers to check how well they have learned to chew. This is crucial for proper muscle growth around the jaw. “Children’s masticatory function is an important indicator of their developmental stage,” says Lee. ❚ David Adam 4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 13
News Climate change
A century of global warming Human influence on droughts has been traced back to 1900 Adam Vaughan Did emissions make the US Dust Bowl of the 1930s worse?
PHOTO 12/UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES
DROUGHTS around the world dating to the early 20th century may have been made worse by greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists have previously hesitated to draw links between global warming and drought, due to a lack of observational data and the difficulty of distinguishing natural cycles of dry conditions from ones that are driven by climate change. But Kate Marvel at the University of Columbia in New York and her colleagues have found that the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on drought was clearly visible between 1900 and 1949 (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1149-8). “Climate change is not a recent phenomenon,” she says. “We’ve known about it for a long time, and it’s actually been happening for a long time.” By comparing climate models that can account for the impact of emissions on drought with tree ring, rainfall and temperature records, her team found clear evidence that human activity influenced droughts during the
“Climate change is not a recent phenomenon, it has actually been happening for a long time”
a bunch of junk in the atmosphere that blocks the sun,” says Marvel. From 1981 to 2017, there were signs of a link, but not enough to say unequivocally that droughts were influenced by humaninduced climate change rather than by natural variations. That might sound odd, given that this period coincides with a large rise in greenhouse gas emissions. Marvel and her team are still examining possible explanations for this. One is that
first half of the 20th century. But between 1950 and 1975, there was no evidence of an effect. The discrepancy is explained by another human impact that had a cooling effect – the amount of aerosols we released by burning huge amounts of coal, along with other industrial activities. “We put
aerosols have declined but may still be playing a role. However, the researchers expect the link between carbon emissions and drought to become increasingly clear in the coming decades. “The impact of climate change [on drought] should be indisputable by the middle of the century,” says Marvel. The drying effect will not be uniform across the world – while many places are expected to get drier, some are anticipated to get wetter – but it is expected to have severe consequences for people. The research isn’t able to blame individual drought events, such as the US Dust Bowl of the 1930s, on our emissions. “The signal [of the human fingerprint] is really only detectable when you look at a global picture,” says Marvel. She hopes the new work will enhance the credibility of climate models and their ability to anticipate the impact of future droughts. ❚
TITAN has a huge stretch of ice near its equator and we don’t know how it got there. Most of the frigid moon’s surface is covered in organic sediment that rains from the sky, but a strip that runs for thousands of kilometres seems to be bare ice. On many of the cold worlds in the outer solar system, water ice acts as bedrock that can become exposed. Seeing such areas on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is very hard because 14 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
it has seas of methane and a thick atmosphere. However, Caitlin Griffith at the University of Arizona and her colleagues have used data from the Cassini spacecraft to spot signs of water ice on the surface. They found one icy area around a 500-metre-high mountain called Doom Mons and a neighbouring pit that is 1500 metres deep. These areas have previously been noted for possible signs of cryovolcanism, which could bring ice up from under the surface. But the team also found a long, straight line of ice that runs for 6300 kilometres, or 40 per cent of
Titan hides behind the rings of Saturn NASA/JPL-CALTECH/SSI
Ice belt on Saturn’s moon Titan is a massive mystery
Titan’s circumference, that is more difficult to explain. It should be buried deep under organic sediment (Nature Astronomy, doi.org/c45m). “It’s possible that we are seeing something that’s a vestige of a time when Titan was quite different,” says Griffith. “It can’t be explained
by what we see there now.” Titan probably isn’t geologically active now, but the exposed ice could be a sign that the moon’s crust shifted or quaked in the past. The ice may be embedded in the side of cliff faces exposed by erosion, rather than flat on the ground, Griffith says – so don’t brush off your skates just yet. “It would be one of the worst moons in the outer solar system to ice-skate on anyway, because you have all this gunk that’s coming down from the atmosphere that might be sticky and gooey,” she says. ❚ Leah Crane
Hear more about surgical micro-robots at newscientistlive.com Demography
Mystery of a village with too many twins
A ROBOTIC surgical device can autonomously travel to a specified location inside the heart. It uses only a camera for vision and has been used to operate on pigs. Pierre Dupont at Harvard University and his colleagues created a robotic version of a catheter, a thin tube widely used in surgery. The device has a camera and LED light on its tip and is connected to a motor system that controls its movement. The researchers used 2000 interior heart images to train an algorithm to direct the catheter’s motion. They then tested the device in five pigs with leaky heart implants needing to be sealed. At the start of each procedure, a surgeon made an incision in the bottom of the heart. The catheter was then inserted and tasked with autonomously navigating to the leak, given its position relative to other parts of the heart. In each operation, the team tested the catheter multiple times. Out of 83 trials, it navigated to the right location 95 per cent of the time. A surgeon then took over to fix the leak (Science Robotics, doi.org/c42t). The robotic catheter’s success rate is comparable to that of an experienced clinician, says Dupont. By taking over the mundane task of reaching the leaks, the device lowers the mental burden on doctors so they can focus on plugging the holes, he says. Currently, doctors use visual clues given by ultrasound and what they feel with their hands to position a catheter. “This requires significant skill and experience, and technology makes it easier,” says Manesh Patel at Duke University in North Carolina. He hopes the catheter can be improved so it can enter the heart through blood vessels rather than an incision, avoiding unnecessary damage to heart tissue. ❚
A SMALL village in India is seeing an explosion in the number of twins born – and no one knows why. Kodinhi, in the southern state of Kerala, now has 1000 twins among a population of 11,000 and the twin birth rate is still increasing. “It’s out of this world,” says Lorena Madrigal at the University of South Florida. The background rate of twin births in India is about one in 100, so the twin numbers in Kodinhi stand out. The phenomenon came to global attention in 2009, but the explanation is a mystery. So Madrigal and her team travelled to the village to see if they could find any clues about possible genetic or environmental causes. They spoke to households that included nearly half the twins in the village, and drew up family trees comprising about
HEMIS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
Robotic tube learns to navigate inside a beating heart
1800 people going back to the 1860s. Although they didn’t manage to pinpoint why the trend was happening, they did manage to rule out a few suggested explanations. First, marriage within families doesn’t appear to be the cause. As some genes raise the chance of having twins, it was thought the village’s tradition of marriage between first cousins
“Kodinhi has 1000 twins in a population of 11,000 and the rate is still increasing” and between uncles and nieces could be concentrating these genes in certain families. But the team found twins were no more likely from such unions than from others. Another possible explanation suggested in previous media reports was a past epidemic.
People with genes that favoured twins could have been more likely to survive the disease for some reason. But the older villagers interviewed recalled no such epidemic. Additionally, there was no link between the twin birth rate and where in the village people lived. The only previous published research on Kodinhi also managed to rule out an unusual diet or source of water as causes. Madrigal and her colleagues were unable to take blood samples to see how many of the twins are identical. It is impossible to tell by their looks because fraternal twins can be very similar too, says Madrigal. The team found that twin births in Kodinhi began to rise in about 1960 and have been increasing ever since. Although she has no proof, Madrigal thinks the most likely explanation is that some residents were once exposed to something that triggered chemical changes to their DNA, which they are now passing to their children. Her team hopes to return to get blood samples to shed light on this idea. The team presented its findings at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Cleveland, Ohio. Twins are more likely to be born prematurely and underweight, so one possible factor contributing to the rise is that there would have been a greater chance of twins dying in the past due to poorer medical care, says Tim Spector at King’s College London. ❚ There are an unusual number of twins in Kodinhi, India 4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 15
News In brief Air pollution
Push to curb China’s urban smog may be backfiring
GIULIA MARCHI/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES
MANY Western countries that appear to have cleaned up their act environmentally have actually outsourced manufacturing to places with laxer standards, resulting in more pollution overall. The same thing is now happening in China. The country is trying to reduce the dire air pollution in the capital region that includes Beijing. In this megalopolis of 110 million people, average particulate levels are 10 times higher than the safe limit set by the World Health Organization. Chinese officials are moving highly polluting industries to other regions, but Bin Chen at Beijing Normal University and colleagues found this may actually lead to more air pollution overall because of lower environmental standards and less efficient technologies in these areas. The researchers calculated Neuroscience
ELECTRODES on the brain have been used to translate brainwaves into words spoken by a computer. Edward Chang at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and his colleagues decoded signals related to speech from a part of the brain called the motor cortex. The researchers used an array of electrodes placed on the brain to detect these signals, which direct movements of the vocal tract, and a computer simulation of a vocal tract to reproduce the sounds of speech from them. The team worked with five people who had electrodes on the surface of their motor cortex as a part of their treatment for epilepsy. All five were asked to read sentences aloud which contained words and phrases that covered all the sounds in English, while the team recorded signals sent from the motor cortex. 16 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
The researchers then trained an algorithm to reproduce the sound of a spoken word from the collection of signals sent to the lips, jaw and tongue. The team asked hundreds of native English speakers to listen to short phrases created by the algorithm from brain signals and identify the content. To help, the listeners had lists that included the correct words. They identified 43 per cent of the generated phrases perfectly when they had 25 words to choose from, and 21 per cent when they had 50 choices (Nature, doi.org/gfzvh4). Many of the misunderstood words were similar in meaning to the sound of the original word, so in many cases the gist of a sentence was understood, says team member Josh Chartier at UCSF. The brain signals involved in the study are still sent even if a person is totally paralysed, so a device like this may one day be useful for people who were able to speak but lost that ability. Chelsea Whyte
AI creates masterful art in just minutes ARTIFICIAL intelligence has learned to convincingly paint in the style of masters like Vincent Van Gogh and Johannes Vermeer. Dinesh Manocha at the University of Maryland and his colleagues taught an AI to replicate the styles of well-known paintings including The Eiffel Tower, by Georges Seurat, The Starry Night by Van Gogh, oil paintings by Vermeer and Chinese ink
BIAO JIA, CHEN FANG ET AL.
Device converts thoughts to speech
that the increase in harmful particulate emissions outside the capital region will be 1.6 times the emissions reduction achieved in the capital region. What’s more, 3.6 times as much carbon dioxide will be emitted overall and 2.9 times as much water will be consumed. In theory, having more particulates spread more thinly over less densely populated areas might lessen the overall health impact of this form of pollution, but the researchers didn't assess this. What they did show is that prevailing winds will often blow some of the extra particulate pollution in neighbouring provinces back into the capital region, partially or completely countering the reductions from moving factories (Science Advances, doi.org/c42g). Michael Le Page
landscapes by the Ming dynasty painter Shen Zhou. For each style, the AI was trained with three to 10 reference works. It learned to identify the properties of brush strokes, including their position, density, size and colour, and what order to paint them in. To get to grips with one style took about 6 hours, as the AI tried to replicate reference paintings. It learned that the more closely its work resembled the original, the better it was performing. The team then presented the AI with a new image and tasked it with reproducing it as a painting, in a particular style. The image left was the result of it reproducing a vase of sunflowers in the style of Van Gogh. The algorithm generated brush strokes step-bystep, taking about 5 minutes to complete a single painting (arxiv. org/abs/1904.02201). However, while AI can master technique, it is still no match for human creativity, says Manocha. Donna Lu
New Scientist Daily Get the latest scientific discoveries in your inbox www.newscientist.com/sign-up Cultural evolution
DANIEL OCAMPO R, VENCEJO FILMS/PA
Family of languages may have new origin ALTHOUGH Chinese, Tibetan and Burmese tongues sound very different, they are all derived from a common source. An analysis suggests the ancient ancestral language that gave rise to them might have emerged in northern China and spread south and west. Mandarin, Cantonese, Tibetan and about 400 other languages belong to the Sino-Tibetan group of tongues because of their shared origin. More than 20 per cent of all
Mixed-up ancient crustacean Fossils of a mixed-up crab from the Cretaceous have perplexed researchers with their bizarre anatomical features. Callichimaera perplexa, pictured, has what look like the eyes of a larva, the mouth of a shrimp, the claws of a frog crab and the carapace of a lobster (Science Advances, doi.org/c42f).
people on Earth speak them. Menghan Zhang at Fudan University in Shanghai and his colleagues wanted to find out where this group of languages originated. Because languages evolve and diverge just like species, the researchers applied statistical tools used by biologists to build an evolutionary tree for Sino-Tibetan tongues. They compared how words that shared the same meaning are pronounced. Generally, two languages with many words sounding alike are more closely related than those with fewer
Heartbeats could power pacemakers
Missed measles vaccinations An estimated 169 million children worldwide haven’t had their first dose of a measles vaccine, according to an analysis by the children’s charity Unicef. This includes nearly 2.6 million youngsters in the US, 608,000 in France and more than 500,000 in the UK.
Blow to peanut allergy treatments Immunotherapies for peanut allergies may do more harm than good. The therapies attempt to desensitise a person’s immune system by gradually exposing them to increasing doses of peanut allergen. But an analysis suggests they raise the risk of anaphylaxis, a dangerous allergic reaction (The Lancet, doi.org/c42j).
similar words. The team produced an evolutionary tree for the languages and combined this with archaeological evidence of how people moved, such as the spread of pottery and architectural styles, to conclude the ancestral language to Sino-Tibetan tongues arose in present-day northern China (Nature, doi.org/gfzvhm). Not everyone agrees, as the finding contradicts earlier research which said the origin was probably in south-west China. “It would be a mistake to call the matter settled,” says Zev Handel at the University of Washington. Yvaine Ye
Tremor on Mars reveals more about planet’s inner mysteries THE first marsquake has been detected by NASA’s InSight lander. These tremors could help us learn how much water is hiding within the Red Planet. InSight landed on Mars in November 2018, and in December it placed a seismometer, pictured above, on the surface. On 6 April, it felt the ground shake. This quake was very small, so it didn’t provide much detail about the Martian interior. But it does give us some basic information about how marsquakes compare to earthquakes. Philippe Lognonné at Paris Diderot University, a member of the InSight team, says the
10-minute duration of the Mars signal is longer than those seen on Earth, which last a few minutes. That is because the rocks on Earth are full of water, which absorbs the shock of seismic activity better than dry ground, shortening the signal. The first marsquake indicates that the shallow subsurface doesn’t have much water – far less than Earth – but isn’t as dry as the moon, where quake signals last an hour. InSight also detected three even smaller seismic signals in March and April. However, wind rocking the seismometer and meteorites hitting the surface may have caused these, says Lognonné. Leah Crane
A BATTERY-FREE pacemaker that harvests energy from heartbeats has been successfully tested in pigs. It uses an energy harvester wrapped around the heart that makes electricity from movement. It is the work of Zhong Lin Wang at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US and his colleagues. While pacemakers help millions of people with irregular heart rhythm, the batteries are generally bulky, rigid, and can have short lifetimes. In tests, Wang and his team found that the energy their device harvested from the heart exceeded that needed to power a human pacemaker. They used pigs in the tests because their hearts are about the same size as those of people (Nature Communications, doi.org/c43f). “The study results are very encouraging, but there is a lot of work to be done before it might be used in humans,” says Tim Chico at the University of Sheffield, UK. He points out the device needed to be inserted in open-heart surgery, which is a lot more invasive than is needed for current pacemakers. Pacemaker batteries can last for 15 years, but the lifetime varies depending on how much it needs to be used. Staff and agency 4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 17
News Insight Technology
Taking on the tech giants AS CAMPAIGN visions go, it is one that most people can get behind. US 2020 presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren just wants tech companies to play by the rules. “You don’t get to be the umpire and have a team in the game,” the Democrat senator told an audience last week, describing how she believes Amazon exploits its market position to smother competitors. But the way she wants to achieve this could prove divisive. “My administration will make big, structural changes to the tech sector to promote more competition – including breaking up Amazon, Facebook, and Google,” she said in a campaign statement earlier this year. Warren is far from the first to make this call. Over the past few years, the companies on her hit list have been accused of perverting democracies, amplifying hate crimes and stifling rivals. “How big do these companies have to be before they’re considered too dominant?” says Martin Moore at King’s College London. “When you have more than a quarter of the world’s population on your platform, that qualifies in any book.” Still, most public figures taking on these juggernauts – chief among them Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner for competition – have stopped short of a break-up. Instead, we have seen new rules, such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, and large fines. For example, Google has been hit with a string of whopping fines for abusing its market dominance in the EU, including €2.4 billion in 2017, €4.3 billion in 2018 – the largest fine ever – and €1.5 billion in March. But set against the annual revenue of Google’s parent company Alphabet (more than 18 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES
Companies like Facebook and Google have come to dominate our lives. Is it time to cut them down to size, asks Douglas Heaven
$136 billion in 2018), they just look like a cost of doing business. “I don’t want to call them parking tickets, but these are small fines for companies that make so much a year,” says Cristina Caffarra, head of European competition practice at consulting firm Charles River Associates. So if the fines aren’t working, is Warren right to call for a break-up? Elizabeth Warren wants to shrink tech firms
It has been done before. In the 1990s, the US government charged Microsoft with gaining an unfair advantage. By including its web browser, Internet Explorer, on computers running the marketleading Windows operating system, Microsoft was seen to be preventing other companies’ browsers from getting a look in. Microsoft was told it couldn’t
bundle separate software products together and was forced to open up Windows so that other software developers could write programs for it more easily. But splitting off a piece of software like a browser is easier than carving up the likes of Amazon, Facebook or Google. Warren suggests separating the running of a platform from doing business on that platform. For example, Amazon runs the marketplace on which it sells its own cut-price products, making it harder for others to compete. Benedict Evans, an analyst at venture capitalist firm Andreessen Horowitz in San Francisco, has described Warren’s proposal as “an odd combination of both very specific and very vague”. Evans asks if this thinking applies to things like Apple’s App Store. Should Apple be allowed to sell its own apps? What about supermarkets like Walmart and Sainsbury’s, which have been selling their own-brand products at lower prices for decades – isn’t Amazon just doing the same? You could argue that Amazon’s
Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by US politicians in 2018 over data scandals
unprecedented dominance of online shopping makes things different. For Caffarra, it is as if Walmart or Sainsbury’s had first bought most other retailers before cutting prices, which wouldn’t be allowed in the bricks-and-mortar world. Say you do want to break these firms up, then. The best way might be to undo mergers, some of which should probably never have been allowed, says Caffarra. Google dominates online advertising largely because it bought up a string of businesses like DoubleClick. These are now integrated into Google’s business and cutting them out would damage the whole, but it wouldn’t be impossible, says Moore. Facebook similarly grew to dominate social media by vacuuming up rivals such as Instagram and WhatsApp, both of which helped it gain a foothold on most of the world’s phones. But again, it would be hard now
More Insight online Your guide to a rapidly changing world www.newscientist.com/insight
and nothing short of breaking them up will work,” she says. That may be starting to change. Last week, Facebook warned investors that it expected to be fined as much as $5 billion by the US Federal Trade Commission, which is currently investigating the firm as a result of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. Diane Coyle at the University of Cambridge, who co-authored an independent review of digital competition for the UK
Total amount Google has been fined under EU competition law
government, says regulators could use existing powers more. For example, in the UK, Facebook and YouTube could be treated as publishers and held responsible for their content. “They’d have to do a lot to comply,” says Coyle. The report also argues for new regulations, like making it easier for new businesses to use established platforms so that they aren’t shut out of a market, allowing users to transfer data from one platform to another.
Tech companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google’s parent company Alphabet are among the most successful on the planet – in part because they offer services used by a significant fraction of humanity Number of users (billions) Facebook
WhatsApp Facebook Messenger Instagram
SOURCE: FACEBOOK; ALPHABET; AMAZON
In fairness, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter are part of an initiative called the Data Transfer Project, which works towards this aim. But if we want services like search or social networks to become more like email – with different products, such as Gmail or Outlook, all using the same underlying protocols – then there is a long way to go. Coyle also says regulators need to think differently about acquisitions. Treating Instagram as just a photo-sharing platform, and not a Facebook competitor, was naive, she says. “Regulation is inevitable,” says Moore. “But we have to be careful how we do it.” He thinks we need a clear sense of the kind of relationship society should have with big tech before we jump in. Choosing the kind of services we want the likes of Amazon, Facebook and Google to provide will determine how we shape the behaviour of the companies through regulation. For example, if we think – as Warren does – that these tech companies should be more like utilities, then a search engine provider might become as highly regulated as water or electricity firms. Or if we care most about privacy and what happens to our data, then we need specific regulations to enforce transparency or interoperability. Once we ask these questions, we may find ourselves re-examining the economic model behind these firms. Some say the billions made by Facebook and Google are a result of “surveillance capitalism”, in which services are provided in exchange for personal data. For Moore, dealing with this economic model is the bigger problem. “If you don’t, then you’re going to get other companies just as dominant in future,” he says. ❚
▲ Slow walkers The UK’s Ordnance Survey is to recalculate how long walking routes take. Its Victorian-era formula currently generates times that are unrealistically fast for many hikers. ▲ Patient physicists The radioactive decay of xenon-124 has been observed. With a half-life of a trillion times the age of the universe, it makes watching paint dry an extreme sport. ▲ Donald Trump In other rare news, the US president has come out in favour of science. He declared “vaccinations are so important” in response to US measles outbreaks. ▼ Russian whale A whale wearing a harness marked “Equipment of St Petersburg” may have been trained by the Russian navy. Or perhaps it just liked visiting cathedrals? ▼ Asteroid Ryugu Japan confirmed it had blasted a hole in asteroid Ryugu, going a small way to avenging the dinosaurs.
to disentangle these apps from Facebook’s core business, which is collecting as much data on people as possible. The company even seems to be trying to bolster its defences against a break-up: CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced it would be merging the code and data of Instagram and WhatsApp more tightly with the core Facebook app. Even if you could see a way to do it, breaking up a large company is no quick fix. For regulators, it is a last-ditch option, more a threat than a viable response. The European Commission, driven by Vestager, has been tougher than most on big tech. But, legally, to consider such a farreaching course of action would require it to demonstrate that a break-up is the only way to reign in a company’s bad conduct, which wouldn’t be straightforward. For these reasons, the better option may be to double down on regulation. Caffarra says that calls to break up big tech are more common in the US, where tech firms have been left to do more or less what they want since the Microsoft case 20 years ago. “There is a sense of frustration in many quarters. Nothing is being done
Sorting the week's supernovae from the absolute zeros
4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 19
Cell therapy innovation in cancer The idea of turning the immune system against cancer has a long history. This is the story of the scientific development of cell therapy
n Greek mythology, the “chimera” was a fire-breathing hybrid of a lion, snake and goat, who struck terror into all who encountered it. This was the image that Zelig Eshhar – an Israeli immunologist - had in mind when he developed the idea of a ‘T-body’: a hybrid immune agent engineered to combine the attacking activity of a person’s T cells with the recognition and binding abilities of their antibodies. Initially, his PhD student Gideon Gross had reservations: “I wondered whether embarking on such a project would work; would it lead me to a valid thesis?” says Gross, now at the MIGAL Galilee Research Institute in northern Israel. “However, as we went along it became clear to both of us that this could be a tool to redirect T cells at potentially any target– and the obvious target was cancer cells.” It is now thirty years since these researchers announced that they’d assembled the first such hybrid agent. In that
time, the idea of reprogramming the body’s immune system to attack cancer has gone from a distant dream to an emerging reality, and T-bodies – today called CAR T cells – are at the cutting edge of this field, now researched and manufactured by many organisations around the world. In 2018, the American Society of Clinical
“The role of properly functioning T cells in the body is to find, attack and kill abnormal entities” Oncology (ASCO) named CAR T cell immunotherapy as its ‘Advance of the Year’. Efforts are now underway to turn CAR T cells against multiple types of cancer, including blood cancers and solid tumours. The idea of turning the immune system against cancer has a long history. Nearly
130 years ago, an American surgeon called William Coley showed that deliberately injecting cancer patients with bacteria to stimulate their immune systems could cause their tumours to recede. However, the approach was gradually forgotten as others failed to replicate his results. Today though, cancer immunotherapy is firmly back on the agenda. A critical turning point was the development of monoclonal antibodies – molecules that can be designed to recognise and bind to antigen targets, expressed on cells, including cancer cells. For instance, antibodies can be designed to bind to a molecule called CD20 on the surface of a type of white blood cell called B cells. This triggers a process that may recruit other immune cells to destroy them. The other component is T cells. “The role of properly functioning T cells in the body is to find, attack and kill abnormal entities – whether it is a cell infected by a microbial entity, or your own cells that have
Creating CAR T cells: mechanism of action CAR T cells are engineered out of T-cells, the body's own immune cells
CAR T CELL RECEPTOR T-CELL
CAR encoding genes are inserted into the T-cell by an inactivated virus
The genes cause T-cells to manufacture special receptors called chimeric antigen receptors (CAR)
The CAR receptors are designed to attach to cancer cells
Once attached, the CAR T cells attack the cancer cells
STEVE GSCHMEISSNER/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
The future of reprogrammed immune cells
degenerated into cancer cells,” says Dr Dominique Tonelli, Head of Medical Affairs, Oncology and Cell Therapy at Gilead Sciences in Europe. But they aren’t as good at recognising cancer cells as antibodies. So Eshhar’s idea was to combine the two. “Early on, we realised that a T cell with the specificity of an antibody, could attack target cells,” he says. “Once we demonstrated that this was biologically possible, we thought it had a good chance of becoming a viable therapy.” That demonstration came in 1989, when the Israeli team announced they had genetically engineered T cells to kill cancer. In this way, they created the first engineered T cells capable of recognising key targets. In the following decades, these CAR T cells were gradually refined, first in the lab, then in animal models before being tested in humans. Efforts are now focused on making CAR T
therapy available for more types of cancer with fewer side effects and improving the production process. Additional research is underway to ensure therapy is given to patients most likely to benefit. “Physicians have much to learn.” says Max Topp, who heads the haematology department at the University Hospital of Wurzberg. “We have to understand how to preselect the patients a bit better, and how to manage the serious adverse events, toxicity and the logistics as well.” At the same time, the healthcare infrastructure for administering these therapies needs to be ready. Hospitals have to be qualified to deliver this therapy and this takes time. In many places, the infrastructure has yet to catch up to make this happen.
000/IHQ/19-03//1302 Date of preparation: April 2019
While there have been great steps forward, there’s clearly scope for improvement. The therapies available today can cause serious side effects and they don’t work for all patients. In addition, with the current approach, the CAR T cells are specific to the individual patient, making them timeconsuming and expensive to create. A different approach would be an off-the-shelf treatment involving ‘universal’ T cells that could work in any patient. “There are many laboratories working on this and some making great progress,” says Gross. “Other approaches are to use smart viruses or vectors to introduce the gene into the patient’s T cells without actually taking them out of their body, which may make the therapy more sustainable than it is at the moment.” Engineering T cells to work against solid tumours is more challenging. One issue is that these cancer cells often express multiple antigens on their surface. All of the antigens are potential targets but are often found on healthy cells, making those cells potential targets too. “There are a limited number of antigens that are specifically targetable on the surface of tumour cells,” says Markwin Velders, Vice President of Operations and Managing Director at Kite Pharma EU in Amsterdam. Future research also focuses on T cell receptor (TCR) therapy, which uses normal T cells to recognise tumour-specific proteins found on the inside of cancer cells but which show up on their surface bound to another protein called the major histocompatibility complex. Whether those T cell receptors could be engineered to recognise specific MHC/ cancer protein fragment combinations is being assessed. The basic principles of identifying targets and modifying cells are the same as for CAR T cells. TCR therapy is still in the research and development stage with clinical trials underway.
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Views The columnist Annalee Newitz on why criminals will love e-scooters p24
Letters Is a lack of free will behind readers’ correspondence? p26
Aperture A white-tailed eagle snatches a fish from a Scottish loch p28
Culture Magic relies on brain trickery, as a book and show reveal p30
Culture columnist Video games can bring history to life, says Jacob Aron p32
Greenland can’t go green The Arctic is melting fast. The world needs to wake up to just how fast, and what the impacts will be, says Adam Vaughan Adam is New Scientist’s chief reporter. Follow him on Twitter @adamvaughan_uk
T’S not exactly a natural icebreaker, but Earth scientists are talking a lot about ice right now. I met quite a few of them at the European Geosciences Union general assembly in Vienna, Austria. One particularly eye-opening moment came when Harry Zekollari from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands showed me how his computer models indicate that half of Alpine glaciers are doomed by midcentury, whatever action we now take to curb carbon emissions. If anything, the models seem a conservative representation of facts on the ground. A few days later, NASA was highlighting
satellite imagery of an Arctic glacier slipping at a rate that was “simply nuts”, according to one researcher involved: 20 metres a day, compared with 20 metres a year in 2013. And we have recently learned how increased rainfall in Greenland is melting way more ice than anyone expected. If Greenland starts to go green, we have a real problem. The ice cap there is up to 3 kilometres deep and contains enough water to raise sea levels by several metres. It is looking increasingly vulnerable. A study just out in the journal PNAS has looked at almost half a century of data to conclude that Greenland’s annual ice mass loss has grown nearly sixfold in
30 years. This year’s melt season has already begun, a month early. So much bad news begins to wash over you – and that’s exactly the researchers’ main worry. Eric Rignot, an author of the PNAS paper, says what surprises him the most is how much science people need before contemplating action. If Alpine glaciers disappear, that’s a blow to the region’s tourism and hydroelectric industries. But perhaps we can tolerate the loss of skiing holidays. Perhaps we should anyway. Greenland is in a different league: an unfolding environmental problem with incalculable, global economic risk attached. It is – still, just – not too late
to act. Debate is ongoing about when we will reach climate tipping points where feedback processes kick in to accelerate melting, potentially wiping out Greenland’s ice sheet. But the dynamics of ice mean melting doesn’t increase linearly as the world warms. We also know there was a significant Greenland ice sheet 130,000 years ago, when summer temperatures were several degrees warmer. So every fraction of a degree of warming avoided helps avert the worst. Some researchers are already reviving talk of geoengineering our way from catastrophe. Injecting cooling sulphates into the atmosphere could reduce Greenland’s ice loss by 10 per cent by 2070, according to modelling by a team at Beijing Normal University, also presented in Vienna. But even if that is technically feasible, the uncertain global impacts make it a political no-go. Countries at a recent UN meeting even rejected a proposal for a simple assessment into climate-cooling technologies. The answer isn’t sexy: deep, rapid cuts in fossil fuel use. This past week, I have been talking to instigators of the Extinction Rebellion movement (see page 12). The detail of their demands might be unrealistic, but they have created resonance. The climate certainly has tipping points. Can societies have them too? ❚ 4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 23
Views Columnist This changes everything
Not so smart cities Internet-linked devices can improve our lives, but all the related data gathering leaves us at risk of a new kind of street crime, writes Annalee Newitz
B Annalee is a science journalist and author. Her novel Autonomous won the Lambda Literary Award and she is the co-host of the Hugo-nominated podcast Our Opinions Are Correct. You can follow her @annaleen and her website is techsploitation.com
This column will appear monthly. Up next week: botanist James Wong 24 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
PORTRAIT: JANE ANDERS RIGHT: SCOOT
What are you watching? I'm catching up on the final season of the postapocalyptic martial arts/ motorcycle/sword epic Into the Badlands. What are you reading? I have just finished Eve D’Ambra’s delightful Roman Women, an exhaustively researched introduction to ancient Roman culture that happens to be about the lives of women. I’m also reading Mike Chen’s gorgeous time travel novel Here and Now and Then. What are you working on? I’m writing a book about four ancient cities and why people decided to abandon them.
ECAUSE I live in San Francisco, I have been subjected to a number of ill-fated experiments performed by short-lived tech companies. The most recent involves app-controlled electronic scooters. With little advance notice, a handful of companies blanketed cities in the San Francisco area with lavishly branded e-scooters. Anyone with the right app could ride one, then park it somewhere “properly”. Unfortunately, proper parking is really in the eyes of the beholder. Scooters wound up blocking sidewalks, streets, gutters and doorways. City workers routinely had to dredge them out of a large, local lake. One company, Lime, posted pictures of its broken, waterlogged scooters on Twitter. San Franciscans complained at great length, and the city banned them for several months. And yet, so far, the experiment continues. Two new e-scooter companies recently signed a deal with the San Francisco city government, promising to do it right this time. Debris from trashed e-scooters is one unexpected side effect of an idea that marketers and futurists call the “smart city”, a cosmopolitan utopia anchored to an eco-friendly power grid, saturated by high-speed internet and with conveniences like e-scooters on every corner or autonomous cars that will bring you takeout. The notion – a good one, to be sure – is that we can use software to make our cities more energy efficient and user-friendly. If an office building is empty in the evening, the smart city diverts power from it to a stadium full of sports fans. If there’s a traffic jam somewhere, grab an e-scooter. If a storm surge is coming, your fully automated home will batten down the hatches for you.
All these scenarios depend on people covering our old, dumb cities with devices that talk to each other over the internet. Those devices might be weather sensors, gas meters, drawbridge controllers, traffic monitors, sanitation systems, surveillance cameras… or e-scooters. They might be stuck to the side of buildings, or dangling from drones. The point is that the city becomes a kind of giant computer, gathering and crunching data from the real world. The smart city is also programmable. I poke a button on my phone, and I can summon
“Renting an e-scooter might inadvertently help a thief break into key computer networks”
a car. Likewise, a police officer might watch CCTV footage on their phone, and a plumber might shut off a water valve with theirs. Scientists could monitor pollution levels from miles away. There’s just one problem. If everything is full of remotely accessible data, then so are you – and that’s how a new kind of street crime will emerge. Let’s think about those e-scooters again. When I use my app to get that scooter, I’m sending a lot of information to the company that rents it to me. There’s my credit card and email, of course, but more importantly there’s data about where I go. That
information is very interesting to thieves with some technical savvy. To get it, a thief injects a little malicious code into an ad on the scooter app. When I click the ad, they start tracking me. Multiply that by thousands, and the thief can figure out, say, who spends time at fancy private clubs or government agencies. In the smart city, searching for a good mark is that easy. Want a rich banker or a bureaucrat with security clearance? Our thief has a list of thousands of potential targets. Now they can send their chosen marks some phishing emails to gain access to their computer systems at work. It’s a tried and true method: a simple phishing scam led to the leak of Democratic Party emails during the 2016 US election. And that’s how my choice to rent an e-scooter might inadvertently help a malicious person break into a sensitive computer network. Consider what would happen if someone with technical skills got onto the network that controls bridges or traffic lights. Or broke into your house by hacking your app-controlled heating system. When every object in the city is “smart”, criminals gain access to your valuables through digital keyholes you may not even realise are there. That’s especially true when you consider the hodgepodge way smart cities are emerging. There is some centralised oversight for technologies used in infrastructure and policing. But services like e-scooters or even autonomous cars will probably be created ad hoc, without much regulation. In the smart city of tomorrow, we won’t just need to teach kids not to talk to strangers. We’ll have to teach them not to talk to hoverboards, too. ❚
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Views Your letters What exactly is this selfdetermination, then?
6 April, p 34 From Robert Cailliau, Prévessin-Moëns, France My lack of free will gives me no choice but to disagree with Tom Stafford. Cellular automata may look unpredictable to him, but surely they produce exactly the same pattern when started from the same initial conditions, unless a random number generator based on quantum physics is incorporated. What does he mean by selfdetermination, anyway? I can “freely choose” between two issues if no outside agents prevent it, and then my choice is based on a conscious or unconscious preference. If I choose totally at random, can it be called a choice? My illusion of free will comes from the absence of external intervention, but my choices are still determined by my past, which shaped what I want. Fortunately, nature is truly random at some level: it would all be totally deterministic and horribly boring without that. Also, Stafford leaves me no choice about his Choice Engine: this interactive essay is on Twitter, a commercial entity based outside of our legal space. I have no desire to make an account there. Can we expect to see the engine on a nostrings-attached platform? From Daniel Richardson, Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, UK Stafford is optimistic that we do have free will to make choices. I wonder whether he freely chose to believe that. His genes, prior life experience and career researching the brain all shaped his own brain structure to hold that belief: so the true act of free will would be 26 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
to somehow reject his own optimism for free will. This is rather a paradox. The editor writes: Our genes and experience lead us to agree that this paradox is important. But…
In the summertime, when the vitamin’s easy
depends on your skin colour, where you are and the time of year. The UK's National Health Service says that in the UK, you can bare your forearms, hands or lower legs in the middle of the day from late March to early September for short periods – but to be careful not to burn (see bit.ly/ NHS-sun).
Machine learning is not artificial intelligence
algorithms that happen to be based on neural networks. These algorithms don’t understand that they are supposed to diagnose cancer. They merely find effective ways to distinguish the two categories of images on which they are trained. To avoid creating unrealistically high expectations regarding the intelligence of such algorithms, it is important to refer to them as machine-learning algorithms rather than AIs. You should lead the way.
Traces of the Yamnaya in modern languages 16 March, p 28 From Carol Stevenson, London, UK Linda Geddes reports on the health perils of shunning the sun. This was interesting, but I have a question. How much skin should I expose when I go out to get my daily dose of sunshine? Hands and face are easy, lower arms and legs possible – but is that enough? The editor writes: How much sunshine you need to get your daily dose of vitamin D
30 March, p 17 From Ben Haller, Ithaca, New York, US Three systems misclassified medical images after the pictures were slightly altered. This is symptomatic of a deep misunderstanding: algorithms like these are not “artificial intelligence”. No intelligence is involved. They are merely statistical machine-learning
30 March, p 29 From Susan Valdar, Westerham, Kent, UK Colin Barras discusses the fascinating genetic and archaeological evidence for the spread of the Yamnaya people
Views From the archives from the Steppes through Europe, the Near East and India. He curiously omits the linguistic evidence from the reconstruction of proto-Indo-European from modern languages. This suggests the same spread of people over the same time period. It also makes a strong case in support of more cooperation between the sciences and the humanities. From Per Ahlberg, Uppsala, Sweden Although the Yamnaya left no written records, circumstantial evidence overwhelmingly points to them being the speakers of the ancestral Indo-European language, which diversified into a language family that includes the overwhelming majority of European languages, as well as the Iranian family, Urdu and Hindi. The vocabulary of proto-IndoEuropean can be reconstructed by comparing words in descendant languages, and includes some highly suggestive vocabulary, oft-given examples being “horse” (ekwos), “yoke” (yugom) and “wheel” (kwekwlo). They hint at a mobile people with horse-drawn wagons. So the roots of the descendant languages contain the last faint echoes of how the Yamnaya saw themselves.
To thrive, firms must recruit new graduates
13 April, p 46 From Greta Blake, High Coniscliffe, County Durham, UK Your article in association with SRG reports a shortage of science
and engineering skills. As the parent of a daughter who graduated with an upper second honours degree in medical engineering last year, I lament the shortage of employers willing to consider recruiting new graduates. Virtually all firms in the UK ask for applicants with very specific experience. Perhaps it is time that industry realised that graduates don't come tailor-made for their particular requirements. Rather, they have aptitudes and abilities that enable them to work in a variety of situations – if given appropriate training. You only have to look online to see that my daughter is not alone in this. My message to industry is: if you want a conscientious, hard working engineer who is willing to move to any part of the country, then there is one here.
How those indicative votes actually worked
6 April, p 24 From Richard Mellish, London, UK Petros Sekeris writes that a majority of MPs prefer some deal between the UK and the EU to no deal, and are thus likely to opt for one of the new options, rather than May’s proposal – implying that they each had to choose one preferred option from the eight that were on offer. Each MP could vote for any and all options that they regarded as tolerable. For example, Gareth Thomas, MP for Harrow West, voted in favour of five of them in the first round of “indicative votes” on 27 March. ❚
50 years ago, New Scientist was in a spin with the problem of bringing spacecraft back to Earth IT’S all very well getting people into space – but how do you get them back again? That question was engrossing New Scientist on 1 May 1969, less than three months before the first crewed moon landing. “The now familiar last scenes of a US manned space flight, with its full cast of warships, helicopters, frogmen, etc, has proved both safe and spectacular,” we wrote, “but more convenient and controllable return routes for astronauts are under study.” In particular, design studies had been prepared by NASA and the engineering company North American Rockwell for “two reusable spacecraft which could sprout rotors at the crucial moment during re-entry”. After initial slowing by atmospheric friction, helicopter blades would fold out of the spacecraft’s body, enabling the pilot to “bring it down like a sycamore seed”. The spies were also interested. “The craft would be able to pursue an erratic orbit above the atmosphere, frustrating the counter-intelligence of other nations, and secure in the knowledge that any number of eventual landing sites could be chosen,” the article went on to say. But the concept doesn’t seem to have passed practical muster. When reusable spacecraft became a reality with the inception of NASA’s shuttle programme in 1981, they were brought down like hypersonic gliders, with long, banking S-turns used to lose speed, and a high angle of attack generating extra drag. Part of the problem was perhaps that the space helicopter concept involved lots of moving parts that could go wrong. To make it more manoeuvrable on re-entry, we suggested that “the rotors could be fitted with small, throttleable rockets on their tips”. That idea continued to have its adherents. On 8 May 1999, we reported that entrepreneur Richard Branson was looking to invest in a rocket-assisted space helicopter called Roton. A full-scale test vehicle made three flights, but the company ran out of money in 2001. As recently as October 2012, NASA researchers were seen dropping scale-models from the top of Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building, to see if free-spinning rotors might provide a means for recovering spent rocket stages, as well as spacecraft. There is nothing new under the sun. Simon Ings
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28 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
Like wildlife photography? Visit the Incredible Creatures Feature at New Scientist Live newscientistlive.com/incredible-creatures-feature
Eagle eyed Photographer Mike Crutch Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation
GOTCHA! A white-tailed eagle has just plucked a fish from a loch in Scotland. This rare sight may become more common with a plan to reintroduce the birds, sometimes known as sea eagles, to the UK’s south coast. With a wingspan of almost 2.5 metres, the coast-loving birds would become England’s largest raptors. They were widespread in the south of England until humans wiped them out in the 1780s. This summer, the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation and Forestry England will embark on a five-year project to release up to 60 young eagles in woodlands on the Isle of Wight. The birds’ huge range means they will probably be spotted from the island and the mainland, mostly preying on fish in spring and summer, and waterbirds in autumn and winter. Some farmers worry that the eagles could kill lambs, as happens in Scotland, where they were reintroduced in the 1970s after the last white-tailed eagle was shot in 1918. But Tim Mackrill, who works with the wildlife foundation, argues this is unlikely in lowlands, where there is plenty of other prey, and sheep are kept closer to farms. He says no sheep deaths have been reported in a similar Irish scheme. “This iconic species used to occur from Kent to Cornwall, but it was eradicated because of man,” says Mackrill. “We have a moral obligation to restore it.” ❚ Clare Wilson
4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 29
Nothing in my right hand… We need to think our brains don’t lie to us – but magic relies on the fact that they do, finds Simon Ings
Exhibition Smoke and Mirrors: The psychology of magic Wellcome Collection, London, to 15 September
Book Experiencing the Impossible: The science of magic
ACCORDING to John Nevil Maskelyne, “a bad conjurer will make a good medium any day”. He meant that, as a stage magician in 19th-century London, he had to produce successful effects night after night, while rivals who claimed their illusions were powered by the spirit world could simply blame a bad set on “unhelpful spirits”, or even on the audience’s own scepticism. A gaffe-ridden performance in the UK by one set of spiritualists, the US Davenport Brothers, drove Maskelyne to invent his own act. With his friend, the cabinet maker George Alfred Cooke, he created an “anti-spiritualist” entertainment, at once replicating and debunking the spiritualist movement’s stockin-trade effects. Matthew Tompkins teases out the historical implications of Maskelyne’s story in The Spectacle of Illusion: Magic, the paranormal and the complicity of the mind (Thames & Hudson). It is a lavishly illustrated history to accompany Smoke and Mirrors, a new and intriguing exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London. Both book and exhibition bring the story up to date, for the curious truth is, spiritualism stubbornly refused to die. Historical accident was partly responsible. In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi sent long-wave radio 30 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
THOMAS FARNETTI, WELLCOME COLLECTION
Gustav Kuhn MIT Press
signals over a distance of a couple of kilometres, and, for decades after, hardly a year passed in which some researcher didn’t announce a new type of invisible ray. The world turned out to have aspects hidden from unaided human perception. Was it so unreasonable of people to speculate about what, or who, might lurk in those hidden corners of reality? Were they so gullible, reeling as they were from the mass killings of the first world war, to populate these invisible realms with their dead? In 1924, the magazine Scientific American offered $2500 to any medium who could demonstrate their powers under scientific controls. The medium Mina
The lure of illusions is at the heart of a new show in London
“Margery” Crandon decided to try her hand, but she reckoned without the efforts of one Harry “Handcuff” Houdini, who eventually exposed her as a fraud. Yet spiritualism persisted, shading off into parapsychology, quantum speculation and any number of cults. Understanding why is more the purview of a psychologist such as Gustav Kuhn, who, as well as being a major contributor to the show, offers insight into magic and magical belief in his own new book, Experiencing the Impossible. Kuhn, a member of the Magic
Circle, finds Maskelyne’s “antispiritualist” form of stage magic alive in the hands of illusionist Derren Brown. He suggests that Brown is more of a traditional magician than he lets on, dismissing the occult while he endorses mysterious psychological phenomena, mostly to do with “subconscious priming”, that, at root, are non-scientific. Kuhn defines magic as “the experience of wonder that results from perceiving an apparently impossible event”. Definitions of what is impossible differ, and different illusions work for different people. You can even design it for animals, as a torrent of YouTube videos, based largely on Finnish magician Jose Ahonen’s “Magic for Dogs”, attest. Tricking dogs is one thing, but why do our minds fall for magic? It was the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, who argued that there is no metaphysical glue binding events, and that we only ever infer causal relationships, be they real or illusory. Twinned with our susceptibility to wrongly infer relationships between events in the world is our ability to fool ourselves at an even deeper level. Numerous studies, including one by researcher and former magician Jay Olson and clinician Amir Raz which sits at the exit to the Wellcome show, conclude that our feeling of free will may be an essential trick of the mind. Inferring connections makes us confident in ourselves and our abilities, and it is this confidence, this necessary delusion about the brilliance of our cognitive abilities, that lets us function… and be tricked. Even after reading both books, I defy you to see through the illusions and wonders in store at the exhibition. ❚
Don’t miss Visit
Finding their way From ants to birds, how do animals use their senses to guide them to food and breeding grounds, wonders Michael Bond
David Barrie Hodder & Stoughton
THERE seems to be no limit to the resourcefulness with which insects, birds, fish and mammals navigate their way through the world. Consider the desert ant. After meandering hundreds of metres from its nest, the ant manages to scuttle home in a straight line across unfamiliar ground. Honeybees use an internal clock and sensitivity to polarised light to remember the location of food, communicating it to their hive through their famous waggle dance. And there is the Arctic tern, taking a round trip from the north Atlantic to Antarctica of more than 70,000 kilometres. David Barrie’s Incredible Journeys is brimful of such wayfinding wonders. But it is as valuable for what it reveals about our ignorance.
The waggle dance is how honeybees share key information
made his breakthrough discovery – that they orientate using an inbuilt “sun compass”– by painting over parts of their tiny compound eyes and watching their response. Matthias Wittlinger, intent on finding out how ants calculate distance, had the idea of attaching miniature stilts to some subjects and shortening the legs of others to see if this affected the length of their journeys. He found that his stilted ants overshot the nest while the amputees pulled up short, thus confirming his idea that they were counting their steps. All this is enough to make anyone with the vaguest interest in science want to grab a magnifying glass and head for the desert. Thanks to the likes of Wehner, Wittlinger and Karl von Frisch (who deciphered the honeybee waggle dance), we now know a lot more about how animals get around and their acute sensitivity to their surroundings. Barrie’s passion makes him an engaging guide, flitting from fact to anecdote like a butterfly hunting for nectar. He is no less animated about the skills of early humans, who explored most of our planet and colonised much of it “without the help of any tools, apart from their finely tuned senses and native wits”. In the age of GPS, it is easy to forget that modern humans possess the same senses and wits, though we use them less and less. How our brains form the cognitive maps that allow us to remember routes and places is as mysterious – and in many ways as remarkable – as the migration of the Arctic tern or the dead reckoning of the desert ant. Let’s hope that by the time spatial neuroscience has revealed more about our wayfinding faculties, we still know how to use them. ❚ Michael Bond is a science writer based in London
AI: More than human is spread across several levels of London’s Barbican Centre from 16 May, bringing artists and scientists together to ask big questions about our machines, our minds and our selves. Watch
Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb A 4K restoration of Stanley Kubrick’s comic cold war masterpiece comes to selected UK cinemas from 12 May. Read
The Moon: A history for the future is Oliver Morton’s sly and unsentimental assessment of our lunar adventuring to date, and the moon’s possible future. It comes out this week from Profile Books.
4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 31
TOP: AI: MORE THAN HUMAN POEMPORTRAITS BY ES DEVLIN, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST / DR STRANGLOVE :TCD/PROD.DB / ALAMY / A. T. WILLETT / ALAMY
Book Incredible Journeys: Exploring the wonders of animal navigation
No one knows how those terns stay the course across vast expanses of open ocean, nor how juvenile European cuckoos find their way to their wintering grounds in Africa for the first time without a guiding parent. Pigeons are known to have a keen sense of smell, but, despite decades of research, we can’t agree if they use it to navigate. The consensus is that many animals can sense Earth’s magnetic field, but how they use it remains unclear. “There are three radically different theories, any or all of which may prove to be correct,” writes Barrie, adding that “some entirely different mechanism... may be at work”. Many biologists have spent their lives wrestling with these mysteries, and their obsessive ponderings and ingenious experiments are as fascinating as the behaviours they study. Take Rüdiger Wehner, one of the greatest authorities on the navigational abilities of ants. He
Views Culture The games column
Time-travelling tourists One of the accidental extras of well-researched games like Assassin’s Creed is the sense of historical time and place they create. Some even let us play at translating ancient hieroglyphics, says Jacob Aron
Jacob is New Scientist’s deputy news editor. He has been playing video games for 25 years, but still isn’t very good at them. Follow him @jjaron
Games Assassin’s Creed Odyssey Ubisoft Released on 5 October 2018, for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch
Heaven’s Vault Inkle Released on 16 April 2019, for PC and PlayStation 4
32 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
The Athena Promachos sculpture, as seen in Assassin’s Creed
I WAS approaching the Parthenon in Athens when an awesome sight stopped me in my tracks. Standing before me was a gigantic statue of the goddess Athena, glittering in splendour as it towered three storeys overhead. “Hang on a minute,” I thought. “Is that really meant to be there?” Yes, it turns out, but only because I was standing in Athens circa 400 BC, as painstakingly recreated in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. The Athena Promachos sculpture, long since destroyed, was one of the wonders of its time, and is a perfect attraction for the time-travelling tourism offered by the Assassin’s Creed series. The draw of these popular games, of which there are now a lot, is their sense of time and place. I have explored Renaissance Italy, Victorian London and ancient Egypt, and in each game I find myself putting aside the story just to wander around, taking in the sights. This ability to explore at your leisure is something unique to video games as a medium. The film Gladiator may bring the
Colosseum of ancient Rome to life, but you only get to look where director Ridley Scott wants you to. By contrast, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood gives you the run of the entire city at the turn of the 16th century. Of course, you could simply read a book and let your imagination run wild, but actually
“I have explored Athens circa 400 BC, Renaissance Italy, Victorian London and ancient Egypt” navigating a space brings a whole new perspective. It sounds silly, but part of the appeal of Assassin’s Creed for me is realising that history has history, as shown by the crumbling Colosseum in Brotherhood, which by that time had been ancient for centuries. Not content with ambling around early Greece, I have also been trying my hand at fictional archaeology in Heaven’s Vault, by a small UK developer called Inkle. The 3D world of the game is far less
sophisticated than Assassin’s Creed, but when combined with the 2D-animated characters this gives the whole thing a charmingly lo-fi feel. You play as Aliya Elasra, a researcher at the University of Iox, as you attempt to decipher a lost language written in cryptic hieroglyphics. The game involves travelling around The Nebula – a collection of moons joined by “rivers” of oxygen, hydrogen and ice – gathering inscriptions and attempting to translate them. These translation efforts start out as pure guesswork: in an early example, you are presented with two words, the first of which could be “friend” or “holy”, while the second might mean “beloved” or “Emperor”. From there, you can make some reasonable inferences – perhaps that extra squiggle transforms “Emperor” into “Empress”? Or maybe that short glyph between two other words simply means “and”? As you build translations upon translations, your choices determine how the plot of the game unfolds. It is incredibly satisfying to see a word that you translated in one context crop up in another, reaffirming your choice. Equally, it is frustrating when you realise a word cannot possibly fit, potentially undoing a whole chain of translations – though thankfully the game lets you go back and change your mind at any point. While I have never spent any time attempting to crack a real-life ancient language, I imagine the experts encounter similar bouts of success and failure. Heaven’s Vault won’t get you an archaeology PhD but it is well worth your time. ❚
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Features Cover story
Finding our voice The origin of language is one of the biggest mysteries of human evolution, but it looks like we’ve finally cracked it, says David Robson
N THE beginning was the word, and the word was… what? At least since biblical times, we have puzzled over the origins of language. It is, after all, one of the few traits that distinguishes humans from all other animals. Even among the hundreds of other primate species, not one has a communication system that comes close to it in its flexibility and infinite range of expression. Without language, our greatest achievements – including almost everything you see around you – would have been impossible. Unfortunately, this chapter of our story is written in invisible ink. The archaeological record can only offer circumstantial evidence of language until writing began just a few thousand years ago. This has led some to argue that the search for language’s origins is pointless. In 1866, the Paris Linguistics Society even banned discussions of the subject – a prejudice that continued among scientists for nearly 100 years. Fortunately, modern evolutionary theorists are less easily deterred. In work that combines findings from archaeology, anthropology, cognitive science and linguistics, we are finally beginning to track down when and why we found our voice. The idea that is emerging could solve not just one, but two enduring mysteries about human evolution. Let us first consider the timing. Given the dearth of hard evidence, some researchers have claimed that language arrived rapidly 40,000 years ago, when there was a creative explosion of cave paintings and symbolic culture, demonstrating the abstract thinking that language requires. This explanation was never wholly convincing, however. Humans had already migrated and dispersed into separate groups by this point, so it would have
34 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
In search of the first words Language may not leave fossils but clues of an evolving talent for communication can be found in the artefacts and anatomy of our ancient ancestors
3.3 MILLION YEARS AGO Oldest known stone tools imply hunting and coordinated activity
2 MILLION YEARS AGO Homo erectus evolves. It lives on the savannah, hunts and butchers large game and develops cooking. However, it lacks anatomical adaptations for speech
1.6 MILLION YEARS AGO Tools become more complex, including skilfully crafted hand axes
1 MILLION YEARS AGO Ambush hunting indicates sophisticated cooperation and planning
required a simultaneous cognitive shift in all the populations across the globe. Sure enough, accumulating evidence about the evolution of key anatomical changes that made us capable of speech leaves little doubt that language must have far deeper roots. For a start, other great apes have large air sacs in the throat. These help them make booming calls to scare off rivals, but inhibit the production of the distinct vowel sounds crucial to human speech, according to acoustic simulations by Bart de Boer at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium. Our earliest ancestors had such sacs, but they aren’t found in Homo heidelbergensis – the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans – which evolved 700,000 years ago. Both Neanderthals and modern humans also show a large number of nerve pathways from the brain, through the spine, to the diaphragm and the muscles between the ribs. These provide the refined breath control necessary for precise vocalisations. In addition, both species have characteristic
“Speech of some kind had emerged by at least 400,000 years ago, and possibly far earlier”
changes to part of the inner ear, giving greater sensitivity to sound frequencies within the range of the human voice – an essential adaptation allowing subtle changes in utterances to convey different meanings. Then there is the FOXP2 gene, which influences the brain’s wiring and plasticity in areas controlling speech. It is widespread in mammals, but we carry a version that enables us to make the finely controlled movements of our face and mouth required for coherent speech. Neanderthals share a very similar version of the gene, which suggests they, too, were capable of complex articulation. Given these converging findings, de Boer and others are now convinced that speech of some kind had emerged by at least 400,000 years ago, when humans and Neanderthals diverged. It may even have started hundreds of thousands of years before that, they argue, when our ancestors first began displaying more sophisticated cooperative behaviours – possibly 2 million years ago or more when stone tools imply people were hunting.
Language and speech arise from a complex mix of physical, social and cultural influences that evolved in a piecemeal fashion, says Dan Dediu at the University of Lyon, France. “[So] we are bound to find degrees of language and speech going back to Homo erectus.” Stephen Levinson at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands agrees. “Homo erectus’s hunting and toolmaking abilities indicate some kind of advanced communication system,” he says.
Singing and signing Establishing exactly what pushed us along that evolutionary path has been much harder. Most ideas fall into one of three camps. Charles Darwin provided the first – and most provocative. In The Descent of Man, he argued that human ancestors passed through a kind of musical protolanguage. Like bird song, these calls had no specific meaning, but were used by males to attract mates. In this way, our vocal flexibility first emerged
through sexual selection, with competing males developing more complex songs to beat their rivals. Only later, as human intelligence grew, did those sounds slowly become associated with certain meanings. Darwin pointed out that another group of primates – gibbons – sing to attract mates. And modern science offers some hints of an intimate connection between language and music in humans. Brain scans, for instance, reveal that they are processed by overlapping neural networks. But evidence that language and music emerged through sexual selection is weak, since you would expect to see large sex differences in these abilities as a result. There are other possibilities, however. Perhaps the driving force wasn’t male display, but an equal duet between mates, or even singing by parents to calm their babies. Nevertheless, many researchers don’t buy these arguments. Instead, some propose a gestural protolanguage in which the first language-like communication arose through hand movements. The idea is attractive for many reasons. It might explain why all humans, including those who are blind, move their hands as they talk, often without realising they are doing so. Similarly, the spontaneous emergence of sign languages among groups of hearing and speechimpaired people indicates an instinct to use our hands when our voices fail us. Levinson is a fan of this theory, noting that Homo erectus, despite lacking the anatomical changes seen in later species, could have used gestures to coordinate hunting activities. Nonhuman primates can be surprisingly dextrous with their hands and some, in captivity, have even been taught to communicate using complex signs, but tend to find it harder to > 4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 35
700,000 YEARS AGO Homo heidelbergensis evolves. It shows the first sign of being anatomically adapted for speech
400,000 YEARS AGO Neanderthals evolve. They develop a sophisticated home life and hunting practices. Adaptations for speech can be found in their genes, brains and anatomy
300,000 YEARS AGO Homo sapiens evolves. It is the first species fully adapted for language. Increasingly complex technology, culture and social organisation imply developments in communication
120,000 YEARS AGO
A second objection is that onomatopoeia is too limited to form the basis of a protolanguage. How would our ancestors have signalled silent concepts, such as a particular plant or tool, or something more abstract, like directions to a river? What sound would they use to represent a quiet animal like a rabbit? Hand signs, by contrast, could outline the shape of something or its means of movement – another argument for the idea that gesture came before speech. But recent research suggests mimicry is more versatile than we might assume. Gary Lupyan at the University of WisconsinMadison and Marcus Perlman at the University of Birmingham, UK, set up a competition in which participants had to convey a range of concepts – such as “cook”, “gather”, “knife” or “fruit” – using made-up vocalisations. The scientists then played the recordings to a new set of participants, who had to guess the meanings. Contrary to expectation, they performed far better than chance, suggesting that some inventive onomatopoeia (such as the “whooshing” of a blade) can communicate a much wider
Early signs of pigment use suggest emergence of symbolic culture
36 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
40,000 YEARS AGO The “cultural revolution” includes an explosion of cave art, clothes making and ritualistic burial, demonstrating abstract thinking required for language
10,000 YEARS AGO Agriculture begins
5000 YEARS AGO Oldest known writing
ADRIANA VARELA PHOTOGRAPHY/GETTY
learn to reproduce specific sounds. Gestures may therefore have been a much easier means of communicating ideas at the beginning of language evolution. That would have prepared our brains for some of the challenges of language, such as the capacity to connect symbols with meaning, without making huge demands on our primitive voice boxes. As compelling as these arguments are, the gestural protolanguage can’t neatly explain why we made the switch to primarily vocalised language. That question brings us to the third idea. The notion that language first emerged through onomatopoeia – or imitating the sounds of things – is perhaps the most intuitive of the three possibilities. After all, even children will mimic a neigh or a howl, say, to signify a horse or a wolf. Yet historically, this option had been the underdog, thanks to a couple of seemingly insurmountable issues. First, it requires a talent for vocal mimicry. Yet our early ancestors lacked the anatomical and neural adaptations needed for controlled vocalisations. However, it is now emerging that non-human primates have more breath control and vocal flexibility than was thought. Some orangutans can learn to whistle, for instance, and reproduce sounds of a certain pitch. This suggests that our early ancestors may have been capable of crude imitation without too many anatomical changes.
range of concepts than once imagined. With so many pros and cons for each hypothesis of protolanguage, we may seem no closer to finding an answer than the Paris Linguistics Society was in 1866. But what if all three ideas contain elements of truth? After all, several of the 7000 or so languages spoken today – including some of Australia’s Aboriginal languages and Paamese in Vanuatu – use elements of song, hand signs, imitated sounds and words interchangeably. “I would guess that languages must have always been multimodal to some degree,” says Dediu. So perhaps, instead of offering competing explanations, these three ideas might work together to provide a unified theory of the origin of language. That is exactly what anthropologist Jerome Lewis of University College London is now proposing. Like Darwin, Lewis believes singing was the first step to freeing up our vocal cords. In place of sexual selection, however, he suggests it emerged for protection. This idea is inspired by his work with Bayaka societies in central Africa, where people take turns to sing all night to ward off predators. Their intertwining voices, singing at different pitches, make the group sound larger, and potentially more dangerous, to animals in the surrounding
Our urge to mimic the sounds made by other animals seems to have been one of three cornerstones of language evolution
ideas to successive groups. As these get passed from person to person, they become more systematic, a process that appears to make them more efficient and easier for new speakers to learn. Likewise, in communities where people who are hearing and speechimpaired haven’t been taught a recognised sign language, their DIY signing initially lacks formal grammatical structures. However, over just a couple of generations, more standardised rules emerge.
forest. Similar behaviour has been found among the San people in southern Africa and Indian forest societies, he says. Lewis suggests that singing became used for defence after our ancestors descended from the trees. “Trees offer a very secure environment for avoiding large predators,” he says. When we started to walk upright and came into savannah-like landscapes, we would have been vulnerable to a frightening array of large cat predators, says Lewis. The first songs would have sounded completely different from the refined music that we sing today, but chanting in a chorus would still scare away animals and help protect vulnerable groups. “And this business of vocalising and changing tones to disguise numbers would have led to the sort of vocal dexterity that is crucial to the evolution of more sophisticated vocal boxes and speech articulators,” he says. This, in turn, would have enabled a growing talent for mimicry, which might have aided hunting. Modern hunter-gatherers often imitate the sounds of forest animals to draw their prey towards them, says Lewis. They also use vocalisations such as bird noises to locate different group members in the forest as they coordinate movements. Employing mimicry
in hunting would have given our ancestors an immediate evolutionary advantage. It would also have established the idea that a voiced sound can represent something meaningful. People could then have used those same sounds during storytelling and mimed performances, perhaps to teach novices how to hunt. “Re-enactments play a crucial role in transmitting the sort of knowledge you require for collective hunting,” says Lewis.
“This unified theory of language solves two of the biggest mysteries of human evolution” This, in his view, was the tipping point. Once pantomimed communication arose, the sounds and gestures could quickly become more structured and stylised, eventually establishing an agreed lexicon between speakers that resembled modern language. There is substantial evidence to back up this last development. Various lab experiments have asked participants to use gestures and improvised vocalisations to communicate
Lewis’s general idea has been well received by other researchers. “I think the musical protolanguage, in tandem with iconic gestures and iconic vocalisations, is a compelling theory,” says Perlman. Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford also embraces the idea that music helped language evolve. “The breath control required for singing is crucial for language production,” he says. “Language postdates wordless singing, and probably by quite a long way.” He also backs Lewis’s proposal that those first songs helped our ancestors avoid predators – but with a twist. Singing together, he points out, stimulates the production of endorphins, hormones that promote social cohesion. So it would have allowed our ancestors to live in larger and larger groups, giving them strength in numbers. “Singing evolved to bond groups because bonded groups keep predators at bay,” says Dunbar. Lewis, for his part, agrees that group bonding was an important function of those early musical vocalisations. In his view, this also helped create the shared trust that is essential for language to take off. “Suddenly you get a feeling of ‘us’,” he says. Words, after all, would be useless unless most people are using them honestly and cooperatively for the shared interests of the group. If correct, this unified theory solves two of the biggest mysteries of human evolution: the origins of language and singing. It would also be another testament to Darwin’s genius. Although he argued that speech originated via a musical protolanguage, he also described how gesture and onomatopoeia could have helped attach meaning to our early utterances. Words may not fossilise, but hundreds of thousands of years after language emerged, we may finally be ready to write their story. ❚ David Robson is a science writer based in London. His book, The Intelligence Trap, is out now 4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 37
SCENICS & SCIENCE/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
Blood amber A trove of exquisitely preserved fossils is changing what we know about the age of the dinosaurs. But getting hold of them may mean fuelling a bloody war. Graham Lawton investigates
38 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
OU have to remind yourself that you are looking at an animal that lived alongside dinosaurs. In my hand is a piece of amber. I hold it up to the window to get a better view of the tiny corpse inside: a spider, legs splayed out behind its body. It looks like it died yesterday. But it has been mummified for almost 100 million years. Under the watchful eye of curator Claire Mellish, I pick up another piece of reddish, translucent amber. It is stuffed full of insects. She tells me it is one of seven slices of the most fossil-rich piece of amber ever found: a fistsized nodule containing 454 different species. I am at the Natural History Museum in London for a behind the scenes look at some Burmese amber. Until recently, this cache –117 pieces, collected when Burma, now known as Myanmar, was part of the British Empire – was the only research collection in the world. But in the past decade or so, scientific interest has exploded. Burmese amber is one of the world’s hottest palaeontological treasures, crammed with fossils from a crucial – and
hitherto quite opaque – time window. It has yielded invertebrates, plants, flowers, mushrooms, birds, snakes, frogs and even dinosaurs. “It’s an entire tropical ecosystem,” says Ed Jarzembowski, an amber expert at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology in China, who happened to be visiting the museum that day. But he also tells me it is now a war zone. I came here to marvel at a palaeontological cornucopia. I left with a darker story of ethnic hatred, smuggling, environmental destruction, diabolical working conditions and bloodshed. Burmese amber, or burmite, has been a prized gemstone for centuries. The entire world supply comes from Kachin, the northernmost state of Myanmar. The richest deposits of all are found in a remote jungle valley called Hukawng, which is Burmese for “the place of the devil”. The name is apt. For most of the 70 years since Myanmar’s independence from the UK, Hukawng has been a no go area. The ethnic
minority Kachin people have been struggling for independence since 1962. Right now, the situation is very intense. “You don’t go into Kachin. There’s a war on, and it’s getting hotter,” says Jarzembowski. Amber starts out as resin, which oozes out of conifers and other tree species in response to injury or attack. Small animals often get trapped in the goo, along with feathers, leaves and fungi. Very occasionally, resin fossilises and becomes amber. When heated and compressed after being buried under sediment, the viscous and volatile gum polymerises and hardens into a substance resembling Perspex. Whatever was trapped fossilises too. “It shows you an ancient world in photographic detail,” says Mellish. “They don’t look any different to how they would have been in life.” Fossils in amber, known as inclusions, are a window on long-lost ecosystems. Baltic amber, for example, dates back around 44 million years to a time when Europe was a subtropical archipelago. Found primarily around the Baltic Sea, this amber contains the most diverse fossil assemblage in the world, with more than 3000 species. These build a vivid picture of a steamy oak and pine forest with lakes and rivers, abuzz with flying insects and crawling with geckos, spiders, mantises, termites, scorpions and stick insects. Baltic amber is durable and transparent, and so ideal for scientific study. Other ambers are less so. On my visit to the museum, I saw samples from Mexico, the US, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere. Most looked like boring, brown pebbles. Burmese amber, however, is glassy and translucent, making it another invaluable window on the past – albeit one that took a long time to open. The amber first came to scientific attention in 1892 when Fritz Noetling, a German employee of the Geological Survey of India, was on the lookout for exploitable resources in British Burma. He noted that the amber was stuffed full of insects and other inclusions, and reckoned that it was about 40 million years old, roughly the same age as Baltic amber. In comparison to Baltic amber, which can be easily mined in large quantities and frequently washes up on beaches, Burmese amber was in the middle of a hostile jungle. If Noetling had ambitions to exploit the deposit, they quickly waned. A few years later, a local amateur naturalist called R. C. J. Swinhoe started sending samples to entomologist Theodore Cockerell at the University of Colorado. Cockerell identified 38 new species of insect, three arachnids and
“I came to marvel at exquisite amber. I left with a tale of destruction, hatred and bloodshed”
(Above) A buyer checks a piece of amber at a market in Kachin State, Myanmar
(Left) Translucent amber like this originates in Hukawng valley in Myanmar
a millipede, and reported that there were many more he couldn’t identify. “The fauna is very remarkable,” he wrote in a 1922 letter to the journal Nature. Based on the fossils, he suggested that the amber was older than originally thought, possibly 100 million years old. If so, that would make it very interesting. In the early 20th century, the fossil record of insects from the late Cretaceous – between 100 to 66 million years ago – was all but nonexistent. It was a frustrating gap given flowering plants were new on the scene and an evolutionary explosion was in full bloom. In 1921, Swinhoe donated his collection to the British Museum. It was the only such collection in the world. But for some reason it got filed away and forgotten. And then came Jurassic Park. The plot of the 1993 movie hinges on extracting dinosaur DNA from a 100-million-year-old mosquito preserved in amber. “On the back of that, the museum decided that we needed a palaeoentomologist to look at the collection,” says Mellish. > 4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 39
The go-to guy was Alexandr Rasnitsyn of the Palaeontological Institute in Moscow. He visited London and quickly added to the roll call of species, identifying spiders, a scorpion, a snail and some reptile skin. Around the same time, the Kachin Independence Organisation and its military wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), signed a peace treaty with the Myanmar government. Soon afterwards, the owner of a small Canadian mining company called Leeward Capital went to Kachin in search of riches, and ended up in the Hukawng valley. Amber was Leeward’s plan C, after plan A (gold) and plan B (platinum) failed to pan out. Plan C also went badly at first. The world market was flooded with Baltic amber, so the company sent samples to David Grimaldi at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He was reportedly “amazed” and bought 3600 kilograms of raw amber. Chinese scientists soon got in on the act. The Burmese amber rush was on. Over the next few years, interest ballooned. 40 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
Stuck in time “At this moment, it’s the best glimpse we get of the middle of the Cretaceous,” says Ryan McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina, Canada, who co-wrote the papers announcing the dinosaur and snake finds, among others. “There’s a gap in the fossils in sedimentary rock, and Burmese amber helps fill that gap. It helps us understand things like how flowering plants rose to dominance and how insects diversified alongside them.” But this understanding comes at a heavy price. Spend any time delving into the Burmese amber literature and you soon hit a frustrating information fog. The papers are often hazy, if not totally silent, about exactly where the
“The research is hazy, if not totally silent, about exactly where the amber finds come from”
According to Andrew Ross of National Museums Scotland, the number of species described from Burmese amber has been growing exponentially. In 2000, there were 60. In 2018 alone, another 320 were added. At the last count, there were 1192 in total. The deposit has also been dated using modern isotopic techniques, which place it at 98.8 million years old, plus or minus half a million years. Most of the fossils are insects and other small bugs, but there are larger organisms too. Among the invertebrates are crabs, scorpions, cockroaches, armoured spiders, dragonflies, millipedes, a snail, a hairy cicada, a grasshopper and a mite wrapped in spider silk. One piece contains a spider attacking a wasp, a rare example of fossilised behaviour. There are plants, including flowers in the act of releasing pollen. All are preserved exquisitely. There are also marine animals, including an ammonite and a shrimp, suggesting that the forest where the amber formed was by the sea. Most thrilling of all are the vertebrates. Scraps of reptile skin and isolated feathers were already known from the Natural History Museum collection. But in the past two years, a breathtaking menagerie of animals has been discovered. In 2016, a team led by Grimaldi unveiled a collection of 12 lizards. A few weeks later, a rival group described two tiny wings from hatchling birds, which presumably tumbled out of their nests and got stuck in resin. Next came part of the tail of a small, feathered dinosaur, complete with skin, bones and plumage. The past year has seen a rush of vertebrate fossils: the hand of a gecko, two entire juvenile birds, four frogs and a snake. The fossils appear to have formed in a tropical forest on the coast dominated by redwood trees, which produce prolific amounts of resin.
finds come from. The reason for this has a lot to do with the uncertain and often controversial providence of the specimens. Today, Burmese amber has a long and treacherous journey before ending up as gemstones or museum pieces. After being mined by hand in the Hukawng valley, it is laboriously transported out of the disputed territory to a bustling market on the outskirts of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin (see map, page 43). Most of the amber is bought by dealers from the neighbouring Chinese province, Yunnan. From there it is smuggled over the border to a bazaar in the city of Tengchong, which is a magnet for dealers from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Tengchong used to specialise in jade, but is increasingly dominated by amber. In 2017, the Chinese government named Tengchong the “city of amber”. “What I learned in my research is that virtually all of the amber is imported into China without going through customs on either side,” says Alessandro Rippa of the
Makeshift tents surround the amber mines, which are fiercely fought over
Center for Asian Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who visited Tengchong and Myitkyina to do research on the amber trade. Scientists who have visited Tengchong are united in their awe. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Jarzembowski. “There’s stall after stall after stall of amber, and you know everything you’re looking at is an undescribed species.” “It’s spectacular,” agrees McKellar, who visited last year. “I had no idea of the scope until seeing it in person. There are four or five streets of amber vendors, dozens and dozens of people selling it by the kilogram. It’s mindblowing.” Many of the pieces are huge, the size of a human head, he says, suggesting that even more spectacular discoveries may be coming. “We don’t face the same size limitations that we do with other amber deposits. There’s the potential to get whole animals.” Most of the amber is destined for gemstone markets, but some ends up in researchers’ hands. Scientists don’t routinely scour the markets themselves, but know people who do.
At any point along the pipeline from mine to market, savvy dealers will pull interestinglooking specimens to one side and offer them to potential buyers in the scientific world. The linchpin of this operation is a palaeontologist called Lida Xing at the China University of Geosciences in Beijing. In recent years, he has built up a network of amber dealers in Kachin and Yunnan who tip him off when something interesting crops up. “They will send photos, videos. The photos from all angles, with details. If I feel that there is scientific value, I would recommend museums to buy,” Xing told New Scientist by email. One of the best customers is the Dexu Institute of Palaeontology, a not-for-profit museum in Chaozhou, China. Since it was established in 2013, it has bought more than 150 important Burmese amber fossils, including the dinosaur tail, which it loans to scientists like McKellar. Dexu’s website says, tantalisingly, that “we also have other equally important but not yet published amber specimens”. The Chinese Academy of Sciences
Working conditions are so dangerous as to be “inhuman” according to one palaeontologist
has also poured money into buying up Burmese amber, says Jarzembowski. His institute has 30,000 pieces. McKellar, who is a visiting fellow at Dexu, says that it and similar institutes are doing a great service by ensuring that scientifically important specimens end up with researchers rather than “vanishing” into private collections. But he accepts that they often don’t know exactly where their fossils come from. “If you buy material, you’ve lost control over stratigraphy, or where the specimens are from in the geological record,” he says. Very occasionally, however, scientists do know exactly. But finding out takes a lot of effort and bravery. In the summer of 2015, Xing met a contact in the market in Myitkyina. This man showed Xing a piece of polished amber about the size and shape of a dried apricot, containing what appeared to be a plant stem. Xing examined it with his hand lens and realised it was something much more interesting: a section of vertebrate tail, compete with feathers. > 4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 41
He bought the piece on behalf of Dexu, although won’t say how much for, and later showed it to McKellar. It turned out to be from a feathered dinosaur, probably a juvenile theropod (the same group to which T. rex belongs). “I was blown away. This is the sort of thing that we always hope to find,” McKellar told a Canadian radio station in 2016. Xing had previously tried and failed to get to the amber mines. Now he was even more determined. A few days later, he pulled off the seemingly impossible: smuggling himself from Myitkyina into the Hukawng valley. The trip was arduous and risky. The 1994 ceasefire between the KIA and the Myanmar military – officially called the Tatmadaw – had collapsed in 2011, and hostilities had resumed. The mines were now under the control of the KIA, for whom gemstones are an important source of revenue. A transboundary road opened a few years ago, making it easy to get from China to Myitkyina. But crossing into KIA-held territory is a different story. Travelling on forged identity papers and in 42 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
(Above) Local markets have stalls upon stalls of amber; many contain exquisite fossils (right)
disguise – he wore local clothing and smeared his face with a yellow pigment used by the Kachins as a sunblock and insect repellent – Xing and his contact drove for 7 hours on nearimpassable roads, through numerous army checkpoints. When they ran out of road, they crossed a river on a wooden boat and then covered the final few kilometres by elephant. According to Xing’s account, the “mine” turned out to be a shanty town of around 3000 tents, each covering a narrow mineshaft up to 10 metres deep. The miners were living in bamboo huts among the shafts. Xing described conditions in the mines as “very dangerous, inhuman”. The miners work with no safety equipment and often die of suffocation or in collapses. After 3 hours collecting amber and rock samples, he and his guide left and made the gruelling return journey. While he was there, Xing said he met the dealers who had sold the dinosaur tail to his contact and was taken to the mineshaft it came from. He says he was thus able to
confirm the precise origin of a Burmese amber fossil. Xing also says he is satisfied that he obtained the specimen legally and that he exported it to China with a permit issued by the appropriate authority, the Myanmar Gems Enterprise. All of Dexu’s Burmese amber specimens are obtained legally, he says. New Scientist has tried to confirm this directly with Dexu, but hasn’t had a response. Buying Burmese amber inevitably raises ethical issues. Since hostilities resumed in 2011, the amber mines of the Hukawng valley have been at the centre of an increasingly bloody resource war. The Kachin Independence Organisation heavily relies on natural resources, mostly jade and gold but also amber, for its revenues. It also taxes those using the smuggling routes into China. As the territory’s de facto government, it uses the funds for schools, hospitals and infrastructure, says Hanna Hindstrom, a senior campaigner and Myanmar resources expert at NGO Global Witness. The independence organisation doesn’t publish any figures about its revenues and spending, she says, but it undoubtedly also uses the money to buy weapons. The Tatmadaw also craves control of the mines and smuggling routes, both to squeeze the Kachin Independence Organisation and to keep the spoils for itself. According to Global Witness and other NGOs, its generals have a long and ruthless history of making personal fortunes from jade and other natural resources. That is one reason why an equitable peace is so hard to broker. Soon after the ceasefire was broken, the Tatmadaw was at it again. “The jade mining areas were attacked and controlled by the Burmese army from 2013 to 2015,” says Steven Tsa Ji, head of a coalition of civil society organisations called the Kachin Development Networking Group. The KIA made up for the loss by expanding its amber operation, he says, but the Myanmar army came for those too. Last year, the UN Human Rights Council sent an independent fact-finding mission to Kachin to document the conflict. Its report makes for gruesome reading. In June 2017, the Myanmar air force dropped leaflets onto the amber mines warning local people to leave the area within 10 days. It then launched a military offensive. For the next five months, the Tatmadaw subjected the villagers to an indiscriminate campaign of murder, torture, rape and arson. The offensive stopped during the rainy season, but resumed in January 2018 with an aerial bombardment supported by
Perilous journey Burmese amber fossils are mined in dangerous conditions before being smuggled out of conflict territory along arduous mountain routes China Kachin state
Ledo road (connecting India and China) Rough dirt road with military checkpoints Footpath
To India Hukawng valley
heavy artillery and ground troops. The UN report says the Tatmadaw’s overall objective was to “destroy the KIA’s economy by appropriating amber and [other] mining resources under their control”. According to Tsa Ji, this mission succeeded. The UN’s conclusions are damning: the military operations were illegal under international law and Myanmar’s commanderin-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and his top military leaders should be investigated and prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The amber mines are also a cesspit of human rights and environmental abuses. “Poor working conditions are pretty much a trademark in all the mines in Kachin state and environmental regulations, where they exist, are largely ignored,” says Hindstrom. Amber is only part of the resource war, and scientists are far from the only people buying it. But it is impossible not to conclude that they are complicit, if not actively involved, in a trade that helps to fund a war. “I think the
To Myitkyina and Tengchong
money coming in from China has fuelled the conflict indirectly,” says Jarzembowski. “We don’t know for certain, but I wouldn’t be surprised. There’s loads of money.”
Research costs Dexu and other collectors don’t disclose how much they pay for specimens and scientists say they don’t know, although McKellar guesses a good vertebrate specimen would fetch “in the order of thousands of dollars”. Jarzembowski also reckons “thousands” and that the snake specimen was probably “very expensive”. The dealers are canny and play labs off against one another to inflate prices, he says, while the Chinese Academy of Sciences will pay whatever it takes to secure important specimens. According to unsourced estimates published in Canadian newspaper the Financial Post, the dinosaur tail could “easily” have fetched $100,000 and the legal amber trade is worth at least $1 billion a year. I asked McKellar if he and his colleagues
Could we really extract 100-million-year-old dinosaur DNA from mosquitoes preserved in Burmese amber, à la Jurassic Park? Sadly, almost certainly not. According to Claire Mellish of the Natural History Museum in London, insect fossils in amber are hollowedout exoskeletons with the soft innards long decayed. Even if tissues survived, DNA wouldn’t. “The half-life of DNA is something like 500 years and we’re talking about specimens that are 99 million years old,” says Ryan McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina, Canada. Even if the storyline of Jurassic Park is fanciful, the film’s impact on palaeontology has been very real: after the movie’s success, institutions around the globe began taking a closer look at their amber collections and unearthing new finds.
were aware of the conflict, and amber’s role in it. He paused and sighed: “To some extent. It’s a shame, but it’s sort of beyond our control. I don’t see us directly fuelling it. It has escalated over the past three or four years. A lot of the samples we are dealing with were collected before there were problems in the region.” For now, the amber mines are under the control of the Tatmadaw, although Hindstrom and others predict that the KIA will try to wrest them back. A peace process aimed at ending all of Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts is under way, but the KIA has refused to participate. Already this year, 79 scientific papers have been published on Burmese amber. The flow of specimens continues and rumours circulate of ever more spectacular fossils. Tengchong amber market is as busy as ever. One of the most prized stones on offer is a deep red colour, known locally as xuè pò. Translated into English, it means “blood amber”. ❚ Graham Lawton is a staff writer at New Scientist 4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 43
The space-wide web A
ISHTAN SHAKARIAN knew there was money to be made from the internet. So she took a spade into the woods near where she lived, about 50 kilometres outside the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. The 75-year-old hoped to dig up copper wiring to sell for scrap. Instead, she cut through a fibreoptic cable – worthless to her, but priceless to the millions of people in neighbouring Armenia left staring at blank screens for 12 hours. She had cut off the country’s internet. The 2011 incident shows how easily this can happen with underground cables, and those under the sea are even more vulnerable. Every few days, an earthquake, anchor or boat damages one of the roughly 430 sea-floor cables. Tonga went offline for nearly two weeks in January after an underwater cable was cut. In some ways, as an isolated island nation, Tonga is lucky to have this connection. The cost of laying cables to remote places means only about 10 per cent of the planet’s surface has terrestrial communication links. According to the UN, nearly half the world’s population has never been online. To reach them, and ensure everyone has a reliable connection, billionaires like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson plan to reinvent the internet – to free it from its Earthly roots and build a wireless web above our heads. Balloons in the stratosphere, constellations of satellites, cruising drones – there is no shortage of ideas. Pull this off and humanity’s greatest information repository would find a dazzlingly futuristic home. To make it work, we just need to deploy some old technology, albeit in a highly unusual way. The internet is a gigantic network of computers. When you type an address into a browser, you are instructing it to connect with
44 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
another machine that could be anywhere in the world. Most of those connections are via cables. Even smartphones only use radiowaves to connect the last few hundred metres to a cabled cell tower. But longer stretches are possible. Satellite internet today often uses relay stations far enough from Earth that they remain in a steady “geostationary” orbit: as seen from the ground, they are in a fixed position. Pinned 35,000 kilometres above the equator, they can serve a wide swathe of land. But the 70,000-kilometre round trip adds a lag of half a second or more to signals, an annoyance that disrupts voice calls and makes multiplayer online gaming or high-speed financial trading impossible. On top of that, download speeds are slower than modern cable connections and subscriptions are pricier. The set-up also requires a large dish and a clear view of the sky. One alternative that tech companies have recently considered is the stratosphere. From around 10 to 50 kilometres up, this layer of the atmosphere is high enough for a transmitter there to serve a city-sized area below, yet low enough that a phone could communicate with it without the need for a receiver dish. Better still, putting things in the stratosphere is easy compared with space. Hungry for extra customers, Facebook and Google built prototype solar-powered drones that could loiter about 20 kilometres up for weeks, beaming down the internet. But these projects are now on hold following crashes and damage when landing the feather-light aircraft. Other companies, including Boeing and Airbus, are working on similar drones, but the technology is far from proven. Google’s next idea sounds kookier still: a train of gracefully floating balloons
Tech billionaires are racing to build an orbiting internet that is accessible anywhere on Earth, says Mark Harris
delivering data to those below. The balloons, which provided connectivity following natural disasters in Peru and Puerto Rico, have been spun out into a company called Loon that plans to launch a commercial 4G service in Kenya soon. However, balloons are unlikely to do much for most of the offline billions as many places lack reliable winds or convenient launching places. If you are a tech billionaire with a global vision, only a truly worldwide service will do. Luckily, there is a middle way. What if we put transmitters lower than the lonely geostationary orbits with their unpleasant lag, but higher than the stratosphere with its fickle weather? There is a price to be paid for using this low Earth orbit (LEO). From the surface, satellites in LEO appear to zip from horizon to horizon in about 10 minutes. For continuous service, then, you need multiple satellites flying in quick succession and enveloping the globe, all sending signals from one to another in a smooth relay. The firms Iridium, Globalstar and Orbcomm each have a few dozen LEO
“Only about 10 per cent of the planet has terrestrial communication links” satellites that already offer basic, slow internet services. Get the tech right and turning these limited services into something transformative becomes a numbers game. And if there is one thing tech billionaires think they understand, it is scale. This occurred to Bill Gates years ago. In the 1990s, he backed a start-up called Teledesic that envisioned a mega-constellation of 840 LEO satellites relaying radio signals from one part of Earth to another. The company had big plans: to deliver affordable broadband to 95 per cent of the world’s surface. It never happened. Teledesic folded in 2002 without launching a working satellite, having neither developed the technology, nor raised the billions of dollars required. But a fresh generation of billionaires is ready to try again, buoyed by cheaper launch costs and new, more powerful technologies. Take OneWeb, a company backed by Airbus, computer chip-maker Qualcomm and entrepreneur Richard Branson. It put its first six satellites – costing $1 million apiece – into orbit in February. The firm says 600 satellites connecting users to 40 or so ground stations should be in place and providing a service by 2021. Yet OneWeb’s satellites only plug gaps in cable internet. The last leg of each data packet’s journey to the user may be through space, > 4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 45
Traffic in the sky Companies have tried to provide internet infrastructure from distant orbits and the stratosphere – with mixed results. But a new wave of projects at mid-altitudes could finally deliver planetwide broadband 35,000 km
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In the 1990s, a firm called Teledesic aimed to deliver the internet from a lower orbit. However, it folded before launching any satellites
OneWeb This company has already launched its first few satellites, but without inter-satellite links, its internet service could be slower for some users
“SpaceX is aiming to have 40 million subscribers to its space internet by 2025”
Telesat This Canadian firm is planning faster laser internet satellites. It recently signed a deal with rocket company Blue Origin to get them launched
Low Earth ortbit below 2000 km
Iridium Internet services have been available from this firm for years, but they are slow and pricey 800
Amazon Secretive project Kuiper was recently revealed to be a plan for 3200 internet satellites 600
Stratosphere 10-50 km
spectrum. Radio transmissions are highly regulated and the frequencies that would be most practical for small receivers are already taken. In contrast, laser beams, with their tight focus, almost never cause interference with other services and are largely unregulated. They are also fast. Imagine a financial trader in London wanting to access the latest from the New York Stock Exchange. If her connection were routed through SpaceX’s planned constellation of nearly 12,000 Starlink satellites, data might reach her in 45 milliseconds, according to calculations by computer scientist Mark Handley at University College London. That is half the time it currently takes via fibre-optic cable, an advantage that could be worth millions. SpaceX expects its laser internet to attract 40 million subscribers and $30 billion in revenue by 2025, with Starlink eventually helping to fund Musk’s other dream – of colonising Mars. But lasers have their own problems. The main one is successfully pointing a beam with the thickness of a human hair at another satellite speeding past at thousands of kilometres an hour. Still, this isn’t totally virgin territory. As early as 2001, the European Space Agency established the first inter-satellite laser link, between large satellites in low Earth and geostationary orbits. And in 2013, NASA used lasers to beam a picture of the Mona Lisa from Earth to a spacecraft circling the moon.
Geostationary satellites Provide an internet signal from space, but this takes a long time to travel, creating a communications lag
Medium Earth ortbit 2000-35,000 km
but at other times it travels through the same wires as the rest of the internet. Other companies are trying something more ambitious (see “Traffic in the sky”, right). Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Canadian company Telesat and Luxembourg-based LeoSat all plan to create an end-to-end, space-based internet system in the early 2020s. Each of their fast-moving satellites must be able to communicate with others in their respective networks, relaying data in hops from one side of the world to the other. All three companies have the same idea of how to do it: lasers. Theoretically, lasers are a smarter way to communicate in space than radio waves, says astronautics engineer Kerri Cahoy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They are more energy efficient, so transmitters and receivers don’t need to be so large. “Physical size can be smaller with a laser system,” she says. Lasers also sidestep the issue of working within the increasingly crowded radio
Starlink SpaceX’s venture aims to create a network of nearly 12,000 satellites linked using lasers. Many will fly in a very low orbit, to minimise communication delays with the surface
Drones Separately, Facebook and Google built solar-powered drones to provide the internet. Both projects are now on hold, though others are planning similar drones
Loon 20 Earth
A sister company of Google, Loon is planning to provide the internet via its balloons to people in Kenya, starting this year
Cahoy is now working on a mission called CLICK that will pack lasers capable of highspeed communication over hundreds of kilometres into satellites the size of Rubik’s cubes. These satellites will use wide-angle lasers as beacons to locate each other, then activate narrower beams for their highbandwidth link. NASA is due to launch two of them in 2020 to test the idea and Musk could be using similar technology for Starlink. SpaceX already has two prototype laser satellites in orbit – though each is the size of a car. It plans to start deploying commercial satellites this month, the first of hundreds of launches in the years ahead.
High-speed dance Linking two satellites with lasers is one thing. Maintaining connections between thousands, 24 hours a day, is another entirely. “Talking to the satellite in front of or behind you in an orbital plane is actually pretty easy,” says Cahoy. “When you try to go from your plane across to another plane, that gets a little bit more challenging.” SpaceX’s planet-spanning constellation will feature criss-crossing orbital planes with satellites whizzing past each other at high speed. Choreographing this dance entails knowing exactly where each spacecraft is at any moment, and where it is heading. In an agreement signed last year, the company asked NASA for technical support in choosing GPS hardware and in running the agency’s orbital calculation software on Starlink’s on-board processors. The company also plans to have more than 7500 of its satellites orbiting at an altitude of just 340 kilometres, far lower than any existing communications satellites. That will keep transmission delays to a bare minimum and reduce power needs, but it will also subject the satellites to increased drag from wisps of the atmosphere. Without regularly firing their thrusters, the satellites would be dragged
What goes up, must come down If all the planned mega-constellations are built, there would be 10 times as many operating satellites orbiting Earth as today. When each runs out of fuel, typically after around five years, a nudge downwards from a thruster will send it to a fiery death in the atmosphere. But some steel or titanium components can survive all the way to the ground, with enough energy to injure or kill. Up to 10 satellites might re-enter every day. The US Federal Communications Commission calculates that the fragments from SpaceX’s Starlink satellites alone would rival the number of meteorites that naturally hit Earth’s surface each year. SpaceX has since redesigned its satellites so that nothing should survive re-entry, but other operators have yet to follow suit.
down and burn up within weeks. Even so, each Starlink is expected to last just six years or so before exhausting its propellant and heading Earthwards (see “What goes up, must come down”, above). To sustain its fleet, SpaceX will have to commit to the task of continually replacing all the satellites that re-enter the atmosphere – as many as five a day after the first six years. An even bigger issue is how consumers will access the LEO satellites from the ground. Although lasers are likely to operate at eye-safe infrared frequencies, the beams would be blocked by even mild cloud cover. So all the laser satellite projects plan to use radio waves to communicate with the ground from orbit, which means using pricey steerable antennas (see “Cutting the cord”, below).
Cutting the cord SpaceX’s Starlink project aims to create an almost totally wireless internet
WEBSITE’S SERVER RADIO WAVES
This skewers any claim that space internet systems are about getting the poorest people online, says media scholar Lisa Parks at MIT. Even the pizza-sized receiver that Musk says SpaceX is developing will cost $100 to $300. This will be “prohibitive for unconnected users in much of the world”, she says. “While connecting the unconnected sounds good from a marketing perspective, there is little clear evidence that such a model can deliver profits to companies and investors.” There is also scepticism that many users in richer nations have an appetite for additional gadgets and subscription plans. “By the time any of these constellations is fielded and ready to supply a paying service to real customers, we’re going to have 5G infrastructure in Western countries, and Africa is going to be covered in 4G towers,” says aeronautics engineer Zac Manchester at Stanford University in California. However, some think that wireless companies will welcome mega-constellations as partners rather than rivals, sharing satellite signals so that customers can access space internet from their phones, without having to buy an expensive antenna. Another potential benefit for those living in repressive countries is that satellite internet could theoretically skirt censorship measures such as China’s Great Firewall. It is unclear how that would play out, however. When Musk raised this possibility in 2015, he suggested that SpaceX wouldn’t serve users in such countries. “Any country could say it’s illegal to have a ground link,” he said. “We could conceivably continue to operate, but then they have a choice of, do they shoot our satellites down, or not? China can do that.” Elsewhere, a space-based internet could be simpler and more reliable than accidentprone cables. Invisible beams of light are largely immune to hacking or tapping, and if one or two satellites fail, replacements could be quickly launched. But betting on space lasers puts an awful lot of eggs into one basket. A powerful solar storm or a cascade of satellite collisions, as depicted in the film Gravity, might damage or disable entire constellations in a blink. However, in a world already dominated by a small number of tech firms, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of tomorrow’s mega-constellations would be having power over such critical infrastructure concentrated in just a few hands. If you thought the story of Aishtan Shakarian’s shovel was worrying, imagine having a few powerful individuals in control of the space internet’s off switch. ❚ Mark Harris is a technology journalist based in Seattle 4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 47
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Oxford Genetics’ mission is to pioneer technologies that streamline the `ÃVÛiÀÞ]`iÛi«iÌ>`«À`ÕVÌvL}VÃ]Vi>`}ii Ì iÀ>«iÃ°/ ÃÃi>Li`Ì ÀÕ} VÕÌÌ}i`}iLvÀ>ÌVÃ>` >ÕÌ>Ì«>ÌvÀÃÌ >Ì`ÀÛiÌ i`iÃ}vV«iÝL}V> ÃÞÃÌiÃ° Ý>«iÃvÌ Ã>««À>V VÕ`iÌ i`iÛi«iÌv optimised platforms for the discovery, engineering and production of >ÌL`iÃÆÌ iVÀi>Ìv«ÀÛi`ÛÀ>ÛiVÌÀÃ]«>V>}}>` «À`ÕVÌViiÃvÀiÌÛÀÕÃ>`ÀƂƂ6>Õv>VÌÕÀiÆ>` } Ì ÀÕ} «ÕÌ>ÕÌ>Ìi` ,-*,Viii}iiÀ}>` ÃVÀii}° -ÕLÃiµÕiÌÌÀiViÌÛiÃÌiÌÌvÕÀÌ iÀÃiVÕÀiÕÀ>ÀiÌi>`} «ÃÌÌ iiÝ«>`}wi`Ãv ,-*,>`}iiÌ iÀ>«Þ]Üi>Ài >« >ÃiviÝ«>Ã]Ãii} } ÞÌÛ>Ìi`>`iÌ ÕÃ>ÃÌV scientists and engineers to join the team and help facilitate the next ÃÌ>}ivÕÀ`iÛi«iÌ>Ã>V«>ÞqÕÀÌi>>`VÌÀLÕÌi to this exciting journey!
Associate Director – Gene Editing
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The Gene Editing team at Oxford Genetics uses of variety of technical approaches to develop genetically engineered cell lines vÀ>À>}iv>««V>ÌÃ]VÕ`}Ài>}iÌÛiÀwV>Ì]L>ÃV L}ÞÃÌÕ`iÃ>`V«iÝ`Ãi>Ãi`i}°>``Ì]Ì i Ìi>V>ÀÀiÃÕÌ>VÌÛÌiÃÀi>Ìi`Ì ,-*,L>Ãi`ÃVÀii} qvÀLvÀ>ÌV`iÃ}Ì ÀÕ} ÌLÀ>ÀÞVÃÌÀÕVÌ>` ÛiÀwV>Ì]>`Ì«i`>`>ÀÀ>Þi`ÃVÀiiÃ°/ Ã«ÃÌÜ LiÀiÃ«ÃLivÀÌ iÀiÃi>ÀV ]`iÛi«iÌ>`«iÀ>Ì> >VÌÛÌiÃÌ iii `Ì}`ÛÃ>Ì"ÝvÀ`iiÌVÃ°
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Group Leader – Informatics / Automation Platform / i>««ÌiiÜLiÛÛi`>À>}ivÌiÀ>«>ÌvÀ `iÛi«iÌ>`ViÀV>«ÀiVÌÃ>VÀÃÃÌ iÜ`iÀiÌvÌ i vÀ>ÌVÃ>`ƂÕÌ>ÌÌi>°/ iÌi>VÃÃÌÃv vÀ >ÌVÃÃViÌÃÌÃ>ÃÜi>Ã>ƂÕÌ>ÌÃÕLÌi>q>iÞ«>ÀÌv Ì iÀiÜLiÌiÝ«>`Ì iÀiÌvÌ iÃiÌi>Ã]>ÃÜi>Ã Ì>}ÛiÀ>ÀiÃ«ÃLÌÞvÀÃViÌwV`>Ì>>>}iiÌÜÌ Ì iV«>Þ° ÕÕ>ÌÛiÞÜi>ÌVÀi>Ãi«ÀViÃÃV>«>VÌÞ] ÀLÕÃÌiÃÃ>`i>LiÌi}iÌiÝ«iÀiÌ>`iÃ}>`Ûi /*>««V>ÌÃ°iÞ>Ài>ÃÃÕ««ÀÌi`ÜVÕ`i«ÀÌi>` ÛÀ>i}iiÀ}]Vii`iÛi«iÌ]>` ,-*,i`>Ìi`Vi ii}iiÀ}>`ÃVÀii}°
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48 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
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The GSK Vaccines Institute for Global Health (GVGH) in Siena is looking for a new Institute Director… GVGH is a GSK institute with the mission to use the most advanced technologies to develop effective and affordable vaccines for neglected infectious diseases of impoverished communities. The institute, funded in 2008, focuses on the discovery, preclinical and clinical evaluation of vaccine candidates up to clinical proof of concept, with the scope of discovering and de-risking vaccines for neglected diseases, so that they can be taken up by commercial manufacturers. Over its 11 years the Institute has developed a conjugate vaccine against typhoid fever that is expected to be licensed in 2019 by the Indian manufacturer Biological E, a vaccine against Shigella that is in phase II clinical studies and a vaccine against non typhoid salmonella that is expected to be in the clinic in 2020. The projects are carried out with external funding, mainly provided by EU, Wellcome Trust, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Tuscany region. Wherever you come from you should be familiar with epidemiology, the control and/or treatment of neglected infectious diseases in developing countries, the technological processes required for vaccine development, have knowledge of the Global Health vaccine world and understand the clinical vaccine trial procedures in developed and developing countries. You’ll be tasked with deﬁning and building our future strategy, identifying and deploying innovative technologies and pioneering new procedures. This is a demanding and challenging global role, which will see you build effective partnerships and inspire people within and outside of our organization. You’ll act as a steward for our goals and ensure they are met with our values in mind. Invest your expertise on where they can make a difference that really counts. Be the ambassador and leader we need to continue this path of success.
Bring your wealth of experience to protect the world’s poorest Director – GSK Vaccines Institute for Global Health
If you have strong expertise and a passion for Global Health, and want to
help GSK make a big difference in this ﬁeld, we encourage you to apply for this opportunity. Discover more at gsk.com/careers and search req ID ‘WD202443’
Join our Assessment Associate Team Pearson have exciting opportunities for Science Teachers to become H[DPLQHUVIRURXU*&6(*&(TXDOLȴFDWLRQV:HDUHNHHQWRUHFUXLW WHDFKHUVDFURVVWKH8.ZKRDUHFXUUHQWO\WHDFKLQJRUUHFHQWO\UHWLUHG This is an excellent opportunity to: • Develop your understanding of assessment • Interact with fellow educational professionals • Inspire fresh ideas and approaches to teaching your subject • Boost your income )RUPRUHLQIRUPDWLRQDQGKRZWRDSSO\SOHDVHYLVLWRXUZHEVLWH WLQ\XUOFRP\MUWWRILQGWKHUROHIRU\RX$OWHUQDWLYHO\UDLVHDTXHU\DW DVVRFLDWHSHDUVRQFRP
4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 49
Senior/Principal Bioinformatician Cancer Dependency Map Analytics 6DODU\ WR GHSHQGDQWRQH[SHULHQFH SOXVH[FHOOHQWEHQHÀWV The Wellcome Sanger Institute is seeking for an experienced Bioinformatician to provide computational analysis for the new international Cancer Dependency Map consortium, and to other projects engaged in the analysis of data from genomeediting and functional-genomics screens, in collaboration with Open Targets You will join the Cancer Dependency Map Analytics team, actively interacting with the Cancer Dependency Map consortium, whose broad goal is to identify vulnerabilities and dependencies that could be exploited therapeutically in every cancer cell You will be able to implement and use new computational pipelines for pre-processing and quality control assessment of data from genome-editing screens and for individual project requirements. This will include extending existing software, writing, documenting and maintaining code packages on public/internal repositories. We encourage applications with the background in genomic data curation and familiarity with the management of data from large-scale in-vitro drug/ functional-genomic screens. Finally, you will interact with Open Targets partners and collaborators, and with web development teams to coordinate KH[HYLZ\S[ZÅV^ZVU[OLW\ISPJKVTHPU This is an exciting opportunity to work at one of the world’s leading genomic centres at the forefront of genomic research. You will have access to Sanger’s computational resources, including a 15000+ core computational cluster, the largest in life science research in Europe, and multiple petabytes of OPNOZWLLKJS\Z[LYÄSLZ`Z[LTZ We are part of a dynamic and collaborative environment at the Genome Campus and, although we seek someone who can work independently, you will have the opportunity to interact with researchers across many programmes at the Institute. Open Targets is a pioneering public-private initiative between .SH_V:TP[O2SPUL.:2)PVNLU;HRLKH*LSNLUL:HUVÄ
EMBL-EBI (European Bioinformatics Institute) and the WSI (Wellcome Sanger Institute), located on the Wellcome Genome Campus in Hinxton, near Cambridge, UK. Essential Skills PhD in a relevant subject area (Physics, Computer Science, Engineering, Statistics, Mathematics, Computational Biology, Bioinformatics) -\SS^VYRPUNWYVÄJPLUJ`PUHZJYPW[PUNSHUN\HNL (e.g. R, Python, Perl) -\SS^VYRPUNWYVÄJPLUJ`^P[OZVM[^HYL]LYZPVUPUNZ`Z[LTZ (eg. Git, gitub, svn) Previous experience in creating, documenting, and THPU[HPUPUNÄUPZOLKZVM[^HYL Previous experience with implementing omics-data analysis pipelines Basic knowledge of statistics and combinatorics -\SS^VYRPUNWYVÄJPLUJ`PU(5)YVUaL Award and will consider all individuals without discrimination and are committed to creating an inclusive environment for all employees, where everyone can thrive. Please include a covering letter and CV with your application. Contact [email protected] for informal enquiries
To apply please click the link below: jobs.sanger.ac.uk/vacancies.html
Closing date for applications:
12th May 2019
The back pages Puzzles Quick crossword, a quiz and a teaser about infinity p52
Feedback Ad in space and AI astrology: the week in weirdness p53
What does… Liana Finck? A cartoonist’s take on the world p53
Almost the last word Dog senses; insomnia and blindness: your queries answered p54
Me and my telescope Marcus du Sautoy answers our questions p56
How to be a maker Week 1
Do try this at home What you will need next week 3 crocodile-clip wires 9V battery LEDs Assorted resistors
Next in the series 1 Introduction 2 Electric candle How to build a circuit 3 Toast notifier 4 Rate-my-stay device 5 Propeller car 6 Magic eight ball 7 Theremin 8 Sound-sensitive disco ball 9 Rubbish sweeper 10 Biscuit bot
“I WISH someone would make one of those” – many of us have said this at some point, pining after an invention that doesn’t exist. Maybe it is a way to automate your window blinds or communicate with your houseplants. Whatever you have in mind, you don’t have to pitch your idea to a millionaire business mogul in order to bring it to life. You just need to get making, although it might be a while before you are communicating with plants. The maker movement has been steadily growing over the past few years. It harks back to a time when it was commonplace to fix things – a skill many of us have lost – but augments this outlook with modern tools like microprocessors and 3D printers. It also counters the notion of tech as disposable, focusing on ways to repair devices and reuse parts. In all, it is about the satisfaction and empowerment that comes from designing and creating your own solution to a problem. This is all well and good as a philosophy, but what if you can’t tell a screwdriver from a spanner or you simply have no eye for electronics? It can be intimidating to stare at a pile of wires, wood and whatsits and try to imagine what they might become. That’s where New Scientist comes in. This weekly column is going to give you a crash course in the skills you need to break into the world of making. Over the next 10 weeks, we are going to take you from nobot to robot, in a series of easy steps. In each instalment, we will teach you about a different technique or component, and give you a mini project to make.
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Forget buying stuff, it is far better to build things yourself. Hannah Joshua’s 10-part series will give you the skills you need to become a maker
Make online Projects and extra pictures will be posted each week at newscientist.com/maker Email: [email protected]
The only tools you will need are what you might find in the cupboard under the stairs. As for components, you can salvage them from broken electronics and then top up with cheap bits and pieces from a local hobby shop, or get them online. You can make the devices we suggest, or invent your own. Your creations can be fun or functional – ideally both. People have designed everything from lights powered by gravity and ways to make tech more accessible for those with disabilities, to tweeting coffee pots.
The maker movement’s emphasis is on involvement and inclusivity. Everyone can make. There are maker spaces – open workshops providing access to equipment – as well as events and “hackathons” encouraging the world to tinker. By the end of the series, you will have the skills you need to build a biscuit buddy robot that can ferry snacks between rooms of your house. So, your homework is to dig out a toolkit and acquire the components on the list (top left). See you next week to start making! ❚ 4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 51
The back pages Puzzles Quick Crossword #30 set by Richard Smyth
Quick quiz #01
Puzzle set by Hugh Hunt
1 Which German city houses the European Space Agency’s main mission control centre?
3 What name is given to the delusional belief that you are actually dead? 4 The US chemist Linus Pauling won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1954, and eight years later in what other discipline?
Down 1 Dissolved substance (6) 2 Chile pine (9) 3 Proof in number theory that the sequence of prime numbers contains arbitrarily long arithmetic progressions (5-3,7) 4 1994 sci-fi action film (4,3) 6 Tectonic boundary between the Pacific and North American plates (3,7,5) 7 Suspended mass of droplets or crystals (5) 8 Anaesthetise with (C2H5)2O (8)
52 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
18 ___ mechanics, theory in physics to describe nature at the smallest scales (7) 20 Mary ___ (1913–96), UK palaeoanthropologist (6) 22 Category of young star (1-4) 24 Cipher also known as a zigzag (4,5) 25 Female sex hormone (9) 26 German submarine or Unterseeboot (1-4) 27 In a flower, the tip of a pistil (6) 28 Medical condition characterised by high levels of nitrogen compounds in the blood (8)
9 Genus of flowering plants known as squills (6) 16 Facility low in dust and other particulates (5,4) 17 Scaly or scale-like (8) 19 Optical illusion caused by bending light rays (6) 20 Gottfried Wilhelm ___ (1646–1716), German mathematician (7) 21 Big ___, first world war siege howitzer (6) 23 Nintendo games character who first appeared in 1990 (5) Answers next week
Cryptic Crossword #05 Answers Across 1 ABSOLUTE ZERO, 7, 8 BETA CAROTENE, 9 GAMETE, 10 AVERSE, 11 NOD, 12 TEENY, 14 ESSAY, 16 CUE, 18 SCABBY, 20 SALARY, 22 SYLLABLE, 23 MUSK, 24 SUPERLUMINAL Down 1 AVERAGE, 2 SPACE, 3 LICHEN, 4 THREAD, 5 ZITHERS, 6 RUNTS, 13 NEBULAE, 15 AEROSOL, 16 CYMBAL, 17 ESTEEM, 19 COYPU, 21 LEMON
Quick quiz #01 Answers 1 Darmstadt 2 Cloud 3 Cotard’s syndrome 4 Peace, for his campaigning against nuclear weapons testing 5 Flores, hence its official name Homo floresiensis
Across 1 Sci-fi franchise about an Einstein-Rosen bridge (8) 5 In psychology, the human mind (6) 10 Typically, the third conspicuous earthquake wave to reach a seismograph (1,4) 11 PC range launched by Apple in 1984 (9) 12 Relating to a specialist field (9) 13 Opposite of zenith (5) 14 Device for amplifying a very weak signal (6) 15 Wild cattle, extinct since the 17th century (7)
5 “The hobbit” was the catchy name given to a small-statured, extinct hominin species found in 2003 on what Indonesian island?
2 Asperitas, cavum, cauda and murus were officially recognised as types of what by the World Meteorological Organization in 2017?
#01 The book of numbers Meera plans to write a book (in English) containing all the whole numbers from zero to infinity in alphabetical order. She knows this will take her a very long time, but she makes a start. She figures that first on her alphabetical list is the number eight. After a while, she tires of the task and jumps to the last page and starts working backwards. She reckons that the last entry will be zero. Curiously, even though this book will take forever to finish writing, it is possible to state which number will be listed second, and which will be second-last. What are those two numbers? By the way, when Meera wants to write numbers bigger than the quadrillions (numbers with 15 zeroes) she strings numbers together, for example “one billion trillion” or “five million million quadrillion”. Answer next week
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The average cumulus cloud weighs roughly
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The back pages Feedback What does Liana Finck? Sky’s the limit With almost every corner of Earth now saturated with adverts, companies are advancing on the final frontier to get us to notice their products. Elon Musk was the first to boldly go where no advertiser has gone before, sending his Tesla Roadster into orbit around the sun last year – perhaps to test the car’s autopilot function in an environment where there are fewer objects to collide with. Now the Russian company StartRocket plans to launch clusters of cubesats to create “orbital billboards” by reflecting sunlight, forming shiny logos that would be visible in the sky at dawn and dusk. According to the website Futurism, food and drink firm PepsiCo planned to use this service to promote a “campaign against stereotypes and unjustified prejudices against gamers” on behalf of an energy drink called Adrenaline Rush. However, it appears that PepsiCo has since canned the project, fearing a public backlash. Astronomers are among those pleased that the billboard won’t go ahead. Feedback is inclined to agree, while wondering whether we have missed a valuable opportunity to test the hypothesis that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Astrology 2.0 New Scientist readers may be forgiven for thinking astrology, like religion, cash and printed magazines, would face a struggle to survive in the 21st-century economy. Not so – in fact, it is a $2.1 billion industry just waiting to be disrupted by digital technology. The New York Times reports that astrology has “traded its psychedelic new-wave stigma for modern Instagrammy witch vibes, and those vibes are very popular with millennial women”. Spotting an opportunity to make money, venture capitalists have invested millions in apps like Co-Star, which lets users compare their birth charts with those of
their friends or enemies to help them understand conflicts. For those doubting the science behind them, Co-Star’s horoscopes are algorithmically generated and based on data from NASA. So that’s all right then. It must be galling for professional astrologers to be usurped by artificial intelligence, but they must have seen it coming.
News for the unenthused Newsreaders could be next in line to lose their jobs to automation. Readers may recall the story of a dancing robot described by Russia-24 TV as the most advanced in the world, which turned out to be a man in a robot suit (5 January). The mishap has apparently not dented the Russian media’s passion for technology. The same broadcaster has now employed a humanoid robot to read the news following a high-level robotics conference. This time, there was no doubt that the droid in question was mechanical in nature. Nevertheless, the reaction from viewers was less than enthusiastic. “From the headpiece, I thought [actor] Dmitry Pevtsov was stung by bees and then got drunk. But it was a robot. Horrible,” wrote one viewer quoted by The Daily Telegraph. “The first few seconds only provoke a gag reflex. It’s frozen with a gaze through the centuries like a drug addict’s,” another wrote. “It feels like a dead thing.” With the news screens that Feedback is watching stuck on a seemingly never-ending Brexit loop, this seems like just the ticket.
Living the high life With increasing numbers of graduates struggling to find work after finishing university and complaining that their degrees haven’t given them the skills they need for the workplace, we need teachers that can create a buzz around learning. We assume this was the motivation behind Japanese professor Tatsunori Iwamura’s reported decision to teach students in his
pharmaceutical science class how to synthesise MDMA, otherwise known as ecstasy. Iwamura is now being investigated by drug enforcement officers and could face up to 10 years in prison, according to news reports. Feedback hopes the authorities show leniency in light of his outstanding contribution to higher education.
Pornography leak The UK government is pressing ahead with its plans to implement age-verification checks on pornography sites, with the law now set to come into force on 15 July. As New Scientist previously reported, the move will create databases of pornography users in the UK held by private firms (30 March, p 20). Critics warn this will be a huge target for blackmailers. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which
is responsible for the legislation, failed to assuage doubts about its commitment to online privacy when it issued a press release announcing the new date for the scheme’s implementation. The email was sent to more than 300 journalists with their addresses visible to everyone on the mailing list. “It was an error and we’re evaluating at the moment whether that was a breach of data protection law,” digital minister Margot James told the BBC. In the meantime, the scheme seems leaky in other ways. Social media sites that allow sexually explicit images, such as Twitter and Reddit, won’t have to administer the age-check scheme as more than a third of a site’s content must be pornographic to qualify. This suggests an easy way for pornography sites to skirt the new requirements: simply post two videos of puppies for every one of pornography. ❚
Want to get in touch? Send your stories to New Scientist, 25 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ES or you can email us at [email protected] 4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 53
The back pages Almost the last word The bongo is known for its stripy coat – but why can’t we have patterned hair?
Bring me sunshine
Linda Geddes, author of Chasing the Sun Bristol, UK The reader may have non-24-hour sleep-wake disorder, which is common in people who have no light perception whatsoever. In every cell of our body, there are molecular clocks that regulate the timing of pretty much every physiological process, from the release of hormones to the activity of immune cells. These clocks run on roughly 24-hour schedules, though some people are closer to 23 hours, others more like 25. The way we stay synchronised to the 24-hour day is through signals from light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye called intrinsically photoreceptive retinal ganglion cells. When light hits those cells each morning, it acts like the reset button on a stopwatch: the brain adjusts its timing, then signals to the body’s molecular clocks to do the same. In some people who are blind, those cells are damaged, and this connection is broken. As a result, they revert to their genetically determined timekeeping. People with a 23-hour clock would wake at 8 am one morning, 7 am the next, then 6 am and so on. Because of this, they often experience insomnia. It is worth seeking advice from a certified sleep consultant, as melatonin supplements can be an effective treatment, if diagnosed. People who are blind still benefit from sunshine to make vitamin D. There is also mounting evidence that sun exposure tweaks our immune cell activity and blood pressure, which could benefit our health. 54 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
Can a blind person still benefit from the positive effects of natural light on circadian rhythms and mental well-being? I lost my remaining light perception 10 years ago and since that time I’ve had insomnia. This would suggest that the answer to my question is no, but maybe I just need to get out more.
This week’s new questions: Why do some animals have patterns of hair colours such as stripes or spots, and why can’t I have stripy hair? Tom Middleton Shrewsbury, Shropshire, UK Which is better for the environment: using a heated hand dryer for 30 seconds, or using two disposable paper hand towels? Sam Kirwan Greystones, County Wicklow, Ireland
Canine connection While quietly walking my small dog, we often pass houses where the dog inside, which is out of sight, begins barking. How does the dog know to bark if it can’t see, smell or hear us?
Pam Lunn Kenilworth, Warwickshire, UK I wouldn’t assume that the barking dog is unable to smell your dog. The houses you are passing aren’t hermetically sealed. Dogs can detect scent molecules at very low concentrations in the air. Peter Holness Bengeo, Hertfordshire, UK Canine hearing can be acute. My dog, Arby, knows the “acoustic signature” of his metal bowl. A “ting” from the most minute morsel dropped in that bowl brings Arby rushing to it from any part of our house. Adam Gray Manchester, UK You are probably not walking as quietly as you think. Dogs can hear frequencies up to around
60 kilohertz, far higher than our upper limit, so any high frequency noise you produce may be imperceptible to you but perfectly audible to a dog. Plus, some dogs can hear sound down to -15 decibels, much quieter than the lower limit for humans, which is 0 decibels by definition. So even if you can’t hear yourself walking, nearby dogs almost certainly can. Steve Swift Alton, Hampshire, UK Our dog, Alfie, can detect the post van from about 100 metres away, demonstrating that his hearing is very much better than a human’s. What I can’t work out is how he reliably detects my wife on her way home from work at a distance of 3 kilometres or more. Tony Holkham Blaenffos, Pembrokeshire, UK A dog’s sense of smell is vastly superior to ours, and your
approach may be detectable to the dog inside when you are quite a distance away. The dog may also sense your footfalls through the ground, as sound or seismic waves will travel from outside to inside through any convenient conduit, such as sewage pipes, electric wiring or fibre cabling. Dogs are also very time aware. If your walk is at a similar time each day, the barker will be expecting you and your dog, and so be alert for the other signals. My dog, Sparky, who is almost totally deaf, is still able to “sense” the movement of people and vehicles outside. He can distinguish different people’s footsteps. He rarely barks, though, as he may well have come to presume that humans can’t hear anything, either. Dogs are pretty smart, sensually. What is amazing is that they don’t get annoyed with us, who aren’t. Richard Woods Halstead, Essex, UK The behaviour of our shih-tzu, Rupert, suggests that dogs’ heightened senses are key to this. If I come up in the lift at our apartment block and leave the lift talking to someone, he barks from behind the closed door, 15 metres away. If I am not talking, he doesn’t bark. He will bark at either of our daughters arriving, long before they have reached our door. But he never responds to anyone else coming out of the lift, so he must be highly sensitive, and also responding specifically to the sound of my voice. He doesn’t bark at visitors unless they come in through the door and are strangers.
Want to send us a question or answer? Email us at [email protected] Questions should be about everyday science phenomena Full terms and conditions at newscientist.com/lw-terms
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4 May 2019 | New Scientist | 55
The back pages Me and my telescope
Marcus du Sautoy is professor of mathematics and the public understanding of science at the University of Oxford and is known for his work popularising maths
Yes, and it is called mathematics. Ever since we have been looking up at the night sky, mathematics has been a powerful tool to navigate the cosmos. Trigonometry helps us to work out how far the planets are from the sun. The laws of motion tell us when to expect an eclipse and even told us about a missing planet: Neptune.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up? I wanted to be a spy.
Explain what you do in one easy paragraph. A mathematician is a pattern searcher. In my own research, I am trying to understand the world of symmetry. Are there hidden patterns that might help us to discover new symmetrical objects?
What does a typical day involve? I don’t have a typical day! But it might involve some hours in deep mathematical meditation at my desk.
What do you love most about what you do? There is an extraordinary buzz about unlocking an eternal truth about the universe. The “aha!” moment that you get when you make a mathematical discovery is very addictive.
What’s the most exciting thing you’ve worked on recently? I have spent the past few years writing a book about the impact of machine learning and AI on creativity.
Were you good at science at school? I was good at the abstract, theoretical stuff, but my experiments always went wrong and no one would be my lab partner. That’s why I chose maths.
If you could send a message back to yourself as a kid, what would you say? Don’t worry that you can’t spell, they’re going to invent this thing called a spellchecker. 56 | New Scientist | 4 May 2019
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you? Creativity comes in waves. When you’ve hit your first peak, there will inevitably be a fallow period before the next peak arrives.
If you could have a long conversation with any scientist, living or dead, who would it be? I’d love to chat to the French revolutionary Evariste Galois, who created the language of symmetry, and try to persuade him not to take part in the duel that killed him aged 20.
What’s the best thing you’ve read or seen in the past 12 months?
First up, do you have a telescope?
The Alps. I went hiking hut to hut, inspired by reading Robert Macfarlane’s beautiful book Mountains of the Mind.
Do you have a weird hobby and, if so, please will you tell us about it? I have a games collection. Wherever I travel, I like to seek out the local game that people play.
How useful will your skills be after the apocalypse? Mathematics is our best tool for making predictions and planning for the future. It will probably tell us when the apocalypse is due. Because you only need pen and paper to do mathematics, we should be able to carry on after the apocalypse has struck.
OK, one last thing: tell us something that will blow our minds… There isn’t just one infinity. There are infinitely many infinities, some bigger than others. This discovery by the 19th-century mathematician Georg Cantor certainly blew my mind when I first encountered it. ❚ Marcus du Sautoy’s latest book is The Creativity Code (Fourth Estate). Read his thoughts on whether AI can ever truly be creative in next week’s issue PORTRAIT: OXFORD UNIVERSITY IMAGES/JOBY SESSIONS
“There is an extraordinary buzz about unlocking an eternal truth about the universe”
AI-powered drug discovery for rare diseases There are over 7,000 rare diseases. Only 5% have an approved treatment. Using traditional drug discovery methods, it will take a very long time to find treatments for all these diseases. Here at Healx, we are changing that.
Genomic map of rare diseases This is a genomic map of 3,039 rare diseases with genetic causes. The spiral graphic represents the human genome. It’s formed of 2,071 segments, each containing 1.5m DNA base pairs. The green dots show where the genetic mutations are located for each of these diseases. Inspired by the work of Martin Krzywinski ‘Genes that make us sick’. Number of diseases