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LUCKY BREAK How neutrinos saved the early universe

LABOUR PAINS Health warning about risks of natural childbirth

MOON GRAB Luxembourg’s lunar gold rush WEEKLY July 9 -15, 2016

GREEN AND BREXIT LAND Could leaving the EU help the environment?

No3081 US$5.95 CAN$5.95 2 7


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Science and technology news www.newscientist.com US jobs in science

DESERT FIRE Exploring the lost volcanoes of the Sahara



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C9 Moonphase


Volume 231 No 3081

This issue online newscientist.com/issue/3081


News 5



Labour pains


UPFRONT Herpes turtle trouble on Barrier reef. Juno reaches Jupiter. Alien-hunting telescope. Zambia’s vulnerable hippos culled. First fatality in autonomous car 8 THIS WEEK Neutrinos may explain missing antimatter. Colourful sign language. Feel the force of your personal space. NASA’s biggest rocket 14 IN BRIEF Gut bacteria eat brain chemical. Lazy bears stick to dumps. CRISPR snips out herpes viruses. Rafting sea slug goes global. Hunt for invisible aliens


Health warning about risks of natural childbirth

The risks of natural childbirth should be clear. Don’t go ape over gibbon conservation

On the cover



Lucky break How neutrinos saved the early universe 8 Labour pains Risks of natural childbirth 32 Moon grab Luxembourg’s gold rush 19 Green and Brexit land How leaving the EU could help the environment 36 Desert fire Volcanoes of the Sahara

Me! Why a little vanity can get you a long way

Analysis 16 Teen health What are hormonal contraceptives doing to teenage girls? 18 COMMENT Let Mars rover check out “life" zone. It’s vital that robots fire up our empathy 19 INSIGHT Brexit may not doom the environment

Technology 20 Testing the DNA of rivers. Machines don’t see the world like we do. A virtual journey inside a cell. Giving plants a voice

Cover image Lettering by M Deuchars




24 Inside the lightning strike lab


Desert fire

26 Me! (see above left) 30 Plight of the Hainan gibbon The race to save the world’s rarest mammal 32 Moon grab Luxembourg’s lunar gold rush 36 PEOPLE Desert fire (see left)

Exploring the volcanoes of the Sahara



Coming next week… Does reality exist without you? Making the universe one random act at a time

Jellymageddon How to stop jellyfish taking over the world

42 Listening to everyone Do antidepressants work? It depends who you ask 43 Eat the enemy Tasty invasive species 44 Old world The challenge of being 100

Regulars 52 LETTERS Out with obscure dark energy 56 FEEDBACK Homeopaths Without Borders 57 THE LAST WORD Earth’s angle explained


9 July 2016 | NewScientist | 3



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A woman’s right to choose The risks of all forms of childbirth should be made clear THE 1983 movie Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life opens with a scene in a hospital room where a woman is giving birth. “More apparatus please nurse,” shouts one doctor. “Get the machine that goes ‘ping’,” bellows another. The mother-to-be and her baby are an afterthought. The scene was (in part) a satire on the overmedicalisation of childbirth. How times have changed. A similar satire today would probably target the excessive promotion of natural childbirth as the ideal. In the UK, for example, women who request a caesarean section for non-medical reasons – which the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence says they

should be allowed as long as they are warned about the risks – are often blocked from having one, or have to jump through so many hoops they give up. Vaginal birth is, of course, the natural endpoint of a pregnancy, but natural does not necessarily mean good. And while it is right to inform women about the risks of non-medical C-sections, the playing field is not a level one. Pregnant women who choose a vaginal delivery are not officially warned about the possibility of bad outcomes for themselves or their babies. Now UK doctors are considering whether to formally warn women about the risks of giving birth vaginally (see page 8). The medical evidence is on their

Go ape? Not just yet WHAT is the world’s rarest mammal? If you have no idea, you’re not alone. The Hainan gibbon – current head count 26 – may be on the brink, but there is barely a murmur of publicity about efforts to conserve it. Maybe that is no surprise. We often hear about extremely rare species only once it is too late. The plight of the baiji, for example, only came to the world’s attention

after the last sighting in 2002. Five years later it was extinct. Given this precedent, what odds do we have of saving the gibbon? Is it even worth trying? Those are key questions in conservation biology right now (see page 30). Some argue that we should only invest in relatively healthy populations or ecosystems rather than fight rearguard actions to save species on the edge.


side. Planned C-sections are the safest option for the baby, because they avoid any chance of brain damage from a vaginal birth and the not-insignificant risk of stillbirth after 39 weeks. A planned C-section is also the only guaranteed way to avoid a risky emergency C-section. And they are cheaper in the long run once the costs of caring for injured mothers and children are taken into account. Obstetricians’ leaders are still deciding whether to press ahead, perhaps fearing a battle with natural birth campaigners. But if they delay much longer they will be letting down the patients they are meant to serve. Sometimes medicalisation is best. ■

That is a valid point. However, the Hainan gibbon increasingly represents the future of conservation. Vertebrate populations have declined by about half since 1970, and more and more species are dwindling towards extinction. Working out what can be done for those that have been reduced to Hainan gibbon levels will only become a more common problem. Efforts to save it are clearly worthwhile, if only to learn lessons that will maximise future success. ■ 9 July 2016 | NewScientist | 5



Juno at Jupiter, at last JUBILATION, relief and exhaustion. That was the reaction at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the heart of the Juno mission, when the probe pulled into orbit around Jupiter on Monday night. It was the most dangerous day for NASA’s Juno spacecraft since its launch in 2011. Long communication times between Earth and the probe made human help impossible, so mission engineers could do nothing but wait to hear whether it had succeeded. Juno’s approach was the fastest ever by a spacecraft going into orbit, at more than 200,000 kilometres per hour relative to Earth. In the event, the spacecraft slipped into a near-perfect orbit after a journey covering 869 million kilometres.

“We conquered Jupiter!” said mission lead Scott Bolton, who was overwhelmed as confirmation came in. “All that went through my head is, ‘Wow. It’s perfect.’” Bolton wasn’t exaggerating: Juno’s orbit is so close to ideal that it is a mere second behind its scheduled trajectory. Juno is now in a 53.5-day capture orbit. Then, on 14 October, it will burn its main engine, tightening up into a 14-day orbit. This is also when it will turn its scientific instruments on to carry out its major observations. Over the next year and a half, the craft will investigate some of Jupiter’s biggest mysteries, mapping the planet’s gravity and magnetic fields, looking for evidence of a solid core and tracking its auroras.

–By Jove, we did it–

No need for drugs OUT with antibiotics for colds? People do not experience more serious health problems when family doctors are stricter about prescribing the drugs for conditions such as coughs, colds and sore throats – a finding that should help stop the spread of antibiotic resistance. Martin Gulliford at King’s College London and his team studied 610 general practices in the UK and found that, overall, those that prescribe fewer antibiotics for respiratory

“This study provides GPs with the evidence to convince patients they don’t need antibiotics” infections do not have higher rates of serious bacterial complications, such as meningitis (BMJ, doi.org/bkrd). However, the researchers did detect slightly higher rates of pneumonia and quinsy, a rare complication of sore throats. They estimate that if an average-sized GP surgery with 7000 patients cut 6 | NewScientist | 9 July 2016

antibiotic prescriptions by 10 per cent, it would see one extra case of pneumonia a year and one more case of quinsy every decade. “Both these complications can be readily treated once identified,” says Gulliford. These findings are encouraging for family doctors, who have to decide many times a day whether to prescribe antibiotics, without knowing if a person’s condition is caused by bacteria or a virus. Using antibiotics for what is actually a viral infection helps spread drug resistance, but the fear has been that failing to catch a bacterial infection in its early stages can have severe consequences. “This is an important study and addresses a very emotive subject,” says Adam Roberts, who studies antibiotic resistance at University College London. “The pressure on GPs to reduce prescriptions is increasing, and this study provides them with the evidence they need to convince patients that, at least for respiratory tract infections, it is not going to harm them if they don’t receive the drugs.”

Deeper exploration THE deep sea is about to yield more of its secrets. The Nekton alliance, launched this week, brings together more than 30 international organisations from the fields of science, technology and business to try to learn more about Earth’s final frontier. “We know more about the surface of Mars and the moon than we do about our own seabed,” says principal scientist Alex Rogers at the University of Oxford.

The alliance’s XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey will kick off with dives in Bermuda this month, using both manned and autonomous submersibles. Rogers says such increasingly sophisticated craft are giving us unprecedented access to the deep sea. “We see a great need to learn, and we now have the technology to do it.” Nekton’s ultimate aim is to diagnose the health of waters below 200 metres, to better inform policy decisions on protecting these habitats.

Tesla: accidents will get rarer THE first death in an autonomous car has occurred. According to the US road safety administration, Joshua Brown was killed in Florida in May after his Tesla Model S hit a truck while in autopilot mode. Brown was on a highway when the truck joined the road from a cross street. Unable to pick out the white truck against the bright sky, the self-driving system failed to brake. Florida police found a DVD player in the car, but it is not known if Brown

was watching a movie at the time. Tesla said the accident was a tragic loss. “As more real-world miles accumulate and the software logic accounts for rare events, the probability of injury will keep decreasing,” it said in a statement. The fatality will raise tough questions about the safety of semi-autonomous cars but should not be seen as an indictment, says Hussein Dia of Swinburne University of Technology in Australia.


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

Anyone out there? CHINA finished building the largest radio telescope in the world this week – and will use the enormous dish to listen for aliens. The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope



Onwards and outwards After its fly-by of Pluto last July, the New Horizons spacecraft has got one final job before its fuel runs out. NASA has approved an extension of the mission to visit 2014 MU69, an ancient object just 30 kilometres across. The probe will head out into the Kuiper belt and is scheduled to reach MU69 on 1 January 2019.

“Individual panels can be rearranged to track specific objects, giving it greater range and sensitivity”

Don’t take it lying down


(FAST) is the size of 30 football pitches, dwarfing its nearest rival, the 300-metre-wide Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Assembled from 4450 triangular panels, the dish should Hippo cull go-ahead be able to detect astronomical AS MANY as 2000 hippos may be objects whose radio signals are killed over five years in Zambia. too weak to be picked up by The government has resurrected smaller telescopes. And aliens. a culling plan it suspended in Construction of FAST began mid-June. Animal welfare groups in 2011. It is situated in Guizhou province in a natural bowl-shaped say there is no solid scientific case for the cull, which may be carried feature that is ideal for housing out by paying trophy hunters. the colossal concave disc. The government has put The individual panels can be forward various reasons for rearranged to focus on and track the cull in the South Luangwa radio waves from specific objects National Park. These include of interest, which will give the preventing anthrax, which dish much greater range and sensitivity than rival dishes. “There’s relentless effort “The size of this telescope is to press ahead with the key to its scientific impact,” says suspended cull, even Tim O’Brien at the University of without scientific backing” Manchester, UK. “The bigger the telescope, the more radio waves hippos can spread, claims of it collects and the fainter the overpopulation and of water objects it will be able to see.” levels too low to support both hippos and the other wildlife. Yet there’s no current anthrax outbreak and water levels are the highest they have been in five years, says Will Travers, president of wildlife charity the Born Free Foundation. “They are on thin ground scientifically.” The government suspended the cull on 14 June, following protests by animal rights activists. But senior officials met on 22 June in Lusaka to recommend the cull go ahead after all, the Born Free Foundation claims. “There’s a –Attention still needed– relentless effort to press ahead,”

–Run for your life–

says Travers. “But at the moment, I can’t see how they can justify what’s going on.” He has now written to Zambian president Edgar Lungu asking for the cull to be abandoned, and for open publication of the rationale for killing the animals. Officials hadn’t replied to New Scientist’s request for comment as we went to press.

Turtles in trouble IT’S a turtle tragedy. Tumours are crippling an increasing number of green sea turtles on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The affected animals have a turtle-specific herpes virus that causes fibropapillomatosis – a condition in which disfiguring tumours grow on and inside the body. Those can block vision and increase risk of other infections, says Karina Jones at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. Her team’s surveys this year shows that in parts of the reef as many as half of the turtles have these crippling tumours. “We think there must be some external trigger that causes the tumour development,” says Jones. Turtles in healthy marine environments can still carry the virus, but it often lies dormant with no symptoms. The next step is to try to pin down the pollutants responsible.


The idea that women are more likely to conceive if they lie down to help sperm reach the egg is bogus. Women who rested for 15 minutes after insemination were no more likely to get pregnant than those who moved around. The work was presented at the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Endocrinology in Helsinki, Finland.

Cosmic weather map In March, a software glitch caused the Japanese X-ray space telescope Hitomi to spin itself to pieces just six weeks after launch. But before the malfunction, the probe mapped one of the largest weather systems in the universe, the flowing plasma of a clump of galaxies known as the Perseus cluster (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature18627).

Greenpeace under fire A third of all living Nobel laureates have signed a letter criticising Greenpeace’s stance on genetically modified crops. Greenpeace has “misrepresented the risks, benefits and impacts” of GM crops, they say, adding that “there has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption”.

Asleep, one ear open King penguins sleeping on a beach react to different levels of threat, the Society for Experimental Biology meeting in Brighton, UK, has heard. When orca or skua calls were played, the penguins woke up and fled. Sounds of non-predators woke them but they did not flee.

9 July 2016 | NewScientist | 7


Doctors may warn of birth risks Official advice on the risks of vaginal birth could soon be given to women first childbirth, he found that the emergency C-section, which risk of injury to a woman’s pelvic carries a higher risk of infection, floor muscles from vaginal birth haemorrhage and blood clots rises by 6 per cent. The risk of one than planned C-sections. of these muscles detaching from Dietz argues that women the pubic bone – which greatly should be warned about how raises the risk of uterus prolapse – factors like age and having a big was 10 per cent for a 20-year-old baby make vaginal birth more having a vaginal delivery without difficult. In April, he suggested the use of instruments like that, given that patients are forceps, but this doubled to warned of risks as low as 1 in 1000 20 per cent for a 40-year-old. before surgery, it is incongruous Age is a factor because our not to warn a woman having her muscles and ligaments get less “You should be able to stretchy as we grow older. This weigh up the risks, but makes them more likely to tear you can’t if you don’t during childbirth, and increases have the information” the likelihood of needing an

Clare Wilson

FOR the first time, pregnant women in the UK may be given official advice about the relative risks of vaginal births and caesarean sections. The move comes in the wake of a landmark 2015 UK Supreme Court case that awarded damages for a baby who sustained brain damage during vaginal birth. In this case, the plaintiff had a higher than usual risk of having a difficult birth, due to having a small pelvis and diabetes. But doctors didn’t inform her of these increased risks – an act of “medical paternalism”, said the presiding judge, who decided in the mother’s favour. This ruling is seen as applying to all births. Although advice is available for those who seek it out, women are not officially warned about common risks such as tearing and incontinence, because vaginal birth is seen as the default outcome of pregnancy.

first child at 38 that she has a 15 per cent chance of an anal tear (American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, doi.org/bkpw). “They have the right to know that,” he said. At the moment, women considering C-sections are warned about potential risks, like wound infections, blood loss and riskier future pregnancies. But women aren’t warned about the risk of bad tearing during vaginal birth, which can lead to problems in later life. “They have got leaflets about C-sections, yet most people opt for a vaginal birth and there are

In many countries, including the UK, the average age of mothers at birth has been rising for decades. For example, in 1973, the average age at childbirth in England and Wales was 26 years, but by 2014 this had risen to 30. Research is now revealing how age raises the risks from vaginal delivery. A recent study by Hans Peter Dietz of Sydney Medical School, Australia, found that women who have their first child later in life are more likely to have major pelvic floor injuries during vaginal birth – damage that can lead to incontinence (American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, doi.org/bkps). For every extra year at age of 8 | NewScientist | 9 July 2016


Age matters

–Consent form needed?–

no risk leaflets for them,” says Bryan Beattie, an obstetrician in the UK’s National Health Service. Doctors are now considering a major change. The UK’s Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists will meet this month to discuss how patient information for many different medical procedures should be altered in light of the court case, and will start trialling them as soon as possible. They are considering issuing one on vaginal births, says the college president David Richmond. “It’s terribly sensitive and difficult,” he says . Proponents of natural births predict that warnings about the risks of vaginal delivery may lead to more people choosing C-sections. The risks of vaginal births need to be balanced against the potential harms from C-sections, such as babies being born with breathing difficulties and risks to future pregnancies, says Louise Silverton of the Royal College of Midwives. “We need a healthy debate on what the emphasis should be.” Some argue that leaflets won’t be enough, and that women planning a vaginal birth should sign a consent form that details the risks, just as with any medical procedure. However this is likely to meet with opposition from midwives and campaigners for more natural childbirth approaches. “A vaginal birth is not a treatment, it’s a natural consequence of being pregnant,” says Deborah Chippington Derrick of the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services. Beattie says ultimately only the woman herself can decide which risks are most important to her. “You might say to me: ‘I could cope with a wound infection if I had a C-section but I could not cope with faecal incontinence from a bad vaginal delivery’,” he says. “You should be allowed to make that choice but you can’t if you don’t have the information.” ■


In this section ■ Colourful sign language, page 10 ■ What are hormonal contraceptives doing to teenage girls? page 16 ■ Testing the DNA of rivers, page 20

–Seeking unruly oscillations–

Neutrinos hint at why matter beat antimatter IT COULD all have been so different. When matter first formed in the universe, it should have been accompanied by an equal amount of antimatter. But if so they would then have annihilated each other, and we wouldn’t be here. Now a pair of experiments could be telling us where our theories have gone wrong. Neutrinos and their antimatter counterparts each come in three flavours: electron, muon and tau, which they can switch, or oscillate, between. The T2K experiment in Japan watches for these oscillations as neutrinos travel 295 kilometres between the J-PARC accelerator in Tokai and the Super-Kamiokande detector in Kamioka (pictured above). T2K looks both at muon neutrinos and at their antimatter version to see if there is a difference in their rates of oscillation, as a principle called charge-parity (CP) symmetry holds that they should be the same. The idea is that physics should remain basically unchanged if you replace all particles with their respective antiparticles. It appears to hold true for nearly all particle interactions, and implies that the universe should have produced the same amount of matter and antimatter in the big bang.

If CP symmetry holds, then matter and antimatter should have mostly destroyed each other and vanished in a puff of radiation early on in the universe’s history. That clearly didn’t happen, but we don’t know why. “We know in order to create more matter than antimatter in the universe, you need a process that violates CP symmetry,” says Patricia Vahle. She works on NoVA, an experiment similar to T2K that sends neutrinos between Illinois and Minnesota.

“Matter and antimatter should have vanished in a puff of radiation early on in the universe’s history” We already know of one such process: certain interactions between different kinds of quarks, the constituents of protons and neutrons in atoms. But that is not enough to explain why matter dominates the modern universe. Morphing neutrinos are another promising place to look. At this week’s Neutrino 2016 conference in London, the first signs of a violation emerged. The latest results from T2K, presented by Hirohisa Tanaka of the University of Toronto, Canada, include 32 sightings

of muon neutrinos morphing into the electron flavour, compared with just 4 muon antineutrinos becoming the anti-electron variety. This is more matter and less antimatter than expected, assuming CP symmetry holds. Although small, the difference is enough to rule out CP symmetry holding at the 2 sigma level – in other words, if CP symmetry is actually valid in this process, there is only around a 5 per cent chance of T2K observing the reported discrepancy. Particle physicists normally wait to reach the 3 sigma level before getting excited, and won’t consider anything confirmed until 5 sigma, so it’s early days. But at the same conference, Vahle presented the latest results from NoVA showing that the two experiments are in broad agreement. The extent of CP violation rests on a key parameter called delta-CP, and both teams found that their results were best explained by setting it equal to 1.5π. “[NoVA] data really does prefer the same value that T2K does,” says Asher Kaboth, who works on T2K. “All of the preferences for the delta-CP stuff are pointing in the same direction.” NoVA plans to run its own antineutrino experiments next year, which will help firm up the results, and both teams continue to gather data. It’s too soon to say definitively, but one of the mysteries of why we are here could be on the road to getting solved. Lisa Grossman ■ 9 July 2016 | NewScientist | 9


We can sense our invisible force field Upon stimulating these neurons, they found that the monkeys would reflexively move their heads and limbs as if defending themselves – for example, grimacing and closing their eyes.

OUR brains are aware not just of our bodies but also the immediate space around us. Now, a twist on the classic rubber hand illusion has let people “feel” this space – a sensation they liken to perceiving a “force field”. Neuroscientists have known for decades that our brains contain representations of the area surrounding us, known as peripersonal space. This allows us to grasp objects within our reach and helps to protect us. For example, imagine you are walking through the woods, when a low-hanging branch suddenly appears in your peripheral vision. You’ll instinctively duck to dodge it: your sense of peripersonal space has helped you avoid being hit. Hard neuroscientific evidence on the phenomenon appeared in the late 1990s in animal studies. Michael Graziano at Princeton University and his colleagues found that some neurons in monkey brains fired not only when an object touched the body, but also when the object came near it.

Synaesthesia gives colour to sign language IMAGINE if each of these words had their own taste or colour. For synaesthetes – a small proportion of people whose senses intertwine – this is the stuff of every day. Now a new form of synaesthesia has been discovered – one that moves beyond written language to sign language. In theory, any two senses can overlap. “People with synaesthesia experience the ordinary world in extraordinary ways,” says Jamie 10 | NewScientist | 9 July 2016


Anil Ananthaswamy

Ward, a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex in the UK. Some synaesthetes connect textures with words, but more commonly, written letters seem to have corresponding colours. An individual synaesthete may always associate the letter A with the colour pink, for instance. This type of synaesthesia has been found across many written languages, prompting Ward’s team to wonder if it can also apply to sign language. They recruited 50 volunteers with the type of synaesthesia that links colours with letters, around half of whom were fluent in sign language. All the participants watched a video

Although no one has repeated the experiments in humans, there is evidence that certain regions of our brain deal specifically with peripersonal space. For instance, some people who have strokes in the right posterior parietal lobe cannot sense peripersonal stimuli on the left side of their body, but can perceive things further away on that side in the normal way. “This suggests that there is a

representation similar to those found in monkeys in the human brain,” says Arvid Guterstam of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. Now, Guterstam and his colleagues have tricked humans into feeling our peripersonal space. They turned to the classic rubber hand illusion, in which a paintbrush is used to stroke a volunteer’s hand hidden from view and an adjacent, visible rubber hand, at the same time, speed and place on both. Within minutes, most people report feeling the brush on the rubber hand as if it belonged to them. In the new study, which involved 101 adults, the researchers never brushed the rubber hand directly. Instead, they moved the brush above it, again at the same time as brushstrokes that touched the real hand. Most volunteers reported feeling a “magnetic force” or “force field” between the paintbrush and the rubber hand below – as if the brush was encountering an invisible barrier. The volunteers also felt a sense of ownership of the fake hand (Cognition, doi.org/bkc9). For decades, neuroscience has filled in our knowledge of the special buffer zone around the body, says Graziano. “Now we have a clever way to get at –There’s something in the air– the phenomenon.” ■

of someone signing and were asked if it triggered any colours. Of those that understood sign language, four did associate colours with the signed letters – and the colour was the same as the shade they saw for the written version of each letter (Neurocase, doi.org/bkhn). However, those who didn’t understand sign language did not associate any colours with the gestures. This suggests that it is the meaning of letters and other

“People with synaesthesia experience the ordinary world in extraordinary ways”

symbols that is important for triggering other sensations – the action is not enough by itself. Most of those in the study who knew sign language were not hard of hearing and had learned to sign in later life. This implies that their synaesthesia adapted to this new form of language, says Ward. “It tells us that synaesthesia is not fixed in early life – exposure can bring new synaesthesia,” he says. “The results are consistent with the idea that synaesthesia is predominantly mediated by conceptual links,” says Anina Rich at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Jessica Hamzelou ■

Professor Dame Carol Robinson 2015 Laureate for United Kingdom

By Brigitte Lacombe

Science needs women L’ORÉAL UNESCO AWARDS

Dame Carol Robinson, Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, invented a ground-breaking method for studying how membrane proteins function, which play a critical role in the human body. hroughout the world, exceptional women are at the heart of major scientiic advances. For 17 years, L’Oréal has been running the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women In Science programme, honouring exceptional women from around the world. Over 2000 women from over 100 countries have received our support to continue to move science forward and inspire future generations. JOIN US ON FACEBOOK.COM/FORWOMENINSCIENCE


FIELDNOTES Space Launch System on test

the first few seconds, the plug will mostly disintegrate as soon as the booster ignites. Although the SLS will be the largest rocket the world has ever known, it will be some time before it claims that crown. The rocket I’m about to see go off is more powerful than the space shuttle booster it’s based on, but its first test flight with an empty Orion crew capsule in 2018 will have only half the lifting power of the retired Saturn V rockets that sent astronauts to the moon.

Mika McKinnon, Promontory, Utah

12 | NewScientist | 9 July 2016

Essential upgrades To get more thrust, NASA plans first to upgrade the SLS’s upper stage rocket for a second test flight in 2023, when Orion will carry a crew. After that, the booster itself will need an upgrade to be able to propel explorers into deep space. That’s the plan – the elephant in the room is whether the project will keep getting the funding and policy support it needs. What’s more, the technology to keep humans alive in the harsh


THEY call it the most powerful rocket ever built. NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) is designed to carry astronauts on deep space missions, and is about to undergo its final ground test at a facility belonging to the rocket’s manufacturer, Orbital ATK. I’m at the private viewing area, dotted with trailers, giant white tents, and an enormous video screen. The obligatory countdown clock stands on a nearby hill, red numbers glowing in the low morning light. A single rocket booster is just 2 kilometres away – as close as we can safely get. The booster is tied down on its side, nozzle pointed into a human-cut ravine that will contain its flames. When the SLS launches for its first test flight in 2018, two of these will provide 75 per cent of its lifting power. It’s 8.05 am on 28 June, the scheduled time for the test, but the booster is silent. The countdown clock is frozen because of a delay caused by a glitch in the booster’s monitoring system. As we wait for a simple parts swap, the tents fill with visiting dignitaries sheltering from the blazing sun. The test is a straightforward one: does the booster fire for 2 minutes and 6 seconds, then stop? If so it will pass, and everything else is just details. But those details are important. More than 530 sensors will help the post-test analysis team pick apart every aspect of its behaviour. One team is even devoted to the world’s worst jigsaw puzzle: reassembling a styrofoam plug, currently jammed into the exhaust nozzle. Designed to control pressure for


Close encounters of the rocket kind

–There she glows–

radiation of deep space doesn’t A beat later, the shock wave even exist yet. NASA’s previous literally hits us, accompanied deep space project, Constellation, by a roar that just doesn’t end. died a quiet death the last time This isn’t like a launch, in which the US administration changed. the blast fades as the rocket tears With election season looming, away into the sky. The booster is will the SLS survive the whims locked into its ravine backstopped of a new president? by solid rock. Inside its engine, No one is really worrying about gases heat to over 3000 °C, that right now. At 9.05 am, the last “It’s unnervingly silent at few seconds count down on the first – light is faster than clock, and the rocket flames into sound. Then the shock life right on cue. Cheers erupt as wave literally hits us” the flame extends, the booster quickly and visibly reaching full ignition. At first, it’s unnervingly enough to boil steel. The noise silent, a physics lesson brought to continues, unleashing a tower life that light is faster than sound. of smoke as my heart thumps in counter-rhythm to a bass line I could never hope to match. And then it’s over, flame sputtering out as a cooling arm swings into the nozzle, silence returning as the staggeringly tall smoke clouds start to feather in the gentle breeze. Later, when I can get up close to the booster, I learn that spent propellant reeks of burning tyres, offset by the scents of sun-warmed dirt and bruised sagebrush. I can spot wild grins on the face of every Orbital employee and every NASA visitor. The SLS’s boosters have passed the test and are ready for launch. Everything –Staring down the business end– from here on in is just details. ■




Off-world lightning now predictable

Lazy bears prefer garbage dumps to forest foraging GARBAGE dumps are turning bears into couch potatoes. A survey of brown bears in north-east Turkey has revealed how visiting a dump has completely changed local bears’ lifestyles. The bears that visited the dump became more sedentary, no longer migrating and foraging over the same distance as those that didn’t. “It’s surprising that two substantially distinct lifestyles can develop and coexist within a small and isolated subpopulation,” says Gabriele Cozzi of Zurich University in Switzerland. This is a first for brown bears, he says, although such distinctions

have been found within groups of black bears. Cozzi and his team radio-tagged 16 bears, then followed their movement for an average of 10 months, and up to 20 months. They found that the 10 “dump bears” — seven males and three females — did not stray far from the dump, except to hibernate during the winter. By contrast, the remaining six wild bears —three males, three females — that never visited the dump ventured far and wide. These bears migrated an average of 165 kilometres each year in search of food, especially in the period prior to hibernation, when they were probably “fattening up” (Journal of Zoology, doi.org/bkhx). The local authority in the Sarikamis city is now planning to close the dump. The danger is that the dump bears will then venture into the city for easy snacks.

Giving herpes viruses the snip COLD sores, begone! Gene editing could wipe out the herpes viruses that hide inside us. Almost all of us carry a form of herpes virus, which can cause cold sores and shingles as well as being implicated in blindness, birth defects and cancer. As yet, we can’t completely rid ourselves of them, because we have no way of targeting the viruses when they are dormant. 14 | NewScientist | 9 July 2016

But messing with their DNA might do the trick. Robert Jan Lebbink at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands and his team have been experimenting with CRISPR, a gene-editing technique that cuts DNA. When this happens, an organism usually repairs its DNA, but this process often introduces mutations. Such errors might be enough to disable a virus.

When they used CRISPR on cells infected with Epstein-Barr virus – a herpes virus associated with some cancers – they found that cutting the viral DNA in one spot halved viral activity, and cutting it in two places led to 95 per cent of dormant viruses being lost from the cells (PLoS Pathogens, doi.org/bkhs). “We could efficiently remove the latent genome from infected cells, essentially curing cells from their invader,” says Lebbink.

IT’S the first interplanetary lightning forecast. A team of astronomers led by Gabriella Hodosán at the University of St Andrews, UK, has extrapolated observations of storms on Earth to predict lightning on exoplanets. Volcanic exoplanets probably have electrically charged atmospheres, with the dust from eruptions setting off lightning bolts, says Hodosán. To model one such world, Kepler-10b – which could have a surface made up entirely of volcanoes – the team used data from lightning during the eruptions of Mount Redoubt, Alaska, in 2009 and Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland, in 2010. The results suggest that if Kepler-10b is mostly volcanic, it should experience between 100 million and 2 trillion lightning flashes in the 2 hours it takes to travel across its star, as seen from Earth (arxiv.org/abs/1606.09172).

Rafting sea slugs conquer the oceans IF THEY had sailing skills like these, Nemo and Dory wouldn’t keep losing each other. Unlike most sea slugs that crawl on coral reefs, the nudibranch Fiona pinnata lives on the go. These seafaring sea slugs live on floating islands of debris, eating gooseneck barnacles and drifting with the currents. As a result, they span the globe – yet a genetic analysis now shows they are still closely related. It seems rafting helps slugs find each other (Invertebrate Systematics, doi.org/bkn8). They travel on anything that floats: uprooted mats of kelp, plastic – even turtles. “There’s always stuff out there for them to live on,” says the study’s co-author Jonathan Waters at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.

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EASY riders. The great frigatebirds can fly for weeks without a break, mostly cruising over the ocean looking for food near the surface. “Frigatebirds are really strange,” says Henri Weimerskirch at the Centre for Biological Studies, Chizé, France. Unlike other birds that travel over the sea, such as albatrosses, their feathers lack waterproof oil, so they can’t take a break on the water. Instead, they save energy by coasting for kilometres while minimising wingbeats. Weimerskirch’s team tracked the migrations of 49 frigatebirds native to Europa Island in the Mozambique Channel throughout the Indian Ocean using tiny data loggers. They found some flights lasted up to 63 days without a rest. Only alpine swifts can fly for longer. Juveniles travelled the farthest, with one chalking up 55,000 kilometres in 185 days with only four days’ rest on islands (Science, doi.org/bkht). Unlike other birds, most of which avoid clouds because of their turbulence, frigatebirds seem to seek them out to ride on the strong updrafts under cumulus clouds in the open ocean to gain altitude. They usually climb to the base of the cloud layer, about 700 metres up, before entering a long descending glide. They don’t flap on the climb, so this may also be when they catch a snooze.

Now you see it, now you don’t… oh, that’s just aliens at work It’s a cosmic game of hide-andseek. The way to find advanced extraterrestrial civilisations could be to look for stars or even galaxies that have vanished without trace, as anything so outlandish could only be down to life far more intelligent than us. Beatriz Villarroel at Uppsala University in Sweden and her colleagues scoured multiple night-sky surveys by eye, to see whether any of nearly 300,000 light sources disappeared from one survey to the next (arxiv.org/ abs/1606.08992).

The team found one interesting artefact that looks like it might have gone, but they can’t be sure. “We neither could reject it and neither could we say that it was a real candidate,” says Villarroel. Even if the disappearance is real, there could be a conventional explanation. Quasars, the bright centres of galaxies powered by supermassive black holes, can shut down in less than a decade and dim drastically. Stars, too, can be highly variable. So Villarroel and her colleagues plan to search for this potential

missing object (and any others found in the future) using the largest telescopes. Not seeing it would rule out most astrophysical phenomena as the cause. Villarroel and her colleagues invoke sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” If they can confirm that a star has vanished without an accompanying supernova, or that a galaxy has gone from view, there’s simply no physical explanation, save for aliens. FABIO SILVA

Frigatebirds ride clouds to gain lift

Gut bug thrives on brain chemical IT’S food for thought. A bacterium recently discovered in our gut depends on a neurotransmitter for its survival – which could help explain why our microbiome seems to affect mood. Philip Strandwitz and his team at Northeastern University in Boston found that they could only culture a type of bacteria called KLE1738 if they gave it GABA, a molecule crucial for calming brain activity. “Nothing made it grow, except GABA,” said Strandwitz, who announced the finding at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Boston in June. GABA inhibits signals from nerve cells, and an abnormally low level of it is linked to depression and other mood disorders. A study in 2011 found that another gut bacterium, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, can dramatically alter GABA activity in the brains of mice, as well as influence how they respond to stress. Strandwitz is now looking for other gut bacteria that directly alter GABA levels. Such work may eventually lead to new treatments for disorders like depression or anxiety.

See the heavens and honour the dead THOUSANDS of years before the invention of the telescope, prehistoric people may have built observatories underground to espy faint stars. Passage graves, common throughout western Europe, from Portugal to Scandinavia, are subterranean tombs connected to the outside by a long, straight corridor. Now archaeoastronomers are making the case that they could also have been used for spotting stars at dawn, when they would otherwise be too faint to see. The tombs would enhance vision

because someone looking skywards from the depths of the tomb would find the corridor walls blocking out most of the ambient light. The viewer’s eyes would also be adapted to the dark. This would allow knowledgeable observers to see stars at morning twilight as they come into view for the first time each year, having previously been below the horizon, says Fabio Silva at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David in the UK. Silva presented the theory at the National Astronomy Meeting in Nottingham last week.

9 July 2016 | NewScientist | 15


The contraception deception Thousands of teenage girls worldwide take hormonal contraception. But we don’t actually know what this does to their bodies, says Jessica Hamzelou TEENAGE pregnancies have hit record lows in the Western world, largely thanks to increased use of contraceptives of all kinds. But strangely, we don’t really know what hormonal contraceptives – pills, patches and injections that contain synthetic sex hormones – are doing to the developing bodies and brains of teenage girls. You’d be forgiven for assuming that we do. After all, the pill has been around for more than

50 years. It has been through many large trials assessing its effectiveness and safety, as have the more recent patches and rings, and the longer-lasting implants and injections. But those studies were done in adult women – very few have been in teenage girls. And biologically, there is a big difference. At puberty, our bodies undergo an upheaval as our hormones go haywire. It isn’t until our 20s that

things settle down and our brains and bones reach maturity. “If a drug is going to be given to 11 and 12-year-olds, it needs to be tested in 11 and 12-year-olds,” says Joe Brierley of the clinical ethics committee at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. Legislation introduced in the US in 2003 and in Europe in 2007 was intended to make this happen but a New Scientist investigation can reveal that there is still scant data

on what contraceptives actually do to developing girls. The few studies that have been done suggest that tipping the balance of oestrogen and progesterone during this time may have farreaching effects, although there is not yet enough data to say whether we should be alarmed. It is estimated that around a quarter of girls aged between 15 and 19 in the US are using hormonal contraceptives. Girls younger than 15 are also prescribed them, often to regulate their periods, or to help with period pain or acne. Fourteen per cent of pill users say they are taking the drug for exclusively non-contraceptive reasons. “Girls can be prescribed contraceptives as young as 9,” says Andrea Bonny of Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. It is common practice to extrapolate results gleaned from adults in clinical trials to children. Pharmacologists use models to

82% Sexually active girls aged 15-19 in the US using contraception Source CDC, 2006-2010


predict the scaled-down dose that might be appropriate for a younger person. It is estimated that this has resulted in over half the drugs prescribed to babies, children and young people having never been tested in those groups. The laws that came into force in 2003 and 2007 have started to take effect for many drugs, but not for birth control – the US National Institutes of Health, for example, funds a contraceptive trial network but still excludes under 18s. “I suspect it’s political,” says Bonny, who has been running her own, small-scale 16 | NewScientist | 9 July 2016

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Sexually active girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in the US use many methods of birth control 100 80 60

SOURCE: CDC, 2011-2013

40 20

potentially setting a different ‘normal’ for the ovaries,” says Clancy. She suspects this may signal premature development. But the consequences are unclear – the effects might even be beneficial for all we know. “I’ve tried to research this, but what’s frustrated me is the lack of research on adolescent hormonal contraceptive use,” says Clancy. There is no doubt that hormonal contraceptives have had a massive positive impact. The fall in teen pregnancies in recent years – down 50 per cent since 1999 in the UK, and 40 per cent between 2004 and 2014 in the US – is thought to have huge

TEENAGE TRIALS There are many reasons why companies, individuals and funding organisations are reluctant to test contraceptives in teens. Andrea Bonny, a physician in Columbus, Ohio, says she gets angry letters when she advertises for young study participants, with many writers feeling that she is encouraging teenagers to have sex. “We are inundated with negative comments”. When children participate in clinical trials, their parents must give consent. But teenagers might not want to tell their parents they are taking contraceptives, says Dirk

Mentzer, chair of the European Medicines Agency’s Paediatric Committee (PDCO), which assesses clinical trials that involve children. “This is one reason why the PDCO is not pressing organisations to run these studies,” he says. Some countries oppose testing contraceptives in children for cultural reasons, says Mentzer. And many research ethics committees will only support a clinical trial if the outcome is likely to have a positive, measurable effect on health – something that is hard to read in a trial of contraceptives.

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Several studies have suggested that rather than gaining bone, teenagers taking Depo-Provera experience bone density loss of somewhere between 5 to 7 per cent, if they have been taking it for more than two years. Although there are no big studies on whether this results in more fractures later in life, the drug now comes with a warning label in the US. There is some evidence that teens who stop having the shot recover the lost bone, but we don’t know if they reach optimum bone density, says Bonny. There are other potential issues. Some hormonal contraceptives cause weight gain. This might be because of the changes in hormone levels they create, says Kelly Klump at Michigan State University in East Lansing. The normal fluctuation of hormones across the menstrual cycle triggers an increased appetite before a period starts. “Essentially what [hormonal] contraceptives do is increase this phase,” says Klump. She is investigating if the drugs cause women to binge eat. Either way, weight put on when you are young can be harder to shift further down the line. “My suspicion is body composition changes are going to have longterm consequences for obesity and metabolism,” says Bonny. That hunch is based on what we know about how the female brain develops during puberty. The swings in oestrogen and progesterone that result in

What teens choose

Co nd om

The bare bones

irregular periods, mood swings and acne also cause the death of brain cells. This sounds dramatic but it’s a normal developmental process known as pruning, which sculpts certain brain circuits into their adult form, including the one governing metabolism. Hormonal contraceptives suppress the release of the body’s own versions, so teens on the pill may miss out on this roller-coaster ride. “You’re imposing an adult hormone regimen on someone who may not experience it for another few years,” says Cheryl Sisk at Michigan State University. This means less painful periods, but there could also be an effect on pruning. This could have consequences not only for body weight, but also for other things regulated by the sculpted brain circuits – sexual behaviour and how a person processes rewards, which is linked to substance abuse, says Sisk. “It could have long-lasting, maybe permanent effects.” Kathryn Clancy of the University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign says imposing adult levels of sex hormones on teenagers may disrupt the development of the body’s hormone control system, which is set during adolescence. “If you give teenagers hormones, you’re

Per cent

research projects. “No one wants to test contraceptives in minors.” Bonny has been involved in investigating whether an injectable drug called depot medroxyprogesterone acetate (DMPA) or Depo-Provera, which is promoted to teenagers, causes bone loss. Bone is built up and broken down throughout life, but overall bone density increases in adolescence, stabilises in middle age, and then declines.

implications for young women, in terms of their health, education and future financial stability – as well as those of their children. But often the choice of which contraceptive doctors should prescribe to teens comes down to

57% Sexually active girls aged 16-19 in the UK using contraception Source ONS, 2008-2009

which a person feels comfortable taking, or which they can be trusted to use properly. These shouldn’t be the only factors, say the researchers. A study carried out almost 30 years ago found that women of different ethnicities respond differently to varying doses of hormonal contraceptives. Others suggest that lower doses might be sufficient in teenagers, especially those who are using the drugs for reasons other than safe sex. Tweaking the ratio of hormones in a contraceptive might also make them more suitable for teens. Oestrogen helps build up bone, while progesterone breaks it down. And while oestrogen can increase the risk of blood clots, the risk from this is lower for teenagers with their youthful blood vessels than it is for adults. But without trials, there is no way of knowing what will work best. ■ 9 July 2016 | NewScientist | 17


A question of Curiosity Should contamination fears stop us from sending a Mars rover to sites where water and life may exist, asks Dirk Schulze-Makuch SINCE the Mars rover Curiosity landed near Mount Sharp in 2012, an orbiter has spotted features that might be caused by seasonal flows of water on the peak’s slopes. Should Curiosity be sent to take a closer look? NASA is considering this question now. If liquid water is periodically present, it would make these places so-called “special regions”, which enjoy a higher status under planetary-protection guidelines. Only rovers and landers that have been rigorously sterilised, unlike Curiosity, are supposed to examine them, to avoid possible contamination from microbes that hitched a ride from Earth. But does maintaining this rule make sense? NASA is planning human missions to Mars in the 2030s, which makes contamination ever more likely. And those missions will aim to exploit water sources on the Red

Planet, so shouldn’t we do all we can to find out what the first astronauts there will encounter? In any case, we must recognise that Mars has already been contaminated, both from non- or poorly sterilised spacecraft and the earlier interplanetary transfer of life by asteroid impacts, ejecting rocks from Earth that later landed on Mars. The latter must have occurred many times on a much warmer and wetter Mars in the early history of the solar system. If so, life that came from Earth might be widespread there. Even if life on Mars originated independently, it would have been exposed to terrestrial cousins long ago. Fears of a takeover by new arrivals are overblown. The Martian environment is extreme and sterilising at the surface, and hitch-hikers would be pounded by

Automatically good Ensuring robots evoke empathy is vital as they take their place in society, says Jamais Cascio AN ELECTRIC buggy’s brakes fail, sending it into the street where it blocks traffic; it’s the third time this has happened and its owners say they will scrap it. Bystanders nod and get on with their day. A dog slips its leash, running into the street where it blocks traffic; it’s the third time and its owners say they are going to put 18 | NewScientist | 9 July 2016

Instead, they got the second. This backlash should not have come as a surprise. They gave Promobot a wide face and large eyes, infant-like traits that the human brain is wired to see as “cute” and non-threatening. Seeing as the bot was intended for customer relations, its makers wanted to invoke a friendly, empathetic reaction to the machine. That’s what they got. By hijacking our preprogrammed response in this

the dog down. Bystanders are understandably horrified. Last month, Russian robot Promobot wandered out of its testing and programming facility for the third time, blocking traffic “Promobot has a wide face when its battery ran out in the and large eyes, infant-like street. Its owners expected the traits that the human brain first kind of reaction when they is wired to see as cute” said they were going to scrap it.

way, robot designers around the world have begun to expand our circle of empathy. And while complications are possible, in the long run this is a good thing. Most of this is superficial at present, emerging from big eyes or movements that echo appealing animal behaviours, but engineers have already begun to experiment with more complex phenomena. Ultimately, the more empathy we have for the robots we share our lives with, the better. Treating robots as companions rather than servants will benefit our relationships with increasingly sophisticated intelligent machines and with other people.

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Dirk Schulze-Makuch is a professor of ecohydrology at Washington State University and a visiting professor at the Technical University of Berlin

Studies show that people who mistreat animals in their youth are more likely to mistreat other people as adults. We may well see a point where abusing a robot without regard for its apparent affection or pain will serve as a similar warning. And when the day comes that robot minds are complex and aware enough to recognise abuse, I’d rather not see the appearance of resentment as a newly emergent property. ■ Jamais Cascio is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in California, and writes about the impact of innovation at Open the Future

INSIGHT UK referendum


radiation and exposed to huge temperature swings, reactive minerals and nasty chemicals. Survival is not impossible, but the chances are remote. Our current best sterilisation methods for spacecraft are prohibitively costly and not 100 per cent effective – so Earth’s toughest microbes can make the journey to Mars anyway. In effect, this mean that no spacecraft is likely to go any time soon to a place on Mars where life could exist. Planetary protection is, of course, extremely important, but the emphasis should be on protecting our own planet. Searching for life on Mars is safer than bringing samples back to Earth, risking contamination of our planet. What’s more, the risk of mistaking a terrestrial hitchhiker for a Martian is tiny. Current planetary-protection policy is too restrictive. It is not allowing us to go to places that are interesting and where we might find life. We should change it and let Curiosity take this chance to examine what could be seasonal water flows. ■

–Green linings?

Brexitdoesn’t haveto doomtheenvironment Michael Le Page

BREXIT may be bad in many ways, but there’s a very faint glimmer of a silver lining. If the UK leaves the European Union, it may not necessarily be a disaster for the environment despite that being the general consensus before the vote. Here are three ways it might be beneficial.

minister David Cameron blocked an attempt to introduce rules to stop frackers polluting the environment or triggering too many earthquakes. Future EU environment laws may be stronger if the UK has no input. 2. Losing the Common Agricultural Policy could benefit wildlife Nearly half the EU’s budget is spent on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which sees £3.5 billion go to UK landowners every year. To qualify, land doesn’t actually have to be farmed – it just has to be kept bare, as if ready for planting or grazing. This system means

1. The UK wouldn’t be able to water down EU laws any more A big worry for environmentalists is that, on leaving the EU, the UK will rip up a host of laws covering everything from air pollution and conservation to recycling. Three such laws, including a “The UK has blocked many directive that bans the dumping of raw EU laws. Future regulations may be stronger if sewage where people swim, will be the country has no say” lost if the UK invokes article 50. But plenty of British MPs and unused land that could provide businesses want the UK to remain in valuable habitats for wildlife is the single market. If the UK had a new often kept barren instead. arrangement like Norway’s, it would After a Brexit, many had assumed still be bound by almost all EU laws, that the UK government would start but would have no say in them. doling out cash to landowners This might sound like a bad thing, but in recent years, the UK has blocked instead, as promised by some Leave campaigners. But hard financial times or diluted many EU environmental could well mean that the government regulations. For instance, prime

reduces or halts these subsidies. This could make it hard for many farmers to continue. Those that do are likely to be pushed to use more intensive, less-wildlife-friendly, farming practices. But overall, the end of the CAP may lead to more land in the UK supporting wildlife-rich habitats, because landowners would no longer have an incentive to keep bare areas that could be valuable to wildlife. 3. The failing carbon trading scheme could be fixed The pound isn’t the only thing whose value is falling. The cost of polluting the atmosphere with carbon dioxide also plummeted after the vote. British politicians were instrumental in persuading the EU to set up the Emissions Trading System in 2005, which enables big emitters like power plants to buy the right to pollute. The ETS is supposed to be the main mechanism for reducing carbon emissions in the EU, but it has failed. It has delivered an emissions price that is both too low and too volatile to bring about significant reductions – the price crash in response to Brexit is yet more evidence of the system’s flaws. What we need instead is a steadily rising price for polluting, to encourage long-term investment in emissionsreducing technology. While the UK could still remain part of the ETS after Brexit, it will lose its influence. With its voice gone, there could be a better chance for reform. ■ 9 July 2016 | NewScientist | 19


TECHNOLOGY survey site, the team found as many or more amphibian species through eDNA as they did through the traditional survey. That’s because many well-hidden species are hard to find by eye. It’s not just useful for water dwellers: eDNA found in rivers could also give a picture of landdwelling creatures. A group led by Kristy Deiner at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, sequenced the eDNA found in samples from eight sites in the Glatt river system in Switzerland. They turned up 296 families of organisms – everything from aquatic worms and shellfish to plants and fungi that lived on the land around the Glatt. Taberlet isn’t sure that river eDNA sampling is good enough to survey all the land in a river’s –Threat to fish– watershed. “You’re at risk of missing a lot of species,” he says. In addition, Deiner’s team only identified organisms to the family level, not to species. “What can you do with identification at just the family level for biodiversity research? I think there is some Water contains so many organisms that it is difficult to count them. improvement to do,” he says. Conor Gearin explores a way to do it using the code of life itself The sheer scale of rivers gives them potential as environmental THE Mekong river teems with life DNA littered throughout the ecologists sampled water from monitoring systems, says Si Creer as it flows to the South China Sea. environment and identifying the streams and ponds in France and at Bangor University in the UK. But the unique species found here species they belong to with DNA the Netherlands for DNA, then “You could almost use the rivers are under threat from plans to sequencing. He wants to work with cross-referenced their results with as an ecological pulse to try to build hydropower dams along the Chinese ecologists to carry out extensive traditional surveys. They find out how what we’re doing river. A new environmental “eDNA surveys” in the Mekong, looked for fish by eye and caught on the land is reflected in the monitoring technique may help building up a picture of where frogs and salamanders in nets. biodiversity of the river,” he says. limit the damage, by quickly rare and vulnerable species live. When they compared the results, He also points out that eDNA counting all the species upstream The idea is based on recent they found that eDNA showed as surveys overcome the problem using only DNA pulled out of the research that suggests every river many or more fish species at in using taxonomists to identify river. That information could be acts as a conveyor belt for genetic all of an ecosystem’s species: no used to influence dam locations at material released from cells shed “The world is permeated one’s knowledge is complete. with DNA. Collect it and the planning stage. from the species living there – “Even a team of taxonomists Traditional surveying methods what’s called environmental DNA sequence it and you get a can only look at the diversity of much better view of life” would take years to identify (eDNA). Identifying species like a community within the limit of ecological hotspots that dams this – in much the same way that what they’re able to do,” he says. should avoid – time developers microbiologists use DNA 89 per cent of the sites they visited. Yu says eDNA surveys could don’t want to waste. “There’s no sequencing to identify bacteria in “With the techniques we are make wildlife monitoring way you’re going to sample that a sample – could revolutionise using, we obtain all the fish species, cheaper, faster and more available [large an area] with the wildlife surveys. This would allow including the very rare ones,” says to those with fewer resources. traditional methods,” says biologists to quickly detect many Pierre Taberlet at the Joseph “The world is just permeated with Douglas Yu at the Kunming of the species in an ecosystem. Fourier University in Grenoble, DNA,” he says. “You just have to Institute of Zoology in China. The technique works well France, who carried out the test. collect it and sequence it in the Yu hopes to speed up surveying for identifying aquatic species. The eDNA survey worked well right way, and then you get a by gathering the fragments of Last year, a team of European for amphibians, too: at every much better view of life.” ■

Rivers of DNA

20 | NewScientist | 9 July 2016

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Mechanical Turk to answer queries about a set of pictures, such as “What is the man doing?” or “What number of cats are lying on the bed?” Each picture was blurred, and the worker had to click around to sharpen it. Mapping those clicks was a guide to which parts of the picture they paid attention to. The researchers then put the same questions to two neural networks trained to interpret images, and

“Neural networks’ focus is different from ours, so there’s a mystery to their skill at figuring out images” monitored the areas each network chose to sharpen and explore. On a scale where 1 represents total overlap and 0 is none, the attention maps from any two humans had an average overlap score of 0.63, whereas AI and human attention maps had a lower score of 0.26 (arxiv.org/abs/1606.03556). Despite the discrepancy, neural networks are pretty good at deciding what an image shows, so there remains an element of mystery to

Always with you Peace of mind for parents? A start-up called Jiobit in Chicago is launching a tiny wearable designed to help you keep track of your children. The device clips on to clothing, and the battery lasts a week. The idea is that children will be freer to roam and explore out of sight of their parents, who can track each child’s whereabouts on a smartphone. Jiobit calls this device an “invisible”.

160,000 The number of tickets overturned by a chatbot called DoNotPay which fights traffic tickets automatically

AI spots dodgy cargo The world trades more goods every day as our population grows. How are human inspectors supposed to keep up with the bad guys? Researchers at University College London have trained a neural network to spot cars hidden in shipping containers, using X-ray data. Illicit cars are often involved in export fraud and smuggling, so being able to find them tucked away in a container is helpful. The team’s technique spotted hidden cars 100 per cent of the time, with just one false positive in 454 attempts.

–How many towers? Show workings– 9 July 2016 | NewScientist | 21


THEY can be as hard to read as people. Artificially intelligent systems may make good decisions, but their thought process is utterly inscrutable. In one important area, though, we are cracking that black box open and peering inside. It turns out that humans and machines don’t pay attention to the same things when they look at pictures – not at all. Researchers at Facebook and Virginia Tech in Blacksburg got humans and machines to answer simple questions about images, a task that neural-network-based artificial intelligence can handle. But it wasn’t the answers that were of interest. The team wanted to map the areas that humans and AIs focus on, in order to shed a little light on the differences between us and them. “These attention maps are something we can measure in both humans and machines, which is pretty rare,” says Lawrence Zitnick at Facebook AI Research in Menlo Park, California. Comparing the two could yield insights “into whether computers are looking in the right place”. First, Zitnick and his colleagues asked online workers on Amazon

their skill. “Machines do not seem to be looking at the same regions as humans, which suggests that we do not understand what they are basing their decisions on,” says Dhruv Batra at Virginia Tech. This gap between humans and machines could be a useful source of inspiration for researchers looking to refine their neural nets. “Can we make them more human-like, and will that translate to higher accuracy?” Batra asks. It may also help unravel how neuralnetwork-based AI actually works. There have been several recent attempts to do just that, for example studies that use “brain scans” of the algorithms in action or optical illusions designed specifically to trick them. The results intrigue Jürgen Schmidhuber at the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence Research in Manno, Switzerland. “Selective attention is all about actively filling gaps in the attentive observer’s knowledge,” he says. But Schmidhuber cautions that the test results don’t mean we should be rushing to build systems that exactly mimic human attention. Humans have wider experience and knowledge than neural nets, and so are better at focusing on what matters. “What’s interesting to one system may be boring to another that already knows it.” Aviva Rutkin ■ GETTY

Machines just don’t see the world as we do



TECHNOLOGY Take a VR stroll through your body’s cells THIS feels like an alien planet. I’m walking across the surface of a breast cancer cell as drug nanoparticles whizz past my head like spaceships. Suddenly, one crashes in front of me and is sucked through the surface. It feels real – and in a sense, it is. The cell I am exploring in virtual reality is not a conceptual model. John McGhee at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and his colleagues have used high-resolution electronmicroscope data to reconstruct a real-life cancer cell from a human breast in 3D CGI. McGhee’s idea is that chemists and cell biologists can explore cells in virtual reality to get a better feel for the minuscule environments they are researching. They could watch simulations of the ways in which nanoparticles are gobbled up by cancer cells, for example, potentially helping them design drugs. The technology is immersive. When I take the goggles off, I’m surprised to realise that I have been padding around a 3-by-3-metre patch of carpet for the last 5 minutes.

“Watching simulations of nanoparticles being gobbled up by cancer cells could help design drugs” The next step is to find clinical applications for the technology. McGhee’s lab is conducting a study in which information from MRI and CT scans is used to create 3D virtual representations of the arteries of people who have had strokes. These people can then walk through their own arteries and see the size and locations of cholesterol build-up. McGhee says he has had positive feedback from the three people who have tried this out. “Before, they would be looking at a 2D scan in a doctor’s office, but now they can actually see what’s going on.” Alice Klein ■ 22 | NewScientist | 9 July 2016

–Sense the power–

Listen in to the electric voices of plants I’M CONCENTRATING at my computer when my peace lily lets out a wail. It’s a wavering electric howl that finishes as abruptly as it began. But what does it mean? Nigel Wallbridge doesn’t know, but wants to find out. He’s a cofounder of Switzerland-based Vivent, whose device is giving my peace lily an electronic voice. Electricity is an important way of sending messages throughout a plant. But scientists know little about how and why plants use these signals. Wallbridge hopes his new device, called PhytlSigns, will help us to understand and manage them better. The device measures voltage in plants using two electrodes, one inserted into the soil and the other attached to a leaf or stem. When the speaker squeals, it means the voltage is changing: the higher the wail, the faster the change. Software then collects the voltage data so it can be studied later. “When and why a plant uses electrical signals, and their role in plant communication, is not

well understood,” says Gerhard Obermeyer, a plant biophysicist at the University of Salzburg, Austria. Edward Farmer, a plant biologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, has attempted to verify that the signals detected by the device are really coming from the plants. In a lab, he recorded electrical events in plants in response to being wounded, then tested how PhytlSigns reacted to the signals. “The PhytlSigns device picked these signals up very well,” he says. “The device also detects smaller signals, most of which have no known biological function.” Obermeyer is not fully convinced of the measurement merits of PhytlSigns. “When sprayed with water, the plant immediately responds with voltage changes. These electrical signals are just too fast and are not generated by the plant,”he says. My peace lily starts to behave oddly around mid-morning. It suddenly becomes more animated, with the speaker

emitting excited whoops and wobbles. It makes me jump, and I wonder what’s going on in there. As far as I can tell, the conditions in my living room haven’t changed. Obermeyer suggests that the main signal detected by the device is electrical noise from the environment or the plant itself. “Without any useful algorithms or filtering devices, any information stays hidden in the noise,” he says. Wallbridge is hoping that the appeal of listening to your house plants will grab the imagination of enough people to help fund improvements to the device and a large production run. His Kickstarter campaign, which launched last week, aims to raise $76,000. “Having thousands of plant lovers observing their plants and recording their signals will mean we can go much faster in understanding plants,” says Wallbridge. There was something nice about the electronic squeals emitted every time I walked past the lily – as if it knew I was there – but I don’t think I’ll keep my peace lily plugged in. After a while, the plant started to bother me: it’s like having a vocally disruptive child in the room. Eventually, I’m forced to turn it off. Penny Sarchet ■

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



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Shocking beauty TALK about sparking someone’s interest. The hazards of the High Voltage Lab at the Technical University of Denmark in Lyngby held a certain charm for photographer Alastair Philip Wiper. “It’s full of devices that to me looked like sculpture,” he says. “You could be in a modern art museum.” The lab runs tests on commercial products to see how well they cope with real-world power surges and lightning strikes – by delivering jolts of up to 1.2 million volts. The image on the far left shows Joachim Holbøll, deputy head of the lab, peering up at the giant impulse generator, which sends a massive electrical discharge between the two spheres. “Big stuff is always cool,” Wiper says. “You can’t help but just go, ‘wow, human beings built this’.” Wiper likes to contrast the huge and impressive with the small and disregarded. For four years, he has been developing a project with the working title Unintended Beauty, showcasing scientific and industrial objects with overlooked aesthetic appeal. So he was intrigued by the collection of discarded electronic components in Holbøll’s office, such as the GE GL-833A triode (left). Triode vacuum tubes were the first devices able to amplify electric signals, making it possible to develop appliances like radios and TVs. But it was the triode’s odd shape rather than its historical importance that caught Wiper’s eye. “I quite like the fact that a lot of people won’t really know what it is,” he says. “It looks like a 50s sci-fi robot or something.” Conor Gearin

Photographer Alastair Philip Wiper alastairphilipwiper.com

9 July 2016 | NewScientist | 25



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ALL ABOUT ME Self-promotion comes naturally to narcissists, so should we all be stroking our egos, asks Emma Young


Everybody hates a big-head, so why do we fall for narcissists?

UMILITY. Empathy. Selflessness. These are qualities most of us associate with being a “nice person”. But being nice doesn’t often help you in the fierce competition to get that job, win a project or secure a promotion. No one likes an egocentric big-head but if, as they say, “you are your own brand”, perhaps in this modern world it pays to be a bit narcissistic. The truth is that although narcissists may be deluded, they can benefit from their inflated self-image and desire for others to recognise their superiority. We think we dislike them, but research shows we actually tend to judge them as more confident, intelligent and attractive than other people. This means they are more successful in job interviews, more likely to become leaders, and preferred by the opposite sex. There’s even evidence that narcissistic artists sell more and get higher prices for their work. So if you’re struggling with work or a relationship, perhaps you should become a bit more narcissistic. That’s not as laughable as it sounds. A new understanding of narcissism suggests why, when and how it might be beneficial. It points to certain aspects of the trait that help people get on. It reveals that when it comes to success in life, there is a “right” and a “wrong” sort of narcissism. What’s more, we’re starting to understand how parents cultivate narcissism and self-esteem in their children. There are even hints about how adults lacking in selflove could learn to be a bit more narcissistic and promote “brand me” more successfully. Psychologists view narcissism as a personality trait, existing as a continuum on which all of us fall somewhere. Someone with an extreme form of the trait – narcissistic personality disorder – is not going to get ahead (unless becoming a dictator is a job option where they live). Between 1 and 2 per cent of people fall into this category. Move along the narcissism spectrum, though, and you get to the “everyday” variety that you might see in

a friend or boss – particularly a male one, because research indicates that more men than women are narcissists. This kind of person is “self-absorbed – and potentially obnoxious – but not necessarily dysfunctional or in need of therapy”, says Jens Lange at the University of Cologne, Germany. In terms of the big five personality traits, they tend to be extroverted, open and conscientious, not very neurotic and low on agreeableness. How a particular everyday narcissist comes across, however, depends on what sort of narcissist he or she is. Psychologists distinguish between two forms: “vulnerable” and “grandiose”. Vulnerable narcissists believe they are special, and want to be seen that way – but are just not that competent, or attractive. As a result, their self-esteem fluctuates a lot. They tend to be self-conscious and passive, but also prone to outbursts of potentially violent aggression if their inflated self-image is threatened. Grandiose narcissists are more confident. Their belief that they are superior is unshakeable, even when it’s unwarranted. They can be pompous show-offs, but can also be charming. It is this type of narcissism that’s more commonly found and studied in the general population – and seems more likely to bring benefits. Emily Grijalva at the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York, investigates narcissism in business and has found hints that a bit of it might indeed be a good thing. Her team’s analysis of previous studies reveals no association between high or low levels of narcissism and success as a leader. But it does show that possessing a “moderate” level of grandiose narcissism is linked both to becoming a leader and to being an effective one. When it comes to getting the job, Grijalva thinks these people do well “because they are perceived as attractive, charismatic, dominant and assertive”. Once hired, their success depends on the ability to keep less > 9 July 2016 | NewScientist | 27

HOW TO BE YOUR BEST * Take 10 minutes before a meeting or job interview to write about a time you felt powerful. People who did this went on to fare better in a mock business-school interview organised by psychologists at the University of Cologne, Germany. * Sit up straight… In a study led by Richard Petty of Ohio State University in Columbus, people who wrote down why they were qualified for a job while sitting up straight went on to believe more of these reasons than people who wrote while slumped over their desks. * … And stand tall. Amy Cuddy at Harvard University has shown the power of “power posing”. Volunteers who stood with their hands on their hips and shoulders back, or who sat with an open, expansive posture for just a few minutes before delivering a speech as part of a mock job interview performed better and were more likely to be selected. * Wear your lucky socks. People who brought in a “lucky charm” to help them in a memory test run by Lysann Damisch at the University of Cologne did better than those without charms. They also set higher goals for themselves. This was because they felt more confident, Damisch says.


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socially acceptable narcissistic tendencies in check while maintaining self-belief and a desire to lead. “To be an effective leader, you need to be self-confident enough that people will want to follow you, but not so confident that you come across as a self-absorbed jerk,” she says. Such confidence, together with the ability to convince others to follow your grand vision, motivates employees and encourages outside investors. On an individual level, grandiose narcissists also report feeling emotionally stable and having a strong sense of well-being, she adds. There can, however, be downsides to moderate grandiose narcissism. Such people can be charming but can also be selfish, exploitative and entitled, says Grijalva. This might help explain why they are likely to make morally dubious decisions. Looking at data on 42 US presidents up to and including George W. Bush, Ashley Watts of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and her colleagues found that those rated higher for grandiose narcissism were judged as being greater presidents: they did better on rankings of public persuasiveness, agenda-setting and the initiation of legislation, for example. However, they were also more likely to be seen as impulsive and bullying, and to face impeachment charges. The study suggests that the benefits of grandiose narcissism stem largely from its association with extroversion, whereas the downside is largely due to lack of agreeableness. Not all grandiose narcissists seem able to cash in on the benefits of their personality trait, however. “Sometimes they can be disliked by others,” says Lange. To explore why this might be, he and Jan Crusius, a colleague at the University of Cologne, looked at research into possible subgroups of grandiose narcissist. Some are characterised by “narcissistic admiration”, others by“narcissistic rivalry”– the former being driven by hope for success, the latter by fear of failure. The work of Lange and Crusius suggests that the difference between these groups and the subsequent difference in likeability is down to envy. Narcissism is strongly associated with envy, and many vulnerable narcissists, as well as some grandiose narcissists, show “malicious” envy. When a colleague wins a promotion, for example, they feel hostility towards that person. This, according to Crusius and Lange, is the root of narcissistic rivalry. Grandiose narcissists tend to have a more positive sort of envy. This “benign” envy motivates them to improve themselves rather than drag down the successful person.

It’s what underpins narcissistic admiration, and makes such people more likeable. They are also less prone to low self-esteem and neuroticism than people with narcissistic rivalry, making them less susceptible to the anxiety and depression that can affect other narcissists. So there seem to be certain narcissistic traits that might be beneficial to many of us, but assuming we wanted to adjust our level of narcissism, is it even possible to do that? There might be a clue in reports that reveal changing levels of narcissism. Narcissism is on the rise – in Western countries at least, according to a meta-analysis published in 2008. One of the main reasons may be that Western culture has become increasingly focused on the self rather than on relationships, says Eddie Brummelman, a social and behavioural scientist at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. But the picture isn’t that straightforward. Research published this year found that entering adulthood during a time of recession – a reality for millions of people across the Western world – is linked to lower narcissism in later life, at least in men.

Nature and nurture If nothing else, this suggests that our levels of narcissism are influenced by some surprising factors. “Narcissism is relatively stable over time, like all personality traits,” says Brummelman, “but it certainly can change.” In fact, little is known about its origins. It seems to emerge at around the age of 7, when children can evaluate themselves as people and compare themselves against others. Twin studies indicate there is a genetic component, although we don’t know how many or which genes are involved. Parenting style also seems to play an important role. Last year, Brummelman and his colleagues, including Brad Bushman at Ohio State University in Columbus reported that narcissism is cultivated by parents who “overvalue” – those who believe their child is more special and more entitled than others. Bushman has developed a Parental Overvaluation Scale to explore the idea further. It asks parents of children aged 8 to 12 to rate their level of agreement with statements such as “I would not be surprised to learn that my child has extraordinary talents and abilities”, and “My child deserves something extra in life”. Anyone with a child in that age group can find out where they fall on the scale by taking the test online.

I love me: self-obsession seems to be fuelling a rise in narcissism in Western countries


people skills simply by thinking about the feelings of others. But what if you’re so nice at work that people take advantage of you? “People who are constantly giving their time and energy to others may become burned out, or get exploited or overlooked,”says Grijalva. If this sounds like you, can you cultivate just some of the positive aspects of narcissism? No studies have specifically looked at this, but the research teasing apart narcissism suggests you might consider acquiring some new habits of thought. You probably don’t want to become self-absorbed, bullying or immoral, because these things have obvious negative outcomes. But you might like the advantages that some narcissists get from their confidence and ability to use envy in a positive way.


Big yourself up

There is no blueprint for parents who would like to cultivate a moderate amount of grandiose narcissism in their children. In fact, Brummelman considers all narcissism to be socially undesirable. He thinks of it as “unhealthy feelings of superiority”. Instead, he believes parents should aim to cultivate self-esteem or “healthy feelings of worth”. When children are overvalued, he says, they may internalise the belief that they are superior to others – the core of narcissism. “But when they feel loved and cared for, they may internalise the belief that they are worthy as a person – the core of self-esteem.” The difference between narcissism and high selfesteem is not clear-cut though, and some psychologists argue that overinflated selfesteem is as much of a scourge as narcissism. Others agree that narcissism is not a personality trait we should try to develop,

even if it has advantages. David Kealy at the University of British Columbia in Canada accepts that grandiose narcissists benefit from “a robust sense of personal agency” – a feeling that one’s goals and strivings are worthwhile. Nevertheless, he advocates being true to oneself, having personal integrity and being kind to others. “Hopefully the intrinsic value and other social benefits associated with these features will win out in the long run,” he says. In fact, psychologists have to date focused on trying to reduce narcissism rather than increase it. Although there’s no good evidence that narcissistic personality disorder is amenable to treatment, everyday narcissism may not be so intransigent. For example, narcissists who otherwise benefit from their self-belief are often handicapped by “interpersonal abrasiveness”. However, research suggests they can improve their

Erika Carlson at the University of Toronto in Canada and her colleagues have found that narcissists seem aware that others generally don’t think they’re as amazing as they do themselves. They may regard others as “too dim to recognise their brilliance”, and this allows them to dismiss negative feedback as stemming from jealousy. Taking a similar approach, if you undervalue yourself, you could try to dismiss criticism and focus on praise instead. Then there’s envy, something that we all feel to some extent. You might want to control any malicious feelings of envy you have and cultivate benign envy, so that another person’s success motivates you to achieve more, rather than making you try to undermine them. However, Crusius points out that there are circumstances in which malicious envy can be beneficial. “In some organisations, hierarchies seem to work that way,” he says. “What is functional or dysfunctional may depend on what level of analysis you look at.” For Grijalva, the solution is not so much to think like a narcissist, but to not be afraid to acknowledge your strengths (see “How to be your best”, far left). And she has some advice for anyone who wants to come across well at their next work meeting or shoot to the top of the promotion pile. “Stand up straight, make eye contact, dress well, share ideas in meetings, don’t be shy,” she says. “There are times when people have to be a little selfish and entitled – for example, if you believe you have the best idea of anyone in a group.” ■ Emma Young is a writer based in Sheffield, UK 9 July 2016 | NewScientist | 29



When Sam Turvey stared into the face of a Hainan gibbon he knew he had to join the effort to save the world’s rarest mammal

30 | NewScientist | 9 July 2016


has set up its territory close to the edge of the forest patch. Villagers in a nearby Miao village can hear them duetting at dawn every morning. All three groups are breeding successfully, yet the overall population has stayed below 30 since the reserve was established in the 1980s. As they mature, young gibbons leave their social group and disperse into the forest, but in Hainan they rarely form new groups. Getting to the bottom of what happens to these solitary animals is key: normally, new social groups drive population growth. Maybe the gibbons have simply run out of space. Their small patch of forest, on the slopes of Futouling mountain, may also not be the best habitat for a species that once lived in lowland rainforests. And gibbons can be picky about mating. The remaining individuals could be so closely related that they are simply choosing not to mate with each other. Or perhaps human disturbance is stopping groups forming. Thankfully, there has been a breakthrough. Until recently, wardens and researchers located the gibbons by listening for their dawn songs from posts high up on the Bawangling mountains. But solitary animals don’t tend to sing. Last year, we trialled a technique widely used in bird surveys. We played a recording of a gibbon call in an area where no gibbons were thought to be. Amazingly, a male appeared in the treetops, drawn by the sound. Then a female showed up with a baby. This was a fourth, previously unknown social group. We hope that call-playback might also be useful for locating the cryptic solitary gibbons, but we need to think carefully about doing this. Playing gibbon calls could affect the behaviour of animals or stress them.


N TINY villages, home to Li and Miao communities, the tattooed old folk still tell stories about gibbons. Stories about the pair of orphans driven out by an evil stepmother, who hid in the trees and turned into apes; or the bet between the gibbon and the earthworm over who could climb the best. But very few of the storytellers have ever seen a gibbon. The tales are told on Hainan, China’s southernmost province, an island the size of Belgium in the South China Sea. Once a sleepy backwater, it is now a top tourist destination, known for its white sand beaches and golf courses. It is also the last stand of the Hainan gibbon. Forget orangutans, tigers and giant pandas: with just 26 or so left, this is the world’s rarest mammal. The Hainan gibbon has had it tough for some time. Visiting naturalists in the 19th century described the apes as rare. They were hunted heavily. Boiling a whole animal for a few days until it was reduced to a hairy paste was said to produce a potent traditional medicine. Chopsticks made from their long arm bones could supposedly be used to test for poison. Later, local forests were chopped down for timber and to make way for agriculture, worsening the ape’s plight. By the 1980s, the species was in dire straits, with only a few survivors in remote, forested mountains. They may have been saved by sheer luck. In one story, shortly after a hunter shot one of the last gibbons, his entire family died of some horrible disease, and killing gibbons became bad luck. Whether or not the story is true, a handful of animals somehow clung on in a nature reserve at Bawangling. I was privileged to come face-to-face with some of these survivors early one morning in 2010. There were seven of them, feeding, playing and grooming in the treetops: more than a quarter of all the Hainan gibbons left on Earth. The 300 square kilometres of Bawangling’s forest are fragmented by roads, power lines and plantations of rubber and pine. The gibbons are restricted to a 15 square kilometre patch, where, until recently, they lived in three social groups. Local rangers have monitored them for many years. The group I saw in 2010 was Group B – uniquely used to humans, which allows researchers to get reasonably close. Group A is much more wary and usually vanishes before you can get anywhere near. Group C, which only formed a few years ago,

Hearing the Hainan gibbon’s dawn chorus is a rare privilege

Once a species drops to perilously low numbers, it can remain vulnerable to extinction even if the factors responsible for the initial population crash – in this case, deforestation and hunting – are removed. In Hainan, there are only six breeding females left. It’s not hard to imagine how a disease outbreak, typhoon or just a chance death could spell the end of the species. And with a population this small, the effects of inbreeding cannot be ignored. Any of these

“A male appeared in the treetops, then a female with a baby: a new social group” factors could push the Hainan gibbon into what conservation biologists call the “extinction vortex”. Despite this, I strongly believe we can save the world’s rarest ape. It’s not too late: the population seemed to hit a low of 13 in 2003 and has since grown, and two of the four groups at Bawangling formed in the past few years. But it’s not going to be easy. We need a close collaboration between reserve staff, who understand the local politics and logistics of working in Hainan, and international organisations that have experience with extremely threatened species. A top priority has to be reconnecting the forest fragments in Bawangling. Long term, this means planting trees. In the short term, artificial canopy bridges may encourage gibbons to move between patches. The hard work is already under way, with local forest restoration projects supported by Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong. It is possible to bring species back from the very edge of existence. The Mauritius kestrel recovered from just four wild birds in the 1970s, and the Chatham Island black robin came back from five individuals in 1980. My hope is that we will one day be able to list the Hainan gibbon alongside these success stories and those lucky enough to visit Hainan will continue to hear the haunting dawn song of the gibbon. The alternative – that it will only be remembered in stories told by old villagers – is a future that we cannot allow. ■ Sam Turvey is a conservation biologist at the Zoological Society of London 9 July 2016 | NewScientist | 31

Space raiders Companies gearing up to plunder the cosmos will blast off into a legal void. How can we prevent a disastrous free-for-all, asks Paul Marks


The 1967 Outer Space Treaty left the door ajar for space mining

32 | NewScientist | 9 July 2016


AGNIFICENT desolation.” Buzz Aldrin’s first impressions of the moon, uttered as he stepped delicately on to the lunar dust in 1969, bring to mind a landscape of pristine emptiness. Apart from the odd footprint and the remnants of a few probes, the moon has been practically untouched for 4 billion years. It is a celestial wilderness, but maybe not for much longer. If would-be space miners get their way, future lunar visitors could see a very different kind of desolation: deep scars, autonomous diggers and great piles of ore. It is a dystopian vision, but not an inconceivable one. China is weighing up the business case for mining the moon, while the US firm Moon Express is already developing technology to do it. Then there are the companies planning to mine asteroids. Such ventures received a shot in the arm last November when President Obama signed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, aka the Space Act, which grants US citizens and companies ownership of anything they can extract from celestial bodies. It fired the starting pistol for a dash to carve up the riches buried in space. The risks and potential rewards are astronomical, and the whole enterprise is blasting off into a legal void. That could spell trouble on a cosmic scale. “We need rules, preferably at international level,” says Tanja Masson-Zwaan, president of the International Institute of Air and Space Law at Leiden University in the Netherlands. But what should those rules be? The US is home to most wannabe space miners. Planetary Resources, a firm in Redmond, Washington, and Deep Space Industries and Moon Express, both based in Mountain View, California, all have audacious plans to harvest the vast mineral wealth of the solar system, starting with the moon and low-hanging space fruit – small asteroids that pass close to home. These bodies are thought to be rich in resources that are increasingly hard to find on Earth: platinum, for instance, and rare-earth elements such as yttrium and lanthanum. Given that we don’t know much about the

precise composition of most asteroids, we have to rely on estimates of their monetary value. The Asterank database, owned by Planetary Resources since 2013, collates data from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and Harvard’s Minor Planet Center. By its reckoning, the five most easily reached asteroids are worth between $8 billion and $95 billion. Water is high on the space shopping list too. Astronauts need it for drinking and growing food, and it can also be split into hydrogen and oxygen for use as rocket fuel. “Mining the precious materials is not economically viable unless you can work out how to use water as fuel,” says Bob Richards, CEO of Moon Express. Then there is helium-3, a light isotope that could be a critical feedstock for any future nuclear fusion reactors. One estimate has it that the moon holds over a million tonnes of the stuff, blasted into its surface by the solar wind.

Finders keepers? The grand vision is the creation of an entire off-world economy. Not only will we haul back mineral resources for use on Earth, we will also move destructive industries away from our planet by building self-sufficient factories in space. For its advocates, space mining is a route to untold riches and the first leg on the path to colonising other planets. Whether the economic case stacks up remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the technology is improving rapidly, with new prospecting satellites and autonomous mining robots being put through their paces (see “Can you dig it?”, page 36). The biggest hurdle, say industry insiders, has been the absence of a legal framework for exploiting space commercially. “Investors didn’t want to commit if there might be a legal problem later,” says Philip Metzger at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Metzger cofounded NASA’s Swamp Works lab at the Kennedy Space Center, a testing ground for mining technology that would supply water and building materials to planetary settlements. >


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“If a firm started mining the moon tomorrow, it would not be breaking any laws”

Two international treaties cover space mining, albeit patchily. The UN Outer Space Treaty of 1967 was drafted during the cold war with a view to preventing nuclear missile batteries being stationed in orbit, not for an era of private space flight and autonomous prospecting. It holds that outer space is “the province of all mankind”, but also insists that “the moon and other celestial bodies shall be free for exploration and use”. Would-be asteroid miners take that word “use” as a green light to exploit space rocks for profit, and certainly the treaty does not explicitly forbid it. “The capitalist view of the treaty is that it is finders keepers,” says Richards. Then there is the UN Moon Agreement of 1979. It declares that lunar resources are the “common heritage of mankind” and calls for “equitable sharing” of the returns from any exploitation of them. But not a single spacefaring nation has signed it. If the Chinese government dug up a few hundred tonnes of lunar lanthanum tomorrow, they would not be breaking international law. Ditto if any of the US spacemining outfits suddenly announced it had been extracting platinum from asteroids, and they will be emboldened by last year’s Space Act. The product of what Richards describes as “hand-to-hand combat with lawmakers over

CAN YOU DIG IT? Anyone planning to mine metals in space faces some hefty engineering challenges. First they must find accessible deposits of coveted minerals, then land equipment on the resource-rich bodies and dig in low or zero gravity. How will they do it? Moon Express, based in Mountain View, California, recently applied to the US Federal Aviation Authority for permission to launch a lunar lander containing a clutch of surface sampling tools and a diminutive rover. If it gets the nod, the mission will blast off next year. “We’ll be landing softly and then scratching the surface of the moon to validate the presence of precious deposits and water,” says CEO Bob Richards. In doing so, the firm hopes to scoop the $30-million Google Lunar X Prize. Asteroid mining ventures are also developing new technology. Planetary Resources of Redmond, Washington, will begin by stationing its Arkyd 100 observer telescopes in near-Earth orbit and training their multispectral imagers on candidate asteroids. The firm wants to assess albedo – a measure of how much light a surface reflects – as an indicator of the resources space rocks may contain. Spacecraft can then be sent out for a closer look. Planetary Resources’ next test craft, Arkyd 6, launches this summer. 34 | NewScientist | 9 July 2016

Deep Space Industries, also in Mountain View, plans to get up close and personal too. Water-rich asteroids are very low in albedo because the water will be under the surface. “They are darker than coal and even in the infrared they are hard to get images of against the black of space,” says Meagan Crawford, one of the firm’s vice presidents. With that in mind, it plans to send sampling spacecraft to asteroids and analyse them in situ – not only for resources but also for “diggability”, meaning how easy it would be to land there and dig. As the European Space Agency’s Philae lander demonstrated when it bounced off comet 67P, gaining purchase can be a problem on bodies with little or no gravitational pull. Third-party manufacturers are also tooling up. New York City-based Honeybee Robotics helped build NASA’s Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and has now designed an asteroid water extractor with multiple drills that attach firmly even when the surface is as hard as concrete. Meanwhile, NASA’s Swamp Works test lab in Florida is developing tricked-out bulldozers and diggers for strip-mining the moon. One digger, called Rassor, boasts counter-rotating scoop buckets at each end, working simultaneously to provide sufficient force for digging in low gravity.

every line”, the act allows companies to “possess, own, transport, use, and sell” whatever they can pull out of objects in space, as long as it was obtained in accordance with the Outer Space Treaty. Chris Lewicki, president of Planetary Resources, has compared the legislation with the Homestead Act of 1862. That opened up the American West by distributing land to anyone who could make a living from it. Similarly, for its supporters, the Space Act clears the way to begin the vital work of establishing an off-world economy.

Legal frontiers It’s not just the US that is positioning itself to take advantage. The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, a tax haven barely larger than some asteroids, announced in February that its has secured funding and R&D deals to give both Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources a research and manufacturing presence inside its borders. It is also attempting to draw up a national legal framework for such activities. The idea, says government spokesman Paul Zenners, is to catapult Luxembourg into the major league of space-mining nations before the competition really gets started. Not everyone is thrilled at the prospect. Gbenga Oduntan at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK, is one of several space law experts who argues that the Space Act violates the original intent of the Outer Space Treaty and the moribund Moon Agreement: to prevent the unilateral commercial exploitation of space resources. “The principle that cuts across all the existing multilateral space treaties is one that precludes national appropriation of outer space by use or by any other means whatsoever,” he says. Whatever your take on the Space Act, it has brought into focus the need for global agreement. Already a new international think tank called the Hague Space Resources Governance Working Group, based at Leiden University, has started to thrash out a legal framework for space mining. It hopes to make recommendations to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) by the end of 2017. One of the most obvious issues is the potential for conflict. If more than one company claims the right to mine an asteroid and establish industries around it, we can expect conflicts involving the nations in which those companies are registered. “This is going to become a geopolitical issue,” says Metzger. “No nation will want any other nation to be the only one to have that capability.” Cosmic cartels could also be a problem: the high costs of entry to the business plus a lack of regulation could create monopolies on an unprecedented scale. “If you could put a


When private firms are able to harvest the riches of space, should we let them?

factory in space and have it print copies of itself, output could grow exponentially until you have an industry millions of times bigger than any industry on Earth,” says Metzger. So space enterprise could vastly enrich a few at the expense of the rest, fuelling inequality. Even more emotive is the spectre of environmental damage. Asteroids are not in short supply. The moon, on the other hand, might deserve special treatment. “We just won’t feel as strongly about strip-mining a passing asteroid as we will about the moon,” says Christopher Newman, a space lawyer at Sunderland Law School in the UK. Some safeguards are already in place, on paper at least. The Space Act stipulates that

“Could space mining firms sabotage the quest to find life in the solar system?”

the Outer Space Treaty should be honoured. “This means that the US is obliged to authorise and supervise its national activities in outer space and ensure that such activities comply with the Outer Space Treaty,” says Joanne Wheeler, a lawyer with London firm Bird & Bird and an adviser to the UK Space Agency. Article Nine of this treaty requires that nations not cause “harmful contamination” of celestial bodies. Although that wouldn’t protect the moon from strip-mining, it should go some way to preventing the astrobiologist’s worst nightmare: careless mining firms transferring extremophile microbes from Earth, sabotaging the quest to discover evidence of life elsewhere in the solar system. How might we do better? The Outer Space Treaty was based on the UN Convention on the High Seas, meaning that like international waters on Earth, outer space is neutral territory. For that reason, Meagan Crawford of Deep Space Industries argues that the


This little satellite will test technology designed to detect water-rich asteroids

international agreement for deep seabed mining should be emulated in space. The seabed agreement allows its oversight body to issue responsible deep-ocean miners with exclusive licences to operate in a given area. “We’re looking for something very similar in space that gives us a right to operate without interference,” says Crawford. But Jill Stuart, a space law expert at the London School of Economics, says that a such a legal regime is not an inevitable consequence of developing the technology that makes space mining possible. If we’re casting around for legal templates, she points out, Antarctica offers a different perspective: commercial mining is outlawed there by the Antarctic Treaty System. “The high seas and Antarctica have solid legal regimes behind them, but that doesn’t mean space will automatically follow suit,” says Stuart. “Space is different, physically and existentially, so we need to confront head-on the unique challenges raised by the prospect of space mining.” Even if there is international agreement on new regulations drawn up by COPUOS, the UN will have a tough job enforcing them. What’s more, with just a year’s notice any state could theoretically pull out of the Outer Space Treaty and any space-mining conventions applying alongside it. Indeed, Newman suspects that any regulations dreamed up in advance may not cut the mustard once robots start scooping riches from near-Earth orbit. “The only real way we can establish the legal framework is by seeing what happens and what gets tested in court,” he says. The trouble is, by that point our local space environment may no longer be a pristine wilderness. ■ Paul Marks is a technology writer based in London 9 July 2016 | NewScientist | 35


Nomad’s land Clues to the Sahara’s verdant past lie in its most extreme landscapes. Geologist Stefan Kröpelin is on their trail

TROU AU NATRON volcanic crater


L I TIEROKO volcano

50 km

36 | NewScientist | 9 July 2016


PIC TOUSSIDE volcano with lava lows

BARDAÏ main town

The caldera of the Trou au Natron volcano in Chad’s Tibesti mountains is almost a kilometre deep. No one knows when it formed or how – whether a giant eruption created it, subsidence or both. Deposits high on the slopes hint that it once held a lake perhaps 500 metres in depth – evidence of the dramatic changes this landscape has undergone.



T’S a place so remote it makes the middle of nowhere seem bustling. Yet for Stefan Kröpelin, it has an irresistible draw. Almost every year for four decades the veteran geologist and climate researcher has been leading teams of scientists to places like this, the Tibesti massif in the heart of the Sahara desert. An atlas will tell you that the mountainous Tibesti region lies in the north of Chad – but the complications start with who exactly calls the shots here. “If you don’t have the support from the government and at the same time from the local chiefs, there is no chance that you could set your foot in the Tibesti,” says Kröpelin. It helps to have connections. Kröpelin played a pivotal part in establishing the Lakes of Ounianga, a unique system of interconnected desert lakes, as Chad’s first

World Heritage Site in 2012. And after decades of high-profile research in the region, he is on good terms with the country’s long-time president, Idriss Déby. For this year’s month-long trip, which began in February, Déby provided a military aircraft that took the team and all their equipment to Bardaï, the 2000-soul central settlement of the Tibesti. “It saved us at least one week of driving, more than 1000 miles off-road,” says Kröpelin. The governor of the region met them at the airstrip. The Tibesti is home to the Sahara’s highest mountains. An aerial view shows the most notable features of this arid landscape: the striated lava flows and scattered craters that are key to its scientific interest. Most volcanic areas lie close to the active boundaries of tectonic plates; this is one of the few that does not. In happier climatic times the Tibesti >

Lava flows and fumaroles occupy the sides of Pic Toussidé, the youngest volcano of the Tibesti range and, at some 3300 metres, its second-highest peak. The volcanic activity is caused by an upwelling of hot material from the mantle into the crust – “Hawaii in the desert”, says Kröpelin. No one knows precisely how long the volcanos have been active – cinder cones dotted around are hundreds to a few thousand years old at most, and prehistoric peoples in the area made arrowheads from volcanic obsidian. Dating of rock samples from the expedition should help.

9 July 2016 | NewScientist | 37

was also home to ancient peoples, who left rock art and artefacts like pottery and arrowheads. Few scientists have explored the region, thanks to a killer combination of rugged terrain, remoteness and long-term political instability. It borders Libya, Niger and Sudan, and internal and external conflicts have made it a no-go area for long periods. “Parts of northern Chad have been heavily mined by the Libyans and later by bandits and rebels,” Kröpelin says. Bardaï hit the headlines in 1974 when a French archaeologist working there, Françoise Claustre, was taken hostage by a group of rebels. She was held for almost 3 years. Things are a little friendlier now – and once in the mountains, the danger recedes. “If terrorists coming down from Libya found us, 38 | NewScientist | 9 July 2016

I would congratulate them,” says Kröpelin. “The terrain is so rugged that you can cross within 200 yards and nobody would notice you.” Kröpelin specialises in finding geological signs of past climates – by drilling sediment cores from beneath ancient lake beds, for example – and clues to former habitation. But since the central Tibesti is largely uncharted, this year’s expedition had a wider focus. “If you are the first one to do a scientific survey, you’re not just looking for geologic deposits,” says Kröpelin. “I capture everything.” That means collecting as many samples as possible, taking photos of every insect and plant, every piece of meteorite and rock art. “Even going behind a dune to relieve myself, I take my field notebook and camera, just in case.” It is an intense environment in which to work. “In the vastness, your own existence

As recently as 11,000 to 6000 years ago, much of the Sahara region was lush, green and relatively densely populated by people and large animals. Evidence for that can only be found on the ground. “Remote sensing is of little use for research,” says Kröpelin. “It cannot find a piece of Neolithic pottery, ancient arrowheads or beetles of the kind we’ve seen in many of the plants.”

loses any importance and at the same time every drop of water becomes unbelievably important,” says Kröpelin. “You are living with nature and you are really part of nature.” Relationships between researchers gain a new significance, too. “If you spend four weeks with someone in the desert, you know probably more about him than his wife does. There is nothing you can hide – the desert exposes every tiny neurotic feature.”

Allah’s garden For all its desolate beauty, the Tibesti is not the sort of place you want to hang around in when the job’s done. When a promised plane for part of the return journey was indefinitely delayed, Kröpelin made the decision to drive south to the capital, N’Djamena. About 500 kilometres

into the journey they happened across some refugees fleeing Libya whose car had become stuck in sand. “We found them by pure accident. We were driving and suddenly we saw two young men approaching us, on the brink of death.” Driving them back to their car they found two more people, also in a bad way. Kröpelin’s team gave them food and water, helped unstick them from the sand and escorted them to the nearest village. “You don’t leave people in the desert.” Such conditions demand respect, a respect Kröpelin has never lost in all his years of visiting. “The most amazing nomads, the toughest ones, say that it’s Allah’s garden – where he took away everything that is not important. It’s a feeling that I share.” ■

A centrepiece of this year’s expedition was the first scientific exploration of the area around the Tieroko peak. “Tieroko must be really at the end of the world, even for the few local Toubou people,” says Kröpelin. “We didn’t find a single sign that any person has been there, and relatively little prehistoric material.”

Sean O’Neill is interviews editor at New Scientist 9 July 2016 | NewScientist | 39

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Listening to everyone Do antidepressants work? It depends who you ask, finds Robert Whitaker Ordinarily Well: The case for antidepressants by Peter D. Kramer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27; The Pill That Steals Lives: One woman’s terrifying journey to discover the truth about antidepressants by Katinka Blackford Newman, John Blake Publishing, £8.99


THE ongoing controversy about the merits of antidepressants might be best described as a battle of narratives. The psychiatric profession tells of drugs that have a history of proven efficacy. The critics tell of drugs that have marginal short-term efficacy, may do more harm than good in the long term, and, on occasion, may cause a person to seriously deteriorate. Both claim science’s mantle, which leaves the public uncertain what to think. Two new books, one by American psychiatrist Peter Kramer and the other by British film-maker Katinka Blackford Newman, illustrate aspects of these competing narratives. clinically meaningful benefit over Kramer helped fuel the boom in placebo for people with mild to a class of antidepressants – SSRIs – moderate depression. This with his 1993 book Listening to prompted Kramer to write Prozac, which told of a drug that Ordinarily Well: The Case for could make even people without Antidepressants. “I was ready depression “better than well”. to engage,” he explains. Prozac and other SSRIs were touted “Many people in the drug in the media as “wonder drugs”, trials, Kramer argues, were and while the “wonder” has long not really depressed but since dimmed, use of antidepressants in most developed enrolled to get paid” countries has climbed steadily. It was mounting criticism of the Kramer, it’s fair to say, still sees drugs that piqued Kramer’s antidepressants through a roseinterest. In particular, there was coloured lens. If his description of the work of psychologist Irving them reflects a clinical reality, they Kirsch, who had concluded from deserve to be called wonder drugs. his own meta-analysis of data In primary care, he writes, 90 per submitted to the US Food and cent of patients respond well to an Drug Administration that antidepressant. Even those with antidepressants provide no chronic symptoms, “if they hang 42 | NewScientist | 9 July 2016

Prozac was touted as a wonder in, will achieve remission”, he drug, making us “better than well” says. The drugs work in a diverse group of people, including those who are only mildly depressed, UK’s National Institute for Health and can give dour people new and Care Excellence recommends personalities, making them more non-pharmacological therapies as cheerful and less ruminative. first-line treatments for mild to According to Kramer, their side moderate depression is an effects are fewer than we might example of how “evidence-based think, they dramatically reduce medicine” can lead the medical the risk of recurrent depressive profession astray. episodes, and even if they aren’t Many of the people in the SSRI a cure, the person still functions trials, Kramer argues, were not fairly well. He says that really depressed but enrolled to antidepressants “restore get paid. The attention lavished resilience” to mind and brain, on them in studies produced an and “confer overall well-being”. inflated response for the placebo As for Kirsch’s research, group. At the same time, he says, Kramer believes the conclusion the Hamilton scale that measures antidepressants provide little outcomes doesn’t capture the benefit over placebo is many aspects of well-being “implausible”. For him, the fact the antidepressants promote. This

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No panacea The usual thought is that big pharma design trials to favour their drugs and suppress the placebo response. One way they do so is to exclude those with co-morbidities and suicidal tendencies, which leads to a selection of participants most likely to respond well to the medication. But this raises an obvious question: how effective are antidepressants in regular clinical practice? More than a decade ago, the US’s National Institute of Mental Health set out to answer that, and the results were dismal: only 26 per cent of patients even responded to an antidepressant, and at the end of a year, only 6 per cent were well. These findings “reveal remarkably low response and remission rates,” the investigators concluded. Such is one of many counterarguments that could be made to Kramer. Even more troubling, there are many studies telling of a significant percentage of those treated with antidepressants who become chronically ill. It is also notable that in countries with widespread antidepressant use, the number of adults living on disability benefits due to mood disorders has soared. At least from a societal perspective, these drugs have not proven to be a panacea. As for the voices of those being treated, although Kramer relates numerous anecdotes of people

getting well under his care, we never hear directly from them. In fact, many of the stories are “composites”, which is to say, they are not real. Kramer is describing how he sees his patients and not how people see themselves, which may be very different. In her memoir The Pill That Steals Lives, Katinka Blackford Newman tells a story that rarely makes it into the conventional narrative. Struggling while going through a divorce, Newman, a documentary film-maker who had worked for the BBC, went to see a psychiatrist, who prescribed escitalopram (Lexapro). Once on the drug, she became severely anxious and restless, which are symptoms of akathisia, a side effect associated with violence and suicide. Thoughts of committing such acts crept into her head and soon grew into a full-blown delusion that she had killed her two children. She was hospitalised, and thus began her downward spiral into a life on antipsychotics and other psychiatric drugs, including Prozac. Before long, she had lost the capacity to care for herself and her children. A horrible year passed, and it was only after she withdrew from most of her medications that her long path to recovery began. “It really was like waking up out of a coma,” she writes. Newman tells of a number of people who committed inexplicable acts of violence after going on an antidepressant, and details how such extreme adverse reactions show up in research. While such stories may come from the far end of the spectrum of experiences, they provide an important counter to the conventional narrative. As such, they prompt society to think of the many disparate effects that antidepressants can have, including the possibility that they may do harm. ■

Eating the enemy Would you down a plate of Patagonian toothfish, wonders Aviva Rutkin WE KNOW invasive animal species can destroy ecosystems, and that controlling numbers can be tricky and expensive. Now a recent study even suggests they are the second biggest cause of extinction. So how about taking the pressure off native species by eating the invaders? Judging by an invitation I received recently, it’s a real possibility. When I arrived at a dinner at the Explorers Club in New York City, most people were making for a table in the corner. There, club chef Gene Rurka was laying out grilled lionfish, Asian carp sushi and iguana meatballs with a plum dipping sauce. A whole iguana splayed out on a bed of greens made a feral centrepiece. The menu was full of unlikely but sustainable choices. Take the Asian carp. The US imported them to filter pond water in Arkansas fish farms. Over the decades the carp spread fast, outcompeting many native fish. With popular protein sources like tuna overfished, Asian carp seems an Feasting on invasive creatures may spare species that are in trouble

obvious solution, says Rurka: eat 20 tonnes of carp and there’s no need to kill 20 tonnes of an endangered fish. And I can see the appeal: the carp tasted mild, a bit like halibut. The iguana, though, was harder going, dry and chewy. Conservationists and chefs are warming to eating invasives. It’s a way to engage people, says Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont and editor/chef of recipe site eattheinvaders.org. The public was slow to catch on, he says, but now a few US restaurants sell invasives. For example, Miami pop-up restaurant Prey offers dishes like “finger lickin’” Asian carp ribs and feral pig in potato skin. Even my local curry shop sells wild boar dumplings. To become mainstream, however, some species may need rebranding. It worked for the gruesome-sounding Patagonian toothfish, now called Chilean sea bass. Louisiana chef Philippe Parola, for one, is trying to market Asian carp as silverfin to caterers and restaurants. As for me, I’m looking forward to more. I might skip the iguana, though. ■


suppressed response rates for the medicated group, says Kramer. Psychiatrists, he writes, “are aware that the Pharma trials are shameful, ethically and scientifically”. It might have been nice for American psychiatry to confess this 25 years ago, when Prozac and the other SSRIs were hailed as breakthrough medications. But Kramer’s dismissal of the trials provides a good segue into the counter-narrative perspective, which, I must confess, I share.

Robert Whitaker is the author of Mad in America 9 July 2016 | NewScientist | 43

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A hundred and counting A centenarian society is on its way. It’s going to be a huge challenge, finds Marek Kohn The 100-Year Life: Living and working in an age of longevity by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, Bloomsbury, £18.99


WHEN Poles want to wish somebody well, they wish them a hundred years of life. This is a charming prospect, as long as the chances of it coming to pass are vanishingly small. But once it starts to look as though it might actually happen, you may think that people should be careful what they wish for you. As Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott make arrestingly clear, it will take a lot more than good wishes to make sure that a hundred years is a blessing, not a curse. Life expectancies have been rising by up to three months a year since 1840, and there is no sign of that flattening. Gratton and Scott draw on a 2009 study to Gratton and Scott advance the show that if the trend continues, idea of a multistage life, with more than half the babies born in repeated changes of direction and wealthier countries since 2000 attention. Material and intangible may reach their 100th birthdays. assets will need upkeep, renewal With a few simple, devastating or replacement. Skills will need strokes, Gratton and Scott show updating, augmenting or that under the current system it is discarding, as will networks almost certain you won’t be able of friends and acquaintances. to save enough to fund several Earning will be interspersed with decades of decent retirement. For learning or self-reflection. As the example, if your life expectancy authors warn, recreation will have is 100, you want a pension that is to become “re-creation”. 50 per cent of your final salary, Clearly this will be expensive. and you save 10 per cent of your As well as saving for retirement, earnings each year, they calculate people will need to pay for selfthat you won’t be able to retire till reflection phases and education. your 80s. People with 100-year If you are, say, a hairdresser, you life expectancies must recognise they are in for the long haul, and “More than half the babies born in wealthier countries make an early start arranging since 2000 may reach their lives accordingly. their 100th birthdays” But how to go about this? 44 | NewScientist | 9 July 2016

Our young selves should hang on to rewards for our older incarnations

won’t need to worry too much about skills becoming obsolete. But you probably won’t be able to afford much self-renewal. Gratton and Scott point out the twofold inequality of lengthening lifespans: the rich live longer than the poor, and the better-off are better off in all the resources needed to make increasing longevity a blessing not a burden. Even the better-off will mostly be stretched by the demands of the multistage life, though, and so the need for a good partner will loom ever larger. Although two can’t live as cheaply as one, they can live more cheaply together than apart. Crucially, too, partners will look to each other for

financial cover when not earning. There’s a contradiction here that the authors don’t really acknowledge. The 100-year life demands constant review and readiness to change one’s work and one’s self, but relies heavily on commitment to one’s partner. Yet people already review their relationships, resulting in changes of partner. They may need to reverse that policy. Perhaps Gratton and Scott felt their groundbreaking book should skirt some of the tougher terrain, so as not to discourage readers who aren’t ready to think as boldly as they do. The most significant absence is about ageing itself. Although they note that financial literacy declines with age, for the most part they write as though people think and feel much the same way whatever age they are. Yet recent research illustrates that younger and older people have different incentives. Researchers at University College London, for example, found that older people don’t respond as strongly to rewards as younger ones. They think that may be because the “reward” neurotransmitter, dopamine, declines by up to 10 per cent every decade. If they are still working, older people will be competing with younger people who have more motivation in their synapses. Hopefully those younger people will have the foresight to hang on to their rewards so they can pass them on to their less motivated, less competent older selves. The 100-year life will need the old to be young, and the young old. ■ Marek Kohn is a science writer based in Brighton, UK

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Out with obscure dark energy From Rosemary Campbell As a humble, long retired physics teacher, I am delighted to read of qualified opposition to the notion of dark energy (18 June, p 28). Dark matter is indigestible enough, but it at least has the merit of a potentially discoverable particle to explain its existence. Dark energy, depending as it does on the overall uniformity of the universe, seems like a step too far in light of discoveries of enormous overdense chunks of galaxies interspersed by under-dense voids. And may I congratulate the artist responsible for the picture that so brilliantly foreshadows the possible dissolution of dark energy in the development of ideas of curved space? Glen Waverley, Victoria, Australia From Conrad Norris As a non-physicist, even I could understand this article about the possible banishment of dark energy. I would suggest, though, a better analogy for the “heretics” undermining the “dark side” than comparing them to Copernicus. How about the collapse of the hypothesis that a Planet Vulcan between Mercury and the sun could explain the planet’s non-Newtonian orbit? While Copernicus debunked religious dogma with observation and science, Einstein’s theory of general relativity explained the orbit and turned good Newtonian science into great science. Lower Earley, Berkshire, UK 52 | NewScientist | 9 July 2016

Anticipating crimes of the future From Paul Ekblom, Department of Security and Crime Science, University College London Your cartoon of the truncheonholding bobby peering into the crystal ball presents a funny side of crime anticipation (Feedback, 4 June). But the purpose behind the Dawes Centre for Future Crimes at University College London is to address the crime and security implications of rapidly emerging technologies and social changes, and to develop pre-emptive measures to address them. Its research will span social, physical, computer and engineering sciences, driven by commitment to real-world impact and scientific rigour. Society has an unfortunate history of new technologies being followed by “crime harvests” – think of mobile phones, the internet, 3D printers and drones. Getting ahead of criminals is a much-needed strategic extension to the arm of the law. Tunbridge Wells, Kent, UK

Cannibalism may not be the answer From Nuala McDonnell Archaeologists should consider alternative explanations to their standard interpretation that “cut marks and polishing on bones are hallmarks of cannibalism” (14 May, p 36). As recently as the last century, washing ancestors’ bones was normal practice in Okinawa, Japan, so that many generations of remains could be brought together in one tomb. The dead were interred with appropriate ceremony. One to three years later, to make space for another corpse, remains of flesh were removed from the bones using chopsticks, or, if decomposition wasn’t complete, a sickle. When picked clean of all

flesh, the bones were washed in water and saki and then placed in an urn. Prayers of apology were offered to the deceased for having disturbed their bones. Totnes, Devon, UK

A universal metasimulation game From Ed Subitzky Geraint Lewis comments on Elon Musk’s suggestion that our universe is actually a simulation taking place inside a computer (11 June, p 18). He points out that the laws of physics operating in our universe would be whatever laws the coders decided to bake into their simulation. However, the computer that runs the simulation must also exist in a universe – a “metauniverse” with its own physical laws, to which its objects and inhabitants are bound. These meta-laws determine the laws the coders can “choose” for us. Of course, the meta-universe could itself be a simulation embedded in a meta-meta-universe. The laws of physics there would trickle down to determine the laws in the two universes beneath. What if the sequence of metauniverses and simulations continues for a vast number of iterations? Would the laws get more real as we approach the top? If the sequence were infinite, there would be no privileged level at which the laws could be considered more real than at any other level. In this case, the laws we experience around us would be as good as any, and we might as well just get on with them. Since our attempts to create simulated universes are still extremely primitive, we would be at, or close to, the bottom of any chain that may exist. New York, US From Dhiren Rao The theory that our universe may be a simulation was discussed by



Nick Bostrom and reported in New Scientist (27 July 2002, p 48). Berkeley, California, US

Not the largest wooden structure From Martin Gregorie Feedback mentions a replica ark at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which claims it is the “largest timber frame structure in the world”(4 June). Hangar 2 at US Marine Corps Air Station Tustin, in California, has four times the area and eight times the volume, being 327 metres long, 89 m wide and 52 m tall. It is all wood apart from the concrete frames for the sliding wooden doors at each end – these frames don’t support the main structure. It was built in 1942 to shelter blimps. Harlow, Essex, UK

I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe From Belinda Martin You mention that an artificial intelligence has “reinterpreted” parts of the 1982 film Blade Runner (11 June, p 24). Was this the original cinema release with the Harrison Ford voice-over – a thoughtful and thoughtprovoking discourse on what it means to be human and therefore of some interest to an artificial intelligence? Or was it one of the multitude of “director’s cuts” that reduce it to a mindless dystopian shoot-em-up? We wouldn’t want to give the AI any wrong ideas. Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, UK

The trouble with tiny demons From Paul G. Ellis Stephen Battersby uses Maxwell’s demon to discuss the physical nature of information (14 May,

“Outreach is at the heart of science. Without effective outreach, what we do has no real meaning” David Brockley, amid outrage, calmly appreciates our view that experts need to reassert their value to society (2 July, p 5)

p 28). But how can the demon “see the motions of air molecules” or operate “a frictionless door” or “slide a partition” without some physical interaction? Surely, any useful modern analysis has to include the demon’s use of photons or the like (which are subject to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle) to measure molecules’ momentum vectors in order to determine whether they should pass into a hotter location. Similarly, some account is needed of the physical interaction involved in operating the door or inserting a partition. Battersby mentions Leo Szilard’s approach to the thought experiment. Though Szilard estimates the molecule’s work of pushing a partition, he appears to me to ignore the physics both of the initial insertion of the partition and of the demon measuring which end the molecule is in. Chichester, West Sussex, UK From Guy Cox The description of Leo Szilard’s 1929 thought experiment really doesn’t work. If we have a box TOM GAULD

with only one molecule in it, and we introduce a movable partition, the molecule has to be on one side or the other. A demon might know which side, but in its absence the partition would still move, though we couldn’t predict which way. Exactly the same amount of work would be done and the molecule would lose just as much energy, thereby getting cooler. This is classical thermodynamics, since with a molecule on one side and a vacuum on the other we have a pressure difference – or we have used the random position of the molecule to create one where there was none before. Sydney, New South Wales, Australia The editor writes: ■ To extract work from the molecule, you need to apply some resistance for it to work against, and to do that you need to know which way it will be pushing, and therefore which side of the partition it starts. You could provide bi-directional resistance by making the partition slide

against friction, but that’s no good, as with friction the motion just gets dissipated as heat. Instead, you need to provide resistance that does something useful, such as winding up a weight against gravity.

The significance of the polygenic score From Eric Kvaalen You report that New Zealanders whose genetic profiles have higher “polygenic scores” have more prestigious occupations, higher incomes and more assets, and being more likeable and friendly (11 June, p 10). But the coefficients of correlation for these traits ranged from 0.10 to 0.13, except that for exams at age 15, which was 0.24. The squares of these numbers tells what fraction of the variance is “explained” by the factor. So between 1 per cent and 2 per cent of the variation is due to these genes, except for the exam results, where it was 6 per cent. So let’s not get the wrong idea about the significance of

these genetic contributions. Les Essarts-le-Roi, France The editor writes: ■ The correlations may be small,

but they are there, and a tiny percentage across a huge population could potentially have a big impact. It is fascinating that there is a genetic influence on “success” at all.

Pinhead focus presumption flaw From Tim Stevenson I fear there is a flaw in Brian Pollard’s critique of my comment about the inability of a pinhead to cover the sun, as viewed by a wide open pupil at the Oort Cloud (Letters, 11 June). He assumes that the eye’s lens can simultaneously focus the distant sun and near pinhead on the retina. My point is that the wide aperture in that dim light would make this impossible. Prestwood, Buckinghamshire, UK

Make a human genome at home From Theresa Cheapman You report concern over a meeting to discuss plans to synthesise a complete human genome, from which journalists were excluded (21 May, p 6). My partner and I have made two novel genomes. We, like the scientists in your article, did not invite any journalists. South Riana, Tasmania, Australia

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refrigerators today,” writes Ian Napier. “Personally, however, I suspect they didn’t know what else to do with it until the invention of sliced bread.”

WE ARE left baffled, as David Moss is, by Glaceau brand bottled water, which boasts that it is “distilled spring water with added electrolytes”. Isn’t that a rather circular process? How do they tell the difference between the two? And when is the water deemed ready for drinking?


MEANWHILE, Crispian Strachan writes, there is also nominative anti-determinism at work in this universe. “Some years ago, one English police force had a brass band led by a local conductor, one Major Crook,” he says. And perhaps in a similar vein, there is South Yorkshire comedy duo the Chuckle Brothers. WITH the Olympic Games in Rio just a month away, plenty of companies are hoping to cash in. Rebecca Robbins of medical publication STAT gives a tour of some of the goods claiming to protect against Zika virus, including stickers, hats, nets, wristbands and bracelets. All are infused with anti-mosquito spray, and all offer protection that is dubious at best. Add to this “anti-Zika condoms” to prevent sexual transmission of the virus (all condoms offer such protection), and herbalists offering turmeric, basil and ginger as a way to waste good curry ingredients in ineffective antivirals. And of course, we are told by Homeopaths Without Borders that the water cure offers prophylaxis against such epidemics – dilutions of belladonna, poison ivy and boneset are said to be equally effective, which is to say, not at all. Avoidance remains the best strategy, and while DEET is still the deterrent of choice, Feedback recalls, as Robbins does, the news last year

that Victoria’s Secret Bombshell perfume offers some protection from Zika (28 November, 2015) – whether borne by mosquitoes or men.

FEEDBACK has been led up the garden path, writes Mark Fawcett (18 June). “Alicia Keys was not born with that name, but adopted it,” he says, because she felt it represented her identity as a performer. This is therefore a case of harnessing the power of nominative determinism for career success, much like South Yorkshire comedy duo the Chuckle Brothers. PREVIOUSLY The Irish Times hinted enigmatically that it was “not unusual” to discover lumps of millennia-old butter hidden in bogs (25 June). “The prevailing theory is that, being at an evenly cold temperature, bogs were used in ancient times much as we use

Colin McCulloch writes: “Your comment on the ‘first cut’ article sponsored by Gillette reminded me of free condoms and chlamydia tests promoted in pharmacies under a Virgin Care logo” 56 | NewScientist | 9 July 2016

DURING recent floods in Launceton, Tasmania, officials warned that “24,000 Volkswagens worth of water” was flowing through swollen rivers every second, reports Jon Burne. “I immediately wondered which model the controller was referring to,” says Jon. Feedback feels that Jon ought to focus on the spirit, rather than the letter of the warning. MARK RIBBANDS is delighted by the acoustic specifications touted for the ventilation fan he’s fitting to a motorhome. Not only is the device reported to be “silent at high speed” but, even better, it’s “exceptionally silent” at minimum speed.

IAN NAPIER, a name we’re sure sounds familiar, asks: “What is the term for having had that déjà vu feeling before? Is that just plain old déjà vu, déjà vu squared or something else entirely?” Perhaps one of Feedback’s wise readers can advise. FEEDBACK has previously struggled with how to adhere to the rules of the Celebrity Diet – that is, selecting foods that are high in energy but low in

calories – and came to the conclusion that food eaten on a mountain such as Helvellyn might fit the bill (4 June). “My teenage son, Luke, points out that the Celebrity Diet would be very successful” if this were the case, says Sean Kelly. “Having dined on top of Helvellyn, you must descend to ground level to harness the potential energy stored within your low calorie dinner. To eat again, you need to ascend Helvellyn again.” Weight loss will be rapid, we are assured.

MORE pre-science prescience in literary fiction: Dave Cheesman writes that Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is presaged in the 4 July 1950 issue of The Eagle comic, “in which Dan Dare and his stalwart batman Digby are taken by the Treens to the capital of Venus in an ‘Electrosender’”. This baroque transportation carriage is shot down a vacuum tube using

electromagnets, reaching speeds of 24,000 kilometres per hour. Sounds familiar, but no word yet from Musk on plans for Venus. WHAT makes something healthy? A pack of Sunfood “raw organic apricot kernels” warns buyers they must limit themselves to just 8 seeds per day, due to the presence of amygdalin, “which can cause symptoms of cyanide poisoning when eaten in excess”. Nonetheless, we are also informed that the kernels come from wild trees untouched by any “pesticide, herbicide or synthetic fertilizer”. What a relief!

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THE LAST WORD A fresh angle If the world’s tilt was at a different angle, how different, if at all, would the world’s environment be?

■ The world’s tilt can be considered from two perspectives. One is obliquity, or the angle between the plane of Earth’s orbit around the sun and the plane of Earth’s equator. This tilt is essential for giving us the seasons, and does in fact vary with time. It is currently at 23.4°, but shifts over a 41,000-year cycle between 22.1° and 24.5°. So we can observe how changes in obliquity have affected Earth’s environment, particularly during the early Pleistocene epoch starting 2.6 million years ago. Obliquity is one of the factors that Milutin Milankovitch hypothesised in the 1920s could drive glacial-interglacial cycles in the northern hemisphere. Reducing the angle of obliquity, for example, decreases the mean annual amount of sunlight reaching the poles, making it more likely that winter ice will survive the summer without melting fully. This means the following winter’s ice has a “head start” and will reach a greater extent than the previous winter. As other feedbacks also begin kicking in – such as the fact that sea ice reflects more sunlight into space than seawater – the northern hemisphere descends into a cold glacial period with ice sheets up to 3 kilometres thick across northern Eurasia and North America, and a global sea level around 100 metres lower than today. Conversely,

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increasing obliquity increases the ■ The axis around which Earth amount of sunlight reaching the spins is tilted at about 23.4°. If poles, making it more likely for ice this changed, everything would to melt there during the summer. be affected – temperature, It may be a small comfort that precipitation and life forms. The obliquity is currently declining, easiest way to think about this is potentially counteracting a little to imagine the two extremes: of the human-induced global zero tilt and 90°. If our planet’s warming for our descendants. axis had zero tilt, we would Secondly, we can consider experience no seasons – no precession, or the “wobble” in the winter or summer, no change in orientation of Earth’s spin axis “The Earth’s tilt of 23.4° is (just like a spinning gyroscope) essential for giving us the over a period of 24,000 years. seasons and does in fact Crucially, precession dictates vary over time” whether the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere occurs close to aphelion (the point where temperature throughout the year. Earth is furthest away from the sun Seasons exist because the in its orbit) or perihelion (the point amount of solar energy received where it is nearest). by northern temperate and polar At present, our summers are at regions is highest when the North aphelion and thus relatively cool, Pole is most tilted towards the with our winters relatively mild. sun (at the summer solstice on This is the ideal configuration 21 June) and least at the winter for a glacial period, because solstice (21 December). summer temperatures are not Now imagine Earth stops high enough to substantially melt rotating and our axis tilts to 90°, last winter’s ice (ignoring the with the South Pole pointing permanently at the sun. That “At present summers are pole would have 24-hour sunshine cool, winters are mild. This 365 days a year. The Antarctic ice is the ideal configuration cap would melt, as the continent for a glacial period” became the hottest place on Earth. The southern hemisphere human-induced greenhouse would be in constant light. At the effect). An interglacial period equator, the sun would be in a would be expected to occur when perpetual sunrise/sunset position, precession leads to summer and the temperature would be perihelion and scorching heat at decidedly chilly. that time of year, melting more The North Pole would see no ice – not something we would sunlight – and neither would the particularly welcome in our northern temperate zone. Both current predicament. would become extremely cold. Sam Buckton They might receive a little warmth Cambridge, UK via winds and ocean currents, if

material that has been submitted by readers in any medium or in any format and at any time in the future. Send questions and answers to The Last Word, New Scientist, 110 High Holborn, London WC1V 6EU, UK, by email to [email protected] or visit www. newscientist.com/topic/lastword (please include a postal address in order to receive payment for answers). Unanswered questions can also be found at this URL.

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these still flowed, but the north Atlantic and north Pacific would freeze solid, probably to what we know as the tropic of Cancer. The northern tropical zone would be in perpetual twilight – and with no direct solar radiation would be cold, though probably less so than temperate and Arctic regions. Our planet’s flora and fauna developed to take advantage of the climatic zones we have. Had there been a change in tilt in the past, they would have evolved differently. Moreover, any change in seasons would probably have an effect on rainfall and thus erosion patterns. Peter Bursztyn Barrie, Ontario, Canada ■ In a light-hearted vein, on 1 April 1986 The Guardian newspaper in the UK published a “Government Announcement on the proposed shift of the earth’s axis”. Their supposed aim was to tilt the planet to bring the UK closer to the equator, making it warmer. China would, in contrast, become a polar republic. All this was to be achieved by electromagnetic charges already in orbit, but not yet switched on until 11 o’clock that morning. Kitchens should be vacated, because saucepans and other items might undergo “spasmodic displacement”. Alteration of zodiacal signs might cause marital mismatch and upheaval, but persons “locked in amatory embrace between 11.00 and 11.30 might feel the earth move”. John Forrester Edinburgh, UK




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