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A third Nobel, but also a whole lot of sexism

TROUBLE ON THE ISS US-Russia tensions rise in orbit


The mystery of octopus vision

WEEKLY October 6 – 12, 2018

THE GLITCH AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE Go far enough, and the rules of reality start to break down


No3198 US$6.99 CAN$6.99 4 0

Why no one can agree on antidepressants PLUS CRISPR TOMATOES /CATS V RATS / WHERE ARE ALL THE ALIENS? Science and technology news www.newscientist.com US jobs in science


72440 30690


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Women in physics A third Nobel, but also a whole lot of sexism

24 Trouble on the ISS US-Russia tensions rise in orbit


It’s not brainpower hindering women in physics, it’s attitudes

News 6

THIS WEEK Re-domesticating tomatoes. Massive Facebook data breach. Devastating tsunami hits Indonesia. Physics gender row


NEWS & TECHNOLOGY Mystery particle seen in Antarctica. Neanderthals’ dexterous hands. Monkeypox reaches the UK. Machines that tell stories. Shipping could cool the Arctic. Eavesdropping on the rainforest. All men in Spain were wiped out 4500 years ago. Our alien search has barely begun. Cats are bad at hunting rats. Predicting cybercrime before it happens. Second world war affected the edge of space

39 All-seeing… skin? The mystery of octopus vision

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30 The glitch at the end of the universe Go far enough, and the rules of reality start to break down 34 The drugs (don’t) work Why no one can agree on antidepressants Plus CRISPR tomatoes (7). Cats v rats (15). Where are all the aliens? (15)

19 IN BRIEF Giant robotic cocoons. Deep brain stimulation may treat depression. Giraffe’s spots. Lasers have gravity. Fly genitals

Analysis 24 INSIGHT Rising tensions with Russia threaten US access to the International Space Station 26 COMMENT Privacy International challenged MI5 and it spied on them. No place for sexism in physics 27 ANALYSIS How much screen time is safe for children?

Features 30 The glitch at the end of the universe Nature’s constants aren’t behaving themselves 34 The drugs (don’t) work Antidepressant use is soaring, but do they do any good? 39 Octopus vision Cephalopods might rely on their remarkable skin to see colour 42 AI in the wild Iyad Rahwan proposes a new way to study artificial intelligence

Culture 44 Life on Earth revisited David Attenborough’s classic book returns to inspire a new generation PLUS: This week’s cultural picks 46 Shaping motherhood A timely exploration of the tricky issues women face as new mothers

Regulars 28 APERTURE Great wall of science 52 LETTERS War is a recent part of our history 55 OLD SCIENTIST Octobers past 56 FEEDBACK Ghostly accidents on the M6 57 THE LAST WORD High-rise rescues

6 October 2018 | NewScientist | 3

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At last, a third Nobel

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IS THERE a biological difference Alessandro Strumia (see pages 6 between male and female brains? and 26). Speaking at a conference It is a question almost everyone held at CERN, home of the Large has an opinion on, but where firm Hadron Collider, Strumia claimed evidence is lacking. that women are vastly underMale brains are, on average, represented in the field because larger than female brains, but “interest and ability [are] not the size is not indicative of uniformly distributed”. In other cognitive ability. Studies of the words, it is not sexism holding brain’s anatomy also show, on women back, but inherent average, that there are structural biological differences. (Strumia differences in the brains of has since been suspended from women and men, but the variation his work with CERN.) between individuals is far larger In fact, it is absurd to try than that between the sexes – in to conclude that women are other words, there is no such thing “There’s no excuse for these as a “female” or “male” brain. imbalances continuing, As for what goes on inside our physics needs all the good brains, countless studies have brains it can get” investigated whether women think differently to men, are more likely to have certain kinds of biologically inferior at physics, personalities or favour particular not merely because the question interests. The answer? Probably has not been adequately not. A 2014 review of more than addressed in the scientific 100 behavioural measures found literature, but also because all there was no way to accurately our brains evolved at a time group them into two distinct when nobody was that bothered categories. In other words, about the Higgs boson. What we personality elements such as do know is that, for centuries, an interest in science exist on women have been held back a continuous spectrum. from pursuing scientific That specific example is careers by men. Take Sophie particularly relevant this week, Germain, a brilliant 18th-century following a talk by physicist mathematician who was forced

to pretend to be a man in correspondence in order to get her ideas heard. Or Emmy Noether, a physicist who transformed our understanding of the universe almost as much as her contemporary, Albert Einstein, but was unable to get a job with a university. It is pertinent that this issue is being raised in the same week as the Nobel prizes for science are being awarded. Donna Strickland has become the third ever women to receive a physics Nobel in the 117 year history of the prize, while 207 have gone to men (see page 6). Strickland’s award is a small step in rectifying deep, historical structural imbalances, but there is no excuse for these imbalances continuing, and physics really does need all the good brains it can get. Huge strides have been made: CERN has its first female boss, the particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti. But when people ask why more girls don’t study physics, perhaps they should think about how it feels to be a schoolgirl in a world where men like Strumia tell you that your brain is second-rate at physics. Like physics is so hard, right girls? ■ 6 October 2018 | NewScientist | 5


Nobel prizewinners


THE Nobel prizes in physics and physiology or medicine have been announced. The physics prize went to Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland for their work on lasers. This is the first time a woman has won the physics Nobel in 55 years, and only the third time ever. Ashkin was awarded one half of the prize for inventing optical tweezers, a way to manipulate tiny objects using focused beams of light. The other half was shared between Mourou and Strickland for their method of generating high-intensity, ultrashort optical pulses, which can be used to cut or drill very precise holes in material, including living tissue. The physiology or medicine Nobel went to James Allison and Tasuku Honjo for their discovery of how

Man claims women worse at physics

Death toll rising after huge tsunami

A PHYSICIST speaking at CERN, the home of the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, has sparked outrage after claiming that women are less capable of physics research.

THE number of fatalities from the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia has continued to rise, surpassing 1300 people, according to Indonesia’s disaster agency. A further 50,000 people have been displaced. Most of the dead were from the city

Alessandro Strumia at the University of Pisa, Italy, was speaking to an audience of women beginning their careers in science at a workshop on gender and high energy physics. He gave a talk claiming that the

of Palu (pictured), but it has been hard to assess the toll in other coastal areas, due to impassable roads, downed power lines and phone outages.

“CERN is a place where everyone is welcome, and all have the same opportunities, regardless of ethnicity, beliefs, gender or sexual orientation,” said the statement.

For more, see comment on page 26 6 | NewScientist | 6 October 2018


reason men are so over-represented in the field of physics is because they are “over-performing”, and that physics was “invented and built by men”. His claims have been widely condemned. CERN has released a statement describing his talk as “highly offensive” and has suspended him from activities within the organisation.

The 7.5-magnitude quake struck on 28 September, creating a tsunami that swept waves that reached heights of up to 6 metres ashore. Many buildings collapsed. Rescuers were still working to free survivors. “The death toll is believed to be still increasing since many bodies were still under the wreckage. Many have not been reached,” said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho of the Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management. “There are many challenges,” said Indonesian president Joko Widodo. “We have to do many things soon, but conditions do not allow us to do so.”

cancer can be treated by targeting the immune system. The pair, working separately, discovered proteins that act as a brake on this system. They later found that releasing these brakes would allow the immune system to attack cancer cells. Many drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors have since been developed based on this principle. Immunotherapy is seen as one of the most promising frontiers in cancer research. Honjo was inspired to work on cancer as a trainee doctor in the 1960s when a classmate died from gastric cancer. “My dream became to cure cancer,” he told New Scientist in 2016. The Nobel prizes in chemistry, peace and economic sciences were still to be announced when New Scientist went to print.

Facebook hit by massive hack FACEBOOK has been hit by the biggest hack in its history. On 28 September, it said it had discovered an attack that exposed the personal details of 50 million accounts, including those of co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. The hackers also gained access to other services that people logged into using their Facebook account, such as Tinder, Instagram, Spotify and Airbnb. To break in, the attackers exploited several different bugs in Facebook’s code that together allowed them to trick the site into handing over the digital keys to individual accounts. Facebook says it has fixed the bugs and reset the keys of those affected. The attack allowed the hackers to see anything that users can see on their own profile, including names and dates of birth of friends and family members, as well as private photos. Such information can be used in online scams. Facebook is working with police, but says it does not yet know who is behind the attack or where it came from.

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

Tomatoes tamed again with CRISPR Gene editing opens the way to healthier crops, finds Michael Le Page Biotechnology, doi.org/cvfz). “We will taste them when the plants are mature”, in a few weeks, says Caixia Gao at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

New commercial crops


IT TOOK at least 3000 years to domesticate the tomato. Now two teams, one in China, the other in Brazil, Germany and the US, have done it all over again in less than three years – only better in some ways because their tomatoes are more nutritious than those we currently eat. This approach, which relies on the CRISPR genome-editing technique, could not only improve existing crops, but could also be used to turn thousands of wild plants into new crops. A third team in the US has already begun to do this with a relative of the tomato called the ground cherry. This fast-track domestication could help make the world’s food supply healthier and far more resilient to climate change and diseases, such as the rust fungus devastating wheat crops. “This could transform what we eat,” says Jörg Kudla at the University of Münster in Germany, a member of the international team that worked on the tomato. “There are 50,000 edible plants in the world, but 90 per cent of our energy domestication. The two teams of comes from just 15 crops.” tomato researchers have used this Wild tomatoes, native to the knowledge to reintroduce these Andes mountains in South changes from scratch while America, produce pea-sized fruit. maintaining or even enhancing Over many generations, people the desirable traits of wild strains. transformed the plant by picking Kudla’s team made six changes. mutants with desirable traits such For instance, they tripled the size as larger fruit. of fruit by editing a gene called But when a single mutant is FW2.2, and got more tomatoes per plucked from a larger population truss by editing another called for breeding, genetic diversity is MULT (Nature Biotechnology, lost. And the desirable mutations doi.org/cvf2). sometimes come with unwanted The historical domestication of traits. For instance, the tomatoes tomatoes led to lower levels of the grown for supermarkets have lost red pigment lycopene, which is much of their flavour. “There are 50,000 edible By comparing the genomes plants in the world, but of food plants with their wild 90 per cent of our energy relatives, biologists are working comes from just 15 crops” out what changes occurred in

Commercial tomatoes may become packed with more nutrients

thought to be good for us. The international team boosted it instead. Wild tomatoes have twice as much lycopene as cultivated ones. The newly domesticated one has five times as much. “They are quite tasty,” says Kudla. “And very aromatic.” The researchers in China re-domesticated several strains of wild tomatoes with desirable traits lost in domestication. In this way they managed to make a strain resistant to a disease called bacterial spot race. They also created another strain that is more salt tolerant and one with higher levels of vitamin C (Nature

Meanwhile, Joyce Van Eck at the Boyce Thompson Institute in New York state and her colleagues are using the same approach to domesticate the ground cherry (Physalis pruinosa) for the first time (Nature Plants, doi.org/cvfx). Ground cherries are already sold to some extent in US farmers’ markets, but they are hard to produce because the plant has a sprawling growth and the small fruit drop off when ripe. Van Eck’s team edited the plants to increase fruit size, make growth more compact and stop fruit falling off. “There’s potential for this to be a commercial crop,” says Van Eck. But taking the work further would be expensive because of the need to pay for a CRISPR licence and get regulatory approval. This approach could boost the use of many obscure plants, says Jonathan Jones of the Sainsbury Laboratory in the UK. But it will be hard for them to get so popular they become new staples, he says. The three teams are already eyeing other plants that could, in the words of Van Eck’s team, be “catapulted into the mainstream”, including foxtail, oat grass and amaranth. By choosing wild plants that are drought or heat tolerant, says Gao, we could create crops that will thrive even as the planet warms. Kudla didn’t want to reveal which species were in his team’s sights, because CRISPR has made it so easy. “Anyone with the right skills could go home to their lab and do this.” ■ 6 October 2018 | NewScientist | 7


Mystery particle seen in Antarctica SOMETHING strange has happened in Antarctica. A balloon floating above the icy desolation may have detected a weird particle that can’t be explained by our current understanding of physics. NASA’s Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA) detector is an array of radio antennas attached to an enormous balloon that flies missions 37 kilometres above the continent. It looks for radio pulses emitted by objects such as tau particles, a kind of heavy electron, emerging from the ice. This happens when other particles called neutrinos decay as they pass through Earth from space. ANITA also looks for cosmic ray showers, a form of high-energy radiation from space. But in 2006 and 2014, the detector saw two events that didn’t look like either of these things. They reached ANITA’s antennas at steep angles, exiting Earth at 27 and 35 degrees below horizontal. Normally, only a cosmic ray reflected off the ice could approach at these angles, but such rays usually have their

Neanderthals had surprisingly dextrous hands

particles have a much heavier, or “super”, counterpart. Supersymmetry models that describe the kind of signals Fox and his team have seen already exist, he says. They include a charged particle that is massive, decays to tau and has a longenough lifetime that it can travel through about 6000 kilometres of Earth. “Bingo,” he says. “Our official interpretation of our events is that we’re not sure what they are,” says Stephanie Wissel at California Polytechnic State University, who is a member of the ANITA collaboration. But she thinks the explanation will turn out to be ordinary cosmic rays. She says that if these stau particles exist, other experiments ought to have seen them. For instance, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, also in Antarctica, has been detecting neutrinos since 2010. But it is set deep in the ice, so it doesn’t see particles in the air that ANITA does. Avi Loeb at Harvard University says we need more evidence to confirm that these potential particles aren’t due to an error in experimental interpretation, but the findings so far are compelling. “The multifaceted evidence presented in this work does not allow wiggle room for explaining the two ANITA events with known standard model particles,” he says. ■

polarity, or orientation, flipped. These signals weren’t flipped, so couldn’t have come from the ice. Derek Fox at Pennsylvania State University and his colleagues wanted to investigate whether these signals could be signs of a new particle beyond the standard model of physics, our current best description of how particles and forces interact. They ran simulations of 1 billion neutrinos passing through Earth. They ruled out the possibility of ANITA

The ANITA detector spotted odd signals from 37 kilometres up

make jewellery. These activities were

of “entheses”: the points on the

six early modern humans. The

hard to explain if they were clumsy. Neanderthal hand bones were

bones where muscles were attached.

Neanderthals spent most of their

A precision grip uses a different set

time using precision grips, while the

much chunkier than ours, implying a

of muscles to a power grip, and those

early modern humans used both

lack of fine control. Previous studies

muscles that get used more result

precision and power grips (Science Advances, doi.org/ct9n).


Chelsea Whyte

detecting a tau particle from these neutrinos at such steep angles with a confidence of 5.8 sigma, a statistical measure. Physicists normally treat anything above 5 sigma as an important discovery (arxiv.org/abs/1809.09615). “That’s why looking beyond the standard model is necessary,” says Fox. “Otherwise, the properties of these events are improbable.” He and his team suggest that a previously proposed supersymmetric tau, or stau, is behind the mysterious signals. Supersymmetry is a theoretical extension of the standard model that suggests all fundamental

of the bones mostly suggested that

in larger entheses. Harvati’s team

OUR extinct Neanderthal cousins could hold objects between finger and thumb, just like we would hold a pen, because their hands were more nimble than anyone thought. The finding helps explain the many

Neanderthals were unable to perform

previously showed this by studying

a “precision grip” with finger and

modern humans who had done

“Our study reconciles the archaeological with the anatomical

thumb. Instead, they were thought

different jobs.

fossil evidence,” says Harvati.

to use a “power grip” involving their

The team examined the hand entheses of six Neanderthals and

“It was previously proposed that

skilful tasks Neanderthals have been shown to have performed, such as creating tools, painting on cave walls and threading sea shells onto string to

To find out how Neanderthals used their hands, Katerina Harvati at the

8 | NewScientist | 6 October 2018

whole fist, the way small children sometimes hold crayons.

University of Tübingen in Germany and her colleagues studied 3D scans

Neanderthals relied on force for their manual activities”, but this

“The idea that Neanderthals relied on force is at odds with growing evidence for sophisticated behaviour”

perception “was at odds with mounting archaeological evidence for sophisticated cultural behaviour of Neanderthals”. Michael Marshall ■

For daily news stories, visit newscientist.com/news

Monkeypox in the UK: All you need to know


I’ve heard of Ebola and Zika, but what is monkeypox? Monkeypox is caused by a relative of the smallpox virus. It causes fever, headaches and a rash that turns into blisters like those of chickenpox. It is usually just a mild illness lasting a few weeks, but it can sometimes be deadly. As the name suggests, it was first identified in monkeys, and is mainly confined to central and West Africa. It has a reported death rate of between 1 and 10 per cent. Why is it in the news? Three people in the UK have been diagnosed with monkeypox since the start of September, and are now being treated in hospital by tropical disease specialists. It hasn’t been seen in the UK before. How has it reached the UK? Two patients seem to have caught the infection while in Nigeria, where there is currently an upsurge in the disease. The third is a healthcare worker who looked after the second patient. How worried should I be? Don’t panic. The disease doesn’t pass easily between people as this requires contact with bodily fluids or being close enough to someone to breathe in airborne droplets. Such droplets generally can’t travel more than a metre or so, meaning there is little risk to the public. So why the fuss? Any disease that circulates in animals and can be passed to people has the potential to cause a new pandemic if it mutates. Monkeypox has no specific treatment or vaccine. The smallpox vaccine gives immunity to monkeypox and is now being used in the UK hospitals involved. What happens next? In the UK, public health officials are following up all close contacts of the three patients for three weeks. Unless you are one of their friends, family or doctors, you probably have nothing to worry about. Nigeria is also investigating its outbreak and working with the UK. Clare Wilson ■

Creating stories is difficult for machines

A new author is in town – and it isn’t human “IT HAS been two weeks, and the The team trained its neural last of my kind has gone.” As network, a type of algorithm opening lines to a story about alien inspired by the human brain, on abduction go, it isn’t bad. It is even 272,600 human-written stories more impressive when you realise paired with prompts, such as “The the writer isn’t human, but a newly Mage, the Warrior, and the Priest” developed artificial intelligence. or “Aliens start abducting humans”. Getting machines to create These were taken from an online stories is hard. At a minimum, a forum for writing prompts, where good yarn must have a plausible users inspire each other to write sequence of events that lead you “The artificial intelligence from the beginning to the end. is drip-fed rewards as it Yet maintaining coherence over generates story events multiple sentences is something to keep it on track” that existing text-generation systems struggle with. “They write in a very simplistic by submitting story premises. way, deciding word by word what The AI sometimes repeated to say next,” says Angela Fan at itself in sentences, such as in the Facebook AI Research, who helped line “She wasn’t sure if she was create the story-writing AI. That going to cry or if she just wanted means each sentence may not to cry.” Fan wants to improve the relate to the ones before it. system so that it can look back at To get around this issue, the what it has already written and Facebook team broke the storyamend it. generation task into two steps. But the team is happy that the First, the system creates a sketch software could produce stories in of the story’s structure. It then which a character remained sad fleshes out this scaffold with full or the weather stayed stormy. sentences to produce stories that “Staying on topic is quite difficult are 150 words long. for neural network models

because they have no explicit memory,” says Fan. The researchers evaluated their system by asking crowdworkers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk internet marketplace whether they preferred its stories over those created by a previous textgeneration technique. People preferred the new system’s stories around 67 per cent of the time (arxiv.org/abs/1805.04833). “The results are impressive,” says Mark Riedl at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “It is always reasonable to be sceptical of cherry-picked examples, but overall I’m a big fan of this work.” Riedl and his colleagues have developed their own technique for generating more-consistent stories. Instead of sticking to a prompt, their neural network aims for a particular climax, such as two characters getting married or a villain being punished. It is drip-fed rewards as it generates story events to keep it on track. Riedl’s team trained its system on a series of events taken from the summaries of movie plots. People on Mechanical Turk again judged the stories generated by this technique to have moreplausible event ordering and more-coherent plots than stories written by a previous approach (arxiv.org/abs/1809.10736). Facebook AI Research’s work on story generation is part of its efforts to improve text generation in general, says Fan. For example, it could improve the suggestions of what to write next that pop up on your phone when you text someone. Software that can string sentences together with more consistency will also help machine translation. Existing algorithms are good at translating individual sentences but cannot translate entire paragraphs well, says Fan. “Story generation tests our algorithms in these challenging areas.” Douglas Heaven ■ 6 October 2018 | NewScientist | 9

NEWS & TECHNOLOGY AI eavesdrops on Borneo’s rainforests


SOLAR-POWERED recording devices are eavesdropping on rainforests in Borneo to monitor biodiversity. The plan is to use artificial intelligence to identify the sounds of different animals and track changes in their numbers over time. Many current methods for checking biodiversity are impractical, relying on people to regularly change batteries in recorders, for example. Or they are expensive, requiring huge reams of data to be sent via satellites. So Sarab Sethi at Imperial College

More Arctic ships may slow warming Michael Marshall

Stephenson at the University of Connecticut. That’s because ships release pollution. This includes black carbon, fine particles that have a dual warming impact: in the air, they have a greenhouse effect, and when deposited on ice, they darken it causing it to absorb more heat. On the flip side, aerosols in ship emissions like sulphur dioxide cause more clouds to form, which reflect heat and therefore cool the area. Previous studies focused on one

MORE ships sailing in the Arctic as summer ice retreats might bring an unexpected upside: slightly slowing the rapid warming around the North Pole. But it would also have other, less pleasant consequences. The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, and as a result sea ice in the region has retreated for decades. The Arctic may see its first ice-free summer for millennia in the next “Aerosols in ship emissions few decades – although the ice cause more clouds to form, would still form again in winter. which reflect heat and During summer, waters that were once impassable are opening therefore cool the area” up, including the Northern Sea Route running along the Russian but not the other of these, or used Arctic coast. Shipping firm overly simplistic climate models. Maersk said last week that one “No previous study had of its vessels used this route to attempted to look at this get from Vladivostok on Russia’s comprehensively,” says Pacific coast to the Baltic Sea Stephenson. So he and his port of St Petersburg. colleagues did so. “We’ve known for some time They simulated Arctic that shipping in the Arctic is likely temperatures from 2006 to 2099, to have climate impacts of one calculating emissions from form or another,” says Scott shipping by estimating which 10 | NewScientist | 6 October 2018

Ice free waters may lead to more freighters using Arctic routes

routes would be passable at different times and then inferring the emissions of the ships. “There was a very clear signal and that signal was cooling,” he says. If greenhouse gas emissions continued at the current rate but Arctic shipping didn’t increase, their model warmed by 10°C, but when shipping was included the warming was reduced to 9°C. The sea ice also retreated slightly less (Geophysical Research Letters, doi.org/gd6d4x). Overall, shipping’s cooling effect makes little difference. The Arctic is still warming at twice the global average and will be much warmer by the end of the century, says Stephenson. Besides, to see a 1°C reduction in warming, ships need to keep polluting the air, says Dominick Spracklen at the University of Leeds, UK. That’s a bad idea: the World Health Organization says outdoor air pollution, including from shipping, causes 4.2 million deaths every year. Stephenson adds that sending ships through the Arctic has other hazards, like the risk of oil spills. “There’s very little infrastructure in the Arctic to deal with disasters,” he says. ■

London and his team developed a pared-down device built around a Raspberry Pi, a mass-produced, low-cost mini-computer. Solar panels peeking out above the forest canopy provide power, while local mobile networks send data almost immediately to a remote server, accessible online. The devices can carry various sensors to capture audio, images and atmospheric information (Methods in Ecology and Evolution, doi.org/cvbn). So far, 12 monitors nestled in the canopy have recorded over 10,000 hours of audio , which will be analysed in two ways. One will work like a Shazam for species. Shazam is an app that allows people to identify a song and the artist from a sound recording. In a similar way, AI algorithms will recognise different animals from their calls and use this to gauge how their populations change. The other method takes a more holistic approach, creating an overall audio fingerprint of the forest. By analysing how this alters over time, or in different areas of the forest, researchers can gauge the wider health of sections of the forest. The work is part of a broader project, documenting the effects of palm oil plantations on the forest in Borneo. Since trees will continue to be cleared, we want to find out which forest fragments will preserve the maximum amount of biodiversity, says Sethi. Richard Kemeny ■

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


Spain lost its men in ancient invasion He has previously speculated that the Indo-European languages – a vast group including most modern European tongues – were first brought into Europe by the Yamnaya. Around the same time that the Yamnaya arrived in Europe, people in the vicinity of Spain began making distinctive beakers. These seem to be associated with a set of religious beliefs, known as the Bell Beaker Culture. It first spread by word of mouth, until the incoming Yamnaya adopted it,

Michael Marshall

12 | NewScientist | 6 October 2018

The Yamnaya left their bones – and their genes – all over Europe–


A GENETIC analysis has revealed that, about 4500 years ago, part of southern Europe was conquered from the east. In what is now Spain and Portugal the local male line vanished almost overnight, and males from outside became the only ones to leave descendants. David Reich of Harvard Medical School presented the results recently at New Scientist Live in London. There were several waves of human migration into and across Europe far back into prehistoric times. One of the most significant began around 5000 years ago, when a population that arose in far eastern Europe on the steppe north of the Black and Caspian seas swept westwards. Archaeologists call them the Yamnaya. They were pastoralists who relied on grazing animals rather than growing crops. “The wheel had shortly before been invented and the horse domesticated,” said Reich. The Yamnaya hitched horses to wagons and used them to carry supplies out into the open steppe, allowing them to tend large grazing herds and exploit the steppe better than any group had done before. Before the Yamnaya arose, a host of different cultures existed on the steppe, each of which left behind distinctive artefacts. Most of these groups then disappeared and were replaced by a homogeneous Yamnaya culture. “These people spread over a vast territory from Mongolia to Hungary and into Europe, and are the single, primary, most important contributors to Europeans today,” said Reich.

at which point it became a marker This is suggestive of a violent of their expansion. conquest, in which an invading To get a more complete picture army killed or enslaved the local of this expansion in the Spanish males and took the local females region, Reich and his colleagues for their own. “The collision of have extracted and sequenced these two populations was not DNA from the bones of people a friendly one, not an equal one, living in the area at the time. The but one where the males from DNA suggests that the Yamnaya’s outside were displacing local descendants began mixing with males and did so almost the locals around 4500 years ago. completely,” said Reich. The resulting population had This could only have happened 40 per cent Yamnaya ancestry if society had come firmly under and 60 per cent local ancestry. “Males coming into the area But that’s not the complete had preferential access to story. The team found a dramatic shift in the Y chromosomes, which local females again and again and again” are only carried by males. “There’s a complete Y-chromosome replacement,” said Reich. The the control of the invading males, original males’ DNA vanished with females being treated as from the gene pool. “That means second-class citizens or even males coming in had preferential property. access to local females, again and The new findings are in line again and again,” said Reich. with results reported in July 2017 by Rui Martiniano, now at the University of Cambridge, and his colleagues, based on the genomes of 14 ancient people. They also found that the local Y chromosomes were rapidly replaced in Iberia, suggesting a male-dominated incursion. Violent conquest might have been a common occurrence as the Yamnaya’s descendants swept across Europe. In February, Reich’s team published a similar study that investigated what ancient DNA reveals about the arrival of the Yamnaya’s descendants on British shores 4500 years ago. The ancient genetic signatures suggested that within a few hundred years, about 90 per cent of the local gene pool was replaced. The people who made Stonehenge were seemingly wiped out, and few of their genes have survived to the present day. The previous style of artefacts was replaced by Bell Beaker Culture. It’s not clear what happened, but the newcomers may have carried unfamiliar diseases that wiped out the locals. The climate was shifting at the time, which might have added to the problems the locals experienced. ■





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


Douglas Heaven

WITH billions of stars in our galaxy, many orbited by habitable planets, the chances are there should be advanced life capable of reaching out to us across the void. Yet after decades of looking and listening, we have found nothing. This apparent contradiction is known as Fermi’s paradox. Some have used it to argue that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is doomed. But a mathematical analysis of SETI searches done so far claims that the usual explanation for the paradox – that there is nobody out there – is false. Instead, it suggests the best explanation is simply that we have barely scratched the surface in our hunt for aliens. Jason Wright at Pennsylvania State University and his colleagues analysed the many variables involved in SETI, which involves searching for radio signals from other civilisations. These include what to look for, where to look, how often and for how long. They then devised an equation that computes the fraction of the galaxy checked so far. “It lets you build the haystack,

then calculate how much of it you’ve looked at,” says Wright. The team says that the volume of the galaxy that has been checked by SETI so far is roughly equivalent to just a single bathtub of water in the world’s oceans (arxiv.org/abs/1809.07252). “You don’t have to do a calculation to say we’ve only just started,” says Duncan Forgan at the University of St Andrews, UK, who is a member of the UK SETI research network. “But they’ve done a nice job of showing the huge scale of the problem mathematically.” As well as putting SETI in context, the equation can help researchers see which search techniques have been used less than others. For example, we only developed the technology to listen for higher radio frequencies quite recently. “But we’re getting better at that, so that variable will now shrink,” says Forgan. However, advances in technology will only take us so far. Certain variables, such as how often an alien message might be repeated, cannot be changed. A signal sent once a year can only be listened out for once a year.

Cats are actually surprisingly bad at catching rats

His team has been studying a rat colony at a recycling plant in New York. When feral cats moved into the plant last year, the researchers were dismayed, but decided to set up infrared cameras to monitor the area.

IF YOU are plagued by rats, think twice about getting a cat. A prowling feline might lead to the appearance of a rat-free home, but it turns out that the rats are still there. They are just keeping a low profile.

Over five months, they saw just three attempts by cats to catch rats, only two of which succeeded. “The rat population is still thriving,” says Parsons (Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, doi.org/cvbc).

“Cats are not the natural enemy of rats,” says Michael Parsons of Fordham University, New York. “They prefer smaller prey.”

Cats have good reasons to be cautious. The common rat (Rattus norvegicus) has large incisors that can inflict a painful bite and carry lots of


Our hunt for alien life is far from over

SETI listens for messages from the stars with radio telescopes

“There are things we can do better and things we can’t,” says Forgan. “We just have to sit back and wait for the universe to do its thing.” Forgan has a book coming out that discusses 66 potential explanations for Fermi’s paradox. They include the possibility that Earth is somehow unusual in its

diseases. They also weigh 340 grams on average – compared with 25 grams for a mouse. Parsons thinks that only starving cats will attempt to tackle rats, unless the rats are sick or injured. The two rats killed during the team’s study may have been weakened by eating poisoned bait, he says. However, cats do have a big influence on rat behaviour. “Rats

“Some cat owners are convinced their pets are good ratters – but they may be mistaking mice for rats”

ability to harbour intelligent life or that technological civilisations are rare. Or perhaps they are common but short-lived. “Genetic or nuclear disasters might wipe you out,” says Forgan. Other explanations suggest that aliens may be hiding from us or perhaps live in parts of the galaxy hard to see with telescopes, such as the galactic centre with its supermassive black hole. ■

overestimate the risk posed by cats,” says Parsons. His team found that when cats are in the area, rats spend much more time in hiding and creep around cautiously. That means they are much less likely to be seen by people, which could explain why most people wrongly think cats are good at killing rats. Some cat owners may be convinced their pets are excellent ratters. But Parsons has found that many people mistake mice for rats. That said, it is possible there are a few exceptional moggies that do take on healthy, adult rats, he says. Michael Le Page ■ 6 October 2018 | NewScientist | 15


Douglas Heaven

THE internet can seem lawless. But a new technique for identifying potential cybercriminals may help police intervene before people do something illegal. Big cyberattacks, like the NotPetya ransomware that hit many countries in 2017, grab the headlines. But cybercrime is a constant problem, with many smaller attacks carried out by people with little technical knowhow using malware traded online. Alice Hutchings, Sergio Pastrana and colleagues at the University of Cambridge want to identify those who may be thinking of buying such malware and intervene. The team used natural language processing software to analyse conversations on Hackforums, a site with around 3 million users. Their system scanned 10 years of data from 250,000 users and spotted 80 individuals who later became involved in cybercrime. Given the widespread use of hacking tools among young people, the Home Office has said Big cyberattacks make headlines, but smaller attacks happen often

that it would rather intervene than prosecute where possible. To this end, Hutchings is helping to shape the UK National Crime Agency’s response to cybercrime. When the NCA first started to tackle cybercrime, it was surprised at how young many perpetrators were. “A disproportionate amount of them were not just young but ridiculously young – a lot of them were under 20,” says Greg Francis from the Prevent team at the NCA’s National Cyber Crime Unit. When individuals are identified as being likely to get involved with cybercrime, they might receive a written warning or a visit from a police officer. Some people don’t realise the implication of what they are doing, or that it is illegal. Of course, snooping on online activity comes with ethical baggage and there is only so much you can learn by tracking public conversations. “I’d be very interested what happens privately, but that creates additional ethical issues,” says Hutchings. The team presented the work at the International Symposium on Research in Attacks, Intrusions and Defenses in Greece earlier this month ■


Spot cybercrime before it happens

Second world war bombs affected edge of space SHOCK waves from Allied bombing

ionosphere during the war. They

raids between 1943 and 1945 killed

combined these results with records

millions in Germany. They were also

describing the number and size of

powerful enough to disrupt the

bombs dropped during major air raids

outermost layer of our atmosphere. This layer – the ionosphere – consists mainly of molecular nitrogen,

on Germany and occupied France

molecular oxygen and individual get detached by solar X-rays and

the bombing altered electron density. During the height of the bombing campaign, the shock waves were

ultraviolet sunlight. Electrons

temporarily lowering electron

typically rejoin oxygen ions within

concentrations by as much as 3 per

oxygen atoms from which electrons

between 1943 and 1945, which let them estimate the degree to which

minutes, so the layer reaches a stable ratio between atomic oxygen, ionic oxygen and free electrons. The impact of the sun’s radiation on the ionosphere is now well established,

“It’s interesting that human activity can have such an impact on the upper atmosphere”

but the impact of terrestrial activity from below is less well understood. To provide new insights, researchers turned to the dark days of the second world war. “This was an attempt to find quantifiable explosive phenomena that might have an impact on the ionosphere,” says Chris ALEXANDER RYUMIN\TASS VIA GETTY

Scott at the University of Reading, UK, who co-authored the study with his colleague Patrick Major. The pair looked at UK historical records, which logged the density of the ionosphere between 1933 and 1996. From this data, the pair could estimate electron densities in the 16 | NewScientist | 6 October 2018

cent. “These effects were seen 1000 kilometres away from the bombing and 300 kilometres up,” says Scott (Annales Geophysicae, doi.org/ct9p). He says shock waves deplete electron concentrations by dumping energy in the atmosphere, which causes oxygen ions and electrons to react with nitrogen and oxygen molecules. It is interesting that human activity can have such an impact on the upper reaches of the atmosphere, says Steven Cummer at Duke University in North Carolina. Andy Coghlan ■


IN BRIEF A boost for deep brain stimulation

Filter-feeding rays really are made for fine dining

University and her colleagues 3D printed a model of a segment of manta ray gill and let water carrying solid particles flow through it. Although the model had a pore

A FLUKE experiment has hinted that depression really can be treated by deep brain stimulation (DBS), a therapy that uses implanted electrodes to stimulate parts of the brain. Four people in Germany, whose depression had been kept at bay for four years by DBS, had sudden relapses. They recovered in around 12 hours when it was found that their implant batteries had gone flat and they were then replaced. One other person relapsed after he decided he didn’t need DBS anymore and switched the system off. He also recovered after reactivating it. “These cases deliver a very strong message against it being a placebo effect,” says Thomas Schlaepfer, who treated all five at the University of Freiburg’s Medical Center in Germany. His team now plans a follow-up trial in 60 people (Biological Psychiatry, doi.org/cvbp).

size of 340 micrometres, it managed to capture nearly THE puzzle of how manta rays manage to gorge on

all particles down to 150 micrometres.

minute plankton has been solved. They have a special food filtration system that makes solids ricochet back

Using a simulation, the researchers worked out how this was possible. The manta ray filter looks like a row

into their mouths when they drain seawater.

of slanted domino tiles, and it alters the trajectories of

Filter-feeders use different techniques to trap food. In fish, it usually involves gills that work as a sieve, letting

solids and liquids differently. When water hits the filter,

water through while retaining food particles larger than

the tiles. But solid particles are unable to make such

the sieve pores. It had been thought that manta rays used

a sharp turn. Instead, they ricochet back off the filter

this method, but then gut analysis found large amounts

and into the fish’s mouth. The team calls this filtration system “ricochet

of plankton smaller than the pores in their gills. To investigate this, Misty Paig-Tran at California State

it turns sharply and passes through the gaps between

separation” (Science Advances, doi.org/gd82bp).

Robo leech crawls on you to check health ROBOTS are great for exploring hard to reach places. Soon they may crawl over people’s bodies to conduct medical examinations when doctors aren’t available, for example on battlefields or in collapsed buildings. Artem Dementyev at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his colleagues want to create small helper robots that live on our skin. Their latest,

SkinBot, is a palm-sized bipedal robot with suction-cup feet inspired by cephalopods and leeches. The cups help it walk over skin: it can scale your back and pick its way through the hair on your head or groin. It has a camera microscope and sensors for detecting electrical signals from the skin. This lets it see wounds or lesions, and check the heart’s electrical activity.

The team thinks such robots will eventually give injections, carry out minor surgery or work together to arrange themselves around the heart to perform multi-electrode electrocardiograms (Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies, doi.org/cvdt). The next version of SkinBot will be made from soft materials like silicone. “I imagine a tiny robot that looks and moves like an inchworm,” says Dementyev.

Giraffe’s spot size influences survival GIRAFFES may all look identical to us. But none has exactly the same markings – and certain patterns, especially large, round patches, can boost their chances of survival before they turn 4 months old. Biologists can’t decide why giraffes evolved patches. Derek Lee at the Wild Nature Institute in North Carolina and his colleagues examined 258 wild baby Masai giraffes in Tanzania for clues to the impact of patches on the animals. They found that calves with fewer, larger spots had a 17 per cent higher chance of survival than those with more, smaller spots. They also found that those with more round spots had a 27 per cent higher survival rate than those with elliptical spots (PeerJ, DOI: 10.7717/peerj.5690). 6 October 2018 | NewScientist | 19

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

IN BRIEF Worm bots build cocoon-like tubes A SWARM of silkworm-inspired robots built dozens of spiral tubes, a test that may pave the way to using them to make bridges or buildings. Each Fiberbot is a 30-centimetretall cylinder with a thin arm sticking out from the top. To build a tube, the robot’s arm winds fibreglass thread around its body, a bit like making a cocoon. After creating an 8-centimetre-long segment, Fiberbot then crawls forward to build the next section. Neri Oxman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her

Chemical pollution may wipe out half the world’s killer whales A POLLUTANT that builds up in the blubber of killer whales could obliterate half of all known orca populations within a century, marine biologists have warned. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can disrupt reproduction, leading to dwindling birth rates. Up to 1.5 million tonnes of PCBs were manufactured globally until 1993, when they began to be phased out because of emerging evidence of harm to wildlife. They were widely used as heat-resistant fluids in electrical kit, and as stabilisers in paints,

sealants and solvents. PCBs stay in the environment for decades, becoming disproportionately concentrated in the body fat of mammals at the top of the food chain, such as orcas. Jean-Pierre Desforges of Aarhus University in Denmark led an analysis to see which of 19 orca populations were most contaminated and how this might affect their long-term reproduction. He and his colleagues measured PCB content in skin and blubber from 351 orcas. Using estimates from previous

studies in other animals of how PCB levels affect reproductive success, the researchers worked out how the orca populations would fare. They concluded that 10 of the 19 populations could be wiped out by the 2100s. Worst affected would be orcas off the UK, Brazil, Greenland and Japan, and in the Strait of Gibraltar. Desforges says the only hope for such populations is faster destruction of waste containing PCBs, 80 per cent of which still awaits safe disposal (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aat1953).

that could work as a team. They preprogrammed each with details about the length and curvature of


colleagues created 22 Fiberbots

How the male fly got its odd genitals

the products required, and installed an algorithm to prevent collisions. Over the course of 12 hours, the swarm built a selection of curved tubes with heights ranging from 2.5 to 4.1 metres. None of the Fiberbots collided (Science Robotics, doi.org/gd8z4w). Fibreglass is a light material that has been used to make hollow golf clubs, pipes and even spacecraft parts. It can bear more weight than some metals and tolerate extreme conditions, such as strong wind and temperature. However, it is bulky and hard to transport in tube form. Oxman envisions Fiberbots working in remote, or even

KAYSER ET AL., SCI. ROBOT. 3, EAAU5630 (2018)

extraterrestrial, environments.

20 | NewScientist | 6 October 2018

FEMALE flies laying their eggs in an unusual location can result in surprising knock-on effects for the shape of male fly genitals. This could explain how variants of one species become two species. Unlike most fruit flies, spottedwing drosophila (Drosophila suzukii) lay eggs in unblemished rather than rotten fruit. To do so, the females evolved a longer, serrated version of the egg-laying “ovipositor” organ. This is an obstacle for males during sex. Aya Takahashi at Tokyo Metropolitan University, Japan, and her colleagues investigated how this change affected male anatomy and mating by looking at D. suzukii and a closely related species, D. subpulchrella, by flash-freezing copulating pairs. They found D. suzukii males have anal plates with longer, thicker bristles than normal. These contact the ovipositor during copulation. As a result, females of D. subpulchrella struggle if they try to mate with D. suzukii males. This may be one explanation of how variants of one species evolve to become two species that don’t interbreed, a key question in evolutionary biology (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, doi.org/ct97).

Lasers light path to quantum gravity? POWERFUL laser beams have a detect this, it may help to explain how

into account light’s wave nature. The team’s calculations confirm that a laser beam’s gravitational force

gravity works in the quantum realm.

should exist, even if it is too small for

According to Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, anything with energy also has gravity, even if,

us to detect with current technology. If we had detectors that could spot this effect, it might help us bridge the

like light, it is massless. But most

gap between quantum mechanics

models of light’s gravity are simple.

and gravity – which are incompatible

They only take into account light’s

in current theories. Observing light’s

behaviour as a particle, not as a wave

quantum and relativistic properties

when, in fact, it is both. Now Fabienne Schneiter at the

at once may help us understand

University of Tübingen, Germany,

Dennis Rätzel at the University of

and her colleagues have devised a

Vienna in Austria (Classical and Quantum Gravity, doi.org/ct94).

gravitational field – and if we could

mathematical model that also takes

quantum gravity, says team member

Reach your ideal chemistry candidate in print, online and on social media. Visit newscientistjobs.com and connect with thousands of chemistry professionals the easy way

Contact us on 617-283-3213 or [email protected]

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.”


Crunch time in orbit IF NASA wants to send humans The talk of sabotage seems to space, it has to stay friends to be laying bare the cracks in with Roscosmos, its Russian the long-held ties between the counterpart. In turn, if Roscosmos agencies. “The suspicion and wants to keep the International distrust goes to show that it’s Space Station (ISS) running, it has not that healthy a relationship,” to stay friends with NASA. But the says Todd Harrison at the Center US-Russia relationship in space for Strategic and International has reached a critical point. Studies in Washington DC. “It On 10 October, newly appointed has endured because of shared NASA administrator Jim interest and mutual dependence.” Bridenstine and Roscosmos That is set to change. Next year, director general Dmitry Rogozin NASA has plans for home-grown will meet in person for the first rides to the ISS, with the first time. This meeting was sparked crewed launches from US soil by a drill hole found last month in “The International Space a Russian Soyuz capsule docked Station cannot function with the ISS. At present, the Soyuz without an astronaut is the only craft able to transport trained by NASA” humans to the ISS, and NASA pays Roscosmos for the privilege. Following the hole’s discovery, since the end of the space shuttle many Russian media outlets programme in 2011. have reported suspicions that The US had never intended to a US astronaut sabotaged the rely on Russia for so long. In 2014, Soyuz. Supposedly, this would NASA tasked Boeing and SpaceX force an emergency return trip with building crew capsules to fly to Earth for the crew that the on the firms’ own rockets to the US wouldn’t have to pay for. ISS. At the time, SpaceX’s Crew Both Rogozin and NASA Dragon was meant to have its astronaut Drew Feustel, the first crewed flight before the end current ISS commander, have of 2016, while Boeing’s Starliner strongly denied the rumours, but capsule was to launch in 2017. the Russian media has quoted But these ambitious projects Roscosmos insiders saying have been plagued by setbacks. otherwise, fuelling the fire. According to a January report

from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), the firms have announced delays in at least half their quarterly status reviews since 2014. SpaceX’s first uncrewed test flight is now slated for November, and Boeing’s is due to take place sometime in late 2018 or early 2019. Crewed flights are planned for mid-2019. Any additional delays could be a major problem because NASA has only bought Soyuz rides to the ISS until early 2020. But, in theory, the likelihood of further major delays should be falling because many parts have been built and tested, says Jonathan McDowell at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts. It also helps that two horses are in the running.“The decision that NASA made to fund two separate programmes is incredibly sensible and clearly the right thing to have done, and that’s becoming even more clear now,” says McDowell. Nevertheless, a GAO report in June found that schedules are still likely to slip and that “there may be a gap in access to the ISS” if there are any more delays. SpaceX may be particularly at risk of missing deadlines, given the company’s many competing

The US and Russia have a long-running relationship in space, but is it nearing the end? July 1975 First joint US-Soviet space light


March 1995 First US astronaut on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft


November 2000

July 2011


First resident crew on the ISS

Last shuttle launch

First crewed Boeing launch planned





February 1993

November 1998

May 2011

April 2019


First Russian cosmonaut on a US space shuttle mission

First International Space Station module launched

ISS completed

First crewed SpaceX launch scheduled

Possible de-orbit of the ISS

24 | NewScientist | 6 October 2018


Talk of sabotage on the International Space Station has exposed cracks in US-Russia space ties, says Leah Crane

endeavours. Last month, CEO Elon Musk announced a deal to send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa on a jaunt around the moon using its huge Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), which is currently being developed. Musk has said he wants BFR to replace both the firm’s Falcon 9 rocket, which is planned to carry the SpaceX crew capsule, and the larger Falcon Heavy, which only launched for the first time this year. The divided attention at SpaceX is cause for concern in NASA and the US Department of Defense, which hires the firm for many of its satellite launches, says John Logsdon at George Washington University in Washington DC. “It’s hard to plan the future use of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy when Elon says they’re going to be replaced by BFR,” he says. If delays mean NASA runs out of pre-purchased seats before the US-made capsules are ready, it isn’t clear that US astronauts will be able to continue visiting the ISS.

For daily news stories, visit newscientist.com/news

The last, and perhaps most likely, option is for NASA to buy more Soyuz seats. Roscosmos didn’t respond to New Scientist’s request for comment on what the agency would do should NASA make such a request. Previously, NASA had to book its tickets three years in advance, at a cost of nearly $82 million per seat. With all the spots on Soyuz trips after 2020 having

“If the US had to launch next month with a human, it could probably cobble something together”

At the same time, the ISS cannot function without the expertise of at least one astronaut trained by NASA in Houston, says McDowell. That doesn’t have to be a NASA astronaut: European, Canadian and Japanese crew also receive this training. But Russian cosmonauts aren’t qualified to operate the non-Russian parts of the ISS and, if left without maintenance for long enough, they will start to break down.

End of an era? Even without this issue, a loss of US access to the ISS could result in some far-reaching political decisions being taken. “If there are no Americans on the space station, then I think at some point the US government has to make the decision of whether they pull the plug,” says Harrison. “At that point, I don’t think the Europeans or the Russians could take over, so we’d have to de-orbit the station.” Current US budgets include

plans to fund the ISS until 2024, so there has already been talk of de-orbiting it then, but we don’t yet know how to bring the space station back to Earth safely. As such, being forced into an earlier de-orbit would probably be both costly and dangerous. If there is a delay in getting Boeing and SpaceX’s capsules flying, but it doesn’t look like it will be too long, NASA might just extend astronauts’ ISS stays to keep the US side of the station running. Normal missions last six months, but the agency has already experimented with a yearlong stay. “You’re going to want to take a lot of extra sandwiches with you because you might be up there for a while,” says McDowell. Or, with a deadline looming, NASA could just try to hurry things up. “That sort of situation would certainly light a fire under SpaceX and Boeing,” says Laura Grego at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Massachusetts. But certifying new spacecraft for

Astronaut Paul W. Richards in 2001 during work to build the ISS

human use is a difficult and vital task. “That’s not a process you want to rush,” she says. The idea isn’t unheard of. In 2017, NASA studied the possibility of sending humans on the first flight of its Space Launch System rocket, which is designed to eventually carry out deep-space missions to the moon and beyond. The study concluded that an accelerated timeline wouldn’t be worth the added cost and risk. “If we had to launch next month with a human, we could probably cobble something together in time, but it would be neither safe nor comfortable,” says Matthew Hersch at Harvard University. NASA is risk-averse, so a hurried first commercial flight would be heavily scrutinised. “Crew safety is our priority, so we won’t rush anything,” says a NASA spokesperson.

already been doled out to Russian cosmonauts, Roscosmos would have to put some of its space exploration plans aside for the benefit of NASA. That makes it likely that any additional seats on a Soyuz capsule would come at a much higher cost than before. Yet if all goes well for NASA, it could be a critical blow to the Russian space-flight industry. “Not having as many Soyuz launches to the station will hit their space sector pretty hard,” says Harrison. “They’re losing a critical source of cash.” The Roscosmos budget for 2016 to 2025 is about $20.5 billion. Meanwhile, NASA’s budget for 2017 alone was about $19 billion. NASA typically bought about four Soyuz seats a year, paying Roscosmos hundreds of millions of dollars. That is one reason for Roscosmos to continue providing NASA with seats if there are any delays, says Logsdon. Ultimately, if the US stops relying on Russia for access to space, the erosion of trust and NASA’s bigger budget is likely to bring a permanent shift. “In the next decade, I think the US-Russia relationship will change from Russia being the critical partner in human space flight to Russia being one of many partners,” says Logsdon. “I don’t think the US will get itself in this sort of dependent position again.” ■ 6 October 2018 | NewScientist | 25


Watching the watchers We challenged MI5’s secret programme of mass surveillance. Then they spied on us, says Edin Omanovic LAST week, staff at Privacy International discovered that the UK intelligence agencies we have been challenging in court for years have at the same time been snooping on our data. As a human rights charity aiming to hold these very agencies to account, this is genuinely chilling. This came to light during a case before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, the court set up to hear complaints against the UK government’s intelligence services. Launched in 2015, our case revolves around the collection, use and retention of data on millions of people, the vast majority of whom are under no suspicion of committing a crime. The data collected includes travel movements, financial records and the metadata of telephone and internet use. The court, which is allowed to hear evidence from the agencies

in secret, has twice ruled that the agencies’ access to these databases has been unlawful. In 2016, it found that because the existence of these databases had not been revealed to Parliament or the public, they were “not in accordance with the law”. Earlier this year, it also ruled that a decade’s worth of secret data capture has been unlawful, because successive foreign secretaries let the intelligence agencies decide what data they could acquire from telecommunications companies. In the latest hearing, we learned that not only has data relating to Privacy International been unlawfully swept up by all three of the UK’s primary intelligence agencies – GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 – but MI5 also unlawfully captured and read Privacy International’s private data as part of an active investigation.

Balance the equation The idea that women can’t do physics has no place in 2018, says Jess Wade I SPOKE at a workshop on gender and high energy physics at the CERN particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, last week. I was talking about the UK’s gender equality programmes in physics. I am proud to be involved in the schemes, such as those run by my university, Imperial College London, which is committed to 26 | NewScientist | 6 October 2018

given the opportunity to present their exciting work at CERN, a world-renowned institution. Even for a non-high-energy physicist (I work in experimental solid state physics), this was a big honour. Throughout the day, there were opportunities to discuss the challenges that these young scientists might face throughout their career because of their gender – a ridiculous but unfortunate reality even in 2018. Sadly, the event was

improving equality and diversity. I knew that I would face people who appreciate data and evidence, and put together a talk showing the rationale behind certain initiatives and their impact. The organisers had worked hard “Young women in physics may face challenges to make this a great conference: it was full of early career researchers throughout their career working in string theory who were because of their gender”

overshadowed by a talk given by Alessandro Strumia at the University of Pisa, Italy, a longstanding member of the CERN collaboration. He was meant to present a historical look at women in academic publishing. Instead, he insulted the coordinators of the meeting, the audience of young women and female scientists all over the world. In a nutshell, he claimed that women weren’t as good at physics, were promoted too early and received disproportionate funding. Unlike my talk, backed by evidence, he cited a bunch of poorly thought out gender science from right-wing thinkers. These

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Edin Omanovic is head of the state surveillance programme at Privacy International

included James Damore, who was fired from Google last year for holding similar views. What is especially awful is the number of people who say his opinions are common within the string theory community. We shouldn’t be putting up with this. His remarks were offensive and damaging. When people in positions of power spread such ideas, they teach the next generation such behaviour is OK. Obviously, it isn’t. ■ Jess Wade is a physicist in the department of physics and Centre for Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London

ANALYSIS Screen time


Why MI5, which protects UK national security, has been spying on a human rights organisation remains unknown, and is now a matter for the UK government to explain. It must also clarify what changes it will make to the UK’s legal framework to ensure its intelligence agencies aren’t able to unlawfully spy on charities working in the public interest. Some believe that technological protections – such as the use of encrypted communications – are the only way to defend privacy in the age of mass government surveillance. But these are hardly a panacea, offering imperfect solutions while giving acquiescence to unjust laws. The solution lies in a combination of better legal checks and balances as well as privacy-enhancing technology. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. What drives both solutions is public pressure: people can only exercise their rights if they are informed. Spying on the very organisations that are committed to exposing secret, unlawful surveillance only further demonstrates the importance of such work. ■

Can too much screen time harm children? Andy Coghlan

who met none of the guidelines. The gain was even higher, at 5.2 per cent, for those meeting both the screentime and sleep recommendations (The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, doi.org/ct95). So, armed with these results, should parents be clamping down on screen use? Walsh himself says the findings are provisional. “All these results need to be tempered by the fact it was only a snapshot of children at one point in time,” he says. The US study is running for a further 10 years,

IT SEEMS intuitive that children’s schoolwork will dip if they spend too much time gazing at their phones instead of getting to bed or getting some exercise. And that is broadly what a study published this week has found. But is it the final word, and should parents be panicked into pulling the plug on their kids’ devices? Researchers in Canada analysed lifestyle data from questionnaires taken by 4520 US children aged 8 to 11. The children also performed “Screen time before bed a variety of standard cognition tests. is twice as bad because it Jeremy Walsh at the Children’s keeps kids up later, and Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research light impairs sleep” Institute in Ottawa, Canada, and his colleagues evaluated how well the children met various Canadian and will enable Walsh and others to government guidelines. These track whether the children change suggest limiting screen time to their behaviour over time. 2 hours a day, sleeping for 9 to 11 “We can’t be definitive about hours a night and spending at least directionality, that the extra an hour being physically active. screen time is depleting cognitive More than a third – 1655 children – performance,” says Eduardo Esteban met the guideline for limiting screen Bustamante at the University of time, and their average performance Illinois in Chicago. “It’s a 10-year in the cognitive tests was 4.5 per cent longitudinal study, and so something to keep an eye on.” higher than that of the 1330 children

Another limitation is that the survey didn’t reveal what the children were doing on their screens, which could be educational or trivial. “The study is limited by treating all screen time as equal,” says Heather Kirkorian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “To truly understand the impact of digital media on children, researchers must understand not only how much, but also how, what, where and with whom they’re watching.” It is also unclear whether the questionnaires can produce accurate data. “The 8 to 11-year-old children reported their own screen and physical activity behaviour, and many may have struggled to do this accurately,” says Kirsten Corder at the University of Cambridge. “Data like these are likely to have different types of error which can make it harder to be certain about the results.” However reliable the results – which will become stronger with each year’s new data – researchers agreed that parents should try to set some limits on screen time, especially when bedtime approaches. “Screen time before bed is doubly problematic because it keeps kids up later, and exposure to light impairs sleep quality,” says Bustamante. Walsh has similar feelings: “We show that excessive screen time before bed has a negative impact on sleep, which is important for development of cognition and the brain generally,” he says. ■ 6 October 2018 | NewScientist | 27


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Great wall of science WE GAVE illustrator Josie Ford of Studio Jojo a 10-metre-long blank wall and asked her to fill it with the essence of our festival of science and technology, New Scientist Live. An almost impossible task, we thought, given that we had 120 speakers over six stages on four days, covering everything from space-time wormholes to altered forms of consciousness. But Ford was more than up to the task. Here we have captured just part of her canvas. As she attended talks over the weekend, she made notes on the speakers’ big ideas and her favourite facts, before heading back to the wall to add her interpretation of the content. Below she has sketched her method: listen, take notes, visualise content, build a story. “Scribing is a brilliant tool to capture content live, breaking down complex information into something tangible, and visually engaging,” she says.

Rowan Hooper

Artist Josie Ford Studio Jojo

The main image focuses on a small section of the 10-metre-long artwork

6 October 2018 | NewScientist | 29


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The wrong number A strange result from the edge of the universe is messing up our tidy laws of nature, says Michael Brooks


T IS a well-kept secret, but we know the answer to life, the universe and everything. It’s not 42 – it’s 1/137. This immutable number determines how stars burn, how chemistry happens and even whether atoms exist at all. Physicist Richard Feynman, who knew a thing or two about it, called it “one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding”. Now its mystery is deepening. Controversial hints suggest this number might not be the universal constant we had assumed, instead varying subtly over time and space. If confirmed, that would have profound consequences for our understanding of physics, forcing us to reconsider basic assumptions about the structure of reality. While arguments about the true significance of the findings rage, experiments looking both deep into the cosmos and at the fine-grained structure of reality in the lab are now set to deliver a definitive verdict – perhaps. The idea that constants of nature – things like the speed of light, strength of forces and the masses of various particles – might not be so constant has an illustrious history. In 1937, physicist Paul Dirac wrote to the journal Nature, questioning astronomer Arthur Eddington’s attempts to calculate the constants from scratch. How could we be sure they haven’t changed over cosmological time? The fine structure constant, also known as alpha, is a case in point. Alpha lies at the centre of a theory Dirac initiated and Feynman worked on: quantum electrodynamics, or QED. This is

the quantum theory of the electromagnetic force, and describes the interactions between light and matter. Alpha determines their strength. It is itself constructed from the speed of light, the electron’s charge, pi – few physical theories are complete without pi – and a couple of other fundamental constants, carefully arranged so that it is just a pure number, independent of human influence: 0.00729735, just a whisker away from 1/137. Change this number by a smidgen, and you change the universe. Increase it too much, and protons repel each other so strongly that small atomic nuclei can’t hold together. Go a bit further and nuclear fusion factories within stars grind to a halt and can no longer produce carbon, the element on which life is based. Make alpha much smaller, and molecular bonds fall apart at lower temperatures, altering many processes essential to life. On Earth, at least, alpha keeps itself within strict bounds. Lab experiments show that the most it could vary by in our neck of the woods is a few parts per 10 billion. That makes it 100,000 times more accurately pinned down than “big G”, the constant that determines gravity’s strength, for example. But as Dirac had hinted, perhaps electromagnetic interactions were weaker or stronger in the past, or are different in distant parts of the universe. That could be important at a time when physicists seem to have reached an impasse in their efforts to unveil deeper truths about reality. “We have a basic set of equations that is half a century old and has never been contradicted by any >

A FISTFUL OF CONSTANTS A large bugbear of physicists is the way our theories of nature require us to inject a set of arbitrary numbers to make them reflect reality. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for these numbers: they are just there, and we must measure them in experiments. • The standard model of particle physics requires at least 19 such numbers, including the fine structure constant, also known as alpha (see main story), the mass of the Higgs boson, and a bevy of others characterising particle masses and interaction strengths. • To reproduce physics in general, you must add in the gravitational constant (aka “big G”), the speed of light and the Planck constant, which gives the basic size of quantum things. • The standard cosmological model requires another 12 parameters, including the Hubble constant, which describes the universe’s expansion rate, and factors to do with dark matter and dark energy densities.

6 October 2018 | NewScientist | 31

CHANGE ON THE GROUND Controversial as it is, John Webb’s pioneering work on variations in the constant alpha (see main story) has brought into the mainstream the idea that the universal laws of nature might not be constant, but vary in space and time. In June this year, Charles Clark at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology and his colleagues laid out a scheme of lab experiments that could look for changes in physics constants. One is simply to synchronise two atomic clocks and watch to see if that synchronisation drifts over time. The experiments could provide a gold standard against which any future claims of variations could be compared, and provide clues to help physicists go beyond the standard model of particle physics, our current most coherent description of how the universe works. “We know that the standard model has to fail somewhere,” says Clark. “Variations would be inconsistent with

prevailing theories of physics.” Earlier this year the experiments provided the most accurate measurement of alpha on Earth yet. Holger Müller and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, watched interactions between photons and caesium atoms to pin alpha’s value down to better than one part in a billion. That is close to ruling out certain suggestions for poststandard-model physics. And there is more to come. “We are building a new experiment and believe we can gain an order of magnitude in the next few years,” says Müller. But Webb thinks terrestrial experiments are barking up the wrong tree. Any changes in alpha are probably only detectable over cosmological time scales, he says. “It could be, for example, that changes were rapid in the early universe, but today there is little or no change,” says Webb. “If that’s the case, groundbased experiments will never detect a change, no matter how precise.”

measurement,” says Carlo Rovelli at the University of Aix-Marseille in France. “If we found a measurement that differs from this, it would be a big deal: finally something really new.” Paolo Molaro, who researches variations in constants at the Astronomical Observatory of Trieste, Italy, agrees. “If variations are present, they would reveal new physics,” he says. That could include the presence of extra dimensions, for example. String theory, one well-backed bet for a next-generation theory of physics, proposes the existence of tiny, curled-up dimensions we can’t see. That has effects on things like alpha. “The status of the quantities we call constants is somewhat downgraded if you believe there are extra dimensions,” says cosmologist John Barrow at the University of Cambridge. “If there are really nine or 10 dimensions of space, with only three large, then the true unchanging constants of nature live in the total number of dimensions and the three-dimensional shadows that we observe are not true constants.” For physicist John Webb, the possibility of a varying alpha became a matter of nearobsession two decades ago. In 1996, he was a young researcher from Australia visiting 32 | NewScientist | 6 October 2018

Barrow, then at the University of Sussex, UK. The two fell to discussing Dirac’s musings on inconstant constants. Webb wondered whether light collected by some of our most powerful telescopes might settle the question.

Getting a toehold Some of this light has been travelling for a very, very long time. The Keck telescopes atop Mauna Kea, the highest point of Hawaii, can pick up light emitted by extremely luminous galaxy cores, or quasars, around 12 billion years ago. On its journey to Earth, some of this light has passed through clouds of gas that absorb certain wavelengths. This gives a crucial toehold on alpha. “If you change alpha, you’re changing the degree of attraction between the electron and the nucleus,” says Webb. This changes the wavelengths absorbed by a given atom – meaning the absorption spectrum creates a kind of barcode unique to the value of alpha when the spectrum was created. With colleagues from the University of New South Wales, Webb developed a new method for analysing these complex absorption spectra, and applied it to Keck quasar data.

By 1998, he and his collaborators, including Barrow, had their first results: between 12 and 6 billion years ago, alpha had increased by an average of six parts in a million. It wasn’t enough to significantly affect physics at that time. But it was a change. This was a sensational result, and very few people believed it – perhaps for good reason. “The search for varying alpha evidence is technically very difficult,” says Barrow. There were only 23 spectra in the analysis and they all came from the Keck telescope, raising the possibility that a systematic error in the apparatus might be skewing the data. It was the start of a long-running game of cat and mouse. Webb and a changing group of collaborators would publish a fresh analysis showing a variation using new or different data, and some other group would refute the result. Each time, Webb’s team refuted the refutations, while working to find sources of systematic error for themselves. In the meantime, they also gained access to data from another telescope, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) high in the Chilean Andes. Their latest claim about alpha is that it changes gradually and approximately linearly with distance from Earth. “If we travel a distance corresponding to the distance light has travelled since the big bang, we find ourselves in a part of the universe where physics is just starting to be noticeably different,” says Webb. The universe has been expanding since the big bang, however, so the cosmos extends even further than that. The linear progression suggests that in these invisible regions, alpha could vary enough


The sharp eye of the Very Large Telescope in Chile may have seen shifting constants

that the universe itself will start to look very different. “It may be so different there that life as we know it can’t possibly exist,” says Webb. He admits that this is still highly speculative. The margins of error on the data are big, and the variation might go away with better measurements. Michael Murphy of Swinburne University in Australia certainly thinks it will. Murphy has worked on alpha for years, and Webb was his PhD supervisor. Other than Webb, no one knows the hardware, data or analysis techniques better. In 2014, Murphy claimed to have finally found an error that quashed claims of variable alpha. He and Swinburne colleague Jonathan Whitmore realised that light from the lamp used for calibrating their analysis instrument didn’t go through the same twists and turns as cosmic light. When they recalibrated the instrument with light from nearby astronomical bodies such as the sun, sun-like stars or light-reflecting asteroids, it changed the results. “We find it screws up the spectra, shifting some lines towards other lines, and others away from other lines depending on where you are in the spectrum,” says Murphy. That is just enough to create the illusion of a varying alpha. In 2017, working with Vincent Dumont of the University of California, Berkeley, Webb refuted this. The data analysis is flawed, the pair claim, and applies only to a subset of the results derived from the VLT, not the original results from Keck. Murphy concedes this point, but says his confidence in these results is “undermined”.

He isn’t walking away, however. “We still don’t understand fundamental constants: that motivation has not changed,” he says. “We ought to be trying to measure these things as best we can, and wherever we can. We just have to do things differently – and better – in the future.” That is already happening. New experiments aim to measure alpha to greater precision in the lab than ever before (see “Change on the ground”, left). Meanwhile, in November, a new instrument on the VLT will come online, the Echelle Spectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observation, or ESPRESSO. In Murphy’s estimation it is a

“It may be so different in bits of the universe that life as we know it can’t exist” dream machine for measuring quasar spectra. “It’s a super-duper ultra-stable spectrograph that will nail this question,” he says. Not that operating ESPRESSO will be plain sailing, says Francesco Pepe, the instrument’s principal investigator – they will first have to calibrate it and generally get to grips with it. “Our feeling is that by the end of 2019 we will be able to confirm or rule out present claims of variability of the fine structure constant [alpha] at the level of few parts per million,” he says. ESPRESSO should be able to search for variations over the last 10 billion years – maybe more – and probe the whole observable universe. “I think the prospects for significant

progress are now really good,” says Barrow. Webb, meanwhile, is going blind, scientifically speaking. Coming up with a value of alpha from quasar spectra involves subjective decision-making about which parts of the spectra to include. Sometimes it is tempting to ignore regions of the spectrum that aren’t “interesting” because they have too few absorption lines, but these simplifications could skew the results. To avoid this, Webb and student Matthew Bainbridge have created a machine-learning algorithm that takes a thorough, objective look at the raw data. “We’ve changed all the manual decisionmaking and thrown the problem at an array of supercomputers,” says Webb. He will only look at the results once the machine has crunched 1000 measurements, a “sealed envelope” that removes the temptation to downplay individual measurements that don’t fit the hypothesis. There are around 500 measurements currently in the bag, and the work should be completed around the same time as the ESPRESSO analysis, says Webb. Then, whatever the outcome, he will walk away. “Time goes on, and there are other things you want to do in life,” says Webb. “I’ll work on this until the end of 2020, see what the results are, and let somebody else take over.” He doesn’t think the question of the inconstant constants will be settled, even then. “It started with Dirac in 1937; it’s not going to suddenly end in 2020,” he says. “But it can become somebody else’s concern.” ■ Michael Brooks is a consultant for New Scientist 6 October 2018 | NewScientist | 33

THE DRUGS WORK As antidepressant use continues to soar, debate still rages about whether they do any good. Clare Wilson weighs the evidence

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“ T WAS a year of very bad things,” says Suzy Barber, who lives in London. In 2006, her brother took his own life and a close friend died from cancer. Barber lost her job as a journalist and her freelance work gradually dwindled. With not enough to occupy her, she dwelt on tiny problems. “Everything seemed so monumental,” she says. Barber became mired in despair and self-loathing. “You can’t motivate yourself to do anything, so you’re unproductive. That manifests in you hating yourself more. You feel like you’re constantly teetering on the edge of a massive drop.” Eventually, Barber accepted her doctor’s advice and started on antidepressants. Within six weeks, she was on the road to recovery. Counselling helped, but “the pills kicked in”, she says. “Maybe they saved my life.” Global antidepressant use is soaring. Stories such as Barber’s make a compelling case that the drugs can be helpful. Yet it seems barely a month goes by without them being dismissed in the media as “happy pills” that get people “hooked” or turn them into zombies. Experts, meanwhile, disagree over whether the drugs genuinely have the biochemical effects claimed for them and debate rages about side effects, withdrawal symptoms and the possibility of addiction. So what should we believe – and who, if anyone, should be taking these pills? Depression is often seen as a modern malaise, but it has always been with us, just under different names: melancholia, nervous breakdown or sometimes just “nerves”. For a long time, doctors could do little to help, but by the 1950s, the first medicines emerged. Prime among them were so-called tricyclic antidepressants. They were less than ideal, causing side effects such as weight gain and drowsiness. Giving them to people at suicide risk was itself a risk, as it didn’t take many pills to cause a fatal overdose. They were generally reserved for the most severe cases. Things changed with the launch of Prozac in 1988. It was the first of a class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that are said to work by boosting levels of a brain-signalling molecule called serotonin. Prozac was safer than its

predecessors, less likely to cause side effects, and had to be taken just once a day. Sales quickly took off. In 1990, the pale green and white capsules made the cover of Newsweek. In his 1993 book Listening to Prozac, psychiatrist Peter Kramer even said they made his patients feel “better than normal”. With Prozac’s success, other firms raced to develop more SSRIs, as well as drugs known as SNRIs that boost noradrenaline, another brain chemical. The number of conditions they were used for grew to include anxiety, panic attacks and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Today, around 40 antidepressants are available, and they are among the most commonly prescribed drugs in many Western countries. Between 2000 and 2015, prescriptions increased in all 29 countries surveyed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, on average doubling. According to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), in 2015-2016, by some measures, as many as one in 10 adults in England were prescribed the drugs. The National Center for Health Statistics cites similar figures in the US. For some, the rise in antidepressant use is a welcome sign that the stigma surrounding mental health problems is in decline and

WHAT IS CLINICAL DEPRESSION? Ups and downs are a part of normal life, so when does sadness become an illness? Doctors define depression as persistent low mood, plus feelings of doubt and self-loathing, lasting for more than two weeks. “People lack energy all of the time and can’t enjoy the things they used to,” says Nick Stafford of the Midlands Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, UK. These psychological symptoms are often coupled with physical ones such as changes in appetite or trouble sleeping. It is common for people to wake up early in the morning with miserable thoughts whirling around in their mind, says Stafford.

more people are prepared to seek medical help. But not everyone accepts this narrative. For a start, there have long been holes in the “chemical imbalance” theory, the idea that SSRIs work by fixing a lack of serotonin. The drugs do raise serotonin levels in the junctions between brain cells, but there is no consistent evidence that people with depression have less serotonin than others. There is even less evidence that SNRIs work by correcting an imbalance of noradrenaline.

Mysterious mechanism That does not mean the drugs don’t work. Even most sceptics agree that antidepressants have psychological effects. These vary from person to person, but many describe a slight dampening of their emotions – a feeling of being chilled out. “It was just enough to take the edge away,” says Barber, who was prescribed an SSRI called citalopram. “That was what I needed at the time: everything to be a little bit flatter.” Yet strangely, although the flattening happens quickly, within days or sometimes even hours of the first dose, depression itself usually does not abate until several weeks later, as if it takes time for people to relearn their old ways. One alternative explanation for how antidepressants work is that they boost the growth of new brain cells, which takes weeks. On top of their mysterious mechanism, there is also controversy about just how many people benefit from antidepressants. That stems from work by Irving Kirsch, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, beginning in the 1990s. He says he initially had nothing against antidepressants and sometimes recommended them to his psychotherapy clients. Kirsch was studying the placebo effect, the mysterious improvement in some cases of illness, apparently by the power of mind over matter, after people take medicines known not to work. Antidepressants had been known for decades to show a much bigger placebo effect than other commonly prescribed medicines such as antibiotics – a case of mind over mind. When Kirsch and his colleagues > 6 October 2018 | NewScientist | 35

OTHER WAYS TO TREAT DEPRESSION For mild or moderate depression, UK, pulled together results from many different Australian and New Zealand guidelines trials that compared antidepressants with among others recommend talking placebo tablets, they found that about a therapies such as cognitive behavioural third of people taking placebo pills showed a significant improvement. This was as expected. therapy. Lifestyle changes can also help, including cutting down on alcohol, Aside from the classic placebo response, establishing regular sleep patterns and it could have been due to things such as the being physically more active. “There’s extra time spent talking to doctors as part a lack of public understanding of the of the trial, or just spontaneous recoveries. positive impact of good physical What was surprising was how people on exercise,” says Nick Stafford of Midlands antidepressants were only a little more likely Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, UK. to get better than those on the placebos. Hard For people with severe depression, as it is to swallow, this suggests that when the last resort is electroconvulsive people like Barber feel better after starting therapy: subjecting the brain to electric medication, it is not necessarily down to the shocks under anaesthesia. This is pills’ biochemical effects on the brain. thought to be quite effective, but often Kirsch’s results caused uproar. “It’s been causes memory loss. very controversial,” he says. They have since New medicines based on ketamine been reproduced in several other analyses, by may become available in the next his group and others. As a result, some clinical few years. Although developed as guidelines now recommend medication only an anaesthetic and snorted as a for those with severe depression, where recreational drug, doctors have found meta-analyses suggest a bigger benefit. For that a single injection can alleviate mild to moderate depression, UK doctors were severe depression, with benefits lasting told in 2009 to offer talking therapies to begin for many months. with (see “Other ways to treat depression”, right). But these are no panacea, and the wait for the side effects. Although generally less counters John Ioannidis of Stanford for such treatment on the NHS can be many unpleasant than those caused by older months. In practice, pills are often still the first University in California, one of those who antidepressants, the unwanted effects of carried out the Lancet analysis. “You can see resort in the UK and many other places. newer pills such as Prozac include insomnia, that as the glass is half empty or half full.” A recent development suggested that the And the average effect hides great variation agitation and loss of libido. They can also criticisms of antidepressants were misplaced in responses, says James Warner, a psychiatrist trigger more alarming reactions, such as after all. In April, The Lancet published the biggest analysis to date, led by psychiatrist at Imperial College London. “Looking at mean violent or suicidal impulses, but this is Andrea Cipriani at the University of Oxford. It responses irons out those that don’t respond thought to be rare. Even David Healy, covered 21 of the commonest antidepressants a psychiatrist at the Hergest Unit in Bangor, at all and those that respond quite well.” and encompassed more than 500 UK, who helped to publicise these effects, As with all medicines, potential benefits international trials, both published and still recommends the drugs to patients who must be weighed against risks. The great unpublished, with over 100,000 participants. variation in people’s response is also true are severely anxious or who have responded For each drug, people were more likely to benefit from antidepressants than dummy pills. The size of the effect varied, but most medicines were about 50 per cent more likely The advent of drugs such as Prozac has seen antidepressant use rise rapidly in many countries. In England, their use has doubled in a decade to produce a response than placebos. The results were widely reported as “putting Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) including Prozac Tricyclic and related drugs Others to bed” the controversy. Far from it. Kirsch, for 35 instance, says the authors used a misleading 30 measure of the drugs’ efficacy. Depression is usually assessed using a questionnaire that 25 gives a number on the Hamilton Depression 20 Scale between 0 and 52, rising with severity. The antidepressants did indeed increase 15 people’s chance of a positive response. Yet Kirsch points out that those who took the drugs 10 showed an average reduction on the Hamilton 5 scale that was only about two points greater than that of those taking the placebo tablets. 0 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 2016 “It’s an extremely small effect size,” he says. But at least there is a measurable effect, Total 31.0 million Total 64.7 million 36 | NewScientist | 6 October 2018


Numbers of items prescribed (millions)

On the up



The world’s most-prescribed antidepressant has even inspired art installations

well to the medicines in past depressive episodes. “People need to realise they come with risks,” he says. “But they can be useful.” Many doctors think that antidepressants are worth a try, and they can always be stopped if side effects get too bad. “Every clinician will balance the risk-benefit equation and discuss that with the patient,” says Warner. But it might not be that simple. Some antidepressant users report reactions on stopping the medication, including anxiety, insomnia and sudden bouts of dizziness,

lasting for months. It’s not known what might be causing these “withdrawal symptoms”, but animals given SSRIs for an extended period respond by reducing the number of serotonin receptors in their brain, thus keeping serotonin levels constant. Plausibly, when people stop taking SSRIs, serotonin signalling falls too low, triggering the symptoms. The general advice is to reduce antidepressant dose slowly. But many doctors don’t know just how gradually to do it and some antidepressants are not available in small enough doses to allow this, says James Moore, who started a campaign called Let’s Talk Withdrawal to help those like him who have been affected. Moore says many people contacting his website have experienced what seem to be classic withdrawal symptoms and yet were apparently told that this must be a return of their original condition. After the Lancet meta-analysis came out, Wendy Burn, the president of the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists, wrote a letter to The Times newspaper to defend antidepressants. She wrote that for most people, withdrawal symptoms last no more than two weeks. This has inflamed critics. “By stating that withdrawal isn’t a problem, they may have been responsible for encouraging more people to expose themselves to unnecessary harm,” says Sami Timimi, a psychiatrist in Lincoln, UK. Along with 29 others, Timimi wrote to the college’s complaints committee to say that the letter contradicted a survey of more than 800 people conducted by the college itself. This found that withdrawal symptoms generally last for up to six weeks and that a quarter of people have anxiety lasting more than three months. The college responded >

Old and depressed 900








Age group

+ 90

to 13 12 to 18 17 to 25 24 to 30 29 to 35 34 to 40 39 to 45 44 to 50 49 to 55 54 to 60 59 to 65 64 to 70 69 to 75 74 to 80 79 to 85 84 to 89


People taking antidepressants within each age group (%)

Estimated number taking at least one antidepressant (thousands)

Although absolute consumption of antidepressants in England peaks in middle age, a greater proportion of the very old are prescribed them

It isn’t often that psychiatrists, therapists, doctors, researchers and patients agree. But in June, a coalition of professional bodies and mental health charities put out a joint statement calling on the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) to rewrite its draft guidance for treating depression. The current advice was published in 2009, and the latest draft wouldn’t change the status quo on recommended treatments: mainly drugs and cognitive behavioural therapy, including online or over the phone. But coalition members contend that the guidance is flawed.

DISCOUNTED EVIDENCE For a start, instead of referring to mild, moderate and severe depression, NICE proposes new categories, including less severe depression and more severe depression. These don’t match clinicians’ or patients’ experiences, says Felicitas Rost, president of the UK Society for Psychotherapy Research and leader of the coalition. “No one else has come up with these distinctions. This system is not reliable, has not been validated by the research community and will be completely out of step with American and European guidelines,” she says. But the coalition’s biggest criticism is for NICE’s approach to evidence. It only considers randomised controlled trials, the “gold standard” of medical evidence in which one group of participants is given an active ingredient and another group a placebo, so any changes can be attributed to the active ingredient. This approach works for antidepressants, even if the degree to which it shows significant benefit from the drugs is disputed (see main story). But it doesn’t work for psychotherapy. “If one therapist has five patients, the relationship with each of them is different, whereas the antidepressant doesn’t change,” says Rost. She argues that other lines of evidence must be used when assessing psychological therapies. These include recovery rates from depression for those already receiving treatment, which is routinely collected by mental health teams > 6 October 2018 | NewScientist | 37

East London, and a signatory to the complaint that the survey results could be misleading letter. Read has published a survey of more as participants were self-selecting and people than 1800 current or former antidepressant might be more likely to take part if they have users from New Zealand. About a quarter felt had bad experiences. It has taken down the their medication was addictive. results from its website. An inquiry by Public Health England into The truth is we don’t know how common dependence on prescription drugs, due to long-lasting withdrawal symptoms are. The trials conducted by drug manufacturers to get report early next year, may shed light on the guidelines for treating physical their medicines on the market are designed to issue. The review will include medicines conditions, no research into the widely accepted as addictive, such as opioid investigate effectiveness and side effects that longer-term impact of treatments for painkillers, as well as antidepressants – to the arise in the course of treatment, not what depression is included in the latest displeasure of some psychiatrists. Meanwhile, happens afterwards. proposal. UK National Health Service also in the UK, trouble is brewing over the Not everyone experiences withdrawal bodies are required by law to give equal evidence used to assess the effectiveness of symptoms. Barber didn’t, for instance. priority to mental and physical health. drugs and other treatments for depression Another user, Tom, whose work problems But whereas the guidance on treating (see “Flawed evidence?”, page 36). led to depression and anxiety, experienced epilepsy, for example, includes data With the science so unsettled, nightmares and dizziness for a month after that was gathered up to 10 years after antidepressants will continue to be one of he stopped taking the drugs – yet he feels treatment, for depression it is less than the most divisive types of drug in use today. overall they were worth it. Moore is at the a year. “For me, this is the most other extreme: he has been trying to come important point,” says Rost. “Depression off medication for over a year, and wishes “Trials are not designed to is a long-term condition, so we need to that first pill had never passed his lips. learn what happens when show in our studies if the benefit of The problem of withdrawal symptoms you stop taking the drug” a treatment is sustained.” The worry lies behind claims that antidepressants are is that by excluding such evidence, addictive. This is hard to evaluate: we don’t the guidance skews treatment towards Could it be that both sides have a point? As know how common prolonged withdrawal medication and shorter forms of symptoms are, and there is also no universally Moore sees it, although these medicines do psychological therapies. help some people, they carry risks that mean accepted definition of addiction. Cipriani is Approached for a response, among those who believe that antidepressants they are best avoided if possible for those with NICE refused to comment on specifics, less severe illness. Indeed, many psychiatrists cannot be addictive because users don’t seek saying that “the committee are in the an ever-increasing dose to get the same effect. accept that they are still being prescribed process of updating the guidance”. too freely for people at the milder end of the But DSM-5, the bible of US psychiatry, defines The body took the unusual step of spectrum, who should first be advised to try someone as addicted to a substance if they holding a second consultation in July. talking therapies and lifestyle changes. have difficulty stopping its use and take it The final version of the advice is due At the same time, though, some people for longer than intended. That would apply to be published soon. Moya Sarner with severe illness who might really benefit to some with bad withdrawal symptoms. from antidepressants are put off taking them One option is to let people themselves because of the lingering stigma. “Some think define whether or not they are addicted, says taking medication for a mental health John Read, a psychologist at the University of problem is a sign of weakness or a character flaw,” says Nick Stafford, a psychiatrist at Midlands Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, UK. Cipriani agrees. “If you give the message In general, more women than men experience depression or related disorders that antidepressants are like a placebo, the 25 message is that depression is not real, it’s all Men Women All in the mind,” he says. “But it’s an illness.” “I’m not trying to get the drugs banned – 20 Unspeciied they have a valid role,” says Moore. But family doctors as well as psychiatrists need to discuss Generalised anxiety 15 the potential for harm more, he says. “I want patients to hear all the facts when they have Depressive episode that initial discussion about whether an 10 antidepressant is right for them. At the Phobias moment, that’s not happening.” Q across the country, and studies that ask people what treatments they have and haven’t found helpful, says Rost. Susan McPherson at the University of Essex, who co-wrote the coalition statement, found that NICE excluded 93 studies that gave voice to 2500-plus patients. Another criticism is that, unlike

Proportion of population (%)

Gender imbalance

Obsessive-compulsive disorder


Panic 0 1993




38 | NewScientist | 6 October 2018






Clare Wilson is a medical reporter for New Scientist. Need a listening ear? UK Samaritans: 116123 (samaritans.org). Visit bit.ly/SuicideHelplines for hotlines and websites for other countries

Sight unseen Squid and octopuses can’t see n colour, so how do they pull of their kaleidoscopic disguises? Hayley Bennett investigates



WENTY metres underwater, off the coast of north-west Spain, biologist Roger Hanlon is stalking his prey. His camera is trained on a subject that has painted itself beige, grey and white to match the gravelly seabed. It perambulates towards a clump of kelp and, settling itself amid the fronds, quickly deepens its complexion to match their rich red-brown. This colour craft is impressive, but for Hanlon it is also baffling. He knows the common octopus is colour blind. At least, that is what the textbooks tell us. In his own recent book, Hanlon lists multiple arguments for the cephalopods – octopuses, squid and cuttlefish – seeing in monochrome. Yet if you ask him casually, he remains unconvinced: “I would tend to think that cephalopods are able to sense and match colour somehow.” Quite how they do it has confounded biologists for more than a century, though they have come up with some strange ideas to explain the conundrum. Now we are whittling down the spectrum of possibilities – in the hope of gaining an unprecedented insight into how these most alien of creatures see the world. Like Hanlon, the Nobel prize-winning >

Eye to the right: The deep-sea squid Histioteuthis bonnellii might see with its colour-changing skin

6 October 2018 | NewScientist | 39

THE SKIN’S MYSTERY SENSE The molecules in our eyes’ rod and cone cells that respond to light and help us see are called opsins. Over the past few years, we have found these proteins cropping up in all sorts of places other than the eyes. Which makes you wonder: what they are doing there? Take tilapia fish, the fins of which take on a red hue in spawning season. In 2015, a study by researchers at Queen’s University in Canada showed that opsins in their skin seem to respond to seasonal changes in the colour of sunlight. Ultraviolet light tickles the opsins, which in turn prompts pigments in the skin to clump together, changing the colour. In other animals, opsins outside the eyes probably play a role in setting circadian rhythms. But the case of the mantis shrimp is stranger. One species has opsins in a light-detecting organ attached to its brain. The shrimp has no eyes and may poke this organ out of its burrow to sense danger. Since the 1990s, we have known that opsins are also spread around mammal brains, including our own. In 2015, Elena Oancea at Brown University in Rhode Island was part of a team that discovered that we also have opsins in our skin, just as squid do (see main story). What they do there is far from clear, especially as unpublished research has found that at least one of these molecules has chemical tweaks that mean it doesn’t in fact respond to light. “We were very excited to find them and I would have predicted that in a couple of years we would have figured out what they do,” says Oancea. “But we don’t know.”

40 | NewScientist | 6 October 2018

zoologist Karl von Frisch didn’t believe cephalopods were colour blind. In the 1910s, he and the ophthalmologist Carl von Hess got into a debate about it. Hess tested the vision of squid and cuttlefish by trapping the animals in tanks so small they could barely move and flashing coloured lights at them. He noted how their pupils responded to the lights and if they tried, unsuccessfully, to swim away. Their reactions, he concluded, mirrored patterns seen when people who are colour blind are shown coloured lights. Frisch disliked such unnatural test conditions. He had already done experiments training minnows to expect food when shown a yellow card, and set out in a letter how he planned to train cephalopods to expect food from a red test tube. The results never surfaced, and the debate rumbled on, sometimes in dubious fashion. In 1950, zoologist Alfred Kühn showed that if he kept hitting an octopus with a stick after flashing a coloured light at it, the animal learned to treat that colour as a warning and swam away. They do see colours, he concluded. But in the 1970s, John Messenger, now based at the University of Cambridge, got the opposite result. He trained octopuses to attack coloured plastic rectangles for a reward of sardines. They knew black from white, but could not differentiate yellow and grey cards of equal brightness.

The eyes don’t have it Any doubt that cephalopods were colour blind seemed to evaporate when we finally got to look at the biology behind their vision. As scientists dissected the eyes of more cephalopod species, they kept finding only one type of light-detecting protein, and nothing like the cone cells humans use for colour vision. By the 1980s, it was clear that this was true for almost all species, a strong pointer that they only see in black and white. That just deepened the mystery of cephalopod camouflaging capabilities. We know the animals can match their skin tones to colours in their environment. We also know they signal to one another by creating vivid patterns on their skin. That is risky behaviour with predators out to eat you, so the idea that they only see the patterns in greyscale seems absurd. “Almost anyone who works in the field has a hard time believing it,” says Dan Morse at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Meanwhile, Morse and Hanlon’s research teams have spent years demystifying the biomachinery in cephalopod skin responsible for body patterning. It is a sophisticated

system, composed of at least two layers, with sacs of pigments in the upper one and tunable structures for iridescence in the lower. Yet Hanlon, who works at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, found himself returning to the colour vision mystery and feeling that he must be missing something. Eventually, he hit on an idea: if cephalopods don’t see colour with their eyes, perhaps they see it with their skin. It wasn’t as bizarre as it sounds. At the time, other researchers were starting to discover that some species have light-detecting proteins called opsins in their skin. These are the same family of molecules that detect light in eyes, and we recently discovered that they appear in human skin too (see “The skin’s mystery sense”, left). Hanlon did a quick search of the proteins in cuttlefish skin – and found opsins. That 2010 discovery led to a whole new line of research. He teamed up with vision scientist Thomas Cronin and Alexandra Kingston, both at the University of Maryland, hoping to find out how the opsins were organised and whether they were connected to the skin’s colour-changing apparatus. If cephalopods were reacting directly to colour through connections in the skin without involving the brain, that might explain why they appeared incapable of consciously discriminating colour in behavioural studies. The team spent five years shining lights on squid and cuttlefish skin, uncovering opsins


Cephalopods are colourful characters with many ways of sensing the world. Left to right: pigmentcontaining cells on a deep-sea octopus; Pfeffer’s flamboyant cuttlefish; a glass squid tentacle

here, there and everywhere. But the proteins seemed disorganised and apparently lacked any connection to the colour-changing systems. The researchers even found a slew of other molecules in the skin that are involved in processing signals from light. But “we never found anything that showed that this photosystem was doing anything”, says Cronin. “Although we have no doubt that it is.” At the same time, Todd Oakley and Desmond Ramirez, then also at the University of California, Santa Barbara, were having more success with two-spot octopuses. They took pea-sized pieces of skin and placed them under a microscope to see the pigment sacs, then shone light on them. “There was a little bit of a delay and then this dramatic expansion,” says Oakley. This sac opening is one way cephalopods create colour. But though the experiment showed that octopus skin reacts to light, it didn’t explain how or why, nor whether opsins were involved. Recently, a new idea has started ruffling tentacles. Biologist Alexander Stubbs at the University of California, Berkeley, and his father Christopher Stubbs, a Harvard physicist, turned to maths to solve the colour blindness problem. Their proposal, first published in 2016, centres on chromatic aberration, an effect where different wavelengths or colours of light come into focus at different distances from a lens. This happens in cameras and human eyes, but it is maximised in off-centre pupils – which cephalopods have. The pair

calculated that this provides a way for the animals to distinguish colour with their eyes, without the need for dedicated colour-receptor molecules. “Think of having to bring different colours in and out of focus all the time, that’s kind of what their perception of the environment must be like,” says Alexander. He says it is “just physically true” that the animals do this. Whether they use the information to discern colour is unclear. Alexander has mapped out experiments to test the idea, but he needs a collaborator to carry them out. Hanlon believes these

“Cephalopods have three hearts and multiple brains – so why not alien senses?” experiments are worth doing, but he won’t buy the idea until he sees more than equations. “There’s not an ounce of data yet,” he says. Meanwhile, the skin-sensing researchers are grappling with their own problems. One sticking point is that the opsins found in cephalopod skin are the same as those in their eyes. Given the evidence that the animals can’t see colour with their eyes, it looks as though they would need more than those same opsins to see it with their skin. Hanlon suggests that pigment sacs in the skin could act as crude filters for the opsins, so that two components can detect colour in tandem. Or perhaps there

are undiscovered opsins in the skin. Screening the genomes of the animals should give an answer. Hanlon’s own institution, as it happens, is just finishing sequencing the squid genome. Cronin is adamant the opsins aren’t redundant. “Oh, they’re doing something,” he says. “The fact that we didn’t find it just means it’s more obscure than we expected.” And maybe that obscurity shouldn’t be a surprise. Cephalopods have three hearts and multiple brains. Why should their senses be any less alien than the rest of their physiology? The same goes for plenty of creatures that share their world. Some of their predators, such as diving birds, have colour-rich vision that makes a mockery of our own red-greenblue limitations. So although an octopus looks the same colour as its background when Hanlon peers through his camera, to a diving bird it might not. To get around this, Hanlon is developing a hyper-spectral camera with 16 colour channels. “No one’s got a camera like this,” he says. And with no way for humans to see all the colours, he is having to invent ways to analyse the results. If they confirm that an octopus’s disguise is effective in the eyes of its predators, that would snuff out any doubts that they truly do colour-match. And how do they do it? Like everything else about the cephalopods, says Hanlon, the answer is going to be weird. ■ Hayley Bennett is a science writer in Bristol, UK 6 October 2018 | NewScientist | 41


Treat AI like a wild animal The time has come to look at artificial intelligence in a new way, says Iyad Rahwan, or else we risk starting an algorithmic culture war. Sean O’Neill meets him


rtificial intelligence is becoming ever more powerful. From deciding who gets hired, to locking you in a social media bubble and picking your next romantic partner, it is changing society in countless ways. As machines become ever-smarter, who will ensure they and their creators behave themselves? Iyad Rahwan’s Scalable Cooperation group at MIT Media Lab is taking on the challenge. Why do we need to keep tabs on algorithms?

We have a new kind of agent in the world. It’s not an animal or a human, it’s a machine. Today, only computer scientists explore the behaviours of algorithms. My team is studying machine behaviour as we would a human, animal or corporation – in the wild.

newsfeed. It’s just a ranking algorithm that serves news, and posts from your friends. People thought it would usher in an era of democratic sophistication, connecting people with views outside their own, but what happened is exactly the opposite. There will be more unpleasant surprises, and my role is to try to shed light on these. You recently created a psychopathic AI. Why?

The AI we created, dubbed Norman, sees violence and horror in every image it looks at. It is far from what a human psychopath might be like, but we launched it to popularise an important notion in machine learning: that if an algorithm exhibits undesirable bias, the culprit is often the data used to train it. Norman was an evocative way to explain that point to a layperson.

Are you saying algorithms behave like animals?

Animals are much more complicated, yet we have a long history of studying their behaviour. It’s the same for human psychology: we are far from understanding the brain, but we know a lot about human behaviour. Even if we could see behind corporate walls and access algorithmic source codes, we wouldn’t understand their impact on society. The crucial thing is that algorithms act in the world, so we should look at their behaviour in the world. Algorithms already direct many aspects of our lives. Aren’t we a little late to the party?

I’m not as pessimistic as that, but we do need to catch up because we are frequently taken by surprise by the consequences of algorithmic technologies. A good example is Facebook’s 42 | NewScientist | 6 October 2018

What is appropriate behaviour for an AI system?

Part of my work on machine ethics explores what people think is appropriate. What do humans expect a machine to do, and how do humans evaluate mistakes and moral violations by machines? Do people perceive machine mistakes differently to human ones?

They do. We take machines to be systematic, so when an algorithm makes a mistake, we distrust it more than a similar mistake by a human. But, crucially, when there is shared control between a human and a machine and a mishap occurs, people throw more blame on the human. I have found this by looking at autonomous vehicle accidents.

Such as the self-driving Uber car that hit a woman crossing the highway at night?

Yes. With the Uber accident, people were very quick to blame the human in the driver seat. Is there such a thing as optimal ethical behaviour for a self-driving car?

Consider Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics, designed to prevent robots harming humans. Thinking about AI has been dominated by the idea that once we find perfect rules for ethical conduct, a machine can derive the correct behaviour in any given situation. That’s a

Photographed for New Scientist by Ken Richardson

monolithic entity that will somehow, suddenly, get too powerful and become unstoppable, like Skynet in the Terminator movies. That’s a very unlikely scenario. More likely is what we have today: different groups who struggle for financial success and power, and complex social processes of competition and regulation. I think they will evolve to the next level and be AI-augmented, but they won’t fundamentally change. We want AI to invent new drugs and power social media, but we also want to protect the weak and make sure AI, and those who control it, don’t amass too much power. That’s a political process and we need to acknowledge that. What worries you most about where this technology is headed?

Technology can be a force for good, but also a force for evil. This goes all the way back to the invention of fire. I worry about its politicisation. Cultural wars that are happening today about

“You would never buy a car that sacrificed the driver to save multiple pedestrians” how we run society, whether we should have more progressive values or more conservative values, and how you negotiate those things… I worry that these fights will slip to algorithms. What are the risks of an algorithmic culture war?

A politician eventually moves on, retires or you can embarrass them into changing tack. But algorithms that, say, allocate resources and influence hiring decisions are more entrenched and hidden. That becomes dangerous because government systems may get locked into a particular set of values and become unchangeable as society evolves. So when it comes to societies, one size should not fit all, so to speak?

misguided approach. My Moral Machine project has quizzed more than 4 million people on a wide range of road-accident scenarios, and that work suggests there can be no universal rules for automated vehicles. So what do you propose?

I’m pushing for a negotiated social-contract approach. As a society we want to get along well, but to do it we need property rights, free speech, protection from violence and so on. We need to think about machine ethics in the same way. People are happy, in the abstract,

to endorse a car that might sacrifice its driver to save multiple pedestrians, but they certainly don’t want to buy that car. If you leave it up to consumers, they will buy cars that prioritise them at all cost. And that’s what an “every AI for itself” approach could bring about: AI that caters only for the preferences of consumers who can afford them, rather than to the public good.

That’s right. I was born in Syria, but I lived for many years in the United Arab Emirates, Australia and the US, and I’ve seen various ways of running society. These experiences have always coloured my reaction to this tendency of analytically minded people to pursue universal goals of ethics for AI. I’m very suspicious of that sort of thinking. But still, which way is best?

Are you confident that AI won’t outpace society’s ability to control it?

(Laughs) It’s impossible to say. ■

It’s very tempting to think of AI as this

Sean O’Neill edits the People section at New Scientist 6 October 2018 | NewScientist | 43


Attenborough makes an evolutionary leap

Life on Earth: The greatest story ever told by David Attenborough, William Collins

super-cute with gigantic eyes, and then flick to a picture of an openmouthed crocodile bursting out of a river to attack a wildebeest. But something about the book also touched us more deeply than that. It offered a window onto a world of incredible life forms, more diverse than we could possibly imagine. The wonder of that revelation


WHEN I saw the new edition of Life on Earth by David Attenborough on my desk, I felt an emotional twang. It was like seeing a cherished childhood friend “Reading the new edition is again after decades, or reaching coloured by the disaster of the last chapter of a moving book climate change unfolding and feeling you might cry. It’s not since its first appearance” too much to say that the first edition of the book, published 40 years ago, and the TV programmes stayed with me, and I grew up to become a behavioural ecologist, that accompanied it, changed the lives of millions. I was one of them. studying animals. Years later, I was lucky enough As a child I remember using the to meet Attenborough, and I told book to scare and entertain my him how he had inspired me as a younger sister and her friends. I’d kid. He nodded jovially: he had show them a picture of a tarsier,

44 | NewScientist | 6 October 2018

heard that line many, many times. The latest edition of his classic book deserves to inspire another generation. With a revised text and new photographs, it is stunning – a beautiful and wide-ranging work. The science, too, is thoroughly updated, and Attenborough acknowledges the help of Matthew Cobb, a zoologist at the University of Manchester, UK, in rewriting the text. Cobb has done a superb job of covering the immense range of discoveries in the intervening 40 years, from Tiktaalik, the species that represents the transition between fish and four-legged land animals, to the Denisovans, the latest – and extinct – addition to the human family tree. Leafing through the book, there are extraordinary images of life. Take the bristlecone pine in Nevada, one of the longest-lived organisms on Earth. It is humbling to think that these trees can live for more than 5000 years. On another page, sand floats down a river like icing sugar as a Nile crocodile descends. Then there is an amazing photograph of a fossil of a birdlike, ground-dwelling dinosaur from China. It is some 150 million years old, and its feathers are clearly visible in the rock. Until quite recently we didn’t know that feathers evolved for reasons other than flight, functioning primarily as insulation. Nor did we know that some dinosaurs survived


A fresh version of David Attenborough’s best-known book may be light on climate change, but it deserves to inspire another generation to cherish the living world, says Rowan Hooper

the asteroid impact cataclysm of 66 million years ago, and have become the birds we see today. The book is heavily biased towards life forms visible to the naked eye, particularly the charismatic vertebrates, those species we can more easily relate to. An objective version would have been mostly about bacteria, among the first and most successful life forms on Earth, but wisely we skip over the microbes quickly to focus on the traditional stars of natural history. There is a wonderful shot of a sloth in Costa Rica, its fur green with algae, a miniature ecosystem in itself. It is difficult to see the image and not endow the sloth with human qualities. This tendency to anthropomorphise

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


slightly weirdly, when we read that “the seas are warming as a consequence of the climatic changes we have caused”. Attenborough’s recent Blue Planet II ended with a call for the oceans to be cleared of plastic pollution, and this problem gets a mention here, too. But the role of climate change in threatening large amounts of life on Earth is conspicious by its absence.

“The breadth of natural history covered in the book is extraordinary and mesmerising”

becomes harder still to resist in the chapter on primates. There we see a female chimp using a stick to extract tasty termites from a mound, her offspring tucked under her arm, watching intently. And there is a magnificent silverback mountain gorilla, an animal closely associated with Attenborough after the famous episode of the Life on Earth TV series that featured him sitting among them. A small omission: the text in the new edition doesn’t mention that the species is now facing extinction, with around 1000 animals left in the wild. Things change. Attenborough has become a fully-fledged legend, and his name is almost as big on the book’s cover as the title. You read it and can’t help hearing

Attenborough’s classic has all-new shots, including a crocodile (above) and a sloth (left)

it in Attenborough’s voice. The emotion I feel reading the new edition is coloured not only by nostalgia for my childhood, but also by the ecological disaster of climate change that has unfolded since its first appearance. In the late 1970s, a book called Life on Earth could be published purely as a celebration of the extraordinary power of evolution, unashamedly aiming to inspire wonder about the natural world. This edition is still mostly about that: a work of old-school natural history. Only in the fourth paragraph from the end is climate change mentioned – and then

The desperate extinction rate, and the fact that many scientists consider that we have entered a new geological epoch dominated by human activity, tagged the Anthropocene, is not mentioned. The epilogue talks about extinctions – of the passenger pigeon, the most numerous bird in history, and the dinosaurs – but not the ones we are now causing. I think the epilogue should have laid this out clearly. Attenborough did not mention climate change in his TV series for many years, saying he was cautious about crying wolf until the science was in. But in the last decade or so he has addressed the problem clearly, and it is a shame that he didn’t do the same in this update to his most famous book. That quibble aside, the breadth of natural history covered in the book is extraordinary and mesmerising, and for that, Attenborough and his advisor Cobb should be congratulated. Life on Earth is still breathtakingly rich, and we would know far less about it were it not for Attenborough’s wonderful skills of communication over the years: our cultural and scientific lives would be poorer without him. ■

Visit 3 Days of Fat, a live art-science event in London by Thought Collider, begins on 10 October with experiments, performances and discussions around a constantly expanding fatberg in a tank.

Play Innovation? Or exploitation? Kursk, out 11 October for Mac and PC, is touted as the first gameable documentary. It is about the grim fate of the crew of the doomed Russian nuclear submarine.

Read Mohamed Noor’s Live Long and Evolve: What Star Trek can teach us about evolution, genetics, and the origins of life (Princeton University Press) explores gene transfer, reproduction, natural selection, genetic drift, sexuality and dodgy facial prosthetics.

Watch In 1976, staff facing the axe at an arms firm tried in vain to retool it for uses like green energy. The Plan That Came From the Bottom Up, Steve Sprung’s film asking how such a chance was lost (pictured), premieres at the BFI London Film Festival on 14 October.

Last chance Shape of Light, London Tate Modern’s exhibition exploring the intertwined stories of pioneering photography and abstract art, ends on 14 October.

Rowan Hooper’s book Superhuman: Life at the extremes of mental and physical ability is published by Little Brown 6 October 2018 | NewScientist | 45


The shape of motherhood An exploration of the tricky issues women face as new mothers is timely, says Linda Geddes

IT IS almost two decades since the UK’s National Health Service launched its “Breast is Best” slogan. Yet despite campaigns and relatively generous maternity leave, the number of mothers who breastfeed after 12 months in the UK is still less than 1 per cent – one of the world’s lowest rates. These figures jumped out at Kate Boyer when she moved to the UK from the US in 2008, giving birth to Jake nine months later. Boyer, a human geographer at Cardiff University, wondered if the geographical variation in parenting cultures might influence their decision-making more than people believed and help explain why some policies targeting new mothers succeed while others fail. Since then, Boyer has crawled over parenting blogs, forums and policy texts, and surveyed and interviewed new mothers in London and south-east England. Her decision to concentrate on women when many men share childcare was pragmatic: women still do most care and only women perform a key aspect of parenting, breastfeeding. The result is Spaces and Politics of Motherhood, looking at how the physical and cultural spaces women inhabit shape the mothers they become. The book is a fascinating challenge, asking us to see Breastfeeding may be natural, but what to do isn’t always obvious 46 | NewScientist | 6 October 2018

parenthood through a new lens. It cafe. Almost half her interviewees tackles the difficulties of mobility had some kind of negative with a baby, for example, and how experience, from people making that influences journeys mothers tutting noises to being glared at. make, in turn affecting how they She also highlights experiences interact with others. Take the of pain while breastfeeding and unwieldly “assemblages” of perceived poor milk flow, for mothers, babies and prams. Not which women felt underprepared only is it difficult to physically get and which some saw as their from A to B, many of Boyer’s new bodies working against them. mothers described their anxiety, “Women can feel shame epitomised by the possibility of for breastfeeding, and being trapped in an enclosed they can also be shamed public space with a screaming for not breastfeeding” baby. All this has implications for policy-makers because public reactions can be off-putting, she It is a theme picked up in Social says, and “serve as a disincentive Experiences of Breastfeeding, to journeying outside the home”. which Boyer co-edited. Drawing The bulk of the book focuses on on seminars funded by the UK’s breastfeeding, which Boyer says Economic and Social Research is far less of a choice than health Council, the authors seek to campaigns make out. Not all bridge the gap between the women can afford to sit in a warm, professionals keen to increase inviting, breastfeeding-friendly breastfeeding rates and the


Spaces and Politics of Motherhood by Kate Boyer, Rowman and Littlefield; Social Experiences of Breastfeeding: Building bridges between research, policy and practice edited by Sally Dowling, David Pontin and Kate Boyer, Policy Press

women actually doing it. I found the chapter by Dawn Leeming, a psychologist at the University of Huddersfield, very insightful. Many new mothers say they feel guilty not breastfeeding, but a less-recognised, arguably more destructive, emotion is shame. As Leeming writes: “Not only can women feel shame for breastfeeding, they can also be shamed for not breastfeeding.” Although there is overlap between the emotions, shame can involve a negative judgement about the whole person, leaving a woman feeling powerless and at greater risk of depression, writes Leeming. “Just because breastfeeding is natural doesn’t mean it’s obvious what to do” is a message that needs promoting, she adds, or women will go on seeing breastfeeding problems as “personal shortcomings”. Parenting books, often standing in as role models for mothers, can create idealised expectations and undermine their resolve to breastfeed. In another chapter, Amy Brown, a health researcher at Swansea University, shared her work on parenting books that promote strict routines: only 20 per cent of mothers managed to comply, and failure was linked to increased anxiety and depression. The training and support to fix all this won’t come cheap, and neither book considers the cost or economic benefits of the outlay. Even so, there is real food for thought. After all, researching the health benefits of practices like breastfeeding is fine, but without studying the social forces shaping it, change seems doomed. ■ Linda Geddes is a science writer based in Bristol, UK

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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.