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Soyuz emergency spells trouble for ISS


Same-sex mice reproduce. Are we next?


Unusual fossil reveals surprising origins WEEKLY October 20 – 26, 2018

THE POWER OF FASTING Why an empty plate may hold the secret to a longer life


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On her father’s extraordinary legacy PLUS 400-TONNE FUNGUS/ MOONMOONS/BACKWARDS CHEMISTRY Science and technology news www.newscientist.com US jobs in science


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25 Spacecraft crash Soyuz emergency spells trouble for ISS


We must ensure that data-driven medicine puts patients first. The joy of moonmoons

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13 Two eggs, one baby Same-sex mice reproduce. Are we next? 8

News 4

THIS WEEK Adapting to a warmer world. Photography prize for monkeys. Rabbit virus hits hares? UK to put folic acid in flour


NEWS & TECHNOLOGY Smacking linked to teen violence. Placental stem cells help hips heal. Electric chewing gum keeps its flavour. Space rocks could seed life through the galaxy. Earliest ever animal fossil. Mysterious cosmic radio burst near Earth. Hospital of the future. Moons can have moons. Mice with two biological mothers. 400-tonne fungus. A laser that shouts. Forensics gets a genetic upgrade

Earliest animal Unusual fossil reveals surprising origins

30 The power of fasting Why an empty plate may hold the secret to a longer life 42 Lucy Hawking On her father’s extraordinary legacy Plus 400-tonne fungus (13). Moonmoons (3 and 10). Backwards chemistry (38)

17 IN BRIEF Jiggling pills end constipation. We remember 5000 faces. Bees fall silent in eclipse. AI’s weird limbs. Sneaky T. rex

Analysis 22 INSIGHT Why trying to end all suicide could be a bad idea 24 COMMENT More help needed for those who lose a pregnancy. Medical cannabis in limbo 25 ANALYSIS Crisis in space leaves the ISS inaccessible

Features 30 The fashion for fasting Why an empty plate may hold the secret to a longer life 34 Full steam ahead Cracking the immense promise of geothermal power 38 The disassembly line How to make molecules at the touch of a button 42 Memories of my father As Stephen Hawking’s final book is published, his daughter Lucy reflects on his legacy. Plus an exclusive extract from the book and a review

Culture 46 Red sky at night A deeply realised novel from Kim Stanley Robinson peeks into our possible future on the moon. PLUS: This week’s cultural picks

Regulars 26 APERTURE The world’s most extraordinary freshwater environments 52 LETTERS For mammals, matriarchy is second nature 55 OLD SCIENTIST 50 years ago 56 FEEDBACK Goats with a strange thirst 57 THE LAST WORD Waxing miracle

20 October 2018 | NewScientist | 1


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ADVANCES in technology have done wonders for keeping us alive and healthy – think where we would be without the likes of MRI machines, heart monitors or ventilators. So it is heartening to see that Great Ormond Street Hospital in London is now experimenting with how the latest advances in artificial intelligence, robots and face recognition might aid patient care (see page 10). Unlike medical tech of old, this latest generation heavily relies on the use of data. And as we are increasingly learning, data collected for one reason often ends up being used for another.

For example, people who signed up to DNA ancestry services probably never expected their genetic data to be put to work solving murders. Now, thanks to the rapid pace of genetic technology, police are using it to do just that (see page 14). Even if most people would be happy to assist with such enquiries, the benefits of other reuses of data are thornier still. Last week, it was revealed that Amazon has patented the ability of its Alexa voice assistant to detect when you are ill, such as by listening out for coughs and sniffles, then offer to buy cough drops. In the same vein, it is easy

The joy of moonmoons © 2018 New Scientist Ltd, England. New Scientist ISSN 0262 4079 is published weekly except for the last week in December by New Scientist Ltd, England. New Scientist (Online) ISSN 2059 5387 New Scientist Limited, 387 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016 Periodicals postage paid at New York, NY and other mailing offices Postmaster: Send address changes to New Scientist, PO Box 3806, Chesterfield, MO 63006-9953, USA. Registered at the Post Office as a newspaper and printed in USA by Fry Communications Inc, Mechanicsburg, PA 17055

LAST week, New Scientist sent certain corners of the internet into rapturous delight by publishing a story about the potential for moons to have moons of their own (see page 10). This included a suggested name for such objects: moonmoons. The response on social media was an immediate outpouring of glee. Something about the word’s

childlike simplicity makes it a pleasure to say, and thousands of readers were quickly firing off their own reactions. As it happens, “Moon Moon” is the name of a five-year-old meme depicting a wolf looking stupid, which certainly helped the idea spread. Some astronomers are bemoaning the use of moonmoon, suggesting it

to imagine that a face-recognition system designed to identify hospital visitors could one day be redeployed to search for signs of depression. Although medical data is generally subject to strict safeguards, it is not clear whether data that later becomes medically useful can be equally protected. After all, you never know what might come in handy down the line. Good healthcare relies not just on the latest advances, but also on trust. In striving for innovation, medical practitioners must do their best to protect their patients – both now and for the future. ■

makes light of a serious field of study. But given that terms such as super-Earth, twotino and cubewano are all an accepted part of the literature, moonmoon doesn’t seem a huge departure. Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the word sticks or gives way to more po-faced alternatives such as submoon or second-order moon. But to lose moonmoon, and the joy it brings, would seem an astronomical shame. ■ 20 October 2018 | NewScientist | 3


Golden duo grab prize


A PORTRAIT of two golden snub-nosed monkeys has won the 2018 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. The pair were snapped by Dutch photographer Marsel van Oosten in the temperate forest  of China’s Qinling mountains, the only place where this endangered species lives. “This image is a symbolic reminder of the beauty of nature and how impoverished we are becoming as nature is diminished,” says Roz Kidman Cox, a member of the judging panel. The photography competition is produced by the Natural History Museum in London.

Apple hits back at Plan to add folic anti-encryption law acid to UK flour GOVERNMENT ministers are backing a plan to fortify flour with folic acid in the UK, according to The Guardian. The move is intended to help reduce birth defects that affect the brain and spine. A lack of folic acid can lead to problems with neural tube development, resulting in conditions such as spina bifida and anencephaly. Pregnant women and those trying to conceive are currently encouraged to take a daily supplement of

TECH giant Apple has strongly criticised a proposed Australian law that would force companies to provide access to encrypted data. “Criminals and terrorists… may

The proposed bill’s public hearing is on 19 October, but Australia is not the first to attempt a clampdown on encryption. Law enforcement agencies and politicians around the world have long been calling for such measures, claiming it is essential to fight crime and terrorism. The UK’s prime minister, Theresa May, has repeatedly pressed the need for a ban on encryption. Computer scientists say there is no way to create “back doors” for law enforcement without making devices more vulnerable to hackers, such as those who break into systems and demand a ransom to restore them. 4 | NewScientist | 20 October 2018


start their attacks by accessing just one person’s smartphone,” said Apple in a letter to the Australian government. “In the face of these threats, this is no time to weaken encryption.”

400 micrograms of folic acid. But many don’t take supplements. “Many pregnancies are not planned, meaning many women will not have taken folic acid around the time of conception and very early in their pregnancy,” says Clare Livingstone from the Royal College of Midwives.

Concern over hare deaths

Flour is already fortified with vitamins and minerals in more than 80 countries, including the US, Canada and Australia. When fortification was introduced in Canada in the 1990s, a marked decrease in birth defects was seen.

myxoma virus, was introduced to rabbits in Australia and Europe in the 1950s to reduce their numbers. The disease tore through populations, killing 99 per cent of rabbits in the UK. Numbers bounced back after rabbits developed some resistance, but the disease is still prevalent. Now the University of East Anglia and the Suffolk and Norfolk wildlife trusts are warning that a mutated form of the virus may be infecting hares. There have been reports before of the disease seeming to affect hares, but now a large number of dead hares have been found over a short period of time in the UK – in one case six in a single field. If the disease were to hit hares as

BROWN hares are turning up dead across the UK, leading to fears that the highly infectious rabbit disease myxomatosis has jumped species. Myxomatosis, caused by the

hard as it did rabbits, the effect could be devastating. UK hare populations are already thought to have declined by 80 per cent over the past century.

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

Time to adapt to a warming world IT IS not enough to try to limit further global warming – we must also do far more to ensure we survive it. That’s the message from a coalition of global figures, including former UN head Ban Ki-moon and billionaire Bill Gates. They are part of the Global Commission on Adaptation launched this week, which says that the impact of global warming is being felt much sooner and more powerfully than expected. To keep reducing global poverty and maintain economic growth, it says societies must do much more, much faster, to adapt. “Adaptation action is not only the right action, it is the smart thing. We need to make this case more aggressively. The costs of adapting are less than the cost of business as usual. And the benefits many times larger,” says Ban, who, with Gates,

“We are the first generation that has to live with the consequences of climate change” is one of 28 commissioners heading the new initiative. Climate adaptation is not just about special projects, says Kristalina Georgieva, CEO of the World Bank and another of the commissioners. Everyone should think about resilience to climate change when making decisions: from governments and business leaders to the general public, for instance when buying a home. “A very significant opportunity for adaptation comes from mainstreaming resilience in the normal investments we make,” says Georgieva. “It doesn’t have to be a more expensive investment, it has to be done with risk in mind.” For example, she describes how some farmers in Bangladesh


Climate change is hitting faster than expected, says Michael Le Page

have switched to raising ducks instead of chickens. In a flood, chickens drown but ducks swim. Bangladesh has also succeeded in greatly reducing deaths from cyclones by improving warning systems and building shelters. In 1970, half a million people died in one such storm; in 2007, fewer than 5000 perished in a cyclone. Adaptation is especially crucial for the poorest, because they are hit hardest. Climate change may plunge around 100 million people back into extreme poverty by 2030. “The urgency around adaptation cannot be overstated,” says Patrick Verkooijen, CEO of the Global Centre on Adaptation initiative. He will help to run the new commission. All those involved in the call for adaptation still stress the need to cut emissions to limit, or mitigate, further warming. “We are the last generation that can mitigate climate change effectively. We are the first generation that has to live with its consequences,” says Georgieva. “That leads to a very obvious

conclusion: we have to mitigate and adapt at the same time.” The launch of such a big adaptation initiative just a week after a major UN report on what it would take to limit warming to 1.5°C might be seen by some as an admission of defeat. But scientists have always made it clear that we need to adapt even if warming is limited to 1.5°C or 2°C by 2100. Based on current policies we are heading for more than 3°C.

Not defeated “For quite some time there has been a sense that if we opt to adapt, that means we’re accepting defeat in the fight against climate change,” says Georgieva. “But the truth here is that we already are experiencing the consequences of the changing climate. It’s not defeat, it’s reality that we face.” That means giving equal priority to adaptation. Half of the money the World Bank lends for climate-related projects – $20.5 billion in the past year – now goes on adaptation, she says.

Growing flood risks are one impact of the rise in global temperature

The commissioners also say we can combine adaptation with efforts to limit climate change. For instance, solar panels keep homes supplied with electricity if a disaster damages power lines. While the commission paints a rosy picture of the benefits of adaptation, in reality there will be hard choices, such as whether to retreat from low-lying coastal areas or build flood defences. This will be true even for wealthy cities such as New York. “Some places, like lower Manhattan, will clearly be defended with walls and other structures. But will billions be spent to protect, say, Howard Beach, a low-lying neighbourhood in Queens? I don’t think so,” says Jeff Goodell, author of The Water Will Come. “In most places, retreat is inevitable. And it will be driven by simple economics. The hard truth is, adaptation to quickly rising seas is a luxury that few can afford.” ■ 20 October 2018 | NewScientist | 5


Smacking linked to teenage violence A GLOBAL survey has found that teenagers get into more fights in countries where it is legal to spank children, prompting campaigners to renew calls to make corporal punishment illegal. Smacking children used to be commonplace in parenting, but a growing list of countries have banned it, including Sweden, Germany and New Zealand. The practice will soon become illegal in Scotland, and there are calls for the same to happen throughout the rest of the UK. Supporters of smacking say that it can be necessary for discipline, but campaigners say that it makes parental child abuse more likely, and promotes violence more generally. To see if childhood smacking might later affect teenage behaviour, Frank Elgar of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and his colleagues analysed child survey data from 88 countries. These countries were each classed in one of three ways: no smacking bans, full smacking bans, or partial smacking bans, where smacking isn’t allowed in

Stem cells from placentas could help fix muscles STEM cells taken from placentas have healing properties that can help people recover from having their hip joint replaced. Placentas are normally thrown away after childbirth, but now Israeli company Pluristem has taken discarded placentas and developed a batch of mesenchymal stem cells from them. These cells have the 6 | NewScientist | 20 October 2018

schools, but is legal for parents, as is currently the case in the UK. The analysis found that 13-year-olds from places with full smacking bans were less likely to get into frequent fights than those from nations where it is allowed everywhere. In boys, who fought the most, the rates for frequent fighting were 8.5 per cent where there are full smacking bans and

Teenagers seem to fight more where spanking is permitted–

potential to turn into different kinds of tissue and release chemicals that promote healing.

hip muscles than those in the placebo group, as measured by an exercise machine (Journal of

To see how the cells affect muscle repair, Tobias Winkler of Charité – Berlin University of Medicine in Germany and his colleagues tested two different doses of the cells in 20 people having hip replacements. During the operation, surgeons have to cut into muscle tissue around the joint, which can leave people limping for several months, particularly if it isn’t their first hip replacement. Six months after surgery, people

Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle, doi.org/cvsw). All of the people in the experiment – even those in the placebo group – were limp-free by the time they were tested at six months, probably because everyone was having their first hip surgery, says Winkler.


Clare Wilson

12 per cent where there are none (BMJ Open, DOI: 10.1136/ bmjopen-2018-021616 ). This suggests “bans not only keep children safe from adults, but also from their peers”, says Alana Ryan of the UK’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which has long campaigned for a ban on smacking in the home. But Catey Bunce of the UK Royal Statistical Society says this makes the mistake of assuming that a correlation between two things

who got a dose of cells had stronger

“Six months after the operation, people who got stem cell doses had stronger hip muscles”

means one causes the second. It could be that the second causes the first. For instance, teenagers who get into lots of fights might grow up to be tougher disciplinarians. Or perhaps smacking and teenage fights are both affected by a third factor, such as broader societal attitudes. For centuries, there has been a slow decline in violence across many aspects of society, according to an idea popularised by Steven Pinker of Harvard University. Any falls in smacking and teenage fighting could be two manifestations of this trend, without one directly causing the other. “As a parent, I would not smack my children, so it is tempting to believe if they were exposed to it they would become more aggressive,” says Bunce. “But you need to be wary of jumping from correlation to causation.” Another caveat to the latest findings is that there was just a small difference in frequent fighting between countries with full bans and partial bans. In boys, the rates were 8.5 per cent versus 10 per cent, a gap too small to be found statistically meaningful by this analysis. But Elgar says other evidence shows that smacking makes children more violent. “Being hit or spanked or slapped does affect how kids react in their own social relationships,” he says. ■

The improvements seen in strength suggest that the cells would reduce limping in people having second or third joint replacements, where the muscle starts off in worse condition, says Winkler. Dennis McGonagle at the University of Leeds, UK, says animal studies show that stem cells are often killed by the recipient’s immune system when they are injected into the body. But mesenchymal stem cells seem to release tiny packages of beneficial compounds before this happens. “They are full of growth factors and other goodies,” he says. Clare Wilson ■

For daily news stories, visit newscientist.com/news

Hi-tech chewing gum will never lose its flavour

It currently produces a salty or bitter taste. But the hope is to extend that, since other research has shown that, by varying the pattern and strength of electric charge, it is possible to induce all five of the basic tastes our mouths pick up: bitter, salty, sour, sweet and umami. At an event in Japan earlier this year, 80 people tried the gum. Almost everyone reported experiencing salty or bitter tastes. Some said chewing it was a bit like chewing niboshi, which are small dried infant sardines used in snacks and seasonings in Japan. The gum consists of a piezoelectric element and electrodes, wrapped in a thin plastic film. It is a couple of centimetres wide, like a standard stick of gum. Unlike real chewing gum, the electric version will continue to stimulate the taste buds for as long as it is chewed – and it won’t break down into a sticky glob. Naoshi Ooba at Meiji University in Japan and his colleagues created the device, and demonstrated it at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology in Berlin, Germany, this week. This is the latest in a line of taste-related gadgets devised by researchers. These include a digital lollipop that people can lick to get different tastes, and a virtual lemonade that uses electrodes to trick someone into thinking that water is actually the fruit-flavoured drink. Ooba and his team plan to add other flavours to the electric gum, and want to eventually create a product that people can buy. Timothy Revell ■


CHEWING gum that zaps your tongue with electricity keeps the flavour going forever. The pain-free device is called “unlimited electric gum”. It uses the piezoelectric effect – a phenomenon where some materials produce electric charge when squeezed. When the “gum” is chewed, it produces a small current, which tricks the tongue into experiencing different tastes.

Panspermia is the idea that asteroids seed life through space

Alien life could ride space rocks to travel the stars LIFE finds a way – perhaps even stuck on such interstellar across the stars. It may really be projectiles would be to survive. possible for organisms to travel “It’s like billiards,” says all over the galaxy by hitching Ginsburg. “You hit the cue a ride on a fast-moving rock in ball and it hits the other balls, a phenomenon called galactic and beside just transferring panspermia. In this way, just a momentum it also spreads life, few inhabited worlds could spread and then life spreads across the life throughout the Milky Way. whole table, which is the galaxy.” In October 2017, astronomers “I would actually be thrilled spotted the first interstellar to be a microbe sitting object we have ever seen come in a rock that makes it through our solar system, called across the Milky Way” ‘Oumuamua. That was the first concrete proof that rocks can be tossed out of orbit from distant The team has found that up to stellar systems and make it intact 100 million life-bearing objects to our solar system. with a radius of 200 kilometres – Of course, it is not enough for about half the size of Saturn’s a space rock to travel between moon Enceladus – could have the stars. In order to transfer life, been captured in stellar systems it must also be captured by a around the Milky Way. star’s gravity and eventually Even about 1000 Earth-sized smash into a planet. objects could have been collared Now, Idan Ginsburg, Manasvi in this way, they say (arxiv.org/ Lingam and Avi Loeb at Harvard abs/1810.04307v1). University have calculated just Smaller objects are much how often these banished rocks more likely to make the journey might be captured by a new stellar between stars, but the smaller system, and how likely any life they get, the harder it is for

microbes to take shelter from the punishing space environment in the interior of the rock. “It’s a very dangerous ride, but you can think of the microbes as tiny astronauts sitting in a natural spacecraft,” says Loeb. “I would actually be thrilled to be a microbe sitting in a rock that makes it across the Milky Way.” Once one of these life-laden rocks is captured into orbit around a new star, it can smash into a planet, dropping off its passengers. The same process on a smaller scale could also spread life to other planets in the system. Many Mars rocks have been blown off the planet by impacts, ending up on Earth. This has led some people to speculate that life on our planet could have come from Mars. It is even possible, if unlikely, that life on Earth began with interstellar microbes, says Loeb. However, Ed Turner at Princeton University says the team may have overestimated the likelihood that these captured objects carry life. And many of these objects would not be chipped from larger, habitable planetary bodies, so if they have life, it must have evolved there on its own. “Only a tiny fraction of the objects that would be captured would plausibly carry life,” he says. “If that somehow were not the case and a lot of them carried life, then life is very common and you probably don’t need panspermia anyway.” Our space-faring descendants may even be able to test this idea. If life in different places around the galaxy is varied and diverse, that would be an indication that it arose independently on each world. However, if there are groups of stellar systems with similar life on their planets, this could mean that microbes really are travelling between the stars, says Loeb. Clare Wilson ■ 20 October 2018 | NewScientist | 7


Chelsea Whyte

SPONGES were probably one of the earliest animal groups to evolve, but it has proved hard to work out exactly when in geological time they appeared. Now, an analysis of ancient rocks and oils has turned up traces of steroids made by early sponges that indicate they may have been populating the ancient sea floor at least 120 million years earlier than we thought. “If animals first appeared in a predominantly bacterial or microbial world, they would need to harness microbes and live symbiotically with them,” says Gordon Love at the University of California, Riverside. That may be why sponges produce a vast array of sterols: steroids with antibacterial properties that could let them harbour microbes without harm. The earliest sponges belong to a class called demosponges, which produce sterols that can be preserved in rocks as characteristic sterane molecules. Love and his team went hunting for these “molecular fossils” in rock and oil samples from Oman,

Cosmic radio signal spotted close to Earth A STRANGE flash of radio waves detected from space has been traced to a galaxy that lies relatively nearby. Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are blasts of radio waves that last for only a few milliseconds yet can contain as much energy as our sun puts out in decades. More than 50 have been spotted since they were first discovered in 2007, but we still don’t know what causes them. 8 | NewScientist | 20 October 2018

Siberia and India that date to between 635 and 660 million years ago. They found plenty of a sterane called 26-methylstigmastane that, as far as we know, is only produced by demosponges. In previous work, Love had found another possible sponge biomarker, called 24-isopropylcholestane (24-ipc), in the same rocks. But some modern algae make a similar compound, so the ancient 24-ipc might not have come from sponges. Love says the evidence for sponges in the rocks is now clearer (Nature Ecology & Evolution, doi.org/cvsx). But the finding hints at a big puzzle. Sponges have “skeletons” made of silicon fibres called spicules that give structure to their holey bodies. We don’t see fossil evidence of spicules until about 540 million years ago, at the dawn of the Cambrian period. “If the biomarkers here are a genuine sign of sponges, then we’ve got a huge problem with the fossil record,” says Joe Botting at the National Museum Wales, UK. It could be that older spicules are out there and we just haven’t

Most detected bursts have been from billions of light years away, making them hard to study. But Ryan Shannon at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia and his colleagues recently found one that occurred unusually close to Earth. Dubbed FRB 171020, it was spotted by the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder telescope. Elizabeth Mahony at Australia’s national science institute, CSIRO, and her colleagues, including Shannon, have now determined that it probably came from ESO 601-G036, a galaxy that is 120 million light years from Earth


Earliest signs of animal life found

discovered them yet. But Botting says there are many people hunting for them – and they have yet to find any. So perhaps some other organism was making these compounds 660 million years ago, having evolved the same ability independently of sponges. Although we know that, today, sponges produce more sterols than all other complex life forms combined, and we haven’t found

other living organisms that make the specific molecules that Love’s team found, there is a chance they are – or once were – out there. Love says there is another possibility: the very first sponges may have lacked silicon spicules that would have been preserved as microfossils. If so, this would explain why there are molecular signs that sponges were present 660 million years ago even though there is no microfossil evidence. In other words, we could be looking for fossils that don’t exist. ■

(arxiv.org/abs/1810.04354v1). The galaxy is of a comparable size and has a similar star formation rate

previous suggestions that such emissions are required for FRBs. Mahony and her team are now

and oxygen abundance to the only other galaxy in which an FRB has been pinpointed, which lies 2.4 billion light years away from us in the constellation Auriga. However, ESO 601-G036 doesn’t emit the same continuous stream of low-level radio emissions as the Auriga galaxy, contradicting

focusing their telescopes on ESO 601-G036 to confirm that it does produce FRBs. If they spot another, they may be able to pinpoint which part of the galaxy it comes from. “Then we might actually be able to solve the mystery of what causes these fast radio bursts,” she says. Some people believe they are alien

There is a big puzzle over when sponges evolved

“The team’s telescopes are trained on the galaxy to try to pinpoint the source of the fast radio bursts”

messages, but Mahony says they are more likely to be the products of astrophysical events, like the creation of neutron stars. Alice Klein ■





NEWS & TECHNOLOGY Moons of a moon are called moonmoons STARS are orbited by planets, which are orbited by moons, but what comes next? More moons, according to a new analysis. A moon of a moon has no formal


name, perhaps because we have never spotted one, but both submoon and moonmoon have been suggested. Such an object would have to be close enough to its host moon to remain gravitationally bound to the moon instead of the larger planet, but not so close that the moon would rip it apart or pull it out of orbit.

Futuristic hospital unit is launched Douglas Heaven

engineers can interact with patients, doctors and nurses – sometimes role playing actual scenarios – to find out what new tech can and can’t do before it is rolled out in clinical settings across the NHS. “It’s a digital sandpit,” says Noel Hurley at Arm. “It lets us experiment and play and build and break things in a safe environment.” Arm’s chips power most of the world’s smartphones, but it is also involved in healthcare, providing the hardware for many

IN THE five steps from the door to the reception desk, my photo has been taken, my face saved in the system and an ID number assigned. For the rest of my time at this new high-tech unit in Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) in London, I am followed by an AI. Video screens that will be visible only to staff show my head in a red box, annotated with a score showing how confident the computer is that I am who it thinks I am. Tracking systems like this are just one of the technologies being “Projects under way include a blue whale that is visible tested at GOSH’s DRIVE (Digital, only to those with an Research, Informatics and Virtual augmented reality app” Environments) unit, which opened last week. The unit is a collaboration between the medical devices. The company UK’s National Health Service, now wants to embed AI in those University College London and devices so they can make quick, several tech companies, including automated decisions. Microsoft, Samsung and UK Medical AI has made great chip-maker Arm. strides in diagnosing certain Although the unit is part of conditions, such as cancer and GOSH, it doesn’t provide clinical eye disease. But Arm is more care. Instead, it is a place where interested in the smaller tasks. 10 | NewScientist | 20 October 2018

Robots, such as Sota, can assist with health checks

By streamlining the simple actions that are performed in hospitals thousands of times a day, such as registering patients and tracking people’s movements, it hopes to free up more staff time for patient care. Since GOSH is a children’s hospital, there will be a focus on how tech can improve the care of younger people. Several projects are under way, including a blue whale in the main entrance and rabbits hopping about the wards – visible only to those with an augmented reality app. One project already up and running is Project Fizzyo, which helps children with cystic fibrosis put up with their physiotherapy by making the physio device they have to squeeze into a game controller. The better you get at doing physio, the better you are at the game, says Neil Sebire, managing director at DRIVE. Hospital staff are also asking young patients what they would like in a hospital. “Most of them want robots,” says Sebire. Two robots are now being developed that can tell stories inspired by nearby objects. “Children are not limited by what they think tech can do,” he says. ■

Juna Kollmeier at the Carnegie Observatories in California and Sean Raymond at the University of Bordeaux, France, have calculated that four moons in our solar system could theoretically have submoons: Earth’s moon, Jupiter’s moon Callisto and Saturn’s moons Titan and Iapetus (arxiv.org/abs/1810.03304). These moons are all relatively large and far from their planets, so there is a small area in orbit around each where the planet’s gravity might not steal a moonmoon away. But even if these moons could host a moonmoon, it would be difficult to get one in the right place, says Raymond. “Something has to kick a rock into orbit at the right speed that it would go into orbit around a moon, and not the planet or the star,” he says. And if that moon moved around over the course of its evolution, as our moon has, it is unlikely the submoon would stick around. There has also been speculation about whether a moonmoon could orbit a distant moon that may be the first ever spotted outside our solar system, around a planet called Kepler-1625b. That exomoon, if it exists, is probably a gas giant, orbiting an even larger gas giant. “This system where you’ve got a giant planet and a Neptune-sized moon that’s kind of far away from the planet is sort of the best-case scenario for a moonmoon,” says Raymond.

Leah Crane ■


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

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

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

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

AVAILABLE NOW newscientist.com/howtobehuman


Mice pups born to same-sex parents Even if you somehow combined the genomes of two females – or two males – in an egg and kick-started development, the imprinting would not be normal and the resulting embryo will die. But in 2004, a group in Japan managed to create Kaguya the mouse, the first ever mammal

WE ARE a small step closer to the day when two women or two men could have biological children of their own, thanks to improved methods for creating mice with same-sex parents. But the work also shows that there is a huge amount still to do before this could be attempted in humans. “It is [right] to emphasise the risks, and the importance of safety, before any human experiment is involved,” says Wei Li at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, who led the latest research. “But we think our work does take it closer.” The biggest obstacle to creating babies from same-sex parents is a genetic phenomenon called imprinting. This means certain genes in the sperm genome are switched off by adding epigenetic markers to the DNA. These are molecules that affect gene activity but don’t change the underlying DNA sequence. Imprinting also occurs in eggs, but with different genes turned off. Normal imprinting in sperm and eggs is crucial for embryo development in mammals.

Massive fungus is older than Christianity A HUGE fungus that is one of the largest living things on the planet turns out to be both bigger and older than thought. It may have been spreading through the soil of Michigan since the end of the last ice age and weighs at least 400,000 kilograms. James B. Anderson at the University of Toronto in Canada and his colleagues found the honey fungus

One of the newborn mice created by researchers in China


Michael Le Page

with two mothers. They achieved this by deleting a piece of DNA in one of the female genomes to try to mimic normal imprinting. But 500 attempts produced just two mice that survived to adulthood. Li and his team have greatly raised the success rate by deleting three bits of DNA to better mimic the normal imprinting required for embryo development. They made a total of 200 attempts at creating a mouse with two

Armillaria gallica in the late 1980s, while studying other fungi that were killing red pines on a Michigan plantation. It spanned at least 0.37 square kilometres. At the time, they estimated it was at least 1500 years old and weighed at least 100,000 kg. Back then, the fungus was a contender for the largest living organism, but bigger fungi have since been found. Anderson and his colleagues have

allowing them to get a better sense of its shape below ground. The fungus weighs at least 400,000 kg, four times larger than the initial estimate. The fungus grew from a single individual, so its greater size implies it is also older than thought. “We’re now saying 2500 years based on our estimates of growth rate, and that’s a lower bound,” says Anderson. It could be much older. The upper

now revisited the fungus, which had been left to its own devices since the early 1990s. They collected 245 samples, far more than before,

“We’re now saying it’s 2500 years old based on our estimates of growth rate, and that’s a lower bound”

mothers, succeeding 27 times. What’s more, Li’s team also created 12 mice with two fathers from 500 attempts, by deleting seven pieces of DNA to try to mimic imprinting. However, none survived to adulthood (Cell Stem Cell, doi.org/cvrw). Li’s work reveals more about which imprinted genes are crucial for normal development in mice. However, it is not clear if the results apply to other mammals such as humans. The team will test this by trying to create monkeys with two mothers. Before we could even think of trying to create human babies with same-sex parents, we would need a way of mimicking imprints without resorting to genetic modification, not least because permanently deleting genes would have harmful effects in later generations. But that might just be possible. Several groups are modifying CRISPR gene-editing tools to allow them to add or remove epigenetic markers without changing the underlying DNA sequence. Even if that sort of approach works, huge safety questions remain. “Faulty imprints do give rise to human diseases,” says Azim Surani at the University of Cambridge, who discovered the imprinting phenomenon in 1984. Any manipulation of imprints could therefore have serious consequences, he says. ■

limit is the end of the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago, because that’s when Michigan’s forests began to grow. “It may go all the way back to post-glaciation, when the forest was re-establishing on that site,” says Anderson (bioRxiv, doi.org/cvq6). The team was also able to estimate how many genetic mutations the fungus has accumulated over its life, a rate Anderson says is “almost impossibly low”. It’s not clear how the fungus manages this: it may be unusually good at repairing DNA damage, or have a purposely slow rate of cell division. Michael Marshall ■ 20 October 2018 | NewScientist | 13

NEWS & TECHNOLOGY Laser weapon shouts, then burns people

Most of a sample’s genetic data is ignored in the search for a match

THE US Marines are developing a laser weapon that can transmit voice messages at long range – or be turned up to deafen or cause painful burns. The Scalable Compact Ultra-short

The weapon builds on previous prototypes developed by the Pentagon. An igniter laser fires an intense pulse lasting just a few million-billionths of a second. This creates a ball of plasma, which can be created in mid-air or on the surface of a target. A detonator laser then explodes the plasma ball, resulting in a flash and a bang. At the lowest power setting, a rapid series of flash-bangs will be modulated to carry robotic speech, conveying instructions over distances of up to 100 metres. At higher levels, it will produce flash-bangs as loud as the inside of a jet engine and dazzlingly bright. When aimed at a person, SCUPLS will painfully vaporise the outer layer of skin. The weapon is likely to be mounted on a small vehicle. Previous weapons have been limited by the strength of available lasers. “They cannot, to-date, provide the full laser performance necessary to deliver all three of the desired non-lethal effects,” the Pentagon told New Scientist. The SCUPLS project will work to increase both the power per pulse and the number of pulses per second. SCUPLS could be more adaptable than existing crowd-control weapons. For example, an individual can be ordered to stop or put down a weapon. If they fail to comply, SCUPLS could apply increasingly unpleasant effects until the individual complies. But it is not clear how safety will be ensured. “Dosage will be decisive for avoiding permanent injury,” says Jürgen Altmann at Dortmund University of Technology in Germany.

David Hambling ■ 14 | NewScientist | 20 October 2018


Pulse Laser System (SCUPLS) will be a non-lethal weapon for crowd control, according to US Navy documents.

Crime scene DNA gets more revealing Chelsea Whyte

The US national DNA database used by police and the FBI – called CODIS – doesn’t store whole DNA sequence data. Instead, it focuses on up to 20 specific stretches of repetitive DNA code that are relatively easy to sequence. These regions vary between individuals, so can help identify people. Consumer genetic databases store different data: single-letter variations in DNA across

POLICING power may be about to get much stronger, thanks to an advance in genetic analysis. A new technique can link the limited DNA information held in forensic databases to the rich DNA libraries held by family tree-building websites – which raises questions about genetic privacy. Earlier this year, police identified someone they “This could expand the suspected was the Golden State number of cold cases that Killer – a serial killer active in are solvable, but it also California decades ago – with raises privacy questions” the help of an ancestry database used by people looking to trace their family history. hundreds of thousands of sites Since the arrest in April, in the genome. Because they genealogy databases – which carry more information, these allow consumers to upload their commercial databases can more DNA sequences – have been used accurately pin down a person’s to crack several other cold cases. relationship to others. Police are turning to consumer “When police have DNA genetics databases because evidence, usually it’s very minute the forensic ones hold only quantities,” says Yaniv Erlich of limited genetic information. genetic ancestry company

MyHeritage. “Currently, they have this dilemma: should we run a CODIS set on our DNA or use the more sophisticated techniques?” Now Noah Rosenberg at Stanford University in California and his colleagues have developed a computational model that makes it easier to link people in CODIS to those in genealogy databases. The model relies on the fact that some of the single-letter variations recorded by ancestry databases are gathered from roughly the same part of the genome from which the longer stretches of DNA recorded in CODIS come from. This gives potential overlaps. Rosenberg and his team tested the model with data from 872 people. They found that they could identify about 35 per cent of sibling pairs by comparing CODISlike DNA from one member of the pair with ancestry database-like DNA from the other member of the pair (Cell, doi.org/gfb8w6). “This could expand the number of cold cases that are solvable,” says Natalie Ram at the University of Baltimore, Maryland. She says it also raises questions about how private our genetic information is. The CODIS system was designed to be minimally informative, so that it can’t reveal information beyond identity, says Rosenberg. But the DNA data in genealogy websites can reveal physical or medical characteristics, so the ability to link between the systems might make it possible to find out more about a suspect from their DNA. However, at least for the moment, the number of matches between CODIS and consumer sites is limited. This is because CODIS is dominated by DNA samples from minority groups, while genealogy sites are mostly used by white people of European descent. ■

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IN BRIEF Pills jiggle to get your bowels going

Our memories are packed with thousands of mugshots

On average, participants listed 40 people in the first 5 minutes of the exercise and 21 in the final 5 minutes. From these rates,the team calculated that a typical

CAPSULES that vibrate in the gut can ease constipation. The usual advice for those with the condition – to eat more fibre, exercise and take laxatives – doesn’t always work. To address this, Israeli firm Vibrant has developed capsules the size of fish oil supplements that vibrate in the large intestine to stimulate contractions that move digestive products along. Satish Rao at Augusta University in Georgia and his colleagues tested the capsules in two clinical trials involving 245 people with chronic constipation. Participants took capsules for eight weeks. Half had versions set to vibrate in the large intestine. The others had non-vibrating placebos. The vibrating capsule group had twice as many bowel movements per week. Rao presented the results at the annual meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology last week.

participant would have listed 549 people if they were YOU can probably recognise a lot more faces than you

given unlimited time.

might think, typically about 5000. “It seems to be overkill,” says Rob Jenkins at the University of York in the UK. That is because humans

Then they tested recognition of famous faces by showing images of 3441 public figures from the likes of

lived in groups of around 150 people for most of our evolutionary history, so the usual idea is that it makes

different picture of each figure on separate days. If they said they recognised the celebrity in both pictures, that

sense for us to recall about this number of faces.

person was considered part of their “facial vocabulary”.

To test this idea, Jenkins and his team asked 25 people to spend an hour writing down the people

Participants recognised about 30 per cent of these faces. Based on this, Jenkins and his team estimated that

film, business, politics and sport. Each participant saw a

they knew personally for whom they could form a clear

most people can recall about 5000 faces (Proceedings of

mental image of their face.

the Royal Society B, doi.org/cvqb).

Diet of pregnant mice affects grandpups IF A female mouse has a fatty diet just before, during and just after pregnancy, her pups, grandpups and great-grandpups have a raised risk of obesity and addiction. Animal studies have shown that such a high-fat diet can lead to offspring with a less sensitive reward system: they need more food to feel full and are more susceptible to becoming obese or addicted to drugs.

Daria Peleg-Raibstein at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and her colleagues wondered about the impact on the second and third generations. They fed female mice a high-fat diet for three weeks before they mated, and six weeks after. The male offspring were bred with female mice who had been fed a normal diet to produce a second generation, and those

male offspring created a third. Both were found to have a 7 per cent greater body weight and a greater preference for alcohol than normal mice. They also had less dopamine, the brain’s signal for pleasure, and more dopamine receptors. Both brain changes may have increased the amount of food and alcohol the mice needed to feel satisfied (Translational Psychiatry, doi.org/cvqw). It is too early to say if this has implications for people, says Peleg-Raibstein.

Algae could ferry drugs in your body SOME algae can swim surprisingly fast, a talent that may make them an ideal drug delivery system. Metin Sitti at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Germany and his colleagues figured out how to attach tiny magnets to a freshwater alga. Then they applied a magnetic field to control the direction it swam in (Advanced Materials, doi.org/gd93zt). The aim is to load algae with drugs and steer them to diseased tissue. At present, a drug must be applied to a wider area or the entire body, which can cause unpleasant side effects. The team is working on ways to ensure immune cells don’t attack the algae before they reach their destination. 20 October 2018 | NewScientist | 17

IN BRIEF Eclipse didn’t get the bees buzzing BEES suddenly went quiet during the solar eclipse that swept across North America in August last year. A set of 16 monitoring stations recorded them falling silent as the moon totally covered the sun. Candace Galen at the University of Missouri and her colleagues set up microphones in stands of flowers along the path of the eclipse, from Oregon to Missouri, to listen to bees. They found that as the moon started to move in front of the sun, the bees continued buzzing. But

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AI invents weird limbs to conquer virtual landscape WHAT are the best two legs for acing an obstacle course? For an AI: one that pulls you forward by flexing at the knee joint, and one massive leg pulled behind for stability like a kangaroo tail. David Ha at Google created a virtual robot with a wide head. It had two legs that it could design itself. He tasked it with crossing a randomly generated virtual landscape within a set time. The artificial intelligence learned to do this with an algorithm that rewarded it with points for supporting its head,

reaching the exit and not falling over. This encouraged it to find the best leg designs. When the terrain was fairly flat, the AI crossed most quickly with a jaunty, skipping gait performed on the “knees” of long, skinny legs. This beat walking on the “feet” of shorter, thicker legs. When facing a landscape with pits and obstacles to climb, the AI developed one long, skinny leg that it used to sense obstacles, and a larger hind leg dragged in its wake to stabilise itself. As is usual when you give

artificial intelligence free rein, high jinxs ensued. When given no constraints and asked to cross an obstacle-laden course, the AI built an extremely tall bipedal creature that simply fell down to reach the exit. When rewarded for building smaller legs, the AI took that to an extreme, tottering on tiny legs across a fairly flat surface. An algorithm like this could come up with designs we had never thought of and that outperform ours, wrote Ha (arxiv.org/abs/1810.03779).

in the period around totality, the as they fly, suddenly dropped off. “We had expected to see a reduction in activity, but we


sound, created by the bees’ wings

Why T. rex wasn’t such a big noise

thought that it would be gradual following the loss of light,” says Galen. “We didn’t expect everything to go along as usual until totality.” The team recorded sound for 3 minutes – covering the period of totality that lasted 40 to 160 seconds depending on the location – and found that only one bee buzzed during those 3 minutes (Annals of the Entomological Society of America, doi.org/cvp9). It isn’t clear whether the other bees flew back to their hives, as they do at night, or whether they sheltered in flowers, as they do in inclement weather. “All we can say is what they weren’t doing – they


weren’t flying,” says Galen.

18 | NewScientist | 20 October 2018

IT IS easy to think Tyrannosaurus rex was so large that the ground shook as it approached. But it seems the dinosaur made less of a rumble than expected. Heavy animals produce earthquake-like seismic waves with every footfall. We know that other animals can detect these. Large dinosaurs must have produced seismic waves too. Ernesto Blanco at the University of the Republic, Uruguay, and his colleagues decided to investigate. They analysed 64 fossil footprints left by large dinosaurs, including herbivores, omnivores and carnivorous theropods – a group that includes T. rex. The theropods had a more elongated foot. When they simulated the seismic wave pattern generated when the various dinosaur feet hit the ground, they found the waves from theropod feet were weakest in the walking direction. In other words, theropods had a foot shape that would have allowed them to sneak up on their prey, seismically speaking. Blanco suggests that elongated feet may have evolved because they gave theropods a hunting advantage (Journal of Theoretical Biology, doi.org/cvq3).

Scat lets rabbit know it’s on the menu IF YOU are a rabbit, it is vital to know even more useful to know if they are

from the scent of its droppings. The researchers ran an experiment in the Spanish countryside. One area

eating your kind, and it seems rabbits

was sprayed daily with an extract of

can do this by detecting the whiff

scat of ferrets on a beef-based diet.

of a digested bunny in droppings. The European rabbit is a very

Another was sprayed with the scat

popular meal for predators – more

diet. The third was sprayed with

than 30 species eat it, says José

water as a control. Guerrero-Casado’s team counted

when predators are around. It is

Guerrero-Casado at the University

odour from ferrets on a rabbit-based

of Cordoba in Spain. This rabbit has an impressive ability to smell predators. But

rabbit droppings on the plots to

Guerrero-Casado and his colleagues

droppings in the area sprayed

wondered if it could also tell if a

with rabbit-based scat odour

predator had already eaten rabbit

(Acta Ethologica, doi.org/gd9948).

gauge how often the animals were visiting to feed. They found fewer

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

And where does belly-button fluff come from? Find the answers in our latest book. On sale now. Introduction by Professor Stephen Hawking

Advertising feature | Meet the Low Carbon Pioneers

Towards a low carbon future The world needs more energy but delivered with fewer carbon emissions. Embracing that dual challenge is the way BP thinks about every aspect of its business, says Kathrina Mannion “The world is facing a huge challenge,” says Kathrina Mannion. The global population is rising and expected to reach 9 billion by 2040. The standard of living is rising for many people, who want access to transport, to nutritious and plentiful food supplies, to development and so on. To achieve all this, they need energy. “But how are we collectively going to meet this massive demand while also reducing emissions?” she asks. The issue is that greenhouse gases are emitted through use of fossil fuels in activities such as transport, power, heating and agriculture. But these gases play a role in global warming. Mannion’s question may sound unusual given that she works for BP, one of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies. But that’s the point. BP believes it has a key role to play. And Mannion is heading a unit inside the company that is helping drive action across the business. “No one company or sector alone can deliver a low carbon future. Everyone, from consumers to corporations to governments, needs to take responsibility. At BP we’re asking what we can do to help to play a role in addressing this challenge,” she says. “As part of that we launched the Advancing Low Carbon programme,” for which she is the programme director. Earlier this year, BP announced a number of new low carbon targets. “We’re trying to reduce emissions in our own operations, to improve our products to help our customers reduce their emissions, and also to create new low carbon businesses. The Advancing Low Carbon programme is looking to encourage more action in all of these areas,” says Mannion, who has a degree in ecology. For example, BP is one of the top wind energy producers in the US, generating 2259 MW of renewable power. That’s enough to power every home in Philadelphia. But it’s not just renewable energy sources she is focusing on. “We know that the world

will be using fuels and lubricants for many decades to come. So we are looking at ways to make those the most efficient or low carbon fuels and lubricants we can,” she says. One example is Biojet, a lower carbon jet fuel made partly from recycled cooking oil that BP sells in Sweden and Norway. This reduces greenhouse gas emissions by more than 60 per cent compared to standard jet fuel. This low carbon thinking can be seen in BP’s lubrication business too. Its Castrol business has developed an innovative new way to change and recycle used engine oil, set to hit the market after 2020 (see “All Change”, opposite) and a range of carbon neutral lubricants. Applying this kind of innovative thinking to its shipping fleet means that BP tankers operate more energy efficiently too. BP has also invested in external companies that have potential to reduce carbon emissions . A good example is Solidia Technologies, which has developed a form of cement that captures and stores carbon dioxide as it dries. The ability to quantify the impact of these efforts is a crucial part of the Advancing Low Carbon programme. Mannion is adamant that these figures must be supported by evidence and clear and provable data. So the figures and the approach are all checked by independent observer Deloitte to ensure that it is thorough. “We’ve brought in an external partner who looks at these activities to check our figures and make sure they are robust and verifiable,” she says. The Advancing Low Carbon programme is beginning to change BP from the inside by energising low carbon thinking. “We need to think right across the company how we can encourage and drive low carbon action,” says Mannion. “To deliver significantly lower emissions, every kind of energy needs to be cleaner and better.” Q More at: newscientist.com/BP

Kathrina Mannion, BP’s Advancing Low Carbon programme director

Right: Biojet is a lower carbon aviation fuel Below: BP is one of the top wind energy producers in the US

“BP is focusing on carbon emissions in every aspect of its business”

All change

Above centre: Rachel Fort, Nexcel Above: The Aston Martin Vulcan uses the Nexcel system

Nexcel is a reusable and easily replaceable cell, like a cartridge, that contains all the oil for an engine along with the oil filter. It’s being developed to be engineered into cars of the future. So an oil change will be as simple as lifting out the cell and replacing it with another, which takes about 90 seconds. Because the used oil is contained, all of it can be recycled.That has significant benefits. The world produces about 6 billion litres of used engine oil every year but only about a quarter is recycled. In fact, about 2 billion litres is not recovered by licensed waste companies and so ends up in local waste streams, where it can be hugely damaging. Nexcel will allow engine oil to be efficiently recycled and reused. It also does away with the need for oil to be stored and sold in single use plastic containers. The system can also improve engine efficiency. One factor that determines this is the temperature of the engine oil.The oil becomes less viscous, reducing friction within the engine, as it heats up.That’s one reason why hot engines are more efficient. In contrast, an engine running on cold oil uses up more fuel and is therefore more wasteful. When a conventional engine starts from cold, it has to heat all the oil in the sump – usually around 5 litres. “That’s a large volume of oil to be heated before you reach the optimum temperature,” says Rachel Fort, a chemist who is a senior formulation technologist at Nexcel. But the Nexcel system feeds oil into the engine in small, precisely controlled amounts that quickly heat up. So the engine can operate more efficiently from the start. In-house testing indicates that this, along with other lubricant technologies enabled by Nexcel, could translate to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 2 grams for every kilometre driven. “That may not sound like much, but every gram is important, “says Fort. “Over the lifetime of a vehicle, that equates to about a third of the vehicle mass.”


Inside the plan to end suicide “ZERO suicide” is the phrase of half of UK suicides. By the end of the moment in mental health. the 1960s, the total suicide rate Thanks to a programme in Detroit had dropped by a third. that managed to push rates of More recently, deaths seem suicide to zero within a few years, to have been avoided by a change the approach has spread to in UK law to restrict pack sizes of health bodies all over the world. the painkiller paracetamol, also Last week, the UK government known as acetaminophen. From appointed England’s first minister 1998, the tablets could only be for suicide prevention, on the sold in small quantities. Ten years back of a “zero suicide ambition” later, deaths from paracetamol for patients in the care of the poisonings had halved. National Health Service “The philosophy of the zero announced in January. Reducing the number of suicides suicide movement is a is clearly a desirable goal. Yet some refusal to accept that any such deaths are inevitable” doctors view the zero suicide movement with alarm, fearing that such a challenging goal may Effects like these show that actually be counterproductive. suicidal thoughts can sometimes Some of the earliest successes be transient, says Keith Hawton in suicide prevention simply at the University of Oxford. involved changes that made it “If you can keep people safe more difficult for people to take until those thoughts diminish, their own lives. Proponents point you can save lives.” to the unintended benefit seen Hawton recalls a former patient in the UK in the 1960s when the who had somehow survived a gas supply to people’s homes jump from a high bridge. “When gradually became less poisonous. he hit the water, he damaged his At the time, deliberate gas body very badly, breaking many inhalation accounted for about bones. Yet his first thought was to


80 60 40

Preliminary data

20 0


22 | NewScientist | 20 October 2018



99 20 00 20 01 20 02 20 03 20 04 20 05 20 06 20 07 20 08 20 09 20 10 20 11 20 12

Suicides per 100,000 patients

Detroit healthcare provider Henry Ford Health System’s suicide screening, introduced in 2001, seemed to help stop deaths entirely, for a year

try to swim to the side.” Hawton says many other suicide survivors report similar changes of heart. Efforts are still ongoing to make it physically harder for people to take their own lives, particularly in psychiatric hospitals, for instance by removing objects that could enable hanging. A more radical approach is to try to proactively identify those likely to attempt it, an approach called suicide screening. This was at the heart of the programme that helped start the zero suicide idea. It was pioneered in 2001 by a Detroit-based healthcare provider called the Henry Ford Health System. Anyone who came into contact with its mental health services was screened for suicide risk, and safety measures were taken if they were deemed necessary. These included asking the person if they had had any thoughts of suicide and how they would do it, then putting obstacles in place. Often, this meant getting rid of any guns from the house – about two-thirds of gun deaths in the US are suicides. “Many people think if you get rid of this gun they’ll just go find another gun,” says Ed Coffey, who helped introduce the scheme. “For some reason, getting rid of the one they have fantasised about seems sufficient.” Other elements included improving access to doctors, and making sure people had a “safety plan”: personalised guidance on what to do if they had suicidal impulses, including phone numbers of friends and family to call for help. And a broader


Politicians say they want to aim for zero suicide, but that target might be counterproductive, says Clare Wilson

depression screen was offered to those seeing doctors for reasons unrelated to mental health – such as those visiting primary care or hospital emergency rooms – so they could be funnelled into suicide screening if necessary.

Downward trend Within a few years, the suicide rate among those accessing mental health services had fallen, and in 2009 the number hit zero. The programme’s architects began publicising the results and it has since been emulated by health bodies in more than 100 countries. Methods vary, but the driving philosophy is a refusal to accept that any suicide is inevitable. Proponents include

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bereaved parents who are determined their child’s death will not be in vain. So why the scepticism? One problem is that there is little evidence to show that some elements of the scheme work. There is particular concern over suicide screening, because no questionnaire can reliably identify who is going to take their own life, says Hawton. Studies show that there is a higher rate of suicide among those classed as high risk, but about half of people who take their own lives would have been classed as low risk. “Assessments are extremely inaccurate,” says Hawton. How did they work in Detroit? Perhaps they didn’t. The suicide rate among Henry Ford Health

Need a listening ear? UK Samaritans: 116123 (samaritans.org). Visit bit.ly/ SuicideHelplines for hotlines and websites for other countries

System’s mental health patients these days is certainly lower than before 2001, suggesting services have improved. But according to the provider’s published data, the suicide rate was falling before the programme started (see graph, left), and the current rate is nothing out of the ordinary. Suicide is a rare event – with an annual rate of about one in 10,000 people – and so the provider only has a handful of cases a year among its mental health patients. The figure has jumped up and down since 2001,

but only in 2009 was it actually someone in hospital against their zero. “With such small numbers, will is always a delicate balance a year without any suicides could between their liberty and their occur by chance,” says Hawton. risk of self-harm. “A zero suicide Another caveat is that the target risks scaring psychiatrists headline zero figure was for into depriving too many people people using mental health of their freedom,” says Holm. services. In the UK, about seven But the chief grievance is that in 10 people who take their own zero suicide sets a target that is lives haven’t had any such contact not realistically going to be met. in the past year. It is a tall order to “Eliminating suicide completely expect doctors to save the lives is not going to happen,” says of people they haven’t met. Hawton. “Throughout history, “One of the big challenges suicides have occurred.” is reaching out to people who It is unclear what hearing are not in contact with health claims that “all suicides are services,” says David Gunnell of preventable” does to bereaved the University of Bristol, UK. “I believe it should not be Yet these days, the term zero a target but a reminder suicide is usually taken to apply that there are ways we not just to those under a doctor’s can reduce suicide risk” care, but to everyone. Politicians have called for their localities to become “zero suicide cities”. families. For some, “the idea that For instance, last year London suicide should not happen makes Assembly members did so, citing them feel worse”, says Hawton. Detroit’s example. Sweden has “It adds to their burden.” adopted a “vision zero” for the Then there is the effect on entire country. doctors and nurses, says Simon Amid a gathering wave of Wessely, past president of the UK’s concern for mental health, Royal College of Psychiatrists. the zero approach has taken on “Impossible targets rebound on a life of its own, with a variety of staff morale. You’re increasing interpretations. For the Mersey the blame culture when it’s not Care NHS Foundation Trust, one achievable.” of the first mental health trusts But Fearnley says that’s not to adopt it in the UK, it includes how it works within Mersey Care. making sure all patients get Although the trust mandates a safety plan, as in Detroit, as incident reports after each well as improving staff training. suicide, he says they have a Another key aspect is an blame-free culture. “It has given incident report after every people permission to start suicide, to work out how it could asking questions about deaths, have been avoided. Mersey Care and being far more curious to ask medical director David Fearnley what else we could have done.” says the goal of zero was crucial The sceptics stress they for changing the mindset that applaud new suicide prevention some suicides are inevitable. initiatives, but they don’t think In Sweden, though, critics the goal should be framed this complain that the goal hasn’t way. Some say it would be more led to any specific measures or useful to change it from being a significant new funding. So it feels hard target to an aspiration, one like an empty slogan – one that meant to inspire people rather comes with potential downsides, than be taken literally. “I believe says Herman Holm of Skåne it should not be a target but a University Hospital in Malmö. reminder that there are ways Holm worries it could lead to we can reduce suicide risk,” says more compulsory psychiatric Wessely. “If that happens, I’m all treatment. The decision to keep in favour.” ■ 20 October 2018 | NewScientist | 23


Support needed Baby Loss Awareness Week is a start, but more must be done to help those who, like me, have lost a pregnancy, says Petra Boynton ANYONE who has experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth or other pregnancy loss will understand the pain, distress and uncertainty that can follow. Because these experiences are common, you might hope that the way we help people during and after the event would be uniformly good. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Back in 2016, The Lancet noted that half of the world’s 2.6 million annual stillbirths are preventable. And there are huge inequalities globally, with 98 per cent of stillbirths happening in low-income countries. The quality of training for healthcare workers is also patchy, with staff often struggling to stay up to date with the latest evidence, or to provide effective care in overstretched services. Where training is provided, it tends to focus primarily on

physical issues – preventing accidents and dealing with pregnancy or birth problems – rather than emotional needs. Providing compassionate care also requires us doing better at identifying and recording loss – stillbirth rates are thought to be underestimated by a third. The World Health Organization uses an international cut-off point of fetal loss after 28 weeks for recording stillbirth. Researchers and practitioners are asking for stillbirths to be recognised and recorded from 22 weeks, allowing for more investigations into its potential causes. Parents simply want better opportunities to recognise their losses and remember their babies. All this means that healthcare workers can’t offer the care they would like to people who have lost a pregnancy. In the UK, the National Bereavement Care

Smoke signals UK’s halting step towards cannabis legalisation leaves patients in limbo, says Henry Fisher ANY government looking to regulate medical cannabis has to chart a careful course. If you implement a system that is too permissive, it is simply a facade for non-medical use. And one that is too restrictive will fail to provide for patients. In a policy shift that will legalise the sale of medical cannabis 24 | NewScientist | 20 October 2018

products on prescription as of November, the UK government has chosen to steer far closer to the second option. Cannabis not produced for medical use in humans remains a class B, schedule 1 prohibited substance. Cannabis-based medical products, however, will become schedule 2 medicines,

with one major exception: when they are smoked. In a bid to prevent confusion for police, smoking cannabis will remain illegal, regardless of its origin. Those prescribed cannabis won’t be permitted to medicate themselves with the aid of a flame. And getting the medication won’t be easy. Only specialists can prescribe the cannabis, following a referral from a doctor. For these regulations to lead to even modest levels of patient access, a huge

“Many patients will be unable to access cannabis legally due to over restrictive regulations”

programme of education among healthcare professionals will be required. As groundbreaking as this change is for UK drugs policy, the new amendment seeks only to regulate the medical use of a product that has both an established medical need and a substantial non-medical demand. This is not a recipe for success. Many patients who are unable to access cannabis legally due to the overly restrictive regulations will seek it out either through the illegal market or by cultivating it themselves. Lessons should be learned from other legalisation efforts, notably

For more opinion articles, visit newscientist.com/opinion

Petra Boynton is a social psychologist working in healthcare and author of Coping With Pregnancy Loss (Routledge)

in Germany and Canada. Now on its third attempt to regulate medical cannabis, Germany is struggling with tight restrictions, low supply and issues of poor doctor education. Canada, meanwhile, implemented a fully legal cannabis market for adult use this week, having come to the conclusion that the only way to maintain an effective medical market is to also regulate nonmedical sales. The UK would do well to take a leaf out of the Canadians’ book. ■ Henry Fisher is the chief scientific officer of Hanway Associates, a global cannabis consultancy in London

ANALYSIS Human space flight


Pathway is seeking to change things and “ensure that all bereaved parents are offered equal, high quality, individualised, safe and sensitive care in any experience of pregnancy or baby loss”. This is a welcome development in my view, because the poor care I received after one of my miscarriages turned an upsetting event into a far bigger trauma that in turn affected my future pregnancies, losses and mental health. Speaking about the loss of a pregnancy shouldn’t be a taboo, but it remains one. Many charities are pushing for greater awareness and to break the silence over pregnancy loss, with events such as Baby Loss Awareness Week, which ended on Monday. All of this is admirable, but these conversations can’t just be led by those directly affected by loss. They need to be heeded and joined by those offering care and undertaking research. Without joined-up studies, care and training, and referrals to sources of support, pregnancy loss will continue to be a difficult path that many of us should not have to walk alone. ■

Soyuz crash leaves the ISS in a grim spot Leah Crane

This accident, coming on the heels of an air leak in the last crewed Soyuz to visit the ISS, may mark a point of reckoning for human space flight. That damaged Soyuz, which is currently docked with the ISS, is the only way for the three astronauts on board to return to Earth. The hole has since been repaired, and is in part of the spacecraft that isn’t important for re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere. Even so, the docked Soyuz will reach the end of its official safe lifetime in space in early January.

THE near future of human space flight is looking dangerously uncertain. On 11 October, a Russian Soyuz craft carrying two astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) had an issue with one of its boosters, causing a crash landing about 400 kilometres from the launch site in Kazakhstan. Fortunately, the astronauts are alive and well, but the failed flight may complicate things on the ISS. US astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin, “For the want of a proverbial are in good condition, but after a nail, exploration of the bumpy ride – including g-forces of six universe could be set back or seven times the gravity on Earth’s by decades” surface – it could easily have gone another way. The average person Past then, Roscosmos will have to might pass out under forces of 5 g. send up an empty Soyuz to get the This malfunction is particularly crew back to Earth. troubling because the Soyuz rocket That puts the three astronauts in and capsule are the only spacecraft a tough place: they can come home, currently capable of carrying humans abandoning the station, or they can to the ISS. All crewed Soyuz launches extend their missions until the Soyuz are suspended until NASA and the or another craft is ready to send new Russian space agency Roscosmos astronauts to replace them. Supplies figure out what happened and how to prevent it in the future. That means will not be a problem, because there no one can now reach the station. are several other uncrewed spacecraft

that can bring food and fuel. There is a possibility that the Soyuz craft will be grounded for a long time. NASA is notoriously careful when it comes to astronaut lives, and the agency may not wait for Soyuz to get to three strikes. But what then? NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011 with plans to quickly replace it with capsules made by SpaceX and Boeing. Delays and budget cuts mean these new spacecraft now won’t be ready until mid-2019 at the earliest. Stringent NASA attitudes about risk and testing make it unlikely these flights will be accelerated, even in an emergency. China is now the only country with a working craft capable of taking humans to space, but it has only ever launched six missions and is currently excluded from the International Space Station programme. Theoretically, its Shenzhou craft, which is based on the Soyuz design, could dock with the ISS, but such a mission would require an extraordinary act of geopolitical negotiation and technical ability. If the astronauts do come home without being replaced by a new crew, the ISS will be empty for the first time since 2000. If it remains empty, the lack of upkeep could doom the already ageing station, taking down one of the world’s most valuable and important assets in space. For the want of a proverbial nail, humanity’s exploration of the universe could be set back by decades. ■ 20 October 2018 | NewScientist | 25


26 | NewScientist | 20 October 2018

Fresh perspectives THE cenotes of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula are undeniably magical places. These large sinkholes, formed by the dissolution and collapse of limestone bedrock, expose groundwater beneath. In this arid land with almost no rivers or surface lakes, they became a vital source of drinking water. The discovery of precious artefacts and human skeletons in some cenotes confirm the sacred esteem they were held in by the Mayan civilisation, who believed they were gateways to the underworld. This image, and those on the following two pages, are from the Freshwater Project, a global odyssey by Swiss photographer Michel Roggo covering 40 locations across the world between 2010 and 2017. The project serves to illustrate the phrase ”still waters often run deep”. It also shows the diversity of environments found in fresh water, which often matches that of more familiar terrestrial ecosystems. The diver in this picture is Camilo Garcia, investigating the Dos Ojos, or “two eye” cenote, named for its two openings at ground level. It is one of the cenotes along the Yucatán’s Caribbean coast, where fresh water meets seawater in extensive networks of underwater passages. A connection between the Dos Ojos and the neighbouring, larger Sac Actun system, discovered only in January 2018, makes this the longest underwater cave system known, with a total length of over 300 kilometres. Richard Webb

Photographer Michel Roggo / NaturePL roggo.ch

20 October 2018 | NewScientist | 27


Top: Michel Roggo learned his craft among the rivers, lakes and glaciers of the Swiss Alps. In the spring of 2013, a prevailing southerly wind brought sand from the Sahara to these highlying waters. “All the mountains and the glacier were yellow and orange from it,” says Roggo. In September that year, those hues were still visible in meltwater sediments from the Gorner glacier on the Monte Rosa massif. 28 | NewScientist | 20 October 2018

Bottom: Hidden among water hyacinth plants, a yacare caiman waits for passing prey in the Pantanal wetlands. Sprawling over a vast area from the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul into Bolivia and Paraguay, the Pantanal is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth. Its caiman population is estimated to number 10 million – the largest crocodilian community on Earth.

Top: Thanks to a natural filtration system, Rotomairewhenua, or Blue Lake, in New Zealand’s Southern Alps has the planet’s clearest waters. They are sacred to the Ngati Apa ki te Ra To, who use them to cleanse the bones of the dead. “You cannot fish or swim in this water, or drink or touch it,” says Roggo. He had to obtain special permission to photograph it using a remote-controlled pole camera.

Bottom: Beauty doesn’t need clarity, as shown by the reddish, acidic water of Etang de la Gruère in the Jura mountain range of western Switzerland. Laced with tannins from surrounding pine trees, such waters rich in dissolved organic matter are known as blackwaters. The Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon, is perhaps the most famous example, and they are common in the southern US, too.

Top: The forests of the Gunung Mulu National Park in Malaysian Borneo house a rich diversity of animal and plant life. But if Roggo was expecting a similar picture when he dipped his head beneath the surface of the Sungai Melinau Paku river, he was disappointed. “I saw not a single aquatic plant in all the creeks, ponds and rivers,” he says – just washed-off debris from the surrounding trees.

Bottom: The “underwater garden” of Ewens Ponds in South Australia is formed of three flooded limestone sinkholes around 10 metres deep, connected by shallower watercourses. The water’s extraordinary clarity lets the plants and the algal blooms seen here thrive up to 6 metres down. As in many places, the fresh water here is under threat as agricultural run-off changes its natural chemistry. 20 October 2018 | NewScientist wScientist | 29




Fasting diets seem here to stay and the evidence that they are good for you is stacking up. Caroline Williams tries one for herself

30 | NewScientist | 20 October 2018


Don’t eat it all at once

S I unpack my rations for the next five days, I start to question what I have signed up to. For years I have heard the hype about fasting diets and what they promise: smaller thighs, a clearer head, a lower risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes and the promise of a generally longer, healthier life. But then there is the hunger. Hunger makes me angry, and tired, and generally not a very nice person. So I have always given fasting diets a miss: the 5:2 diet where you fast for two days a week and eat normally the others; the 16:8 where you eat within an 8 hour window, and fast for 16; the alternate day fasting. You name it, it seems someone has tried it. Then I heard about one of the latest trends, the fasting mimicking diet. If the marketing materials are to be believed, it is the holy grail: all the health benefits of fasting without the hunger. The company behind it has even become the first to be granted a patent for boosting human healthspan before the onset of disease. So can I really have my cake and eat it? I decided to give it a go – and try to get to the truth about fasting. We have known for decades that restricting calories can have beneficial effects – if not in humans, then in animals. Many studies have found that organisms from single-celled yeasts to rodents age more slowly and live longer when their calorie intake falls to 40 per cent of that consumed by a group of animals eating normally. Constant calorie restriction has never really caught on in people, however, not least because the results didn’t bear out in primates. Besides, people find it difficult to restrict their diet in this way for long enough to find out if it extends their lives. Fasting has been part of religious practice around the world for millennia, but it first made it into the consumer mainstream around five years ago, on the back of animal studies and research in overweight people suggesting that skipping meals could have numerous health benefits. There is growing evidence that periodically going without food puts our bodies into a kind of emergency mode, where they conserve energy, make repairs and prioritise mental clarity to solve the problem of finding food. “If we accept that the Palaeolithic was the environment in which most modern human adaptations were shaped, including dietary ones, the huntergatherers then were adapted to periods of feast and famine,” says Stanley Ulijaszek, a nutritional anthropologist at the University of Oxford. “This could well be a more

natural state for us than ‘three meals a day’.” As well as weight loss, proponents claim that intermittent fasting could help protect against cancer, diabetes and disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. My own enthusiasm at the promise of a hunger-free fast diminishes somewhat as the kit arrives. I would be living off two packet soups a day, plus a few crackers, olives and the odd nut bar. It looked a lot like hunger to me. This particular diet is the brainchild of Valter Longo, a gerontologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The basic claim is that fasting just once a month – albeit for five days – can mimic the effects of fasting seen in animals, even reversing the effects of ageing. The website of Longo’s spinoff company, ProLon, says that the fasting mimicking diet is “clinically proven to induce the [body’s] protectionist and rejuvenation mode”, while providing enough calories that you don’t actually pass out. Anyone can benefit from this cellular spring clean, says Longo: “It doesn’t matter how good your diet is, it doesn’t matter how much exercise [you do], the body ages and the cells accumulate damage.” Thanks to animal studies, we know a fair amount about what happens in the body when food is scarce. A lack of nutrients kick-starts a process called autophagy, in which cells break down and damaged or dysfunctional parts are

“Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were adapted to periods of feast and famine” recycled and used as fuel. The thinking is that this system probably evolved to maximise the chances of surviving famine. Autophagy happens at a low level in healthy cells but becomes less efficient as we age. Sluggish autophagy lets the inside of cells gunk up and has been linked to many agerelated diseases including cancer, and to the ageing process itself. Some researchers believe that the rise in health problems like cancer and type 2 diabetes has a lot to do with the fact that many people no longer go hungry. Although the initial findings came from research in mice, last year Longo and his colleagues published a study in around 100 people who either did the fasting mimicking diet for five days a month over three months, or continued with their normal diet for three months. The second group then tried the fasting diet. When people did the diet, they dropped body weight and fat, and ended up > 20 October 2018 | NewScientist | 31

Not so fast Our reporter underwent blood tests to measure markers of health and longevity before and after a five day fasting mimicking diet and saw minimal changes in most of them Before


Fasting blood glucose Fasting triglycerides Fasting total cholesterol HDL cholesterol LDL cholesterol


with lower blood pressure and lower levels of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which is thought to play a role in ageing and disease. They also had lower levels of inflammation markers and cholesterol, among other benefits. For my little experiment, before I started the diet I underwent some blood tests, measuring levels of IGF-1, cholesterol and C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation. I also had a body composition scan to measure any effects on my body fat at the Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism. Fredrik Karpe, who runs the centre, is sceptical to say the least. “It is very important to critically investigate health claims for interventions giving great promises,” he says. One crucial question is how long you need to fast to kick-start these processes. After all, we know that famines are seriously bad for our health. Unfortunately, the answer is unclear. In a recent review of the health effects of fasting, Benjamin Horne, at Intermountain Heart Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah, concluded that no research has yet identified a set line between fasting and starvation, and that it probably varies a lot depending on the body you have to start with. Another effect of fasting is that the body starts to run out of glucose in the blood and glycogen stores in the liver, which causes a metabolic switch: the liver starts converting fats into ketone bodies for the muscles and brain to use as fuel, a process called ketosis. This is why fasting almost always causes weight loss of somewhere between 2.5 and 8 per cent. But how long you need to fast

non-HDL cholesterol CRP* (mg/L) IGF-1* (nmol/L) 0

10 15 20 5 Millimoles per litre (mmol/L) (unless otherwise stated)


*CRP is a measure of inlammation. IGF-1 is implicated in ageing and disease

before the switch to ketosis occurs is unknown. Longo says that it takes at least three days and that shorter fasts, such as the 5:2 diet, don’t last long enough to make it happen. Mark Mattson at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who studies the effects of fasting on the brain, disagrees. “The liver holds maybe 700 calories-worth of glycogen and people’s general daily activity around the house burns maybe 70 calories an

IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH? The evidence for the benefits

very low calorie diet instead.

fasting might reduce the

of fasting in healthy people is

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risk of type 2 diabetes, while

controversial. But it may turn

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year’s European Society of

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chemotherapy, without reducing

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that intermittent fasting might

during starvation, cancer cells

its power to shrink tumours. Longo is now trialling his diet in people with multiple sclerosis

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for their already thin patients University of Southern California

be seen if it works in people too. The evidence around diabetes prevention is more unclear.

says Longo. If you are unwell, you should speak to your doctor before

in Los Angeles came up with a

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embarking on a diet.

to fast, so Valter Longo at the

32 | NewScientist | 20 October 2018

damage the pancreas and increase the risk of the disease.

hour,” he says. If you’re not eating during that time, “you do the math, it’s around 10 hours”. Add exercise into the equation and the switch can happen even faster, says Mattson. A vigorous run can burn 100 calories in 10 minutes. Get your sports shoes on a few hours after your last meal and it won’t take long to hit ketosis, he says, leaving me wondering why I am sticking out a five-day fast instead. Another claim about fasting that almost tempted me in the past was the cognitive effect. Fasters regularly boast about clearer thinking and improved focus. Ulijaszek observed something similar with modern-day hunter-gatherers. While foraging with the Wopkaimin of Papua New Guinea in the 1980s, he noted that they never started the day with breakfast because they preferred to be hungry while hunting. “They said it made them lighter on their feet, and more aware of their surroundings,” says Ulijaszek. So far, though, no controlled studies have been done to investigate the link between fasting and cognition in humans, and the only hints about what might be going on come from mice. Mattson’s group found that switching to ketosis gives the brain a boost, stimulating the release of a chemical called BDNF, which promotes new connections between neurons and stimulates neurons to make more mitochondria, which generate energy. This could be the ticket to the mental clarity reported by fasters. His team is conducting a randomised study in human volunteers to find out whether these brain changes and associated effects are seen in people, with results expected in early 2019. Mental clarity certainly wasn’t something I experienced. My brain hit the wall early on day two and on most days during the fast I gave up trying to work and went back to bed. After day three my legs ached like I had the flu, apparently a sign of ketosis.

Shock results It was difficult to believe that something that made me feel so awful could possibly be doing me good, especially since my test results from before the fast showed that I was already metabolically healthy. I had low levels of “bad” cholesterol, healthy blood sugar and fat levels and very low amounts of visceral fat – the stuff that sticks to our organs and which can be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The body scan showed a fair amount of body fat (30 per cent), but nearly all concentrated on my hips

does fasting truly offer a benefit beyond the fact you inevitably cut a few calories and lose a bit of weight? Michelle Harvie, the researcher at Manchester University in the UK who came up with the 5:2 diet, told me that based on current research, we just don’t know. “Intermittent dieting is a proven method for weight loss… we don’t know benefits or harms for healthy weight or underweight people,” she says.


A serving of truth

Five days of soup and little else each month would be hard to swallow for many

and thighs, a pattern that has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes. After five days of fasting, none of this had shifted. The body composition scan revealed that I had lost just over 1 kilogram in weight, 584 grams of which came from a loss of lean mass and only 168 grams from body fat. This was a bit of a shock – one selling point of the fasting mimicking diet is that it is supposed to target visceral fat while protecting lean mass. According to Longo, ketosis doesn’t target the visible wobbly bits, only fat around the organs. As I started off with little visceral fat, it instead targeted my lean mass, he says. “From a global health perspective, I find it quite a negative outcome,” says Karpe. “Half of your change was muscle. The fat regions have not changed much at all. That’s not what you intended.” Could it be that the lean mass loss was the result of autophagy? Mice put on Longo’s diet in middle age certainly seemed to have some kind of clear-out: their liver, heart and kidneys all shrank during the fast and they had a temporary cull in the numbers of some kinds of blood cells. All went back to normal within a few days of normal eating, heralded by an increase in markers of liver regeneration and tentative signs of muscle

regeneration. The assumption is that the decrepit cells that were removed were replaced by newer, shinier versions. The evidence for autophagy and regeneration in human trials, however, is purely circumstantial. And we don’t know whether any new cells are healthier than what was lost. Longo concedes that this is something his team is still working on. When it came to blood markers of health and longevity, my results were similarly unimpressive (see graph, left). The only marked difference was to the hormone IGF-1. In the ProLon trials, volunteers saw a

“When people did the diet they had lower body weight, fat and cholesterol” significant reduction in IGF-1, which Longo says was still there three months after going back to a normal diet. Whether this adds up to increased longevity, however, is less clear. Epidemiological studies have linked both low and high IGF-1 levels to early death, with high IGF-1 levels linked to increased cancer risk and low IGF-1 to cardiovascular disease. Of course, my experiment of one isn’t very scientific, but it did get me wondering: for those of us who are healthy to begin with,

Many of the original studies of fasting diets involved overweight volunteers. Even in Longo’s study of 100 healthy volunteers, twothirds started with a BMI of over 25, making the vast majority overweight or obese. So, while their health markers such as body mass index, visceral fat and blood pressure were all significantly reduced after doing the fast three times over three months, it isn’t clear whether this can be explained by the simple fact that they lost weight. Fasting also tends to mean eating a lot less animal protein and fat, which have both been linked to cancer, so this might also be responsible for the effects seen in trials. When a person is a healthy weight, their bodily clear-out functions work fine on their own, says Karpe. “Any normal physiological system, in a healthy, lean human being, eating well, exercising, doing what the body likes to do, all these things work. That’s why healthy people, who exercise and eat normal things, live longer than overweight people.” Susan Jebb, a nutrition scientist at the University of Oxford, agrees: “I am not aware of any high-quality evidence relating to intermittent fasting among people who are not overweight.” Time will tell whether humans benefit from fasting beyond weight loss. So I can’t help thinking that the wording printed on the box of ProLon that Longo sent me, which promises “rejuvenation from within”, is premature. We aren’t yet sure that the body clears out damaged cells and replaces them with something better. For my money, armed with the knowledge that most of my body fat is stored away from my organs and my blood results are entirely within the healthy range, I think I will stick with my normal diet and take my chances. Yes, my body could probably handle less wine and chocolate, but going hungry in return for a payoff that may never materialise? Life’s too short. ■ Caroline Williams is a consultant for New Scientist 20 October 2018 | NewScientist | 33


34 | NewScientist | 20 October 2018

Full steam ahead Recent advances could let us crack the immense promise of geothermal heat to power our world. Julia Rosen reports


Steam rises from the Reykjanes peninsula in Iceland

HE Reykjanes peninsula juts out of the south-western tip of Iceland like a hitch-hiker’s thumb. Most visitors glimpse it from a plane, as they swoop down onto the runway at Keflavík airport, or through the mist at the Blue Lagoon – a popular hot spring. It is an otherworldly landscape of rumpled volcanic rocks and stout cinder cones. The most common signs of life: tenacious mosses in varying shades of green, and the odd wandering sheep. Here, the tectonic seam that runs along the bottom of the Atlantic, belching out new ocean crust between North America and Europe, runs aground. That’s what makes this place so attractive to people like Guðmundur Olaf Friðleifsson, chief geologist at Icelandic energy company HS Orka. Just a few kilometres beneath their feet, the staggering heat of a volcano bubbles away. All they have to do to harness its power is drill. Iceland already has plenty of geothermal energy, but this project is different. Friðleifsson and his team are tapping into temperatures and pressures higher than anything we have used before, and building on our growing ability to extract more of Earth’s heat. What they are doing could help revolutionise geothermal energy and boost this overlooked source of renewable power to a prominent place in the global energy system. It has the potential to unlock unprecedented

amounts of energy, and make it accessible to places far from the volcanic fields of Iceland. It could make the dream of abundant geothermal power a reality. So far, geothermal energy hasn’t taken off like other renewables. More than a century after humans started using Earth’s hot water and steam to produce power, geothermal provides less than 1 per cent of global electricity. There is no problem with supply: the depths of our planet still smoulder from its violent accretion and the slow burn of radioactive decay. The core is a searing 6000°C, and the heat contained in the upper 3 kilometres of the crust would be enough to meet the world’s energy demand thousands of times over. Geothermal energy also sidesteps the problems that plague so many other clean sources of energy. It is always available, regardless of whether the wind blows or the sun shines. Alongside nuclear and hydropower, which have issues of their own, geothermal offers an attractive source of clean, reliable baseload electricity. But it has high start-up costs and has historically been restricted to Iceland and other hotspots. The challenge now is to increase the power and availability of geothermal energy so that it can truly compete. The world’s first geothermal power generator was Italian, built in the verdant > 20 October 2018 | NewScientist | 35

Digging deeper Over the past few decades, however, researchers have been exploring ways to extract even more heat, including in regions not blessed with ideal geology. This new approach, known as enhanced, or engineered, geothermal systems (EGS), can mean adding fluid to dry rocks to transport heat to the surface and generate steam, or fracturing impermeable formations so that liquid can flow through the hot rocks, heating up along the way. “It’s taking what nature gives you and figuring out how to make it work,” says Jeff Tester, a geothermal expert at Cornell University in New York. EGS could crack open massive stores of geothermal heat. A 2006 report led by Tester found that, in the US alone, the technology could unlock 130,000 times as much energy as the country uses each year. Realistically, we will always need other sources of energy, and are likely to exploit just a fraction of geothermal’s potential. But, says Lauren Boyd at the US Department of Energy, EGS has another important advantage: it will make geothermal energy available outside existing hydrothermal systems. “It’s feasible everywhere,” she says. The basic elements of EGS were first tested at an experimental site in New Mexico in the 1970s. Since those early days, “we have made leaps and bounds”, says Boyd. We know more about what’s going on underground, and have better drilling technology, some borrowed from advances in the oil and gas industry. But even so, engineers still face significant hurdles, says Boyd, and only a handful of commercial EGS sites operate today. For one thing, creating fractures in controlled and predictable ways remains a 36 | NewScientist | 20 October 2018


Europe’s 2016 geothermal power capacity vs

6500GW Its potential power capacity with enhanced geothermal systems technology SOURCES: EUROPEAN GEOTHERMAL ENERGY COUNCIL, DOI.ORG/F5TNQ3

practical challenge, says Gioia Falcone, an engineer at the University of Glasgow, UK. Sometimes the cracks close up again under the immense pressure of the overlying rock. At other times, the rock cracks too much, and water flows too fast to heat up, she says. EGS can also have more serious consequences. In 2006, a commercial project in Basel, Switzerland, triggered a magnitude-3.4 earthquake that rattled the city. No one was hurt, but it made many residents nervous – they knew a magnitude-6 quake had levelled the city in the Middle Ages. It isn’t the only case, either. In 2017, an EGS project in Pohang, South Korea, was the likely source of a magnitude-5.5 earthquake that caused $52 million in damage. Both projects were eventually shuttered. There is no doubt that EGS, like mining, fracking for oil and gas, and disposing of waste water, can cause earthquakes, says Corinne Layland-Bachmann, an engineer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California who studied the Basel case. However, LaylandBachmann says the risk of a serious quake from geothermal production is low. She thinks incidents like those at Basel and Pohang can be avoided if developers choose EGS sites wisely and reduce injection rates if tremors begin. But perhaps the biggest barrier to the approach has been economic. Since Tester’s report came out, the price of solar and wind energy has dropped, and cheap natural gas has flooded the market, making it hard for geothermal to expand, says Trenton Cladouhos at AltaRock Energy, a Seattle-based geothermal developer. “I’ve been working on EGS now for 10 years,” he says. “The market for geothermal just has been flat.” So AltaRock and others have focused their efforts on a supercharged version of


hills of Tuscany in 1904. The seething, sulphurous hot springs of Larderello attracted Roman visitors millennia ago, and the Devil’s valley, as it is sometimes called, supposedly shaped Dante’s vision of hell. But others saw something else in the hissing steam: untamed energy. Today, 800 megawatts of power flow from the Larderello fields, supplying 10,000 residential and industrial consumers. Yet humans are still just scratching the surface. Conventional technologies can only exploit geothermal energy in spots like Larderello, where heated water runs through a natural plumbing system easily accessible from the surface. But the Geothermal Energy Association, a US trade group, estimates that countries have developed just 7 per cent of the world’s hydrothermal potential.

geothermal instead. The idea they are pursuing has its roots in a series of accidents from the 1980s, when geothermal engineers unexpectedly encountered super-hot conditions. The first incident happened at Larderello, where a well struck 380°C water just shy of 4 kilometres down. The drillers were totally unprepared for this heat, as were the materials they had used to make their well. They abandoned it when it became clear the casing wouldn’t hold. Another hole, drilled nearby a few years later, hit the same reservoir and blew out in a massive explosion of steam. In 1988, something similar happened in Iceland. But Friðleifsson, who had recently completed his PhD on another Icelandic volcano, wasn’t surprised by the find. He also realised that, if researchers could figure out how to manage these fluids, they could capitalise on a geothermal bonanza. That is because, above 374°C and 221 bars of pressure, water transforms into a supercritical fluid. As the temperature and pressure rise, says Friðleifsson, water gets lighter and steam gets heavier until they become one phase. And it’s a totally different beast. Supercritical water at 400°C contains five times as much energy as water at 200°C in a typical geothermal well. It also transfers energy twice as efficiently and has a lower viscosity, flowing out of the ground more easily. In 2003, Friðleifsson and Wilfred Elders, now an emeritus professor at the University

Iceland’s Reykjanes power plant hopes to harness Earth’s deep heat

of California, Riverside, who together lead the geothermal project at Reykjanes, calculated that a well producing supercritical fluid could generate ten times more energy than a conventional one. Cladouhos says that could make the economics of geothermal work out for companies like his. It costs more to drill to supercritical depths, but the increased energy production should more than compensate, he says. “EGS is really difficult to do, so you might as well do it in an area where you know the economics are going to be helpful.” No one has been able to demonstrate the increased payout of supercritical geothermal so far, but in Iceland they are getting close. In 2009, Friðleifsson and Elders’s team reached supercritical conditions when it accidentally drilled into a magma chamber at the Krafla volcano. For two years, that well produced a jet of superheated steam, but then a valve failed and it had to be sealed. The Icelandic group then began the project at Reykjanes, where they drilled a well 4.6 kilometres down to access fluids as hot as 600°C. For the past year, engineers have been pouring cold water down the well, which cracks the rocks and is sometimes used in EGS to increase a reservoir’s permeability. Now, the team is just waiting for the well to heat up again before they start testing it. Meanwhile, a new supercritical well has been completed at Larderello. “The first time,

we met supercritical conditions by chance,” says Sandra Scalari, at Enel Green Power, which runs the Larderello site. But this time, she says, “it was intentional”. There are also supercritical projects planned in Japan, Mexico and New Zealand, and AltaRock is looking for funding to deepen an existing well at Newberry volcano in Oregon. The rest of the world is catching up, says Friðleifsson. “The only difference between us and them is that Iceland is in the lead.” Like at Reykjanes, these projects will probably use EGS, and share the same risks and challenges – plus others associated with working in extreme conditions. “The drill bits basically just start to deform and melt,” says Cladouhos. After that, engineers must figure out how to line the wells. Standard casing materials aren’t designed for such high temperatures, or for the corrosive fluids that bubble up from the depths. These eat away at valves and cement coatings, which expand and contract in the changing temperatures, risking blowouts. Finally, the standard electronics used to measure conditions in the well just get fried. “The equipment is usually made for the oil and gas industry,” says Enel’s Massimo Luchini, and it was never designed to handle such intense heat. There are geological uncertainties too, says Thomas Reinsch, an engineer at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. The tools usually used to probe Earth’s depths – like tracking how seismic waves move through the crust – have not been calibrated for rocks at extreme temperatures and pressures, because it is hard to recreate such conditions in the lab. That means the results can be hard to interpret. “We don’t know what kind of geology is down there,” says Reinsch. “We are drilling basically into the dark.” All in all, developing supercritical geothermal is a monumental challenge.


Typical power output of a geothermal well vs


Predicted output of a “supercritical” well SOURCE: DOI.ORG/FMPP3D

But Friðleifsson is optimistic the teams will ultimately prevail. “You can send a rocket to the moon,” he says. “Compared to that, it’s a piece of cake to drill into the ground.” For now, scientists and energy companies are mostly pursuing EGS and supercritical geothermal in places where it is relatively easy to reach the temperatures they need – like Iceland, Italy and the American West. But eventually, many hope these techniques will allow geothermal energy to spread. For the right price, EGS could make geothermal energy available across much of the world. Even in places with cooler crust, it could be used to extract heat for buildings, says Tester. And supercritical geothermal could unleash enormous energy reserves in volcanic areas around the world, says Luchini. “There is a big potential.” Ample supercritical resources in one place could even be enough to power surrounding countries, says Falcone. There has been talk, for instance, of Iceland supplying power to 1.6 million homes in the UK. “Electricity is transportable,” she says. But could high-powered supercritical projects ever be feasible in all areas? Reaching such conditions in places with cooler, thick crust, like the US Midwest or eastern Europe, would require boring through more than 15 kilometres of crust, 3 kilometres deeper than any drill has previously gone. “I wouldn’t say that we’re going to see supercritical geothermal developed in Kansas in the near future unless you have some magical way of really reducing the cost of really deep drilling,” says Elders. But Cladouhos never says never. Engineers are exploring novel drilling methods, using energy waves, high-pressure fluid jets or lasers instead of metal drill bits. He is holding out hope that a breakthrough will make supercritical geothermal ubiquitous. “Maybe the 20-year plan would be supercritical EGS anywhere,” he says. Even if Cladouhos’s dream doesn’t come to pass, the potential benefits of supercritical wells could still help geothermal become a major global player, says Falcone. That future may not be so far off. Friðleifsson’s team plans to get the Reykjanes well flowing in early 2019, eventually linking it to a nearby power plant to make the first commercial supercritical site in the world. Even if someone beats them to it, says Friðleifsson, a geothermal revolution is coming. “It is not a question of if, but when. ■ Julia Rosen is a journalist in Portland, Oregon 20 October 2018 | NewScientist | 37

The disassembly line Making new molecules requires artful reverse engineering. Now we can do it at the touch of a button, says James Mitchell Crow


HEMISTS have a unique power to manipulate matter. Imagine any arrangement of atoms you like and a chemist will have a good shot at stitching them together. Over the decades, their round-bottomed flasks have helped bring all sorts of new compounds into being, from dazzling pigments to miracle pills and wonder materials. But they don’t come easy, not least because chemists must do it all backwards. The tried-and-tested method for planning how to create a sophisticated molecule starts where you would like to end up. You draw out

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the web of connected atoms you want to make, then pick it apart, working backwards to plot out a series of reactions that, if performed in the reverse order, will get you to your goal. It is a simple, old and indispensable idea that won its inventor a Nobel prize. Plenty of the last century’s finest drugs have chemical structures so fiendishly complicated that they could never have been made without a logical reverse engineering. Yet with thousands of possible ways to make compounds of even middling complexity, it is tough for humans to spot the best routes.

That is why a few chemists think the quickest path to molecules more wondrous than ever lies in taking themselves out of the equation. Most of the biological world is built of organic, or carbon-containing, molecules. From hormones to vitamins to poisons, organic chemists have long tried to both divine their structures and find ways to make them in the laboratory. In the middle of the 20th century, chemists generally tried to synthesise new compounds by starting from structures that looked similar to the target. That yielded handy compounds


right enough, from synthetic versions of penicillin to the progesterone hormone used in the first birth control pill. But there was a large and exotic landscape of potentially useful compounds that no one had the faintest idea how to produce in the lab. In the 1960s, the Harvard University chemist Elias Corey decided to make the planning of syntheses more logical. He realised a good way to do that would be to work backwards, which led to the name retrosynthesis. Take a blank piece of paper and draw the target molecule at the top. Examining the bonds holding it together, the chemist will pick one and break it. Choosing the right bond is where the years of training come in. The bond you break on paper has to be one you think you could make in the laboratory, in what would be the final step of the synthesis. First bond disconnected, you go again. Step by step, you walk your molecule backwards, stripping away complexity until you reach a structure so simple you can buy it (see diagram, page 40). A particularly fiendish structure might take 30 steps to deconstruct to this point.

“You don’t work back to a specific precursor, just to simpler and simpler structures,” says Michael Sherburn, a synthetic organic chemist at the Australian National University in Canberra. “If you do it without bias, then you end up at starting materials you perhaps wouldn’t have considered.” It is like planning

“Chess and chemistry are very similar. They’re both about plotting moves” the ascent of a never-before-scaled mountain. Starting from the peak, reverse-plotting the route eventually reveals the base camp from which an ascent has the best chance of success. The moment of truth comes when you crack open a bottle of your starting chemical. Not every route planned on paper works first time, because this is virgin chemical territory. Still, retrosynthesis has become routine for planning the most difficult chemical targets (see “Totally synthetic”, page 41). Few chemists go back and read Corey’s original papers on the subject, but if you do

there’s a surprise, says Matthew Todd, chair of drug discovery at University College London. “I thought Corey was codifying a very human activity, but right from the get-go his explicit aim in developing retrosynthesis was to tell a computer how to do it,” says Todd. Corey and his team even developed such a program, called LHASA for Logic and Heuristics Applied to Synthetic Analysis. But it wasn’t a genuinely useful tool, being hamstrung by the limited speed and memory of 1970s computers. Computers have come a long way since then. For Todd, a key moment came in 1997 when chess world champion Garry Kasparov lost to IBM supercomputer Deep Blue. “We often talk about chess and organic synthesis as being similar,” says Todd. Both involve strategically plotting moves. “The fact one area had fallen to a computer made me think about the other.” When Todd eventually decided to write a paper on the subject in 2005, he was startled at how little had been done since Corey’s work on LHASA. He ended up speaking with Deep Blue’s developers, who told him that formidable computing power wasn’t > 20 October 2018 | NewScientist | 39


enough. Chess has so many possible permutations that even a potent computer can’t crunch through them all. The essential ingredient of Deep Blue’s success was the software that encoded the heuristics of chess, the rules of thumb that allowed it to quickly discard bad moves. At the time, no one was interested in encoding equivalent rules for chemical synthesis. That’s partly because those rules are extremely complex. In chess, there are tens of potential moves from any position. In chemistry, the number of possible transformations for a single step of a synthesis can range from about 80 to several thousand. Even using the conservative estimate of 100 choices per step, a 15-stage synthesis becomes a tree of possibilities with 100 million billion branches. As one industry insider put it to Todd, it was cheaper to pay consultancy fees and get top academics to do the retrosynthesis manually. But what if we could get machines to teach themselves the rules? That is the promise of the burgeoning field of machine learning. Let’s say we want an algorithm to find films that certain types of people will enjoy. Simply give the algorithm a long list of films and information about them, together with a list of the people who liked them. The machine can then learn to recommend films with certain characteristics to people who like those qualities. These algorithms are not smart as such, they only learn to reproduce relationships discovered in the training data. The effects can be tremendous, however. An algorithm created by artificial intelligence firm DeepMind taught itself to play the strategy board game Go better than any human. The most promising attempt at machine

learning retrosynthesis comes from Mark Waller at Shanghai University in China and Marwin Segler at the University of Münster in Germany. They developed a neural network, a computing system inspired by the brain, that taught itself the rules of organic chemistry by sifting through a major database of reactions. The program then predicted routes to moderately complex structures that typically required six synthetic steps to make. Although the syntheses were not tested in the lab, Waller and Segler asked chemists to distinguish the computer syntheses from human efforts in a double-blind test. They couldn’t. The trend for artificial retrosynthesis is catching on with big players, including the publishing giant Wiley. It has a commercial database called SciFinder that chemists use to find recipes for individual reactions. Recently, the firm added a computer-aided tool called

Computers learned the rules of chess. Now they have done the same for synthetic chemistry

ChemPlanner to this package that suggests whole synthetic routes. Yet there is no published evidence as to how impressive ChemPlanner’s abilities are. And for their part, Waller and Segler say their system is not ready to tackle the most prized and challenging targets, such as “natural products”, the often medicinally useful and intricately structured molecules isolated from natural sources such as plants or microbes. One man who hopes he can do better is Bartosz Grzybowski at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) in South Korea. He began his career studying the physics of chemical systems, not cooking up molecules. But, intrigued by the

Retrosynthesis in action When chemists identify a promising drug, they must then work out how to make it. They use an approach called retrosynthesis, which deconstructs the target into simpler, starting materials. Here’s how it could work for paracetamol Paracetamol

Phenol (a cheap starting material)








O Take an imaginary slice through a carbon-nitrogen bond in a molecule of paracetamol, yielding two simpler molecules

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The remaining molecule of interest now contains an NH2 group, which is hard to add to a carbon ring like this, so it is converted into an NO2 group

NO2 groups are easy to add to carbon rings, so the bond to that part can be broken

The final step gets us to what would be the starting material of the forward synthesis

Totally synthetic Chemists whip up all manner of useful molecules, many of which are efective drugs. Through the years, we’ve scaled more and more diicult synthetic peaks 1964





LONGIFOLENE Chemist Elias Corey at Harvard University came up with retrosynthesis, a method of logically planning how to stitch together chemicals. One of the first molecules he tried it on was longifolene, a component of pine resin, and one of the aromatic molecules found in lapsang souchong tea, which is smoked over pine fires. These days it is not considered difficult, but at the time no one had synthesised it before.

L-DOPA Starting in the 1950s, thalidomide was prescribed as a cure for morning sickness. It was a mixture of two mirrorimage forms, like right and left hands. Doctors didn’t know at the time, but one of these forms caused birth defects. That led chemists to find ways of making the mirror-image forms separately. William Knowles was the first to find a way of mass producing just one of these forms. It was the amino acid derivative L-dopa, used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Since then, such methods have become crucial in drug manufacturing.

PALYTOXIN Made by corals, palytoxin is the second most toxic non-protein we know of. Just 3 micrograms is thought to be enough to kill a human. Its production was desired because its huge size and complexity made it the Mount Everest of chemical synthesis. Whereas thalidomide came in two stereoisomers, palytoxin has 1021, only one of which is the correct structure. It was built in eight parts by a team led by Yoshito Kishi at Harvard University before they were all connected together.

TAXOL This chemotherapy drug was first synthesised by two research teams, led by Kyriacos Nicolaou and Robert Holton, within a month of each other. Before that, the drug, also called paclitaxel, was harvested from the sap of rare Pacific yew trees, making it scarce and costly. There are stories from the 1990s of the relatives of people with cancer going into forests looking for the trees. Synthesis helped lessen pressure on the species.

RESINIFERATOXIN Resiniferatoxin is another poisonous molecule. At low doses, it binds a protein found in nerves and dials down chronic pain. Synthesising it was daunting, because it contains several rings of atoms fused together. These rings are hard to build and chemically sensitive, so they can easily split apart. It was prepared in 44 steps in 1997, but renewed interest in the drug prompted Masayuki Inoue of the University of Tokyo to devise a shorter way. There is still a way to go before the drug can be affordably manufactured.

challenge of artificial retrosynthesis, he began exploring the mathematics that would allow a computer to efficiently navigate one of those vast trees with millions of branches. People were mildly bemused when, from 2005, his hardcore maths papers started turning up in chemistry journals, Grzybowski recalls. But it was an essential first step. From there, Grzybowski encountered the same problem that Todd had identified: he needed a way to help his program quickly discount bad moves. He investigated feeding it a database of reactions, but “the quality of chemistry you get out is pretty pathetic”, he says. So he and his team took a path others had written off and spent years teaching the program 50,000 rules describing why bonds change as they do. Pulling the rules together took a long time, but by 2012, he had shown that his fledgling program, Chematica, worked in principle. But coming up with a recipe for a molecule is one thing. “Unless you cook something, it doesn’t exist,” says Grzybowski. He began negotiating to sell the software to chemical supplies firm MilliporeSigma in 2017. The company wanted to test the program

on molecules its chemists could produce only in low yield or not at all. The team went on to check eight Chematica retrosyntheses, including one of a natural product. They all worked and the sale went through, with the program being renamed Synthia. It is a landmark result. But despite the potential, not everyone is as enthusiastic as Grzybowski.

“Coming up with a molecule recipe is one thing. Unless you cook it, it doesn’t exist” In fact, the artificial retrosynthesis concept has proved polarising. “Some believe synthesis is mainly about artistry, and that human imagination and intellect, creativity and knowledge, can never be beaten by a computer,” says Sherburn. But then, they said that about chess. Chemistry may be more complicated for algorithms to master, but that day could come. In the nearer future, Sherburn says, he can imagine using programs as he would a colleague, to get new ideas or ask for advice.

Perhaps it won’t just be chemists asking for advice. A few years ago, Grzybowski warned that his program could make it easier for terrorists to make toxic chemicals. But in reality it won’t help much. All the program does is plan a synthesis. It still takes a highly trained chemist with specialist equipment to realise it. Fears of chemists losing their jobs to AIs are probably also overblown. It is more likely that synthesis will become like playing advanced chess where grand masters face off armed with laptops, says Todd. The computer checks for blunders, which are just as important to avoid in synthesis as in chess. “You want to make sure you’re not missing something,” he says. Synthia proved particularly adept at spotting reactions in which three or more simple molecules zip together in one go. Even if some see Grzybowski’s work as removing the artistry from chemistry, he can at least take comfort that his work in a sense completes retrosynthesis and brings it back to Corey’s grand vision to drive chemistry forward – by doing it backwards with a computer. ■ James Mitchell Crow is a science writer based in Melbourne, Australia 20 October 2018 | NewScientist | 41


Memories of my father As Stephen Hawking’s final book is published, his daughter Lucy Hawking relects on its meaning for her


HIS is a bittersweet moment. The publication of my father’s last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, is a triumph in many ways. It is a summation of his career, both in science and in public advocacy on a range of issues that he cared about deeply. It is the fruit of decades of thought and scientific enquiry, as well as hard work, his mastery of technical communication and his experience on the public stage. From examination of the nature of life itself to exploration of the most mysterious regions of space, the book is a hymn to rational scientific enquiry. Famously, my father said of his 1988 bestseller A Brief History of Time that he wanted to see it on airport shelves. He certainly achieved that ambition. I hope this book will fulfil it too. But this is also a time of great sadness for me. The beginning of this book’s journey marks a full stop. This is the “last” book. While my father’s legacy will, I hope, live on in a myriad of different ways, I have to accept finally that he himself has gone. For the past six months, that hasn’t seemed real to me. So much of what we have talked about, thought about, organised, celebrated and mourned since his death has had my father as the central figure. It has been as though he were still there, still the gravitational force holding us all in orbit. Only now do I have the sense that he is departing, leaving us for the final time. I went to his house the week before last and found it deeply moving. I cried over a table cloth that I bought for him in New Delhi, while I was on tour in South Asia with one of the five children’s books we wrote together. Odd though it seems, technically I am my father’s most prolific co-author. Together, we created a series of adventure novels for kids that read like escapist fantasy, except that the science in all of them was accurate and up to date.

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As my father liked to say, “Where Harry Potter has magic, we have science”. I vividly remember reading him an extract I had just written for George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt, which featured a character with a startling similarity to his own mother. He laughed so much he nearly fell off his chair. Those were good times. I admired my father all my life, but never so much as in the final months of his life, when he fought like a true soldier but let go at the end with grace. Born on the anniversary of Galileo’s death, my father died on Einstein’s birthday. This final flourish somehow seemed so typical of him, an awesome poetry that left us in bewildered wonderment through our tears. It feels like no coincidence that his final scientific paper, detailed in this book, concerns symmetry. In the chapter “What is inside a black hole?”, my father discusses work he did with Malcolm Perry, Sasha Haco and Andy Strominger on “supertranslations”, infinite collections of symmetries found in areas of space-time far from black holes. These might help resolve the black hole information paradox, the puzzle of what happens to the information entering a black hole, which has generated arguments among scientists for more than 40 years (see “Do black holes eat information?”, page 45). Like many other problems on the cutting edge of physics that my father worked on, this remains unresolved. As his lifelong best friend Kip Thorne says in his introduction to the book, “Newton gave us answers. Hawking gave us questions. And Hawking’s questions keep on giving, generating breakthroughs decades later.” If Brief Answers is the end, then it is a comfort that the big questions live on. ■ Lucy Hawking is a novelist and educator based in London. See overleaf for a review of Brief Answers to the Big Questions, and an extract

Lucy Hawking and her father in 2015. He died on 14 March this year


20 October 2018 | NewScientist | 43

An ordinary genius Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking, Hodder & Stoughton

MOST people as famous as Stephen Hawking face forensically intimate scrutiny. But in its way, Hawking’s personality was as insulated as the Queen’s, impermeably fortified by the role allotted to him. There’s a hint in Brief Answers that he knew this: “I fit the stereotype of a disabled genius,” he writes. But his easiness with this idea made me uneasy. While it was delightful to see how in everyday life he demolished the laziness that links physical with mental disability, he did so only by personifying the other extreme. The unworldly intelligence, the wry sense of humour, his tremendous resilience against adversity – such a mind in such a body! And then of course, there was that computerised voice (another part of his armour). It perhaps suited Hawking that the media were content with the cliché – he gave little impression of caring for the touchy-feely. In the foreword to Brief Answers, Eddie Redmayne, who played Hawking in the 2014 biopic The Theory of Everything, reminds us 44 | NewScientist | 20 October 2018

that the physicist would have preferred the film to have had “more physics and fewer feelings”. I approached this book with some trepidation. You know he won’t go wrong with cosmology, relativity or quantum mechanics, but when Hawking stepped outside that comfort zone the results were often touch and go. The scientific essays included in this book supply Hawking’s Greatest Hits: his work with mathematician Roger Penrose on gravitational singularities and their relation to the big bang; his realisation that black holes will emit energy (Hawking radiation); his speculations about the origin of the universe in a chance quantum fluctuation; the debate (still unresolved) about whether black holes destroy information. Hawking, as fellow cosmologist and long-time friend Kip Thorne outlines in his introduction, helped to integrate some of the central concepts of physics: general relativity, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics and information theory. It is a phenomenal body of work. Sometimes there is a plainness to his prose that is touching even when it sounds like a self-help manual: “Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done.” His plea for inspirational teaching, his concerns about climate change


Stephen Hawking’s last book reveals the mind and the man, says Philip Ball

and environmental degradation, his contempt for Trump and the regressive aspects of Brexit, and (albeit not in this book) his championing of the UK’s National Health Service, made you glad to have Hawking on your side. A common danger with such collections is repetition. But the recurring and familiar passages are themselves quite revealing, for they show Hawking curating his image: the boy always taking things apart but not always managing to put them together again, the man who told us to “look up at the stars and not down at your feet”. There’s no doubt that Hawking cared passionately about the future of humankind and the potential of science to improve it. His advocacy resembles the old-fashioned boosterism of H. G. Wells in later life, tempered by an awareness of the dire potential of technologies in

Hawking was first to suggest that black holes might emit energy

the wrong hands. One of the most striking features of this book, however, is the lack of extracurricular context, from, say, art, music, literature, philosophy. In some pieces, this exposes gaps – for example, when Hawking begins an essay called “Is there a God?” with “people will always cling to religion, because it gives comfort, and they do not trust or understand science”. God, he tells us (as no theologian ever did), is all about explaining the origin of the universe. And on what grounds does he claim that most people define God as “a human-like being, with whom one can have a personal relationship”? Even if true, most people’s notions of a molecule also bear scant resemblance to what well-informed folk say on

“He cared passionately about the future of humankind and science’s potential to improve it” more inclination to examine the real reasons for the space race than to reflect on the realities of Columbus’s mission. But this is all, in a sense, unfair. Hawking was a great scientist who had a remarkable life, and in another universe, without motor neurone disease (well, he did like the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics), we would have no reason to confer authority on his thoughts about all and sundry. We would not deny his right to ordinariness, and would see his occasional arrogance for no more or less than it was. There is every reason to believe Hawking enjoyed his fame, and that’s a cheering thought. That we seek to put him on a pedestal is our problem, not his. We should celebrate his extraordinary achievements, both personal and scientific – but to paraphrase Brecht’s Galileo, unhappy is the land that needs a guru. ■ Philip Ball is a science writer. His latest book is Beyond Weird (Bodley Head)


the matter, but Hawking would not have been happy with that. There’s a sloppiness to the history too, even in science: for instance, he perpetuates the myth that Max Planck postulated the quantum to avoid the “ultraviolet catastrophe” of black-body radiation. Planck never mentioned it in his proposal. There’s worse. “People might well have argued that it was a waste of money to send Columbus on a wild goose chase. Yet the discovery of the New World made a profound difference to the Old. Just think, we wouldn’t have had the Big Mac or KFC,” he writes, the joke perhaps hiding a reluctance to probe more deeply. The remark appears in a defence of space exploration, but he shows no

Do black holes eat information? In Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Stephen Hawking attempts a new answer to this decades-old problem, the black hole information paradox uppose there was no gravity and space-time was completely flat. This would be like a completely featureless desert. Such a place has two types of symmetry. The first is called translation symmetry. If you moved from one point in the desert to another, you would not notice any change. The second symmetry is rotation symmetry. If you stood somewhere in the desert and started to turn around, you would again not notice any difference in what you saw. These symmetries are also found in “flat” space-time, the space-time one finds in the absence of any matter. If one put something into this desert, these symmetries would be broken. Suppose there was a mountain, an oasis and some cacti in the desert, it would look different in different places and in different directions. The same is true of space-time. If one puts objects into a space-time, the translational and rotational symmetries get broken. And introducing objects into a space-time is what produces gravity. A black hole is a region of space-time where gravity is strong, space-time is violently distorted and so one expects its symmetries to be broken. However, as one moves away from the black hole, the curvature of space-time gets less and less. Very far away from the black hole, space-time looks very much like flat space-time. Back in the 1960s, Hermann Bondi, A. W. Kenneth Metzner, M. G. J. van der Burg and Rainer Sachs made the truly remarkable discovery that space-time far


away from any matter has an infinite collection of symmetries known as supertranslations. Each of these symmetries is associated with a conserved quantity, known as the supertranslation charges. A conserved quantity is a quantity that does not change as a system evolves. These are generalisations of more familiar conserved quantities. For example, if space-time does not change in time, then energy is conserved. If space-time looks the same at different points in space, then momentum is conserved. What was remarkable about the discovery of supertranslations is that there are an infinite number of conserved quantities far from a black hole. It is these conservation laws that have given an extraordinary and unexpected insight into process in gravitational physics. In 2016, together with my collaborators Malcolm Perry and Andy Strominger, I was working on using these new results with their associated conserved quantities to find a possible resolution to the information paradox. We know that the three discernible properties of black holes are their mass, their charge and their angular momentum. These are the classical charges that have been understood for a long time. However, black holes also carry a supertranslation charge. So perhaps black holes have a lot more to them than we first thought. They are not bald or with only three hairs, but actually have a very large amount of supertranslation hair. This supertranslation hair might encode some of the information about what is inside the black hole. It is likely that these supertranslation charges do not contain all of the information, but the rest might be accounted for by some additional conserved quantities, superrotation charges, associated with some additional related symmetries called superrotations, which are as yet, not well understood. If this is right, and all the information about a black hole can be understood in terms of its “hairs”, then perhaps there is no loss of information. These ideas have just received confirmation with our most recent calculations. Strominger, Perry and myself, together with a graduate student, Sasha Haco, have discovered that these superrotation charges can account for the entire entropy of any black hole. Quantum mechanics continues to hold, and information is stored on the horizon, the surface of the black hole. The black holes are still characterised only by their overall mass, electric charge and spin outside the event horizon but the event horizon itself contains the information needed to tell us about what has fallen into the black hole in a way that goes beyond these three characteristics the black hole has. People are still working on these issues and therefore the information paradox remains unresolved. But I am optimistic that we are moving towards a solution. Watch this space. 20 October 2018 | NewScientist | 45



Red sky at night

Read Spanning science and politics, discoveries and global epidemics, Nine Pints: A journey through the money, medicine, and mysteries of blood (Metropolitan) by Rose George should get any science fan’s heart pumping.

A detailed vision of lunar living sends Rowan Hooper into orbit


46 | NewScientist | 20 October 2018

(published 2012), Robinson has an impressive range. In Red Moon, he turns his attention to all things lunar, but this is as much a primer on China as a 21st-century superpower as it is a description of lunar living. Ta Shu (who is obviously a stand-in for Robinson’s own musings) contemplates the reasons that China has achieved lunar domination: “Money needs to be spent to become wealth,” he says. Ta Shu notes that the global economy has been around far longer than most people realise, and that China has been building up wealth for centuries. Most of the Roman silver coins ever minted ended up in China, we are told. The Yongle emperor in the 15th century ordered the construction of what is now Beijing even though the imperial capital was well established in Nanjing, and he did it, we are told, because his coffers were overflowing with cash. The Great Wall was a similarly gigantic infrastructure project, partly launched to use up surplus wealth, as was the BeijingHangzhou Grand Canal, the oldest and longest artificial river in the world. Beijing, the Grand Canal, the Great Wall – and now the moon. Robinson builds such a plausible case for Chinese domination on the moon that in parts his novel reads like a history. Red Moon’s depiction of its characters’ inner lives feels slightly underpowered, but Robinson has once again created a deeply realised world that feels more like a peep into our future than a work of fiction. I only hope we are as established on the moon by 2047 as he describes. ■

Listen On 23 October at 11.30am BST, the BBC World Service’s In The Studio follows Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera as she installs a vast heat-sensitive artwork in the Tate Modern gallery in London.

Subscribe Podcast Here We Are from Starburns Audio features comedian Shane Mauss’s journey of discovery. In the Evolution of Alcohol episode, Mauss has an IPA-fuelled chat with microbiologist Kevin McCabe about the genetic origin-story of yeast.

Visit All I Know Is What’s On The Internet, an exhibition opening 26 October at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, sees artists exploring our algorithmically driven culture.

Watch John Carpenter’s paranoid sci-fi classic They Live (pictured below) is re-released in UK theatres on 26 October in a 4K restoration. You’ll never look at adverts in the same way again. Or sunglasses. Or people, come to that.


the Chinese. The book opens with an American quantum engineer, Fred Fredericks, chatting with THE moon is so hot a famous Chinese travel writer, right now. No, not Ta Shu, en route to the moon. literally. It’s the Fredericks is delivering an 50th anniversary ultra-secure quantum telephone of the moon to the Chinese Lunar Authority landings next chief, but the latter drops dead year, and with it soon after the two meet. there is a flurry Framed for the murder, of excitement around our only Fredericks, along with Chan Qi, natural satellite that almost makes the pregnant daughter of a top up for 50-odd years of neglect. Chinese politician, goes on the In September, SpaceX run, shuttling between the moon announced that it plans to send and China to elude capture. a paying customer on a flight Robinson is famous for the around the moon as early as 2023. scientific detail and plausibility China is launching the Chang’e 4 of his novels. His award-winning robot to the far side of the moon Mars trilogy describes the in December, and next year settlement of the Red Planet from Chang’e 5 will collect rocks and the first footsteps on the surface return them to Earth. to the terraforming of the planet So Kim Stanley Robinson’s new centuries later. Whether he is novel is timely, to say the least. imagining the richness of Set mostly on the moon in 2047, Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon Red Moon describes burgeoning culture in southern France lunar settlements, mostly built by 30,000 years ago, as he did in Shaman (2013), or the expansion The future’s bright, and Chinese, of human society across the solar in Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel system, as he did in 2312 Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson, Orbit

The Department of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School ofers graduate programs leading to a Master of Biomedical Informatics and a PhD in Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics.

Professor of Chemistry

The Master of Biomedical Informatics program is designed for students who aim for a biomedical career that requires strong data science skills. The program ofers two routes to the degree:

he Department of Chemistry of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is accepting applications for multiple positions at the tenured and tenure-track level, beginning August 2019. We seek outstanding candidates with research interests in all areas of chemistry.

Traditional Master’s Program (48-credit) • For students who hold a Bachelor’s degree in Bioinformatics, Bioengineering, Biomedical Engineering, Computer Science, Mathematics, or another related quantitative ield.

Ph.D. in Chemistry or related ield is required prior to the start of the appointment. Area of specialization within chemistry is open. Candidates for the Assistant Professor title must have demonstrated potential for internationally recognized research in his/her ield of specialization. Tenured candidates must have demonstrated excellence in scholarly research, teaching, and service. he successful candidates will be expected to teach chemistry courses at the undergraduate and graduate level. Mentoring of graduate and undergraduate students is required, as is the development of an internationally recognized scholarly research program. Professional and university service are also required.

Accelerated Master’s Program (36-credit) • For students who hold a Doctoral degree in a biomedical or related ield who recognize the relevance of informatics and data science to their research. • MDs who are interested in qualifying for the subspecialty in clinical informatics. • Medical students who would like to explore the importance of informatics in the practice of medicine.

Please go to https://academicjobsonline.org/ajo/jobs/11873 to view the posting and begin the application process. Application materials including cover letter, current CV, teaching statement, research experience summary, and a concise description of research plans will be required for all applicants. Applicants will also be asked to provide the names and contact information for three professional references. To guarantee full consideration, applications must be received by October 18, 2018. However, applications will be accepted until all positions are illed. he University of Wisconsin-Madison is an equal opportunity airmative action employer. Women and minority candidates are especially encouraged to apply. Unless conidentiality is requested in writing, information regarding the identity of the applicant must be released on request. Finalists cannot be guaranteed conidentiality. A criminal background check will be required prior to employment.

Department of Neuroscience New Haven, CT 06520-8001 http://medicine.yale.edu/neuroscience/index.aspx

NEUROSCIENCE FACULTY POSITIONS The Department of Neuroscience at Yale University seeks to hire faculty in any area of neuroscience, with a preference for candidates who use neuronal or systems level analysis to investigate circuits, behavior or cognition in health and disease. Emphasis will be placed on recruiting at the level of Assistant Professor, but excellent applicants at Associate Professor level will also be considered. We seek candidates with an exceptional track record, potential for outstanding future achievements, and a wish to participate in a dynamic and recently expanded neuroscience community at Yale that includes the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience, the Program in Cellular Neuroscience, Neurodegeneration and Repair (CNNR) and the Swartz Program in Theoretical Neuroscience. We are especially interested in candidates who will contribute to the diversity of our academic community. Candidates will be supported by a generous start-up and ongoing salary support, and are expected to develop a productive and innovative research program that will include the opportunity to participate in graduate and medical education. Candidates must hold a Ph.D., M.D., or equivalent degree. Please send a cover letter, curriculum vitae, up to 3 representative publications, a research plan (strictly limited to 2 pages), and arrange for submission of 3 letters of recommendation. All application materials should be submitted electronically through apply.interfolio.com/54771. Applications will be reviewed as they are UHFHLYHGDQGXQWLOWKHSRVLWLRQVDUH¿OOHGZLWKSULRULW\JLYHQWRWKRVH applications received by November 17, 2018.