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BIG CRUNCH Quantum computer set to calculate the impossible

MIND CONTROL Drugs released by the power of thought

WATERING HOLES The strange things swimming in elephant footprints WEEKLY September 3 -9, 2016


METAPHYSICS ISSUE How science answers philosophy’s deepest questions

No3089 US$5.95 CAN$5.95 3 5


70989 30690


Science and technology news US jobs in science



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Volume 231 No 3089

This issue online


News 5


Philosophy and science have much to learn from one another


Quantum supremacy


UPFRONT Italy’s earthquake prediction. Mystery signal excites alien-hunter. Zika vaccine is trialled 8 THIS WEEK Proxima b may be scorched by flares. Semen primes body for pregnancy. Nanobots controlled by thought. Brain zap brings back consciousness. Elephant footprints create pond oases 14 IN BRIEF Giant slugs eat birds. Reverse memories for better recall. A galaxy 99 per cent dark matter


Google is getting closer to a world-beating quantum computer

On the cover


Big crunch Quantum machine poised to calculate the impossible 10 Mind control medicine Drugs released by the power of thought 12 Watering holes The strange things swimming in elephant footprints 8

The metaphysics issue How science answers philosophy’s deepest questions

Analysis 16 Your digital data Is it time to rein in the giant tech companies? 18 COMMENT Conservation battles should rely on evidence, says Chris Packham. Ensure better endings for “bad drug trips” 19 INSIGHT Why trusting your gut is bad policy

Technology 20 AIs make decisions for doctors. Instagram posts give away hints of depression. Soft robo-octopus roams without power cables

Cover image Jp King



Kestrel manoeuvres Carl Jones’s controversial approach to conservation



24 The Alaskan village fleeing climate change

Features 28 The metaphysics issue Do I exist? What is reality? Do I have free will? What is consciousness? Scientific answers to these and other essential philosophical questions 40 PEOPLE (see left)

Culture 42 Flow together Water is valuable and finite, so why don’t shortages spell warfare? 44 A future to make Traces of the first axe-wielders show how hard they struggled

Coming next week… What is a particle? Rethinking matter’s most basic building block

Rage against the machine

Regulars 52 LETTERS Lawyers and definition of risk 56 FEEDBACK Radiation-absorbing cactii 57 THE LAST WORD Green machine

Computers that know how to argue

3 September 2016 | NewScientist | 3



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Science, and beyond Metaphysics has much to offer the study of the natural world “ALL men by nature desire to Today, metaphysics focuses know.” So begins the first book on abstract concepts such as of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, time, space and existence. written about two and a half Seem familiar? That’s because thousand years ago and still one they sound a lot like the grander of the most influential works of ambitions of science, particularly Western philosophy. of those branches that seek a Human nature has not “theory of everything”. changed: the desire to know Indeed, metaphysics and science have a good deal in common; still moves us, even if Aristotle’s deciding where one ends and understanding of physics has the other begins is not easy. been swept away by gravitation, Philosopher Karen Bennett at field theory, relativity and Cornell University in Ithaca, New quantum mechanics. Ditto his ideas about how the human body York, compares the relationship to that between the winter sports luge works. But many of the questions in Metaphysics still await answers. “What can science tell Those questions begin with us about the deepest the word “metaphysics” itself. The opening line of its entry in the questions ever asked renowned Stanford Encyclopaedia by human beings?” of Philosophy admits: “It is not and skeleton – very alike in many easy to say what metaphysics is”, respects, with similar goals and before going on to explain that methods, but not exactly the same. the term was coined not by That speaks volumes for the Aristotle but by a posthumous power and reach of modern editor, who used it to warn science. Questions once seen as students against rushing into being “meta” – or beyond – mere their master’s later works. physics are now creeping into its Fourteen volumes were purview. For example, there is labelled “Ta meta ta phusika”, probably a material answer meaning “the ones after the to philosophical questions about physical ones”. The implicit the nature of reality. instruction was to first read Nor is it just about physics. and master Aristotle’s Physics, Other sciences are edging into about the natural world, philosophical territory too. before venturing into bigger, Neuroscience, for example, may deeper questions.

one day be able to tell us whether our sense of self is just a trick of the mind, while evolutionary biology helps us to understand what we mean by good and evil. Both give new insights into what it is to experience the universe. It is in that spirit that we have approached this special issue (see page 28). What can science tell us about the deepest questions humans have ever asked? How can philosophy inform science and help us to understand what it really means? We’re not saying science has superseded metaphysics, or solved philosophy’s problems. There is still much fundamental science to be done, and a great deal of metaphysics too. But the intersection between the two is fascinating territory, with both fields constantly pushing the boundaries of what we know and what we can know. Aristotle’s editor suggested that we should turn to metaphysics only after nailing down the fundamental attributes of the cosmos. Our experience today suggests we can make progress even if we have only some of the answers. So why not give it a go? Or to put it another way, we decided to bring our skeleton to a luge race to see how far we can get. Enjoy the ride. ■ 3 September 2016 | NewScientist | 5



Italy’s quake tech hopes AS THE death toll from last Wednesday’s earthquake in Italy continues to rise, seismologists there are working on a forecasting system to try to better predict when the next big one may hit – and its likely impact. The magnitude-6.2 quake was not preceded by even one warning tremor, says Warner Marzocchi, head of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome. Earthquakes do tend to cluster, though, meaning any tremors raise the likelihood of imminent seismic events by a factor of a hundred or even a thousand. So Italy is installing a national system, called OEF, that feeds seismic readings into computer models based on historical data. Every 3 hours, it will issue predictions

for the number of quakes in the coming week. The system should be especially good at predicting aftershocks, such as the magnitude-4.3 tremor that hit the central Italian quake zone on Thursday. Another system in development, called MANTIS-K, will feed the OEF’s forecasts into models of local vulnerability to forecast deaths, injuries and damage. Italy’s civil defence authorities are now debating how best to communicate forecasts to the public. The question is not trivial: mangled communications about tremors that preceded a deadly quake in the town of L’Aquila in 2009 led to jail sentences for six Italian scientists accused of not warning the public. All but one conviction was later quashed.

–Much work still to do on forecasts–

Coal in court ANOTHER blow for coral? Australia’s federal court has rejected a bid to block a giant coal mine in central Queensland that could harm the Great Barrier Reef. The court dismissed claims by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) that former federal environment minister Greg Hunt’s 2014 approval of

“It is extraordinary that in 2016 a minister can argue that a coal mine will have no impact on the climate” the Carmichael mine violated international obligations to protect the reef, a UNESCO world heritage site. Australian law requires ministerial decisions to adhere to the world heritage convention. Coal from the mine – which will be the largest in Australia – will be shipped to power stations in India. When it is burned, the coal will produce 128 million tonnes of carbon per year, says the ACF. Conservationists had argued that this addition to global 6 | NewScientist | 3 September 2016

greenhouse emissions would damage the Great Barrier Reef by accelerating climate change. Rising ocean temperatures have been blamed for the reef’s worst ever coral bleaching event earlier this year. But the court accepted the Australian government’s case that there was no definitive proof that coal from the Carmichael mine would increase global greenhouse emissions, because multiple factors affect how much coal is burned annually. The ACF says it will continue its efforts to prevent the mine from going ahead. “It is extraordinary that in 2016 a federal environment minister can argue in court that a mega-polluting coal mine will have no impact on the climate and the Great Barrier Reef,” says Kelly O’Shanassy, CEO of the ACF. “We’ll do everything we can to stop this mine.” Last week, the federal court also threw out a challenge by one of the mine site’s traditional owners, who claimed that the project undermines the native title rights of the Wangan and Jagalingou people.

Strides against Zika THE campaign against Zika is edging forward. A vaccine is now being tested in 160 people in Puerto Rico, and two drugs have emerged that may stop the virus from damaging the brain. Zika appears to target cells that make new neurons, a process thought to cause brain defects in babies and that may also put infected adults at risk of memory and mood disorders. The two drugs, already used for other conditions, may be able to prevent

this when used together. One appears to protect brain cells from damage, while the other can stop the virus replicating (Nature Medicine, It’s a welcome development after more bad news. Last week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention described the first known sexual transmission of Zika by a man who had shown no symptoms. It follows the discovery that the virus can be present in semen for at least six months – around three times longer than previously thought.

Forest elephants face extinction AFRICAN forest elephants could be wiped out in the next 10 years. The small elephant species inhabits tropical forests. Their numbers fell by about 65 per cent across the Central African Republic between 2002 and 2013, a study led by the Wildlife Conservation Society has found. It is thought they are being killed for their ivory. Unlike the bigger, more abundant savannah elephants, which start breeding from the age of 12, female

forest elephants only begin breeding at 23 and give birth once every five to six years. This makes them the planet’s slowest reproducing mammals and means the species may take up to 90 years to recover from losses inflicted over this 11-year period (Applied Ecology, in press) . Forest elephants disperse the seeds of many forest trees and create paths through the forest that connect resources that are critical to other species.

For new stories every day, visit

Abortion safety AN OHIO law intended to make abortions safer has instead tripled the rate of complications. The 2011 law requires providers to stick to US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines



Anthropocene now? We may have entered a new geological epoch. The controversial idea is a step closer to being accepted by geologists following an official report by a scientific working group, presented to the International Geological Congress in South Africa this week. They suggest the Anthropocene began in the mid20th century – roughly coincident with the dawn of the atomic age.

“As the procedure improves, women in these states won’t benefit from the latest scientific evidence”


for abortion by medication. These suggest specific timings and doses of drugs, but were drawn up in 2000. More recent research suggests different dosages and timings are safer – adjustments First contact? most Ohio doctors were making THE search for ET is on in earnest. before the law was passed. News leaked this weekend of a Analysing data from four Ohio spike in radio signals coming clinics, Ushma Upadhyay at the from a sun-like star that could University of California, San fit the profile for an intelligent, Francisco, and her team found extraterrestrial source. SETI that, after the law was passed, astronomers are swinging their women undergoing abortion by radio dishes towards the star in medication were three times the hope of confirming the beacon, more likely to need additional but have so far drawn a blank. treatment such as a blood A signal was detected on transfusion (PLOS Medicine, DOI: 15 May 2015 by a radio telescope 10.1371/journal.pmed.1002110). operated by the Russian Academy The FDA has now updated its guidelines. But the law in Ohio, “Could such a signal be and similar ones proposed in produced by an intelligent other states, mean these states civilisation able to harness could slip back out of date again. the star’s energy?” “As the regimen improves, women in these states won’t be of Sciences. It appeared to come able to avail themselves of the from HD 164595, a sun-like star latest evidence,” says Upadhyay. roughly 95 light years from Earth. The system has one known planet and may have more. The researchers speculate that such a bright signal could be produced by a radio beacon built by an intelligent civilisation able to harness all the star’s energy. To follow up, the SETI Institute used the Allen Telescope Array in northern California to track the star, but saw nothing. But although it’s fun to speculate, it is far more likely that the signal is earthly interference. Radio telescopes have been known –Too slow to breed– to pick up rogue signals, from

Another sign of Nine

–Seeking signals from the skies–

toilets flushing to mobile phones. Just last year, astronomers at the Parkes Observatory in Australia traced a mysterious radio signal to two on-site microwave ovens. “Part of the problem is that you have a civilisation producing signals that can mess you up all the time – and that civilisation is called humanity,” says Seth Shostak of SETI.

Mars and back WELCOME home. Six astronauts emerged from a mock Mars habitat in Hawaii this week after a year of simulated Martian living. The project, known as HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation), put an international team of scientists in a solar-powered dome on the side of a Hawaiian volcano last August. The habitat had electricity and internet access, but there was a 20-minute delay in sending or receiving messages to mimic the time lag between Mars and Earth. The crew wore spacesuits when they ventured outside the dome. The goal is to predict the social stresses of an actual Mars mission, and figure out ways to mitigate them. The crew said emergencies were surprisingly helpful for team cohesion. “One of your biggest enemies is boredom,” said crew member Christiane Heinicke via live-streaming app Periscope.

Are you out there, Planet Nine? Earlier this year, astronomers pointed to a group of objects orbiting in a strange cluster beyond Neptune, suggesting that a large ninth planet could be tugging at them. Now their case has had a boost: a newly seen object, 2014 SR349, seems to be part of the same cluster.

Juno skirts Jupiter NASA’s Juno probe has made the closest ever approach to Jupiter, skimming just 4200 kilometres above its clouds at a speed of 208,000 kilometres per hour. It will take some time to get photos and other data back from the craft, but researchers hope this will help them learn more about the planet’s atmosphere and interior.

Heart attacks missed Nearly a third of heart attacks are initially misdiagnosed in England and Wales. An analysis of nine years’ worth of data also finds that women having heart attacks are 50 per cent more likely than men to be given the wrong diagnosis at first (Acute Cardiovascular Care,

Ancestral tree mishap Ouch! A CT scan of Lucy, one of the oldest early human fossils, suggests she died by falling from a great height – probably from a tree. The scans revealed bone injuries similar to those suffered by people in such falls, adding weight to the theory that her species nested in trees for protection (Nature,

3 September 2016 | NewScientist | 7


Google plans quantum supremacy A computing revolution is closer than we thought, finds Jacob Aron

8 | NewScientist | 3 September 2016

no classical computer can. the prize with just 50 qubits. “It’s a blueprint for what they’re That’s still an ambitious goal – planning to do in the next couple publicly, they have only of years,” says Scott Aaronson at announced a 9-qubit computer – the University of Texas at Austin, but one within reach. who has discussed the plans with To help it succeed, Google has the team. brought the fight to quantum’s So how will they do it? home turf. It is focusing on a Quantum computers process data problem that is fiendishly as quantum bits, or qubits. Unlike “It’s Google’s to lose. If classical bits, these can store a Google’s not the group that mixture of both 0 and 1 at the does it, then something same time, thanks to the principle has gone wrong” of quantum superposition. It’s this potential that gives quantum computers the edge at certain difficult for ordinary computers problems, like factoring large but that a quantum computer will numbers. But ordinary computers do naturally: simulating the are also pretty good at such tasks. behaviour of a random Showing quantum computers are arrangement of quantum circuits. better would require thousands of Any small variation in the input qubits, which is far beyond our into those quantum circuits can current technical ability. produce a massively different Instead, Google wants to claim output, so it’s difficult for the


SOMEWHERE in California, Google is building a device that will usher in a new era for computing. It’s a quantum computer, the largest ever made, designed to prove once and for all that machines exploiting exotic physics can outperform the world’s top supercomputers. And New Scientist has learned it could be ready sooner than anyone expected – perhaps even by the end of next year. The quantum computing revolution has been a long time coming. In the 1980s, theorists realised that a computer based on quantum mechanics had the potential to vastly outperform ordinary, or classical, computers at certain tasks. But building one was another matter. Only recently has a quantum computer that can beat a classical one gone from a lab curiosity to something that could actually happen. Google wants to create the first. The firm’s plans are secretive, and Google declined to comment for this article. But researchers contacted by New Scientist all believe it is on the cusp of a breakthrough, following presentations at conferences and private meetings. “They are definitely the world leaders now, there is no doubt about it,” says Simon Devitt at the RIKEN Center for Emergent Matter Science in Japan. “It’s Google’s to lose. If Google’s not the group that does it, then something has gone wrong.” We have had a glimpse of Google’s intentions. Last month, its engineers quietly published a paper detailing their plans ( Their goal, audaciously named quantum supremacy, is to build the first quantum computer capable of performing a task

classical computer to cheat with approximations to simplify the problem. “They’re doing a quantum version of chaos,” says Devitt. “The output is essentially random, so you have to compute everything.” To push classical computing to the limit, Google turned to Edison, one of the most advanced supercomputers in the world, housed at the US National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center. Google had it simulate the behaviour of quantum circuits on increasingly larger grids of qubits, up to a 6 × 7 grid of 42 qubits. This computation is difficult because as the grid size increases, the amount of memory needed to store everything balloons rapidly. A 6 × 4 grid needed just 268 megabytes, less than found in your average smartphone.

–Superconducting qubits are tops–

The 6 × 7 grid demanded 70 terabytes, roughly 10,000 times that of a high-end PC. Google stopped there because going to the next size up is currently impossible: a 48-qubit grid would require 2.252 petabytes of memory, almost double that of the top supercomputer in the world. If Google can solve the problem with a 50-qubit quantum computer, it will have beaten every other computer in existence.

Eyes on the prize By setting out this clear test, Google hopes to avoid the problems that have plagued previous claims of quantum computers outperforming ordinary ones – including some made by Google. Last year, the firm announced it had solved certain problems 100 million times faster than a classical computer by using a D-Wave quantum computer, a commercially available device with a controversial history. Experts immediately dismissed the results, saying they weren’t a fair comparison. Google purchased its D-Wave computer in 2013 to figure out whether it could be used to improve search results and artificial intelligence. The following year, the firm hired John Martinis at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to design its own superconducting qubits. “His qubits are way higher quality,” says Aaronson. It’s Martinis and colleagues who are now attempting to achieve quantum supremacy with 50 qubits, and many believe they will get there soon. “I think this is achievable within two or three years,” says Matthias Troyer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. “They’ve showed concrete steps on how they will do it.” Martinis and colleagues have discussed a number of timelines for reaching this milestone, says

Devitt. The earliest is by the end of this year, but that is unlikely. “I’m going to be optimistic and say maybe at the end of next year,” he says. “If they get it done even within the next five years, that will be a tremendous leap forward.” The first successful quantum supremacy experiment won’t give us computers capable of solving any problem imaginable – based on current theory, those will need to be much larger machines. But having a working, small computer could drive innovation, or augment existing computers, making it the start of a new era. Aaronson compares it to the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction, achieved by the Manhattan project in Chicago in 1942. “It might be a thing that causes people to say, if we want a full-scalable quantum computer, let’s talk numbers: how many billions of dollars?” he says. Solving the challenges of building a 50-qubit device will prepare Google to construct something bigger. “It’s absolutely progress to building a fully scalable machine,” says Ian Walmsley at the University of Oxford. For quantum computers to be truly useful in the long run, we will also need robust quantum error correction, a technique to mitigate the fragility of quantum states. Martinis and others are already working on this, but it will take longer than achieving quantum supremacy. Still, achieving supremacy won’t be dismissed. “Once a system hits quantum supremacy and is showing clear scale-up behaviour, it will be a flare in the sky to the private sector,” says Devitt. “It’s ready to move out of the labs.” “The field is moving much faster than expected,” says Troyer. “It’s time to move quantum computing from science to engineering and really build devices.” ■


In this section ■ Semen primes body for pregnancy, page 10 ■ Is it time to rein in the giant tech companies?, page 16 ■ AIs make decisions for doctors, page 20

–A fiery threat–

Solar blasts are bad news for life on Proxima b PROXIMA b, just revealed as the nearest exoplanet to Earth, is probably battered by incredible bursts of energy from its star every few months. That could be bad news for the prospects of finding life on our neighbouring world. Stars, including our sun, produce flares when their magnetic fields become twisted, setting off explosions of plasma that cause huge increases in brightness. James Davenport at Western Washington University in Bellingham and his colleagues have been studying the planet’s red dwarf star, Proxima Centauri, using the Canadian MOST space telescope, and calculated it is probably flaring almost constantly, about every 20 minutes. “We knew it would have flares, but we didn’t realise it would be as riddled with flares as it is,” he says. That’s based on observations by MOST of Proxima Centauri on 38 days between 2014 and 2015, during which the team picked up 66 flares of various sizes. The majority of these caused about a 5 or 10 per cent increase in brightness, but the rise was sometimes as high as 50 per cent ( “That’s really dramatic,” says Davenport. Even those smaller flares are larger than any we see on our sun. “If we saw that on the sun, it would be like someone turned up the heat for

an hour,” says Davenport. “You’d get a really big suntan.” Comparing what they saw with other star systems, the team suggests that Proxima Centauri experiences massive flares, around 10 times larger than those so far seen by MOST, about eight times a year. Such flares could degrade any potential atmosphere, says Davenport. That doesn’t mean Proxima b has no chance of retaining an atmosphere: if it started with one thick enough, it could resist the flare bombardment and protect any life that might be

“Even the smaller flares on Proxima Centauri are larger than any we see on our sun” sheltered underneath. A magnetic field could also provide protection. The finding places “limits on the probability of habitability”, says Gavin Coleman at Queen Mary University of London, part of the team that discovered Proxima b. Ultimately, the team hopes to use MOST to detect Proxima b passing in front of its star. This would help pin down its size and may give us a glimpse of any atmosphere around it, which could indicate signs of life – but the flares make this harder. Jacob Aron ■ 3 September 2016 | NewScientist | 9


Semen reshapes immune system which may be an early sign of increasing levels of regulatory T-cells. “It’s as if the seminal fluid is a Trojan horse that activates the immune cells to get things ready for conception,” says Robertson. As well as making the embryo more likely to implant, such

SEMEN does more than fertilise eggs. It seems to prime the mouse immune system for pregnancy, boosting an embryo’s chances of implanting in the lining of the uterus. Similar changes happen in women, too, which could explain why IVF is more successful in couples having regular sex during treatment. Sarah Robertson at the University of Adelaide, Australia, and her colleagues have found that each time a female mouse copulates, immune cells called regulatory T-cells are released. In women, low regulatory T-cell counts are linked to several reproductive problems, including unexplained infertility, miscarriage and pre-term labour. These cells are known to dampen down inflammation, a process that may be important for allowing embryos to implant in the womb, rather than being rejected as a foreign body. The team found signs that semen prompts immune system changes in women too. Shortly after sex, the cervix releases immune signalling molecules,

Mind-controlled bots release drugs in a body NOW that’s a powerful thought. For the first time, a man has controlled nanorobots inside a living creature just by doing mental calculations. The technology released a drug inside cockroaches in response to the man’s brain activity. It was designed by a team at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, both in 10 | NewScientist | 3 September 2016


Alice Klein

Israel, to allow precise control over when a drug is active in the body, reducing side effects. These nanobots are built out of DNA, forming shell-like shapes that drugs can be tethered to. They have a gate with a lock made from iron oxide nanoparticles that can be opened when heated with electromagnetic energy. Because the drug is tethered to the DNA parcel, opening and closing the gate controls how much drug the body is exposed to. To get the DNA bots to respond to a person’s thoughts, the team trained a computer algorithm to distinguish

effects may also reduce the chances of a fetus being rejected later on in pregnancy, she says. Women who conceive after limited sexual activity are more likely to develop disorders during pregnancy, she adds. The findings, presented at the International Congress of Immunology in Australia last week, have implications for IVF. After a woman’s eggs have been fertilised in the lab, an embryo is surgically inserted into the womb, but can often fail to implant in the uterine lining.

Many clinics advise couples to abstain from sex during treatment to avoid getting infections from seminal fluid during the surgery. But this is a small risk outweighed by the benefits semen seems to have for the female immune system, Robertson says. A recent review of studies concluded that sex during IVF treatment improves implantation rates by 23 per cent. “I think it’s really good for couples to know that there’s something they can do to help their chances,” says Robertson. Peter Illingworth at fertility company IVF Australia says the evidence is compelling. “I personally always say to IVF patients: ‘if you want to have sex, just have sex’.” But many couples choose not to because IVF causes a lot of discomfort, he says. Semen’s effect on a woman’s immune system could also help explain why most couples do not fall pregnant straight away, says Robertson. “In humans, it seems that at least three months of sexual cohabitation is required to give you the priming you need.” Boosting regulatory T-cell levels may offer a new approach for treating infertility. “Our results suggest the first approach to treating infertility should be to go home and practise,” Robertson says. “If that doesn’t work, tackling regulatory T-cells may –Priming for pregnancy– be the way to go.” ■

between a person’s brain activity when resting and when doing mental arithmetic. Next, the group attached a fluorescent drug to the bots and injected them into a cockroach sitting inside an electromagnetic coil. A man wearing an EEG cap that measures brain activity triggered exposure to these fluorescent drugs simply by doing calculations in his head (PLoS, .

“The device could release drugs if it detects an imminent violent episode of schizophrenia”

The algorithm could be trained to work with other types of brain activity, says Sachar Arnon, a member of the team at the Interdisciplinary Center. “It could track brain states that underlie ADHD or schizophrenia, for example. It could be modified to suit your needs.” The release of drugs could require conscious triggering, or be automatic. For example, an EEG could detect if a violent episode of schizophrenia was imminent, and automatically stimulate the release of a preventative drug.

Helen Thomson ■




been in a minimally conscious state for almost three weeks. Monti placed an ultrasound transducer on the patient’s temple, using brain scans to check he had positioned it correctly. Then they stimulated the man’s thalamus for 10 minutes, alternating between 30 seconds of ultrasound and 30 seconds rest. Immediately afterwards, the man scored worse on tests of consciousness. “Taking part in procedures like this fatigues the injured brain very quickly,” says Monti. But the following morning was a different story. The patient was starting to vocalise and gesture in response to questions, behaviours –Ultra wake-up call he had not shown before (Brain Stimulation, “He seemed to clearly understand language and was trying to communicate,” says Monti. Over the next three days the man started answering questions by nodding or shaking his head. “I made a fist with my hand and that stimulating the thalamus said ‘can you fist-bump me?’ ” might help promote arousal. Rats says Monti. “He immediately put under anaesthesia can be woken his fist out and bumped me, no faster after thalamic stimulation, pause or anything.” A week later, for example. But the thalamus is the patient tried to walk. deep inside the brain, making it But we can’t know yet whether difficult to try on people. his recovery might have been a Deep brain stimulation is coincidence. “I’d love to start possible. In 2007, a 38-year-old yelling success, this is exactly man who had been in a minimally what we hoped we would see,” conscious state for six years says Monti. “But we can’t get showed some signs of recovery too excited before testing it on others. The patient could have “I made a fist and asked spontaneously recovered in that him to fist-bump me. period of time. It would have been He immediately put his serendipitous, but possible.” fist out and bumped me” Mohamad Koubeissi at George Washington University, after receiving deep brain Washington DC, agrees that stimulation to his thalamus, Monti’s report is promising. but this involved implanting However, he also says that young electrodes into his brain, people can recover spontaneously. a procedure that risks damaging “A controlled trial in patients other areas. with various [disorders of Monti’s team decided to try consciousness] is warranted using low-intensity ultrasound, before making any definitive which can safely modulate deep conclusions,” he says. brain tissues without harming The team hopes to test the surrounding areas. They tried this procedure on 10 to 15 people with technique on a patient who had disorders of consciousness. ■

Stomping elephants make wildlife ponds THAT’S one small step for an elephant, but a giant leap for the survival of tiny aquatic animals. In the swamp forests of Kibale National Park, Uganda, every step elephants take can give rise to a footprint-shaped mini-pond, holding up to 200 litres of water and dozens of invertebrate species. “I was surprised to find out that these footprints were water-filled all year round, and that they harboured such a high diversity,” says Wolfram Remmers at the University of Koblenz in Germany. Surveying 30 such prints over a three-day period in 2014, Remmers and his colleagues found over 60 species, including beetles, spiders and worms – plus tadpoles (African Journal of Ecology, The footprints probably play an important role in allowing these small life forms to spread, as they form a network of connected ponds. “If the elephants disappear those habitats would vanish,” says Remmers, and some aquatic species might disappear locally. The findings help us understand how large herbivores influence their habitat, says Gary Haynes at the University of Nevada, Reno. “Modern-day elephants and other megaherbivores shape [their habitats] in ways we are just beginning to fully appreciate.” Karl Gruber ■

Helen Thomson

WHAT an awakening. A man has been roused from a minimally conscious state by stimulating his brain with ultrasound. The 25-year-old man, who had suffered a severe brain injury after a road traffic accident, progressed from having only a fleeting awareness of the outside world to being able to answer questions and attempting to walk. He was the first person to undergo an experimental procedure that stimulates the thalamus area using pulses of ultrasound. “It’s extremely exciting,” says Martin Monti at the University of California, Los Angeles. Monti and his team have been searching for a way to help people with injuries that cause disorders of consciousness. One kind of disorder is a minimally conscious state, in which a person shows fluctuating signs of awareness, but cannot communicate. Animal experiments suggest 12 | NewScientist | 3 September 2016


Brain zap restores consciousness

–No mere puddles–



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Colossal molecule made with lasers

Tiniest grazing mammal was a pig at front, horse at back IT WAS a strange animal with pig-like front feet and horse-like hind feet, but it looked like a rat. The pig-footed bandicoot, which went extinct in the 1950s, is one of Australia’s most mysterious marsupials. For one thing, it is the smallest grazing mammal ever documented, weighing about 200 grams. And a new analysis of fossils suggests that its ability to live on a grass diet evolved unusually quickly. Kenny Travouillon at the Western Australian Museum in Perth studied three fossil teeth dug up in New South Wales in the 1970s. He found that Chaeropus ecaudatus

evolved from an omnivorous species – C. baynesi – which lived in Australia 2 million years earlier (Royal Society Open Science, A rapidly drying climate may have prompted the switch to grazing, but 2 million years is an unusually short time frame, Travouillon says. “Evolution of diets usually takes many millions of years.” Adding to the mystery is the fact that small mammals do not normally graze, he says. “They don’t have big enough stomachs to digest grass for a long time to extract the [low levels of] nutrients.” Its feet are baffling, too. “Marsupials tend to have five toes on their forefeet and several toes on their back feet. We don’t know why they had these reduced digits,” says Travouillon. “It was a very weird creature indeed.”

Rewind memories to recall good food REPLAYING memories in reverse may help you remember where you had a great meal – or at least it does in rats. Like people, rats store maps of the world in the hippocampus regions of their brain. Here, “place cells” fire in different patterns and combinations to help map routes while a rat explores. These cells have also been seen firing in sequence when a rat 14 | NewScientist | 3 September 2016

pauses in its travels, as if mentally replaying the route taken – a process that is sometimes played in reverse. David Foster at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and his team wondered whether recalling memories backwards might help the rats keep track of where to find good food. They let rats run along a track

with liquid chocolate at each end, while using electrodes to monitor their place cells. When they put four times as much chocolate at one end of the track, the rats mentally retraced their route more often, and did this in a reverse pattern around twice as often as forwards (Neuron, DOI: 10.1016/j. neuron.2016.07.047). Rewinding a memory step by step could help the rat remember the first stages of a productive route, Foster says.

THE microscopic world just got bigger. By coaxing two puffed-up atoms into a delicate do-si-do, Heiner Saßmannshausen and Johannes Deiglmayr, both at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, have made a two-atom molecule that is 1000 times bigger than normal. The pair hit two caesium atoms with rapid pulses of laser light. This turned them into Rydberg atoms, in which the electrons are in high-energy states and so orbit further away from the positivelycharged nucleus. Opposites attract, so a molecule formed when the nucleus of one atom bonded with the negative electrons of the other. This happened even when the atoms were a micrometre apart (Physical Review Letters, Such supersized molecules could have a part to play in building logic gates for future quantum computers.

River fish feast on mice – but how? IT’S a game of cat and mouse with a twist. Lesser salmon catfish in rivers in northern Australia have been found feasting on mice. Almost half of 18 fish examined had semi-digested mice in their bellies, some as many as three. Though some freshwater fish are known to occasionally dine on land vertebrates – an African tiger fish has been filmed plucking a swallow out of the air, for example – it is rare for so many to be eaten. So what’s their trick? Unlike catfish that ambush pigeons at the water’s edge, lesser salmon catfish may just be eating mice drowned when their nests in river banks collapse, says Erin Kelly of Murdoch University, Perth, who led the study (Journal of Arid Environments,

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THE uncertainty of IVF just gained a new layer of complexity. The choice of medium in which to nurture eggs and embryos can be a factor in the success of the treatment, and may even influence the health of the resulting children. The finding comes from the first randomised controlled trial of two common types of culture medium, conducted by John Dumoulin of Maastricht University Medical Centre in the Netherlands and his colleagues. Working with fertility clinics around the country, the team looked at the treatment outcomes for 836 couples undergoing IVF. They found that one formulation was far better at creating healthy embryos than the other, leading to fewer IVF cycles and a higher chance of pregnancy. But this medium also gave rise to babies with a significantly lower average birth weight (Human Reproduction, The effect wasn’t large enough to cause health problems, but the result is still concerning, says Dumoulin. “If the culture medium can do that, what else can it do? What might come out in 20 or 30 years?” The recipes used to make the culture media are a closely kept industry secret, but researchers are now pushing for these to be made public.

Ghostly dragonfly is 99.99 per cent dark matter THE Milky Way has a dark twin. A dimly lit massive galaxy called Dragonfly 44 is a record 99.99 per cent dark matter, and could help rewrite our theories of galaxy formation. Dragonfly 44 is the Milky Way’s equal in mass, but its opposite in star number and structure. “If you take the Milky Way and for every 100 stars you keep only one, then you’re getting pretty close,” says Pieter van Dokkum at Yale University. “You also have to put those remaining stars in a blender and mix them all up into

a blob.” This galaxy doesn’t have the iconic spiral structure of the Milky Way, nor is it a flat disc. And it’s not alone. Van Dokkum and his colleagues spotted it and its neighbours in 2014, when they aimed the unique Dragonfly observatory at the Coma cluster. They found 47 faint smudges: galaxies that could be at least as large as the Milky Way, but which contain so few stars that they glow as dimly as dwarf galaxies. To find out how they became so sparse, van Dokkum and his colleagues tracked how fast the

stars in Dragonfly 44 move around the galaxy, and so calculated its mass: a faster speed means a more massive galaxy. The stars clocked in at 47 kilometres per second, making Dragonfly 44 a trillion times more massive than the sun. With so little normal matter, it must be 99.99 per cent dark matter to hold itself together (Astrophysical Journal Letters, It even beats another similarly dark galaxy in the Virgo cluster discovered earlier this year, which is 99.96 per cent dark matter. DETLEV VAN RAVENSWAAY/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Secret IVF recipes skew success

Big slugs make an easy meal of chicks SOME baby birds are meeting a slimy end, the victims of slugs. Katarzyna Turzanska at the University of Wroclaw and Justyna Chachulska at the University of Zielona Góra in Poland saw a slug in a nest with newly hatched whitethroat chicks. The next day the chicks were dead, bearing severe injuries. “We couldn’t believe that the slug had killed the nestlings,” says Turzanska. But a literature search revealed other accounts of slugs attacking various small birds and their eggs. The affected species were mostly those that nest close to the ground, such as the reed warbler and chiffchaff. A few papers described actual attacks. Others described injuries different from those left by bird predators, which together with mucus trails and droppings in the nests, suggests slugs as the cause of the birds’ death. A large species of the genus Arion could be the culprit, say Turzanska and Chachulska (Journal of Avian Biology, “The actual moment of slugs predating on nestlings isn’t easy to observe,” says Turzanska. “You are more likely to come across the traces of the ‘tragedy’.”

Giant planet tilted its companions A MASSIVE planet in a far-flung system has swivelled the orbits of its smaller neighbours. Planets usually orbit near the plane of their star’s equator. But since 2008, we have seen planets orbiting at huge angles to this plane. Some are even revolving backwards – in effect, their orbits have flipped over. Multiple planets in one system can be tilted. In 2013, the Kepler spacecraft found two with orbits that are aligned with each other but tilted at about 45 degrees to the equatorial plane of their star, Kepler-56. After analysing four years of

Kepler-56 observations, Justin Otor at Princeton University and his colleagues conclude that the culprit is probably an even more massive unseen planet. With at least 5.6 times Jupiter’s mass, it is tugging on its companions from an orbit much further out ( abs/1608.03627). Simulations suggest that planet may be a relic of a former trio of outer worlds. “This one’s at the scene of the crime, but we still have the fingerprints of the other two,” says team member Benjamin Montet at the California Institute of Technology.

3 September 2016 | NewScientist | 15


Taming the tech giants The power of global information companies has raced ahead of society’s ability to hold them to account, says Hal Hodson. What’s the answer?


DO YOU remember your first accessed news on the site, up from Google search, with the world’s 31 per cent in 2013. Since its news information at your fingertips? Or feed algorithms control which perhaps the thrill of rediscovering stories people see, there are old friends when you opened a concerns that the company has Facebook account. From those the potential to shape public heady, early days, Google and opinion by curating the news. Facebook have become custodians “Google and Facebook of crucial technologies relied control what you know and upon by hundreds of millions what you see. They control of people all over the planet. your universe” The key to their success is no secret: the services they offer are the best and so droves of people Similar scenarios could be choose to use them. But with the imagined with Google. It could droves comes data and with that, a start charging insurance firms new form of power. This, coupled to access group insights from its with the fact that most users massive user base, say, which understand little about this new could mean individual customers’ currency, has led some to worry premiums go up. Or it could close that there is very little holding these companies to account. “They really control what you know and what you see. They control your universe,” says Ariel Ezrachi, who studies competition law at the University of Oxford. Is it time to rein them in? Even if we wanted to, could we? Few would argue that the existence of Facebook, Google and other information megacompanies has been anything other than a boon. But it’s not hard to imagine scenarios that raise concerns. Facebook could tip the balance of the US presidential election, say, with a small interface tweak that preferentially nudges supporters of one candidate to vote. That’s not too far-fetched: the firm is thought to have increased voter turnout in the 2010 US congressional elections by at least 340,000 by providing an “I Voted” button to 61 million users, essentially peer-pressuring their friends to do the same. Facebook is increasingly people’s gateway for news: in 2016, 44 per cent of US adults 16 | NewScientist | 3 September 2016

down services that millions of people find useful because they don’t bring in the right kind of data or adverts to make money. At the heart of these companies’ power is user-generated data, tonnes of it. It lets them make huge amounts of money from firms that want to use targeted adverts, and also to cut deals with a host of entities – public and private – hungry for the knowledge that can be harvested from massive data sets (see “The small print”, right). We are looking at a future where information companies become the enablers of services in all domains of life. “My prediction is that we’ll look back in 10, 15 years on this period as a remarkably

naive and irresponsible time,” says Julia Powles, a researcher in law and computer science at the University of Cambridge. Consolidating their power is the fact that while the companies understand the value of this data, the people they collect it from have little idea of its worth, now or in the future. “Neither the regulators nor society understand the real value,” says Ezrachi. This knowledge gap explains the recent handovers of data from the UK’s National Health Service to Google’s artificial intelligence arm, DeepMind, says Ezrachi. DeepMind understands the value it can extract from millions of patient records – in this case

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retinal scans – while just the chance that DeepMind will reduce the burden of eye disease is enough for the NHS. Giving DeepMind access to that data for free may not have been the best option for the UK public, who ultimately own the data, but there was no discussion about the deal beforehand.

commissions, answerable to an THE SMALL PRINT elected official, to ensure they Digital services have become a large don’t abuse their power as a part of our lives, but they come at a natural monopoly. Networks built cost. Here’s what we give away when and controlled by information we use them. companies have no such oversight. “What we have is a INSTAGRAM As well as being a huge system that relies on common audience to serve ads to, users of the sense and the good will of those at photo-sharing app are giving parent the head of those organisations,” company Facebook hashtags, which says Ezrachi. “That’s it.” its uses to train machine learning Public utility regulation is A market of one systems that handle images. usually done by overseeing Facebook and Google now look pricing. “All we did was regulate FACEBOOK The words you type and like natural monopolies, says prices with electricity, gas and the clicks you make are used to teach John Mark Newman, a legal plumbing,” says Newman. “That machine learning systems what scholar at the University of really was a rule of thumb that you are interested in, so it can show Memphis, Tennessee. This makes worked pretty well for 70 or this in your news feed. Your on-site sense for the consumer – if the 80 years.” But this won’t work for conversations are anonymised and purpose of a social network is Google and Facebook for a simple used to train its systems how to hold to connect people, it’s easier if reason: their products don’t cost human-like conversations. everyone is on the same one. But us anything – at least, not cash. natural monopolies should come Other traditional responses with accountability. to monopolies don’t feel right technically minded people into In the physical world, public either. The idea of “breaking up” existing regulatory bodies, says Facebook seems ridiculous as its utilities like gas and electricity Powles – people who understand entire usefulness comes from in the US are assigned regulating how large technology platforms having everyone on one network. bodies known as public utility are affecting individual autonomy. The same goes for Google, Another option is to enforce Microsoft and Amazon. Each existing laws with more is useful because of its scale. enthusiasm, says Richard French, So what can we do to ensure legal director at Digital Catapult, these companies stay on the right a UK-based non-profit. New side of benign? “This is a massive European Union regulations question, there isn’t an easy called the General Data Protection answer,” says Ezrachi. “Any Regulation, which will apply from approach has to be mindful of the risk of chilling innovation. On one 2017, may help as companies will hand you have extreme benefits – “There is no regulation. you have a lot of good stuff that What we have is a system comes out of these technologies. that relies on common On the other, you have sense and good will” gatekeepers that are able to occupy all the critical junctions.” be subject to far larger fines for Although firms like Google and data protection breaches than Facebook can’t be controlled by currently exist – up to 4 per cent regulating pricing, they could of global annual income in the still benefit from independent more serious cases, says French. oversight. A board could examine “That should really focus data data collection and processing controller’s minds.” practices, says Newman. The catch-all fix is education, DeepMind has taken a step in helping consumers understand this direction by appointing the value of their personal data, an independent review board and why it matters who controls to oversee the activities of its it. This is particularly important healthcare division. It had its first in the age of machine learning, meeting in July, which focused on when our data can be used procedural issues. –Larger than lifeto train software that can A priority should be recruiting

GOOGLE SEARCH After analysing billions of searches, Google knows that humans aren’t as unique as we think. It’s algorithm has learned so much about what we want that the site has started to display the clearest answers right at the top of the search results, above any web links, dictating how we find out about the world. WHATSAPP Last week, the messaging service announced that it is sharing some users’ data – including phone numbers – with parent company Facebook, opening another way for business to reach customers. The move provoked an angry reaction with many people saying they will no longer use the service.

perform autonomous labour. For example, from next year, all cars sold by Toyota in the US will come equipped with sensors that enable some autonomous driving features. But they will also collect data that will become the bedrock of Toyota’s future software for driverless cars, potentially securing its growth for decades to come. If consumers don’t understand that this is happening, then there can be no informed discussion about whether it’s a good idea, or if and how consumers should be remunerated for it. “Sometimes what is free in the short term would cost you much more in the long term,” says Ezrachi. Our information giants are barely a decade old – what happens in coming decades is anyone’s guess. The history of the automobile offers a useful parallel. While the autonomy of movement that cars provide has transformed the world, 1.25 million people are killed each year in accidents. That number would be a lot higher if Volvo hadn’t invented the seat belt. Ezrachi sees a parallel: “I’m not saying stop driving cars, but let’s have a few seat belts.” ■ 3 September 2016 | NewScientist | 17


Life in the firing line Insults, name calling and character assassination are no match for conservation causes backed by evidence, says Chris Packham I WAS taught to read by my father. We had an ancient set of stained and battered encyclopaedias and we started at A and headed to Z. He likes facts. For him they are the fabric of knowledge and knowledge is paramount. Unsurprisingly, I either inherited or imbibed that desire to know things and I long ago realised that the things most worth knowing are those which are true. That’s why I almost became a scientist and I enjoy meeting them, because they are people looking for truth. For me science is the art of understanding truth and beauty; there is no more noble pursuit. It is also why I happily stand up for conservation where there is irrefutable evidence of harm – the decline in birds of prey linked to grouse shooting or the unjustified culling of badgers or misguided demands to hunt foxes.

I do so even when the issues are allegedly controversial and I am accused of extremism simply for stating the facts, or doubt is cast on my right to speak out because I happen to present wildlife programmes for the BBC. Such attacks show that those I oppose have lost the rational case. Of course we all like to play with opinion and subjectivity, and I have my own particular emotional arena in which to do so. I might suggest that Justin Bieber’s entire body of work is not worth one track by the Ramones, but if you disagree with me I wouldn’t fight you over it. As an autist I’d be surprised, but I’d let it go, for the simple reason that if you want to win an argument you must be pragmatic, dispassionate and rigorous – you must argue from a foundation of solid, measured, qualified fact. Then you should win.

Great support act Putting healthcare first can spare festival drug users long-term harm, says Kevin Franciotti DRUGS at music festivals have made headlines again of late. There have been deaths, and some people have ended up with mental health problems. This is why I signed up to work with Kosmicare, a “psychedelic harm reduction” service backed by the organisers of last month’s Boom Festival in Portugal. It aims 18 | NewScientist | 3 September 2016

police or emergency medics get involved. Such interventions can intensify the unwanted effects of drugs and end in a criminal record or the inappropriate diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder. The creation of a safe place for them at Boom is a good example of what happens when drug use is made a public health issue, not a judicial one. In 2001, Portugal decriminalised drug use, allowing the main response to be one of healthcare. This helps services like

to minimise risks faced by people who are in a distressed state, often through the use of substances such as LSD and MDMA. Usually, people enduring what is commonly known as a “bad “The work at Boom is a good trip” are at best left to their own example of making drug devices to ride it out. At worst – if use a public health issue, their behaviour becomes erratic, uncontrollable or dangerous – the not a judicial one”

Kosmicare operate in full cooperation with event organisers. Its team at Boom numbers around 80, with at least a dozen people on duty at any time. Some bring medical, psychiatric or psychological training to the task, although most are volunteers. In other countries, people may still view harm reduction approaches as encouraging illegal behaviour, with violators unworthy of support. There are signs that these attitudes, which reflect local drug laws, are changing. For the first time this year, a UK event, Secret Garden Party, tested festival-goers’ drugs

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Chris Packham is a naturalist, TV presenter and author

to ensure safety. And Kosmicare has inspired a group in the UK to offer services at festivals there. But does the approach work? A 2014 paper assessed the impact at Boom: volunteers reported positive outcomes in 90 per cent of interventions, involving nearly 200 people. It was not a controlled study, but the hope is that more extensive assessment will bolster the case for harm reduction. Maybe one summer soon, festival headlines will only be about the music. ■ Kevin Franciotti (@kevinfranciotti ) is a graduate student at the New School for Social Research in New York City

INSIGHT Human behaviour


I’ve learned that if you peacefully, democratically and calmly present irrefutable evidence or facts in a reasonable and polite way and consequently win an argument, then your adversaries can be left wondering how to react. Reason says they should accept defeat and modify their stance accordingly, but we are talking about humans here, and so often this is a big ask. Ego, pride, selfishness, vested interests and, even worse, money may motivate them to reject that reason and lash out blindly and violently, ignoring the facts. In my idealistic youth this would have angered and disappointed me but as my time to make a difference dwindles, I know I must ignore their mischief, repel their misguided energies and deliberately and calculatedly exploit their weaknesses. For me, winning is not about a victory, it’s about not giving up. And when you’ve got science as your sword and truth as your shield you really have little to fear, so you can just keep going. For as long as it takes. Or for as long as you’ve got. ■

–Is this the queue to get a fake baby?–

Whyfakebabiesdon’t cutteenpregnancies Sally Adee

a cute, fun doll to take home for a weekend is not an accurate reflection of parenthood. Then there was the positive attention that the dolls create. The study isn’t without its flaws, but no one disputes its main finding – that the dolls didn’t work. This cautionary tale is not an unusual one. Many common-sense interventions crumble under the slightest probing, especially in medicine. The baby simulator is just the most recent example of how social policy can go unexpectedly wrong. Here’s another. In the UK, several areas used financial incentives to

“THERE is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” The Australian government might well have thought of this H. L. Mencken quote last week when the first randomised controlled trial of baby simulators was published. These dolls are meant to reduce teen pregnancy by providing a cautionary experience: they cry, urinate and need to be “fed” around the clock. Over the past decades, they have been rolled out in schools in 89 countries. They were all set for use in Western “There are many commonAustralia when someone asked if sense interventions there was any evidence that they that crumble under the work. The answer, incredibly, was no. slightest probing” About 20 studies had been done but they were all non-randomised and didn’t follow through to see whether promote attendance at adult literacy the dolls reduced pregnancy rates. classes. When this was tested later, it Now a study of more than 2800 was found that attendance was worse girls at 57 schools has found that those for adults given the motivational £5 who cared for a doll may have higher than it was for control groups – paying rates of pregnancy and abortion than small amounts for something can those who didn’t. Behind the alluring actually decrease its perceived value. narrative of the off-putting doll was a Sometimes, the common sense is more complex reality. Giving these girls so alluring that even when disputed by

many trials, it resists correction. For a long time, the policy in many hospitals after an emergency worker had been through a potentially traumatising event was a psychological “debrief” to head off any chance of post-traumatic stress disorder. It is now known that going over the details can actually bring on the condition. Despite the evidence, debriefing still persists. The same is likely to be the case with the baby simulator, says Julie Quinlivan at the University of Notre Dame Australia in Fremantle. A lot of money has already been spent. In Australia, the dolls and their attendant curriculum can cost schools about A$2500 (£1500). And politicians aren’t going to be happy to give up the prospect of a voter-friendly fix. To politicians, whether it works is less important than saying “I’m doing something”, Quinlivan says. It’s easy to see why it’s tempting to just go with your gut – trials can be big undertakings. But when there is room for hidden variables, they are crucial. Trials can even rescue good ideas that fail the common-sense test. When the UK Behavioural Insights Team looked at whether text messages could coax people to pay their court fines, it was met with scepticism. But a trial showed that it increased repayment rates and the amount recovered. Rather than a policy culture based on “Don’t just stand there – do something!” perhaps the approach should be “Don’t just do something”. ■ 3 September 2016 | NewScientist | 19



–Can we have an expert diagnosis?–

Medicine by machine Artificial intelligence is learning about our every ailment, but will doctors welcome it into the clinic, asks Aviva Rutkin THE doctors were stumped. After months of cancer treatment at the University of Tokyo Hospital, the patient – a woman in her 60s – was not getting much better. So the medical team plugged the woman’s symptoms into IBM’s Watson, the supercomputer that once famously trounced human champs in the TV quiz show Jeopardy! Watson rifled through its storehouse of oncology data and announced that she had a rare form of secondary leukemia. The team changed the treatment, and she was soon out of hospital. Watson spotted in minutes 20 | NewScientist | 3 September 2016

what could otherwise have taken medical error is the third leading weeks to diagnose, one doctor told cause of death in the US, and a The Japan Times. “It might be an significant chunk of that is exaggeration to say AI saved her incorrect diagnoses. life, but it surely gave us the data There are just too many health we needed in an extremely conditions and the literature is speedy fashion.” changing too rapidly for a Is this the future of medicine? primary care physician to retain it Artificial intelligence researchers all, says Herbert Chase, who works have long dreamed of creating on biomedical informatics at machines that can diagnose health Columbia University in New York conditions, suggest treatment City. “We’ve exceeded where it’s plans to doctors, and even predict humanly possible for doctors to how a patient’s health will change. “There are so many health The main advantage of such conditions and the an AI wouldn’t be speed, but literature changes so fast precision. A study published that no doctor can keep up” earlier this year found that

know what they need to know,” he says. “There are dozens of conditions that are being missed that could easily be diagnosed by a machine.” Chase once advised the IBM Watson team. These days, he is working on an algorithm that scours doctors’ notes for subtle clues that patients may be developing multiple sclerosis. The goal is to build a program that can calculate each person’s risk of MS, whether it be 0.5 or 5 per cent. He imagines a future in which software will automatically analyse electronic health records and spit out warnings or recommendations. “It’s a partnership. The machine makes a recommendation, then the human gets involved,” says Chase. But the spectrum of human illness is complex, so “algorithms will have to be built brick by brick”, with the focus on one medical question at a time.

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babies. Participants in one Chase thinks that artificially programming challenge are intelligent diagnostics will end getting AIs to listen to recordings up being integrated right into of heartbeats, sorting the normal databases of electronic health rhythms from the abnormal. records, so that seeking machine Yet other projects are trying to insights becomes as routine as make medical judgements using getting hold of a patient’s data. more obscure or indirect sources. Apps that offer diagnostic help A Microsoft algorithm, published already exist, like Isabel, which in June, makes guesses about doctors can run on Google Glass who has pancreatic cancer based in order to keep their hands free. Smart slide-reader on their web searches. Google But Chase says this approach is For example, a team at Stanford DeepMind, based in London, is unpopular, as doctors must spend University in California recently using masses of anonymised data time inputting patient data to use unveiled a machine-learning from the UK’s National Health them. AI diagnostics will only take algorithm trained to scrutinise Service to train an AI that will help off when it imposes no additional slides of cancerous lung tissue. ophthalmologists. The aim here is time pressure. The computer learned to pick to spot looming eye disease earlier There are social roadblocks, too, out specific features about each than a human can, although the says Leo Anthony Celi, a doctor at slide, like the cells’ size, shape project does raise questions about the intensive care unit of the Bethand texture. It could also whether commercial firms are distinguish between samples gaining access to health data too “For physicians to delegate from people who had only lived cheaply (see “Getting our money’s tasks to an AI, they must first admit to being for a short time after diagnosis – worth”, below). occasionally wrong” say, a few months – and ones from But is the medical profession those who survived much longer. ready to hand control over to The study verified the algorithm’s artificial intelligence? Before that Israel Deaconess Medical Center results by testing it on historical happens, doctors will probably in Boston. Down the line, Celi data, so now the AI could in want to see more solid proof that thinks, doctors will function principle be used with patients. a computer’s predictions can more “like the captain of a ship”, Stanford’s slide-reader is just improve health outcomes. delegating most daily tasks either one in a long string of AIs that Some fear that AI diagnosis to machines or to highly trained are learning to perform medical may backfire, encouraging nurses, medical techs and tasks. At a conference last week on doctors to overdiagnose and physician’s assistants. For that machine learning and healthcare overtest patients. Even if the system to succeed, doctors must in Los Angeles, researchers algorithms work well, there’s the first cede some control, admitting presented new algorithms to question of how to integrate them that the machine can perform detect seizures, predict the seamlessly into clinical practice. better than them in some progression of kidney or heart Doctors, notoriously overworked, domains. That’s a tough ask in a disease, and pick out anomalies aren’t likely to want to add yet career in which everyone from in pregnant women or newborn more items to their checklist. medical school professors to patients expects that doctors will always have the right answers. GETTING OUR MONEY’S WORTH Ultimately, there needs to be Artificial intelligence may have a lot It’s not clear that the NHS will get a cultural shift toward respect to offer in healthcare, but exploiting that time and money back. Richard for big data and AI’s potential in it means handing over troves of French, legal director at Digital medicine, argues Celi. Only then medical data to tech companies. How Catapult, a non-profit R&D centre in can we let machines and humans do we ensure that those transfers London, says that the deal may not do what each does best. are a good deal for the public? be the best one for the taxpayer. “No one can really replace As the recent deal between Google “One would have expected that doctors’ ability to talk to patients,” DeepMind and the UK’s National Google would pay for access to the he says. “Doctors should focus Health Service shows, it’s not just records in some form or another.” on what they do better, which is the quantity of patient data that If there was no upfront payment, talking to patients and eliciting matters, but its quality. NHS experts Google could have told the NHS that their values and their advance have spent a lot of time and money any commercial product based on the directives, and leave it up to the building and tending to the database research would be available to it at a machine to make the complex given to Google. discount, he says. Hal Hodson decisions. We’re not really good at it.” ■


These building blocks often rely on machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence that seeks patterns in mounds of statistics. Thanks to the ease of collecting and sharing data, researchers are coming up with new algorithms as fast as computers can crunch through the numbers.

Self-drive Singapore MIT start-up Nutonomy launched the world’s first public self-driving taxi service last week. Beating giants like Uber and Google to the tape, Nutonomy set up the pilot taxi service in Singapore, collecting real customers from the city-state’s one-north business park. Nutonomy will not charge customers for the rides. Instead, their payment will be valuable data on the performance of the driverless cars.

“We want to explore ways for you to communicate with businesses that matter to you” WhatsApp, in a blog post announcing that the Facebook-owned chat app will start sharing phone numbers with its parent company

The UK parliament’s Home Affairs Committee criticised the world’s largest tech companies last week for shying away from the war on ISIS. Committee chair Keith Vaz said huge corporations were “passing the buck” by allowing ISIS to use their platforms. The committee said social media platforms had become the “vehicle of choice” for terrorist recruitment and propaganda.

3 September 2016 | NewScientist | 21


Vehicles for jihadis?


TECHNOLOGY Instagram posts can hint at depression


FEELING blue? A new algorithm can predict depression from photos people post on Instagram and may in future prompt a visit to the doctor. Andrew Reece at Harvard University and Chris Danforth at the University of Vermont in Burlington surveyed the mental health of 166 people, then set an algorithm to comb through 43,950 photos posted by them on social media, looking for features correlating with depression. Depressed people, it turned out, tended to post blue-toned or dim photos, or use black-and-white filters. They were also more likely to post photos with faces, but with fewer faces per photo. Danforth says this might mean lots of selfies, part of the focus on self that occurs in depression, or it may mean the person is spending less time with friends or family (arxiv. org/abs/1608.03282). The algorithm used these features to predict depression 70 per cent of the time – better than the 42 per cent average accuracy of human doctors. “It’s very inexpensive – it’s something that could be an app on someone’s phone,” says Danforth. However, it could be tricky for doctors to access this data. “Most physicians are reluctant to view social media profiles of patients due to worries about confidentiality,” says Megan Moreno at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Conor Gearin ■

–Off to a glowing start –

Rise of robo-octopus Soft robots are about to fulfil their destiny, finds Paul Marks

IN A dish of water in Cambridge, closely alongside us in industry. Massachusetts, a new kind of Soft bots will squeeze into places robot stirs, its tentacles twitching. no rigid machine can and play Squashy and soft, this robot is more kindly and safely with different from its technological children. ancestors – Octobot runs without “The military, and search-anda power cable or rigid electronics, rescue entities, are interested in moving autonomously, small, soft robots that can go if still clumsily. through small holes, cracks, Soft robots have long been and other tight places like debris heralded as a new class of “Search and rescue need machine. But tethers, and the electronics needed to control their soft robots that can go movements, have held them back. through small holes, cracks and tight places” Not so Octobot. Developed by Michael Wehner and colleagues at the Wyss Institute for and rubble,” says Christopher Biologically Inspired Engineering, Atkeson, a roboticist at Carnegie Harvard University, it’s a big step Mellon University in Pittsburgh, towards fulfilling the potential Pennsylvania. of soft robots. Octobot harnesses an on-board Standard robots are made of chemical reaction to generate carbon fibre, with plastic and power. Control circuits made of metal circuit boards, copper tiny channels of fluid, known as wiring, high-power rechargeable microfluidics, dictate how the batteries and electric motors. All tentacles move ( Nature, this rigidity makes them fit poorly bpqh). into the human world where our The Wyss team created a soft fragile bodies prevail. elastomer body first, using a Highly supple soft robots, mould. They then 3D-printed the minus today’s unforgiving hard fuel store, the control network of –Can’t face the future– edges, should be safer working tiny pipes and valves, and the

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inflatable bladders which move the tentacles. The whole bot is around 10 centimetres across. It uses two fuels – hydrogen peroxide and a solution containing a platinum catalyst. When mixed, the H2O2 decomposes, releasing oxygen to inflate the bladders and twitch the tentacles. The microfluidic valve circuits are designed in such a way that they shunt oxygen around the limbs to move each limb in turn, Wehner says. The fuel lasts about 8 minutes before it needs topping up via syringe, though the team hopes to extend the time with better microfluidics. They also plan to add soft microfluidic sensors which they hope will let Octobot respond to its environment. More fluid-related tricks are on the horizon. The Wyss team operate the bot in water because it helps remove exhausted fuel. But, each time oxygen is generated, Octobot becomes momentarily buoyant. Wehner hopes they can work out how to harness this alternating buoyancy to propel the soft bot along in the water. ■

INTRODUCING THE SECOND IN A NEW SERIES OF WHITE PAPERS FROM NEW SCIENTIST What’s the future of business? We at New Scientist decided to take a look at how three of the key drivers of business – energy, money and automation – might change over the next decade. To do that, we’ve asked three writers with deep understanding of these areas to tell us how they think the future could unfold, and how it might confound our initial expectations. The author of our second GameChangers report in the series is Steven Cherry, who for 15 years covered the work sector for IEEE Spectrum, and now directs TTI/Vanguard, a members-only forum that explores the impact and implications of future technologies for senior business leaders. In his report, Cherry examines the arguments for and against the idea that automation will ultimately outsource every human job, and explores the paradoxes inherent in both. If cognitively complex jobs are the only ones that are safe, why is there still such high demand for cashiers? If automation generates new jobs, why is GDP slowing? And when can you expect the robots to take your job? To find out, register to download your free copy of GameChangers: Automation and Artificial Intelligence today.

Sally Adee Editor, GameChangers


ABOUT THE AUTHOR Steven Cherry is the Director of TTI/Vanguard, a membership forum based in New York that explores future technologies. Previously he was a journalist and editor at IEEE Spectrum, the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Prior to that he was an editor at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). He founded and co-hosts the award-winning podcast series, Techwise Conversations, which covers technology news, careers and education, and the engineering lifestyle.


] Why every technological breakthrough takes twice as long as we expected, but we’re still not prepared for its arrival ]Why GDP is an increasingly limited tool for measuring productivity, and what that means for jobs and automation ] Which jobs might be safe – and which won’t


24 | NewScientist | 3 September 2016

Thawed out STORM by storm, the waves of the Chukchi Sea are eating away at the tiny Alaskan village of Shishmaref. That coastal erosion – fuelled by a changing climate – spurred residents to take a vote. Last month, they decided to relocate the entire village. Shishmaref is perched on a sliver of land, a 6-kilometre-long barrier island a few dozen kilometres south of the Arctic Circle. The lifestyle of the 600 native Inupiat inhabitants is one of traditional subsistence. In the main picture, lifelong resident Fred Weyiouanna, 32, carries a caribou carcass, while in the bottom right image, a man cooks seal meat and blubber for sled dogs, a group of which await feeding in the top right. The centre right image shows children running near the village cemetery. Erosion and flooding have plagued Shishmaref for decades, but rising seas and melting permafrost are making things worse. About a metre of shore is lost each year, though individual storms can claim 10 times that much land. Residents have moved buildings to higher ground in the past, but the vote – 94 in favour of leaving, 78 for staying – means the entire village may head to the mainland. Two wilderness sites are under consideration, both within about 20 kilometres of the existing village. Shishmaref isn’t the only Alaskan settlement that could fall victim to climate change. A handful of others may also have to relocate. For one, a village called Newtok, the move is already under way. Emily Benson

Photographer Hossein Fatemi Panos Pictures

3 September 2016 | NewScientist | 25



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Hypersonic spaceplanes and aircraft that “grow” are on the menu for Nick Colosimo, global engineering fellow at defence, security and aerospace company BAE Systems. Colosimo is a “future gazer”. He keeps BAE Systems aware of any trends – technological, political, commercial or otherwise – that might affect the company and recommends responses. To do this he is tapped into myriad sources, including forecasting reports from governments and companies, people in business and research, start-ups, international manufacturing heavyweights and universities. Horizon-scanning also gives Colosimo a good view of valuable emerging ideas, and the chance to collaborate on them. This “open innovation” is bearing plenty of fruit. BAE Systems was so impressed after talking to Oxfordshire-based Reaction Engines that it invested £20 million in it. Reaction Engines is developing the part-jet, part-rocket SABRE engine, which is designed to power a craft to Mach 5 at altitudes of up to 25 kilometres and faster still to reach space. Such a craft could speed up access to space and carry out military missions beyond the reach of modern missiles. Another collaboration is with Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow. He builds compounds from atoms and molecules using technology similar to 3D printing. Instead of a robot arm to position each building block, he relies on chemistry. Cronin calls it a “chemputer”. Colosimo’s interest is in building modular nanoscale objects that could “grow” into aircraft components. You can hear more of Colosimo’s thinking at New Scientist Live, and see some fruits of open innovation at BAE Systems’ stand. Find out more about the SABRE engine and about clothing made from conductive fibres, into which soldiers can plug their devices. Check out stateof-the-art head-up displays and night vision for pilots, and try out a VR experience in which you are a firewall and have to repel threats.


















The branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time and space

LET’S GET METAPHYSICAL The biggest questions are normally left to philosophers: How do I know I exist? Do we have free will? What is reality made of? Why, for that matter, is there anything at all? Now, though, scientists are increasingly claiming them as their own…

3 September 2016 | NewScientist | 29

HOW DO I KNOW I EXIST? he short answer is you don’t. Consider this: with every passing moment, we get closer to creating intelligent machines, maybe even conscious ones. If we can do this, could someone – or something – else do it too? Philosopher Nick Bostrom at the University of Oxford highlighted this idea in 2003, arguing that if humans were one day able to create simulations populated with conscious beings, it’s at least possible that we, too, are living in such a simulation. Since then, that possibility has, if anything, become more realistic. There are projects seeking to build entire animal brains from scratch, modelled exactly on living ones, down to individual neurons and the myriad connections that interlink them. When very simple versions were given robotic bodies, lo and behold, they behaved like the creatures they were modelled on. It’s probably only a matter of time before we create virtual beings inside computers. In all likelihood, we will never find out whether or not we are simulations ourselves. But one thing is clear, says philosopher Thomas Metzinger of the University of Mainz in Germany: each of us has a robust experience that “I exist”. Perhaps a slightly more manageable problem is to figure out where that experience comes from. Clues come from neuropsychological conditions such as Cotard’s syndrome, in which people are convinced that they do not exist. In 2013, Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter, UK, and colleagues reported their studies of a person with Cotard’s. His brain scans showed important anomalies. One was in a brain network normally associated with internal awareness, including the awareness of our body and its emotional state. Activity in


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this network was low, down to levels seen in people who are minimally conscious. The researchers speculated that this created a perception of non-existence which the man could not discount because other parts of his brain responsible for rational thought were also damaged. The findings suggest that by creating a vivid perception of our body and its various states, our brain generates the feeling of existence – and any malfunction in this mechanism can cause us to question it. y How this all happens could be explained by e. the idea that the brain is a prediction machine It is continually being assaulted by signals from the body and its environment and must predict what’s causing them. For example, when you are walking by the coast, the brain has to be able perceive that you are about to come to a cliff – if you don’t, you may fall off the edge. It does this by creating internal models of the body and the environment. To make accurate calculations, the brain must maintain prior knowledge and keep testing the integrity of its models. “The brain is a system that is continually trying to prove its own existence,” says Metzinger. He thinks this prediction machinery mightt be compromised in people with Cotard’s. “The prediction error can never be cancelled out, [and this] attacks one of the most abstract and highest priors – ‘I exist’ – and makes that crumble away.” Of course, all of this certainty and doubting could still be part of a simulation. In which case, says Metzinger, “What I’d want to know is, what the heck is the hardware that the simulation is running on? Is it God’s brain or the Devil’s?” Anil Ananthaswamy


WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS? n Cotard’s syndrome, the feeling of existence corrodes but something more fundamental does not m (see “How do I know I exist”, op pposite). Even though pe eople with this rare ondition feel they don’t co xist, there is still an “I” ex ex xperiencing that feeling. W What is that “I”? One answer is that it may be a by-product off consciousness itself. René Descartes was onvinced that the body co nd conscious mind are two an diifferent substances: the first is made of matter, the latter is immaterial. His ideas nfluenced neuroscience in ntil a few decades ago, un ut the field has moved on. bu oday, it is widely accepted To hat our brains give rise to th onsciousness. co But how? That is a raging ebate. At its heart is what de hilosopher David Chalmers ph at New York University ermed the “hard problem” te off consciousness: how can hysical networks of neurons ph prroduce experiences that appear to fall outside the material world? As Thomas Nagel, also at New York University, put it in the 1970s: U u could know every detail you of the e physical workings of a bat’s brain, but still not know what itt is like to be a bat.

“You ay know beyond a doubt that ou exist, but your ‘I’ could still be an illusion”

Broadly speaking, those trying to solve the hard problem fall into two camps, according to psychologist and philosopher Nicholas Humphrey. There are those who think that consciousness is something real and those who say it’s a mirage, and so dismiss the problem entirely.

Mind trickery The former camp argues that consciousness is a fundamental component of the universe, one that exists alongside matter and has properties which, perhaps conveniently, cannot be explained by our present understanding of physics. If taken to the extreme, says Chalmers, this idea can lead to panpsychism, the view that all matter – even inanimate objects like rocks – is imbued with some degree of consciousness. Even without tackling that particular Pandora’s box, this camp faces a daunting challenge. We know that conscious thought can influence the body. A conscious desire to move your arm results in physical movement. But the fundamentals of how this happens remain hazy. Those on the other side say the hard problem creates one where there is none. “It’s an unsolvable mystery, because the problem is ill posed,” says neuroscientist Michael Graziano of Princeton University. He argues that consciousness is nothing but a trick of the mind. What’s more, the brain doesn’t just create the illusion of consciousness but also the

feeling that there is a separate, immaterial “I” having a conscious experience. In other words: there is no need to explain strange interactions between material and immaterial things because the immaterial things don’t really exist. For Graziano, Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett and other “materialists”, the real issue is not solving the hard problem but explaining how the brain accomplishes this trickery. Graziano resolves this by saying that consciousness is “the brain’s way of describing to itself what it means to pay attention to and deeply process a signal”. The argument goes like this: we must pay attention to our environment to survive. As a result, our brains have become very skilled at representing the world around us. Somewhere in the course of evolution, they began representing objects as having immaterial properties, and in so doing it generated the mirage of consciousness. Ultimately, most materialists take the view that after we die and our brains and bodies have decomposed, there is nothing left. That must mean that our prevailing sense of a separate, immaterial “I” was also an illusion. Which brings us back to the previous question: although you may know beyond doubt that you exist – and indeed it is very possible that you are not a simulation – the “I” you perceive yourself to be could still be an illusion. Anil Ananthaswamy 3 September 2016 | NewScientist | 31

HING WHY IS THERE SOMETHI RATHER THAN NOTHING?? erman philosopher Martin Heidegger’s angstridden non-answer to what he called “the fundamental question” was that a fear of nothing was the defining feature of the human condition. We certainly seem scared that nothing is some kind of universal default. But why should we presume that nothing is more likely than something? After all, if we accept that we exist to ask the question, then we’ve proved something exists. It’s a whole lot harder to prove that nothing can exist. It’s tempting to think that modern physics has made this line of reasoning easier. According to quantum field theory, even the vacuum of space is a lively soup of particles and fields popping up out of nowhere. This kind of random fluctuation is thought to have ultimately created our cosmos of stars, planets and existential worriers out of the quantum vacuum – admittedly abetted by some



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as-yet-unexplained happenstance, such as a period of faster-than-light inflation in the early universe, and matter somehow winning out against its evil twin, antimatter. But there’s a huge flaw in this logic: the quantum vacuum is not nothing. And even if there were no quantum vacuum filling it, empty space would be anything but nothing. According to Einstein’s relativity, space moves, bends, snaps and has holes in it just like a tangible, material thing. Even old-school physics admits it has a property: size. “When we say there is an absolute vacuum between Earth and the moon, that doesn’t mean there is nothing,” says physicist David Deutsch of the University of Oxford. “No distance between us and the moon – that would be disastrous.” Within this context, the idea that something can come from the “nothing” of free space is not a problem, says physicist

Paul Davies of Arizona State University, Tempe. “The ballyhoo about a universe popping out of the vacuum is a complete red herring,” he says. “It just dodges the real issue, which is the prior existence of the laws of physics.” More specifically, the question becomes why these laws of physics exist instead of any other set, including no set at all. “Even if the answer to why there is something rather than nothing were because of how quantum field theory works, the question would become why are the laws of quantum field theory as they are,” says Deutsch. One answer might be because a universe built on this basis is particularly prone to producing conscious observers who ask what they think are probing questions.

A popular idea is that all the other possible laws of physics – including no laws – exist elsewhere in a “multiverse” of all possible worlds. In that case, why a multiverse? In the end, says Deutsch, physicists are going to have to accept they can only ever shift the goalposts on this one. “It’s a philosophical question and that’s that.” He thinks this is actually a good thing. Even if science could reveal an ultimate answer to why stuff is, we shouldn’t want it. “We can’t have a magic formula that resolves all problems,” he says. “That would be a disaster, thinking would become pointless.” For him, the question is best explained by an old gag. “Why is there something? Because if there were nothing we’d still be complaining.” Richard Webb

put that comfort blanket aside and ask: in an indifferent and ephemeral universe, does human existence have any meaning at all? In some interpretations of quantum mechanics, the universe only comes into being when we observe it, and the act of observing it actually determines what happens next by forcing reality into one of many possible outcomes. A wilder interpretation – called the many worlds hypothesis – claims that every time you make a decision, the universe replicates itself. You enter one universe and an alternative you enters the other. If true, your universe is created by the choices you make. How’s that for meaningful?

Just ask


he harsh answer is “it has none”. Your life may feel like a big deal to you, but it’s actually a random blip of matter and energy in an uncaring and impersonal universe. When it ends, a few people will remember you for a while, but they will die too. Even if you make the history books, your contribution will soon be forgotten. Humans will go extinct; Earth and the sun will be destroyed. Eventually the universe itself will end. Against this appalling reality, how can a human life have any real meaning? This is one reason why belief in a god (or gods) is so popular: it softens the brutality of existence by imbuing the universe with meaning. Some theologians have even claimed that the pointlessness of life without God is evidence for God’s existence. In fact, there is no objective evidence for this (see “Can we ever know if God exists”, page 39). So let us

Critics might argue that there is no more evidence for these ideas than for the existence of God. In any case, the meaning they provide is rather impersonal and abstract. But you don’t have to be creating universes to find meaning in life. Recently, psychologists have hit on a novel way to discover whether life has meaning: ask people. When asked to rate how meaningful and purposeful their lives are, most people respond positively and rate their own sense of meaning and purpose as being greater than other people’s. In other words, despite the ultimately futile nature of human life, it feels pretty meaningful to those living it. This finding has been criticised for being entirely subjective and for failing to capture a “true” or “higher” meaning, such as leaving a legacy or changing the world. But according to Laura King, a psychologist at the University of Missouri who studies meaning, that is selfserving, elitist nonsense. If people say they find meaning in life, who is to argue? We will never get objective data on the matter anyway. Others point out that we are constantly searching for meaning, which suggests we do not have it. King sees no contradiction. “You can think of meaning like oxygen. Do I have plenty now? Yes. Am I going to keep on wanting plenty of it? Yes. You’re not going to stop wanting it because you already have it.” “The philosophical question has always been: is there a meaning to life? What is the meaning of life?,” says King. “My goal is to think about meaning with a little ‘m’, in the real world, in everyday people’s lives. Then we can start thinking about it in a less highfalutin and more everyday way, to understand it as a human experience.” Feel better now? Graham Lawton 3 September 2016 | NewScientist | 33

WHERE DO GOOD AND EVIL COME FROM? he 3-month-old baby was snatched from its mother’s arms, killed by a bite to the forehead and eaten. The act was carried out by a mother and daughter who were members of the same close-knit community as the baby. They were later implicated in at least two other cases of infanticide and cannibalism. By any standards of morality, this killing spree would be labelled“evil”. But the attackers and their victims were chimpanzees living in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. When primatologist Jane Goodall first reported it in 1975, she called it “barbarous murder”. Can a chimpanzee be evil? Or, for that matter, good? Philosophers have long wrestled with the nature of good and evil. Are they an inseparable duality? Are some things inherently good or evil? These questions seem too abstract to be answered by science. But by asking questions such as “why are animals altruistic?” and “why do chimps sometimes violently kill one another?”, biologists have arrived at an explanation that applies equally well to humans. Underlying good and evil is the neutral hand of natural selection. “Both ‘evil’ and ‘moral’ behaviour could serve one’s inclusive fitness interests, depending on the individual and the circumstances,” says Bernard Crespi, an evolutionary biologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. Inclusive fitness refers to the genes you share with close relatives, which are passed on to their offspring. It is why some animals have evolved to do things like help siblings raise their young. Even though the helper is not raising its own brood, the shared genes benefit. What appears at first to be a selfless act is selfish at the genetic level. Other things that appear purely altruistic are also better explained by a long-term benefit to the do-gooder. For example, blood donation is often cited as a totally selfless act, but one study found that it is more likely to be an act of self-interest. People who believe in the potential personal benefit of blood banks are more likely to donate than people who think mainly of their benefit to society. “Good” behaviour, in other words, is often about personal gain – which casts something of a shadow on the concept.“Evil”behaviour might be the same thing. Take those infanticidal chimps. Subsequent observations


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suggest that such acts occur at times when competition for food and other resources is higher – so killing the competition means more bounty for your own genes. Josephine Head, a biologist who witnessed horrific chimp violence in Loango National Park in Gabon, says the behaviour of our closest living relative gives us a window onto the roots of some human violence. “The tendency for group violence between males, and the strong ‘us and them’ mentality we attach to everything, can be traced back to this adaptive behaviour in apes,” she says. Extreme behaviour may be influenced by evolution in other ways. Money is sometimes paid to the families of suicide bombers, for example. “Inclusive fitness effects are likely at work here, though in ways that are evolutionarily novel,” says Crespi. Of course, as with other kinds of extreme behaviour, there are factors that aren’t rooted in evolution. Many people who commit horrific acts grew up in abusive or otherwise detrimental environments, which can have neurological, psychological and genetic consequences. And some behaviours are down to random mutations. “Crazy mass killers are likely just that – insane – which is maladaptive like any other disease or major disorder,” says Crespi. Where does all this leave us with regards to the big question? Good and evil don’t exist in any real sense. And there is a positive takehome message. The evolutionary pressures that can make humans violent can also make us extremely peaceful, says Martha Robbins, a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Our sense of morality can eliminate – or at least minimise – evil in society. Rowan Hooper

“Everything that can happen does happen, only in different universes”


ID I really just decide to have fish and chips for lunch?” Humans have been wrestling with such questions for millennia. Maybe not about the fish and chips, but about whether we are truly in control or whether some external agent – be that an omnipotent god or the laws of physics – predetermines the trajectory of our lives. Unfortunately, there are no


easy answers. Who is the “I” who decided to have fish and chips? Your gut reaction might tell you that you are a conscious entity controlling your physical body. But that physical body includes the brain that generates your consciousness (see “What is consciousness”, page 31). There is no splitting the two. We do know that any sense we have of being in control of

our actions is, to some extent, an illusion. In particular, neuroscientist Benjamin Libet showed in the 1980s that mechanisms within the brain initiate actions long before that brain’s owner is aware of deciding to perform them. It’s a big extrapolation to claim that all of our actions are outside our control. “Libet deals with the very short-term precursors of very simple actions,” says Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London. Then again, even longer-term decisions and actions are the result of specific brain processes. “I assume this is also deterministic,” says Haggard. For Nicholas Humphrey, an emeritus psychologist at the London School of Economics, acknowledging that decisions have an involuntary, material cause in brain processes does not amount to denying free will. “On the contrary, I’m saying that I myself am the cause of it,” he says. Humphrey calls his “I” an “embodied self”: the sum of the thoughts, beliefs, desires, dispositions and so on that live within him. The embodied self might not be conscious of every action, but it ultimately determines them – a sort of free will on autopilot. A physicist might question that separation of personhood from other material parts of the universe. Biological material is nothing more than agglomerations of atoms and molecules that follow the laws of physics – and surely we can’t claim to be in control of those. Vlatko Vedral, a physicist at the University of Oxford, thinks that to understand free will (or our lack of it) we need to better understand what makes the universe tick. “My guess is that we will be able to illuminate it more and more as we continue to reduce more complex natural sciences, such as

biology and neuroscience, to physics,” he says. If it is all down to physics, that doesn’t mean everything is predetermined. Quantum physics, our most fundamental theory of how the building blocks of the universe behave, seems to say that a degree of randomness and uncertainty is built in to particle properties and movements – including those that make us up. Scale that up, and what happens in the universe can’t be entirely determined from beginning to end because you can never know what’s going to happen at the quantum scale.

Quantum decisions Unless, that is, you believe the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory, which says that all this uncertainty is only because everything that can happen does happen, only in different universes. In this scenario, the universe really is predetermined. The only uncertainty lies in which pre-packaged universe you find your conscious self in: the one where you ordered fish and chips or the one where you didn’t. Or you can take it even further as some physicists do, notably Nobel Laureate Gerard ’t Hooft of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. He argues that the universe is superdeterministic – that something outside it sets everything in stone, including the outcome of experiments we might do to test whether we have free will. To some people this amounts to a god. Vedral admits the possibility can’t be discounted. “Because we are finite, and part of the universe, we would still perceive it as non-deterministic.” There are some battles you just can’t win. Michael Brooks 3 September 2016 | NewScientist | 35

50 ways to test the multiverse The many-worlds hypothesis says that the universe splits in two when we observe an object. By contrast, quantum theory says that two versions of a quantum object are equally likely until it is observed, at which point one disappears. Which of these interpretations is correct has implications for the nature of reality (see “What is reality made of”, page 36) and free will (see “Do I have free will”, page 35). So can we test them? Possibly, but it would be unpleasant. Quantum Russian roulette is a thought experiment developed by physicist Max Tegmark to test the many-worlds hypothesis. It begins with an experimenter, a gun and photons.

Initially, each photon’s spin value is simultaneously up and down

Every 10 seconds, one photon’s spin value is measured and found to be up or down

The outcome controls the gun. If the spin is up, a bullet is fired and the experimenter dies. If the spin is down, a blank is fired. The experimenter survives and starts another round














Dead she is either alive or dead


and and


her odds of survival have dropped to 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000

she is alive in one universe and dead in another


she is alive in one universe, and dead in 999,999,999,999,999 others

If the experimenter is alive after 50 rounds, she can assume that she is living in a multiverse 36 | NewScientist | 3 September 2016

WHAT IS REALITY MADE OF? VERY age in history has its own ideas about what makes up the universe. “Questions about what kinds of things exist go all the way back to the earliest philosophical texts,” says Jan Westerhoff, a philosopher at the University of Oxford. For many ancient peoples, basic elements such as earth, air, wind and fire formed the



E ARE born. We die. We call the span that separates these events time. Its passage is perhaps the most fundamental feature of our human experience, yet we are incapable of saying exactly what it is. Worse – the laws of physics don’t help. That time exists is undeniable, but the way we experience it makes no sense. “There’s an old joke about time – it’s nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once,” says physics Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas, Austin. To us mortals, time is the passage of the sun and seasons, the progressive wrinkling of our skin as we age – irreversible markers of a present that is moving forwards, and a future that is ineluctably becoming the past. Unlike space, time has a natural order. If A influences B, then B is always later in time. This is the central feature of time as we perceive it: as a flowing entity that orders our lives. There’s only one problem with this, says David Deutsch of the University of Oxford: it’s nonsensical. We see ourselves as living in a present that marches down an imaginary timeline at a set pace. The imagery implies the existence of some sort of universal ticking time setting the beat against which all else is measured. “But what is that other time?” says Deutsch. We’ve only succeeded in creating a new problem. In Einstein’s relativity, our best large-scale theory of the universe, there isn’t even a single objective metronome tick. Time becomes folded up with space into a malleable, fourdimensional space-time, and its passage depends on how fast you are moving, or the strength of the surrounding gravitational

essence of the cosmos. In the past century or so, we have concluded that matter is built from atoms, that atoms are constructed from a small set of elementary particles, and that those particles are fluctuations in a melee of quantum fields pervading empty space (see “Why is there something rather than nothing”, page 32). So, job done – reality

explained? Not so fast, says Westerhoff. “You need to be absolutely clear about the sense of the word ‘reality’ – otherwise the discussion is going to be all over the place.” For a start, do only physical objects like earth or atoms count towards reality – or things like minds and consciousness, too? Although the scope of our >

field. Yet of the four dimensions of space and time, time remains somehow special. “If I tell you what’s happening in a region of space like the solar system, then we can predict what will happen in that same space at a different time, but not what is happening at the same time in a different space,” says Deutsch. Quantum mechanics, the other pillar of modern physics, reinforces this view of time as something apart, while producing a picture completely at odds with relativity. Here, there is an objective “god’s eye” time that allows you to see all events encapsulated in time, including the future, from outside it. But while all quantum-mechanical observables – things that can be calculated about reality – depend on it, time is not itself an observable, so cannot be calculated. It can’t even be reliably measured: the principle of quantum uncertainty makes it impossible to distinguish the order of two events that are very close in time. “It gets harder to prevent effect preceding cause,” says Weinberg. So between quantum theory, relativity and our own aberrant perception of a flowing time, we’re left in quite a pickle. “All three conceptions are inherently problematic,” says Deutsch, “quite apart from conflicting with each other.” One hope is that a brighter, shinier theory will unite quantum theory and relativity, and also illuminate time’s true nature, but such a theory is still a long time off. In the meantime, Deutsch thinks our best clue comes from calculations done by physicists Don Page and William Wootters more than three decades ago. They showed that pairs of quantum “entangled” particles, whose properties influence each other even at a distance, naturally evolve to provide anyone inside a universe with an illusion of time passing – while to anyone looking from outside the universe nothing would be happening at all. Experiments in 2013 provided tentative support for this idea of time as an illusory emergent phenomenon. If true, it could begin to explain some of our difficulties. Just as we are bound by geometry to view Earth as flat even though it is curved, so we are not able to experience “real” time. “Our perception is on a very coarse-grained scale,” says Deutsch. “We don’t see the multiplicity of stuff joining up and being entangled.” That’s still speculative, and far from a general physical theory of time. But perhaps we shouldn’t lose too much sleep over it. No amount of understanding time will change the truth about ours – that it is limited. Time to make the most of it. Richard Webb 3 September 2016 | NewScientist | 37

38 | NewScientist | 3 September 2016

we are glimpsing something very profound. If the mathematical description is precise but the physical interpretation is messy, might mathematics be the only real thing? In this picture, you can forget matter and energy, whether conventional or dark. The most fundamental things are the 1s and 0s of information, and the universe is nothing but a gigantic dataprocessing machine. A star, for example, is not a nuclear fusion reactor building successively heavier atomic nuclei, but a computer processing information into more complex forms. “What we perceive as the physical world is a kind of crystallisation of abstract

mathematical structures,” says Westerhoff. Follow this creed, and the ultimate theory of physical reality must come from the mathematical discipline of information theory, with space and time, particles and energy, forces and fields dropping out naturally from this magnum opus. We then have to ask why our brains construct physical entities from the underlying numerical reality. An answer to that one, and indeed any true understanding of reality’s essence, may require understanding the prism that is consciousness, too (see “What is consciousness”, page 31). Until then, we may remain like the prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave

who, unable to turn their heads to see the objects casting shadows on the cave wall, believe that the shadows themselves are the true reality. Our age’s idea of what makes up the world may be no less flawed than those that came before. Stuart Clark


definition determines the complexity of the puzzle, physics should still supply the solution, says philosopher Tim Maudlin of New York University. Physics is about just two questions, he says: “what exists?” and “what does it do?”. “If you answer both of those questions, then I think you have answered the question ‘what is reality?’.” If so, we’re still a country mile from a resolution. Modern physics supplies answers for only about 4 per cent of material reality – the other 96 per cent exists as mysterious “dark” matter and energy. Essential components of reality such as space and time also remain unexplained (see “ Is time an illusion”, page 37). The problems are deep-rooted. Quantum theory is the best description of material reality ever devised, yet we cannot get our heads around what it says. It seems to imply all possible states of a quantum object are equally real until a measurement forces a single state to exist – a bizarre state of affairs pilloried by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in the 1930s, with his quantum cat that was simultaneously dead and alive until someone looked at it. The questions that raises are legion. Why is one version of the cat chosen over the other, and what determines which one? What happens to the other version – does it simply cease to exist, or do both persist in parallel versions of reality? The mathematics of quantum theory, while providing a flawless description of the outcomes of measurements, is silent on these crucial questions. And so we hit a brick wall – or do we? The other possibility is that

CANWE EVER KNOW IF GOD EXISTS? T COST more than $13 billion and took 14 years, but eventually, as expected, God showed up. The joy and relief were immense. That was in 2012, and the evidence has only become stronger. Disbelief is no longer an option. God is real. Not the God of course, but Her particle, aka the Higgs boson. If only proving the existence of God were that simple. Gallons of ink and blood have been spilled over this question but have largely got us nowhere. Belief in a god or several gods is a leap of faith. So is disbelief. The only coherent and rational position is agnosticism. On the surface, the prospects for changing that seem remote. Demonstrating the existence of the Higgs boson – a material entity whose properties were established by particle physics – was one thing. How can you do the same for a supernatural being that is, among other things, everywhere and nowhere, immanent and transcendent, knowable and incomprehensible? That has not stopped scientists and philosophers on both sides from having a go. For theists, one argument has been the intricate complexity of the natural world. Surely something as beautiful and functional as an eye or butterfly is irrefutable evidence of a creator? The superficially persuasive argument, later resurrected as intelligent design and its idea of irreducible complexity, turned out to be very refutable indeed. Evolution by natural selection, working over vast lengths of time, is all you need. As science has progressed, such “evidential theism” has crumbled and some modern religious philosophers have retreated to a position known as reformed epistemology. They hold that God’s existence requires no justification or evidence. God just is, period. To the scientifically minded that looks like a hopeless cop-out, and so evidential atheism has gained momentum. One avenue is the cognitive by-product hypothesis, which says that human brains are primed for religious belief because of, among others, the “hyperactive agency detection device” – a hairtrigger assumption that everything in our environment is caused by an often-invisible


agent. The evolved system would have given our ancestors an edge: divining the presence of an animal in the rustling branches of a bush meant they were better prepared to pounce or flee. Today, though, it means we are inclined to see an invisible hand in most if not all phenomena we can’t immediately explain. Physicist Victor Stenger was one of evidential atheism’s greatest exponents. In 2007, he published God: The Failed Hypothesis, in which he pointed out that the Abrahamic God worshipped by billions of people either exists, or does not. If it does, there ought to be observable consequences.

Evidence of absence Stenger (who died in 2015 and may now be repenting at leisure) went on to spell out a number of those consequences. For example, if God is the source of morality, non-religious people should be more immoral than religious ones. If God created the universe, we should see supernatural signatures in the laws of physics and cosmology. If God answers our prayers, prayers for the sick should work like medicine and clinical trials should show them to do so. None of these has ever been observed, said Stenger, and so we should revert to the null hypothesis: God does not exist. According to Scott Aikin, a philosopher of religion at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, Stenger’s conclusion still stands. “The evidence points to the fact that God doesn’t exist,” he says. “I’m of the view that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” There are other reasons to reject the God hypothesis, he says, not least the many logical paradoxes it creates. Could an omniscient and omnipotent God create a secret that she doesn’t know or a stone that she could not lift? And then there is the paradox of worship: it requires complete submission to God’s will, yet we are said to be autonomous beings (see “Do I have free will”, page 35). There are many ways to wriggle out of evidential atheism’s arguments. One is “divine hiddenness”, which says that God will only reveal herself to people who really, really want to have a relationship with God, and then only after a struggle. If true, it is no wonder that atheists don’t see any evidence. It doesn’t take much to see that there’s no arguing with this: like a conspiracy theory, it insulates itself from refutation. That places it outside the realm of science, which is where many believers locate God anyway. And probably for the best: if God belongs anywhere, that is where. Graham Lawton 3 September 2016 | NewScientist | 39


Kestrel manoeuvres in the dark Carl Jones had to invent an entirely new form of conservation when he went to Mauritius to save one of the world’s most endangered birds

I OFTEN clash with my fellow conservationists, even though we have the same goals. I’ve always focused on species, whereas most of the conservation community look at ecosystems. For me, it all started with a love of birds of prey: as a schoolboy in rural Wales I kept and bred common kestrels in my garden. When I was 20, I went to a conference on captive breeding at the University of Oxford, where I was inspired by the ornithologist Tom Cade. He said: “No birds of prey need become extinct – we have the capability to breed them and put them back into the wild.” He showed a picture of the Mauritius kestrel and said it was the world’s rarest bird but it could be saved. I thought this was amazing: what I had been learning in my garden could help save the Mauritius kestrel. I was so fired up that I later went to the US to meet Cade and learn more about captive breeding. The trouble was that many conservationists believed that it was too late to save critically endangered species like the Mauritius kestrel. They were doomed, and the money would be better spent elsewhere. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Council for Bird Preservation

Carl Jones in 1982 with one of the first Mauritius kestrels he hatched in captivity 40 | NewScientist | 3 September 2016


PROFILE Carl Jones is chief scientist of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and scientific director of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation. He won the 2016 Indianapolis prize for conservation

No quick fix The birds soon responded to intensive management and their numbers steadily grew. But it was a long haul. I had realised almost as soon as I arrived that saving the species was not something that you could do in five years; it would be more like 50. If you dig into the recovery of the most endangered species – black-footed ferret, whooping crane, California condor and so on – they all show this pattern. It takes at least 10 generations. In the end, I spent 20 years full-time on Mauritius, and I still go back three times a year to follow MWF’s ongoing work. We have used our techniques to save other endemic species on the island that would probably have gone extinct, like the pink pigeon, the echo parakeet and the Rodrigues



(ICBP) had a small Mauritius kestrel project, but were talking about pulling out. I was determined: through a contact, I persuaded Peter Scott, an ornithologist and head of WWF, to give me, a novice, the chance to go to the island in a last-ditch bid to save the species. So in 1979, aged 24, I arrived in Mauritius. I was convinced we could breed and restore this endemic bird, even though there were only two breeding pairs left in the wild plus a few captive birds. Things looked bad. In my first year, the captive birds got sick and died. We realised later that this was because the shed where we raised mice as bird food had been sprayed with the pesticide DDT during a campaign to rid the island of malaria. The mice were full of DDT, and eating them killed the birds. DDT was the reason the kestrel was rare in the first place. I rethought how we were going to save the species and soon began clashing with the ICBP. They disapproved of my new approach, which was to take captive breeding techniques into the wild: removing eggs from nests for artificial incubation, killing predators, feeding the birds, providing nest boxes and so on. It was very intensive; I and a small team of local and international volunteers were often literally sleeping under the birds’ nests. The ICBP, whose project was funded by the WWF, had a more hands-off approach. They wanted to protect the forests and set up an education project, but leave the wildlife to look after itself. Otherwise, as one of them told me, there was no point in saving it. We clashed badly, and they pulled out in 1984. I set up the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) and found money from other sources, including Cade’s Peregrine Fund in the US.

Mauritius kestrels hatching today have great prospects. Jones also helped bring echo parakeets (right) back from the brink

fruit bat. I firmly believe that if we want to keep critically endangered species, we are going to have to look after them more or less permanently. That is a big challenge for the conservation community, which often acts as if we can return the world to its pristine state. That is total nonsense. I soon realised on Mauritius that we were not just managing species intensively, but were also starting to manage ecosystems – restoring their functions, though sometimes using different species from those that were there before. To restore ecosystems on the islands of Mauritius, we often had to rid them of invasive species like rats, goats and rabbits. But that created unexpected problems. For example, after we eliminated rabbits from Round Island, we expected to see the recovery of native tussock grasses and other endemic plants important for nesting seabirds and reptiles. Instead they started to disappear and we had to think again. I decided the system needed grazers. By getting rid of the rabbits, we had removed the only grazers still there. The original grazers had been giant tortoises, until they went extinct. So I figured we should introduce Aldabra giant tortoises. They were a different species, but it seemed to me they would do the same job. When I talked to my friends about this, they all thought I was

mad. “How do you know they will be an exact fit?” they asked. Botanists were literally purple with rage, saying the tortoises would eat critically endangered plants. I said: “Sure, that’s the idea. Your plants won’t survive unless tortoises graze on them.” We conducted some studies that showed tortoises would do far more good than harm. It turned out that the seeds of endemic plants that passed through a tortoise’s gut germinated far better than if they hadn’t. After the MWF restored the tortoises, the native plants started to come back. The lesson is that we cannot turn back the clock on nature. With climate change, reconstructing ecosystems by design will be the only way to save them. What is important now is to keep all the component parts – all the species – for rebuilding. I am in favour of rewilding, but it will require more

“The idea that the world can be returned to a pristine state is total nonsense” management, not less. This sticks in the craw of purists. What we did in Mauritius is still regarded by many as a failure, even though we now have 300 kestrels, because we continue to manage them rather than leaving them alone. Our critics have to get real. It is only by taking the techniques of captive breeding into the field that we can be optimistic about saving species. I believe that with more aggressive approaches, we can save all species. Of course that will not happen in practice, but the conservation of most is within our reach. ■ As told to Fred Pearce 3 September 2016 | NewScientist | 41


A river runs through it The Water Kingdom: A secret history of China by Philip Ball, Bodley Head, £25 Water is for Fighting Over... and other myths about water in the West by John Fleck, Island Press, $30 Thirst for Power: Energy, water, and human survival by Michael E. Webber, Yale University Press, $30

is how water shortages promote the politics of cooperation rather than conflict? In their different ways, three new books all make that case: in China, in the American West, and globally. The Water Kingdom tells what British science writer Philip Ball calls the “secret history” of China. From its founding, Chinese society has been organised around the management of water. Dynasties rose and fell according to whether they could control the


OK, MARK TWAIN never actually said “whiskey’s for drinking, but water’s for fighting over”. The first authenticated use of that famous aphorism of the American West “Across the world we are was actually by a government running out of water. Not official in Montana in 1983. But absolutely, but where in a world of growing water we want it and when” shortages, it is just too good not to quote. Journalist John Fleck certainly can’t resist it, even if the floods that came down the Yellow full title of his book is Water is for River along with the rich, fertile Fighting Over… And other myths silt in which its citizens planted about water in the West. their crops. Not for nothing is the Water matters. Across the world’s sixth-longest river known world, we are running out of the as China’s “joy and sorrow”. stuff. Not absolutely, but where For more than 4000 years, since we want it and when we want it. Emperor Yu entered the history Everyone expects “water wars”: books as the “controller of the Amazon offers seven books with waters”, only authoritarian and that title. But what if the real story centralised rule could press-gang

the millions of people required to raise the river’s massive dykes – in order to keep pace as the regular deposition of silt lifted the river ever higher above its floodplain. Through all the twists and turns in the long and uninterrupted history of Chinese civilisation, the control of water has been the single unifying thread. And Ball’s vibrant narrative makes magnificent sense of it all, from Yu to Chairman Mao, whose Communist control included building more dams than any leader in history, and his successors. Confronted by droughts that have dried up the Yellow River, today’s leaders of the Water Kingdom have responded by building giant canals to bring replenishing waters from the Yangtze in the wet south. Controlling the great rivers of China has always required an iron imposition of central power. And when war intervened, things went badly wrong. In 1938, to block advancing Japanese invaders, Chinese generals broke the Yellow River’s dykes. Result: hundreds of thousands of deaths, almost all of them Chinese peasants caught up in floods and famine as the river swept south across its heavily populated floodplain. China was and remains the ultimate hydraulic civilisation. As Ball puts it: “China’s water will decide its future.” And in many ways the American West in the 20th century proved a worthy successor. By harnessing the mighty River Colorado, which runs south from Colorado to Chasing power: Chairman Mao built more dams than any other leader

42 | NewScientist | 3 September 2016


Water fuels human life everywhere, so shortages should spell disaster. Fred Pearce explores why it may not be that simple

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Those who control the river upstream control all the water

the Colorado as it crosses the border into Mexico. After years of absence, it flowed all the way to the river’s parched delta on the shore of the Gulf of California. But the truth is this symbolic rewetting lasted for only a few days. It was, Fleck admits, just an experiment – to find out what would happen. Today, the delta is again dry. Because if water wars are mostly a myth, the hydro-hegemony of the “controllers of the waters” is very

Mexico, and distributing its waters to farmers and cities, modern engineers have sustained shining civilisations around desert cities such as Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas. Tensions were never far away as city bosses, state governors and agribusiness corporations jostled for the Colorado’s waters – tensions immortalised in the 1974 movie Chinatown. But Fleck’s “Behind the glitz of Las engaging journalistic odyssey, Vegas’s hotel fountains, Water is For Fighting Over, like Ball’s, finds that fighting has been the city is now a model of water conservation” noticeably absent. Instead, the need to harness water in real – whether Californians taking an arid land meant deals were the last drops of the Colorado, or ultimately done, power was China damming the Mekong and brokered, sluices stayed open, Salween rivers before they reach and the water kept flowing. the country’s South-East Asian Fleck showcases the networks neighbours. of little-known technocrats who If anything, the power of water have done the deals, and slowly today is growing. As rivers like the encouraged their masters to Colorado and Yellow run dry, adopt limits on once-profligate more and more food crops require water use. Even in Las Vegas. artificial irrigation. And more and Behind the showy glitz of its more electricity is generated by ostentatious hotel fountains, hydropower. From the Hoover Vegas today is a model of water conservation, he says. Since 2000, dam to China’s Three Gorges, hydroelectricity is our largest its population has grown 34 per source of renewable electricity. cent while its water use has fallen And, as energy researcher by 26 per cent. Michael Webber argues in Thirst Fleck argues persuasively for Power, the “nexus” between that the battle for water is not a water and electricity works both zero-sum game. Savings can be ways. In California, a fifth of made. Deals today may involve a city in one state investing in water electricity in the grid is used to conservation on farms in another pump water around the state. That’s great, he says, until drought state, so as to lay claim to the “saved” water. Today Californians turns out the lights or a power outage dries up your fields. The irrigate golf courses rather than message from these books is that alfalfa. Ultimately, “when people water is just too important to fight have less water, they use less over. And its control requires water”, he says. He makes his case well. But that cooperation. But the flip side is that control over water itself doesn’t mean the conflicts aren’t real. Nor that there aren’t losers as confers power and wealth. Hydrohegemony. Or, to put it in the well as winners. The losers, as language of another favourite every last drop of Colorado water phrase out West: “Water flows has been divided up in the US, uphill towards money”. ■ have been nature and Mexicans. The centrepiece of Fleck’s story Fred Pearce is a consultant for is the return in 2014 of water flowing down the dried-up bed of New Scientist 3 September 2016 | NewScientist | 43


Here comes a chopper… Britain’s first lumberjacks have long tales to tell, finds Ian Tattersall

IT HAS been 100,000 years since members of the human species began to process information in a way that allowed them to recreate the world in their minds. What followed remodelled the face of our planet – but not until protofarmers adopted a settled existence, a process that began only 12,000 years ago. The effects of this lifestyle change were profound. Hunter-gatherers are integrated into their environments and, as far as we can tell, early groups behaved accordingly, their populations controlled by the availability of natural resources. For fledgling farmers, the calculation was entirely different. Clearing land for crops demanded labour, as did constructing and maintaining the irrigation systems necessary to compensate for irregular rainfall. In a world where resources were more abundant and more reliable, our ancestors’ more-or-less helpless offspring flourished, expanding the population. Soon, people found themselves in a constant battle with the environment to maintain their fields, a struggle that was won only occasionally, by exhausting the capital nature herself provided. The bargain made by the early farmers was in many ways a Faustian one, but it was Geoengineering made simple: a Neolithic toolkit 44 | NewScientist | 3 September 2016

fundamental to creating the chooses as an emblem of their modern world. destruction the elegant, polished David Miles’s engaging The Neolithic axe head, the early Tale of the Axe tells this story. lumberjacks’ implement of choice. It begins by looking back at Prior to describing the gradual human evolution, with a tilt at transformation of the British the determinisms of evolutionary landscape at axe-wielding hands, psychology, and concludes by Miles pays welcome attention to anticipating, with some optimism, the Mesolithic, the shadowy our unpredictable future. The period between the time of the ice book’s core is a sprawling account age hunters and the rather tardy of how agriculture originated in arrival of the first full-time the Middle East and, over several farmers, in the fifth millennium millennia, spread through the BC. The rise of forests wasn’t European peninsula and the only dramatic change at eventually into Britain. this time: sea levels rose to After the retreat of the polar icecap at the end of the last ice age, “People found themselves in a constant battle with Britain’s tundra was replaced by nature, a struggle they dense forest. The endless trees won only occasionally” couldn’t last long, and Miles


The Tale of the Axe: How the Neolithic revolution transformed Britain by David Miles, Thames & Hudson, £19.95

drown the former “Doggerland” that lay between Britain and the rest of Europe, cutting the archipelago off. The hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic prepared the way for farmers by extensive burning to create clearings for browsing mammals (and even, Miles hints, for ritual purposes), and by creating a system of trails. One sighs that so little remains – “in Britain, their camps and settlements [have left] slight traces” – but his account leaves one hopeful of more to come. As for the Neolithic itself, Miles pays due homage to its monumental aspects: the Stonehenges, the Carnacs, the Grand Menhirs and the many other manifestations of the megalithic tradition. But his concern lies at least as much with the societies and economies of those people. Miles describes Neolithic societies less in overarching generalities than through the particular windows provided by individual sites. The cumulative result of his innumerable and cleverly woventogether examples is a fascinating and sometimes moving perspective on the lives of the people who began to create the landscapes we know today. Formerly chief archaeologist at English Heritage, Miles writes like the genial popular lecturer he obviously is; and he never shrinks from an instructive or even a merely interesting digression. Make sure you have plenty of time to spare as you wend your way through this unhurried book. ■ Ian Tattersall is curator emeritus with the American Museum of Natural History in New York

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world where our technologically enabled fictions may become “the most potent force on earth”, Harari has a straightforward test for what is real: “Does it suffer?” One of our lines of defence against the machines, says Harari, might come from a kind of crossspecies solidarity, particularly around the question of the nature of an organism’s experience. For all his apparent algorithmic fundamentalism, Harari is scathing about the sciences of consciousness, and their inability to explain “how a congeries of biochemical reactions and Liberalism’s collapse electrical currents in the brain For Harari, a seasoned meditator, creates the subjective experience liberalism collapses the day the of pain, anger or love”. algorithm-driven system “knows Neuroscience and psychology me better than I know myself. mostly (and embarrassingly) draw Which is less difficult than it may their test results from students, sound, given that most people a category of what Harari calls the don’t really know themselves well.” “WEIRD” – Western, educated, Sentence by sentence, there is industrialised, rich, democratic. much street-corner humour in “The experiencing faculties this book. But you eventually realise that playfulness constitutes of organisms may indicate different and fascinating its entire structure. Rather than internal worlds” being a beach-read celebration of our imminent divinity, Homo Deus actually pulls the towel out Much mental variety exists from under its own flip-flops. beyond this, not least within Towards the end, there is much cultures that value visionary and rumination about the possibility exalted states. We also have a of a new “religion” called Dataism. growing sense of how the To be honest, it sounds like a experiencing faculties of other Buddhism of the Cloud. Every organisms – bat echolocation, entity is a unit that processes data or whale song – might indicate at different levels of complexity qualitatively different and (“from giraffe to tomato to fascinating internal worlds. human”). Our political and social Harari suggests that the “new choices are shaped by all-seeing, Magellans”might as easily explore compassionate algo-savants. inner space as outer space – using The “Internet-Of-All-Things” brain-computer interfaces and becomes, effectively, nirvana. targeted biochemistry to chart Harari’s other hobby horse and develop new forms of runs counter to his own headline- consciousness. It turns out that, grabbing anti-humanism. A like Hamlet, Homo (et Femina) passionate supporter of animal Deus may be “bounded in a rights, he dwells on how human nutshell”, and count themselves treatment of animals as “a lower kings and queens of infinite space. life-form” has now become an Were it not, of course, that they issue – “perhaps because we are had bad dreams. ■ about to become one”. If we would fight against an all- Pat Kane is a curator at FutureFest (, and author of The Play powerful AI trying to kill us, how Ethic ( can we justify killing pigs? In a

A very English tale SF blogger Paul McAuley on his favourite Arthur C. Clarke award hopeful

WHERE better to catch up with the best recent science fiction than the Arthur C. Clarke award shortlist? Selected from 100plus novels, the six contenders burst with fresh perspectives on themes central to SF, from decaying starships to post-human superpowers. The winner is announced this week. Win or lose, I hugely admire Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson. After the UK’s Brexit referendum, the story, set in a Balkanised near-future Europe, seems more prescient than ever. Sharing the same background (but none of the characters) as his previous novel, Europe in Autumn, it begins in a seemingly hermetic pocket world, the Campus, where, in the aftermath of a bloody revolution, the new professor of intelligence uncovers

a dangerous conspiracy. Meanwhile, an investigation into a random stabbing entangles a British intelligence officer in the search for a county imagined into being by an eccentric family of landowners. The two threads gradually merge, climaxing in a mission to infiltrate the Community, a quaint yet sinister English Ruritania underlying Europe’s shattered map. The novel’s vivid settings and complex intrigue are enlivened by a wry cynicism, clever misdirection and a sprinkling of homages to espionage literature. Like John le Carré, Hutchinson foregrounds the human stories at the heart of conspiracies; like Eric Ambler, he uncovers the heroic impulse in ordinary men caught up in events they only partially witness or understand. Hutchinson expertly weaves their fractured stories into a satisfying whole, interrogating and satirising English mythology and the nature of Englishness with a mordant wit. ■

Spy tension: the novel references classic espionage literature

Paul McAuley’s latest SF novel is Into Everywhere (Gollancz)

Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson, Solaris, £7.99


allowed them to quantify and measure our lives via algorithms. Every day we interact through the likes of Google and Facebook. And based on their panoptical view of us, Harari anticipates a future where individuals will be replaced by “dividuals”. Our precious selves will be regarded by these systems as a collection of manageable, mostly predictable functions. Reality will be “a mesh of biochemical and electronic algorithms, without clear borders, and without individual hubs”.

27 August 2016 | NewScientist | 45


Not by money alone “Buying” our good behaviour can backfire, finds Bob Holmes

HOW should a society encourage its members to act in socially beneficial ways, when these can run counter to their own selfinterest? For several centuries, Western societies have tried to do this through incentives. We penalise things we want to discourage, by, say, taxing fossil fuel. Conversely, we reward what we want to encourage, for example, by giving tax breaks to job-creating businesses. If we get the incentives right, say economists, the invisible hand of the market guides people to do the right thing out of sheer selfinterested greed, with no need to appeal to mushy notions of ethical responsibility. “Virtue was something economists thought they could safely ignore,” writes Samuel Bowles, himself an economist at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. In his new book, The Moral Economy, Bowles makes the case that economists have got it wrong: as his subtitle suggests, incentives alone can’t push people toward responsibility. In fact, they can backfire. Consider the experience of an Israeli day-care centre, which had a problem with parents who picked up their kids late, forcing staff to work overtime. When the centre instituted a fine for tardy Trust is fundamental for people to act with honour and commitment 46 | NewScientist | 27 August 2016

pickups, they found it turned People tend to value what they inconsiderate behaviour into an are familiar with, so a world that economic transaction. Parents frames decisions within an were happy to pay to be late. economic calculus teaches that This sort of reframing often selfish motives matter more than happens with incentives for good ethical ones. That’s a problem, behaviour, Bowles argues. And it because even the smoothest isn’t the only problem: they can market economy still needs virtue convey unintended messages, too. to oil its gears – which is why When a Boston fire commissioner business people prefer to deal decided to dock the pay of with those they trust. firefighters who took too many sick days, it sent the message that “The case that virtue has a place in economics is he didn’t trust his employees – and absenteeism went up because appealing, but real-world evidence is hard to find” he lost their goodwill. More subtly, even when incentives work, they may not be For Bowles, the upshot is that necessary. Economic inducements sound public policy should take can crowd out moral and ethical account of people’s virtuous motives for doing good. The effect motives as well as selfish ones. is hard to prove in the real world, Sometimes, ethical persuasion although Bowles provides plenty alone can suffice. A former mayor of examples from experiments to of Bogota, Colombia, for example, show that it can happen under tamed the city’s chaotic traffic by controlled conditions. issuing hundreds of thousands of But the rot goes deeper still. An thumbs-down cards for citizens to over-reliance on incentives can flash at inconsiderate drivers. stifle our ethical development. But properly done, economic

incentives can help, especially when the problem is framed ethically to start with. The daycare fines might have worked, says Bowles, if it had been pointed out to parents first that late pickups upset the kids and kept staff from going home to their own families. Bowles makes an appealing case that virtue has a place in the world of economics. Unfortunately, much of his argument – which can be heavy going, at times – rests on economic theory or, more often, on the results of games played out in labs, such as the prisoner’s dilemma. Real-world tests would be more accessible and more persuasive, but are hard to come by. Still, Bowles’s book adds to a tide of research (such as the work of economist Elinor Ostrom and evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson) showing that selfishness is not the only human virtue in the real world. ■ Bob Holmes is a consultant for New Scientist


The Moral Economy: Why good incentives are no substitute for good citizens by Samuel Bowles, Yale University Press, $27.50

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Since 2009, the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) has sponsored National Postdoc Appreciation Week to recognize the significant contributions that postdoctoral scholars make to U.S. research and discovery. Institutions from across the country and other parts of the world participate by holding special events. During this week-long celebration, institutions are encouraged to plan activities that increase awareness of postdocs and recognize the contributions they make. Email us with information on how you will be showing appreciation for the postdocs at your institution this year. We look forward to hearing from you!

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Lawyers and the definition of risk From Howard Ritter Avril Danczak is unhappy with the idea that pregnant women’s doctors could advise them of the risks of vaginal delivery “as though it were a medical procedure” (Letters, 13 August). She mentions the UK Supreme Court’s award of damages to a woman whose physician didn’t warn her, on the basis that the mother had a chronic disease that increased the risks of vaginal delivery. The implication is that cautions in cases where no increased risk is apparent would constitute an unwarranted intrusion. Danczak reckons without the long reach of the law on personal injury (“tort”). Now a precedent has been established, she may be quite certain that the threshold for what constitutes “increased risk” will fall progressively until the test is merely whether a woman is pregnant or not. Obstetricians will start to be sued for not recommending a planned caesarean delivery, on the basis of statistics showing that this results in fewer complications than vaginal delivery. I agree that unassisted vaginal birth, spontaneous and inevitable, is not a medical procedure; but personal injury lawyers may beg to differ, and will be doing their best to make it so. Fuquay Varina, North Carolina, US

To read more letters, visit 52 | NewScientist | 3 September 2016

Living wills and assisted dying From Celia Berrell Clare Wilson describes resistance to legalised assisted suicide (23 July, p 16). Is this by those to whom selfish love of an ideal is worth more than unselfish love for someone who is suffering? Soon, I hope my human rights will include having the legal choice to end my own suffering, if needed. Brisbane, Queensland, Australia From Hugh Thorpe How does one define“terminally ill”? My wife had vascular dementia, was in hospital for four years and comatose for three of those. There is no recovery from such dementia. I suggest Rhona was terminally ill for that period. Medically assisted dying is illegal here in New Zealand, though a parliamentary committee is looking at this. Rhona wrote a living will years ago, while in good health, stating that if a major accident rendered her unable to communicate she did not wish to be resuscitated. To require a person to lie in bed for years, against her expressed wish, incontinent and unable to communicate or recognise loved ones, seems to me inhumane. It was a non-existence and her death was a blessing. The debate here focuses on people who are able to take part in the discussion about their death. Those with dementia are largely ignored, and I noted that in the Dutch data there were only a few such cases where assistance to die was approved. I wonder why? Christchurch, New Zealand

Yes, mothers must know birth risks From Liz Reuben Women should absolutely be informed about the likely risks during childbirth, and of the

various interventions and their consequences (9 July, p 5 and p 8). Vaginal delivery is now rarely a wholly “natural” event, any more than caesarean section could be considered an ideal outcome in all circumstances. Yes, there are greater risks with emergency caesareans than with planned ones; and greater risks for older first-time mothers. It is generally true, however, that small interventions during labour can cascade to more intrusive interventions. It is also difficult to compare different interventions. For example, how much of the risk of anal tear occurring during vaginal delivery stems from having an episiotomy? Ideally, women and their partners should be able to make informed decisions. This should apply to considering a vaginal delivery or a planned caesarean section. It should also apply to the outcomes recorded for the hospital they attend, and the specialist they engage. True informed consent would ensure a woman knew how likely particular interventions were at the hospital she plans to use, and from the doctor she will have – including how likely it is she will receive an episiotomy, an epidural or be encouraged to give birth in a position other than supine. Canberra, ACT, Australia

The prosecutor’s fallacy at work From Derek Bolton Linda Geddes recalls that the paediatrician Roy Meadow failed to mention the possibility of genetic factors that might boost a family’s risk of sudden infant death syndrome (18 June, p 39). But the figure he gave of “1 in 73 million” odds of two cases occurring in one family represents a still worse error. Given the present birth rate, the SIDS rate and the distribution of family sizes, I calculate that we



would expect two SIDS deaths to occur by chance in the same family, somewhere in the UK, once a decade on average. If we assume that the police always prosecute a parent on the basis that this is very unlikely, Meadow would have had us convict an innocent parent once every 10 years. I wonder how the jury would have voted if told that. Birchgrove, New South Wales, Australia

The National Forest is meeting targets From John Everitt, National Forest Company The stalling of tree planting rates has been a problem across England for the last decade, and is not specific to the National Forest (13 August, p 5). We have continued to deliver between 100 and 200 hectares of new forest for the last nine years, and expect to meet the national target for woodlands in management well before the 2020 deadline. Moira, Derbyshire, UK

Drawbacks of dairy diet diaries From Kevin Handreck The study that Ian Johnson cites in his comment piece on dietary fats reported an association between the intake of saturated fat and heart disease and cancer (16 July, p 18). But such findings rely on participants accurately reporting their food intake. This has repeatedly been shown not to be the case, which is why randomised controlled trials are preferable. Several such trials have looked at replacing saturated fats with omega-6 polyunsaturated fats (PUFA). Earlier this year, Christopher Ramsden of the US National Institutes of Health and colleagues re-worked the 1970s Minnesota Coronary Experiment,

“To avoid the sudden onset of raging fevers and lack of sleep” Alison Rixon suggests why women keep taking HRT despite breast cancer risks (27 August, p 7)

using the whole data set. They found that replacing saturated fats with omega-6 PUFA had increased the total mortality. Mediterranean diets are, as Johnson says, indeed rich in monounsaturated fats and have much omega-3 PUFA, but negligible omega-6. Kerstin Vormund of the Canton of Berne and colleagues found that people in Switzerland who consumed a Mediterranean-type diet had lower mortality overall than the general Swiss population and specifically for cardiovascular disease and cancer. They found that eating dairy products with the Mediterranean diet did not alter the outcome. Adelaide, South Australia

Safety of GM foods at the checkout From Anthony Wheeler Michael Abraham suggests an experiment to establish the health outcomes of eating genetically modified foods by selecting 20,000 volunteers to TOM GAULD

take part in a double-blind experiment (Letters, 30 July). Why not use data that’s already gathered? The UK National Health Service has data on our health status. Supermarkets have exhaustive data on what foods we buy. Matching these two data sets could be a start to resolving the safety concerns around GM foods. Mackay, Queensland, Australia

Put an ultimate accelerator in space From Paul G. Ellis Andrzej Krauze illustrated Gavin Hesketh’s thoughts on a possible “nightmare scenario” for particle physics with a researcher as a girdle round the Earth (20 August, p 18). This took me back to seeing an early particle accelerator in the 1960s – and then thinking of possible advantages of building particle accelerators in space. A ring of magnets in stationary orbit could be maintained comparatively easily, enabling much higher collision energies than at present. The vacuum

required for collision-free beam acceleration is naturally present. Such magnets might have to orbit a planet further out from our sun than Earth. If a future humanity ever reached the level of technology described in 1960 by physicist Freeman Dyson, at which it captured most of the energy of its star, might a collider in an orbit well beyond the Kuiper belt allow even string theory to come within range of testability? Chichester, West Sussex, UK

Nuclear waste is worse than that From Bryn Glover I wholly support Gregory Sams’s sentiments on the difficulty of containing nuclear waste (Letters, 30 July). I would suggest, however, that his phrase “thousands of years” suggests something rather more cosy than reality. It calls up images of ancient Rome, whose Pantheon and other buildings survive. The nuclear repositories to which he refers will need to be secure from all

forms of incursion, accidental and deliberate, for at least as long as our species has hitherto existed. Not such a comfortable image. Kirkby Malzeard, North Yorkshire, UK

What comes out of echo chambers From David Balaic Chris Baraniuk mentions “echo chambers” of opinion in social networks (16 July, p 20). As the US presidential campaign is demonstrating, these “chambers” can be finely tuned resonant cavities in which only a single coherent opinion is maintained. So, as those who study such resonant cavities would put it, we find a population inversion into a degenerate metastable group state. This then emits propaganda via the LASER (Lie Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Rhetoric) process. The exclusion principle requires that such excited degenerate states are occupied only by identical right-spin bozos. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

For the record ■ It was Sang-Hoon Kim at the Mokpo National Maritime University in South Korea who noted that the country is almost earthquake-free (23 July, p 34). ■ The number of permutations of n particles each of which may be in m states is mn (Letters, 13 August). ■ Francis Crick is reputed to have announced the discovery of the structure of DNA in Cambridge’s Eagle pub (UK edition, 20 August, p 23).

Letters should be sent to: Letters to the Editor, New Scientist, 110 High Holborn, London WC1V 6EU Email: [email protected] Include your full postal address and telephone number, and a reference (issue, page number, title) to articles. We reserve the right to edit letters. Reed Business Information reserves the right to use any submissions sent to the letters column of New Scientist magazine, in any other format.

3 September 2016 | NewScientist | 53



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especially those embedded in smartphones, these Faraday cage wallets could allay a separate worry: that of accidentally buying a round of drinks when you stand too close to the bar.


TRUE to form, our discussion of recursive déjà vu continues to grow layers of bewildering self-reference. Martin Andrews writes to say that the suggestion of a guest house named “Déjà View” (30 July) reminded him of an approximately named nightclub in Dundee, UK: the Deja Vu. “Last year it was replaced by the Beau nightclub,” writes Martin, “and having walked past the old sign for years, the first time I noticed the change of name it gave me jamais vu – a most peculiar feeling that I had never been there before.”

FEEDBACK is concerned about the revitalised threat of nuclear war, in light of the fact that UK Members of Parliament have approved a replacement to the Trident nuclear deterrent, and approved a new prime minister who is willing to use it (20 August). So we are thankful to Tim Thompson for sending us news of an affordable prophylaxis. His local garden centre is selling “radiation absorbers”, which look like small, potted cacti. Online enquiries reveal this to be the case: on the fruitloopy fringes of the web, the humble cactus is held in high regard as a guard against all things radiative. That we can see them at all is evidence that cacti absorb some radiation, yet Feedback can’t help thinking they would make for uncomfortable Personal Protective Equipment for the jobbing radiologist. The roots of these spiky amulets seem to lie in the early 1990s, when they were convenient, if useless, talismans for desks newly bathed in the glow of cathode-ray-tube

monitors. Still, Feedback can’t help but wonder if perhaps this is why nuclear tests are so often performed in the desert.

SPEAKING of radiation scares, Graham Ranson directs us to WaveWall, which makes phone cases that are tinfoil hats for your mobile. These armoured wallets claim to be a “stylish way of protecting yourself and your body against the harmful radiation that is produced by mobile phones”. Specifically, the part of a man’s body closest to his pocketed phone. “I have to wonder why all of these products are targeted at men,” says Graham. “Are there any similar protections available to women? Or are female reproductive organs simply not worthy of protection?” Feedback suspects these wares may reflect a peculiarly male anxiety. But with the rise of contactless payment systems,

The Independent reports that Apple is “working on making its newest iPhone waterproof, according to numerous leaks” 56 | NewScientist | 3 September 2016

AND there is still an appetite among Feedback readers to delve into the origins of “cucumber time”, a term for the silly news season that crops up across Europe. Dutchman Peter Mudde returns from holiday in time to offer his own take: “The explanation I have always heard from journalists here was that this particular time of year, to fill a newspaper journalists have to find other news, like the occasional very large cucumber grown by a hobbyist…” A FURORE has ignited over gas bills in the UK, after suppliers came unstuck in a measurement mishap. Confusion abounded when older meters, which measured gas use in cubic feet, were replaced by ones that gave readings in cubic metres. The Financial Times reports that the mistake “benefited customers whose metric meters have been read as if they were imperial. But they have been detrimental to customers whose imperial meters have been read as if they were newer metric ones.” However, the reverse is true, writes Richard Horton: “Closer inspection shows that imperial meters record in units of 100 cubic feet, equivalent to 2.83 cubic metres, so our bill was almost three times higher than it

should have been.” He was duly reimbursed £1000. Feedback recalls that similar mistranslated units were responsible for sending the Mars Climate Orbiter to its fiery death. That mistake cost $125 million – will UK gas suppliers be similarly burned?

READERS may recall Feedback’s previous forays into THISPs: truly horrible ideas for saving the planet. Bryn Glover writes in with a suggestion that while not truly horrible, may prove hard to stomach for some. Bryn has a novel plan for ridding Norway’s fjords of unpalatable jellyfish (16 July, p 26). “Why not transfer the genes responsible for flavour from, say, raspberries or strawberries into the general jellyfish population?” Mix the raspberry jellyfish with a few deep sea sponges and hungry Norwegians should have no problem dealing with such pesky trifles.

A COASTER that Colin Harding collected at the North Burleigh Surf Life Saving Club, a restaurant in Gold Coast, Australia, notes that in the past five years the club has performed “6,768 preventative rescue actions”. It also informs Colin that the club has “poured enough draught beer to fill 1,868 standard bath tubs”. What connection exists between these two facts is left to Feedback’s readers to ascertain.

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

Last words past and present at

THE LAST WORD Green machine I bought too much broccoli a couple of weeks ago. Not wanting to waste it, I boiled and froze it. But when I came to defrost and eat it, it wasn’t as nice as the pre-frozen broccoli from a supermarket. Even though I hadn’t overcooked it, it was soft and a bit mushy, and the florets had all stuck together – whereas pre-frozen ones are separate in their bag. What do the producers do to avoid my problems?

underneath so strongly that the individual chunks are suspended in the air and don’t stick together while freezing. And once frozen, they won’t stick together unless partially defrosted. The best you can probably do at home is blanch the broccoli, then put it on a baking tray in the freezer with the pieces separated to expose their maximum surface area and to stop them from freezing together. Then put them in an airtight bag. But let’s face it, who has a freezer with that much spare room? Ron Dippold San Diego, California, US

■ The fundamental problem with freezing anything for later use is that when water freezes it expands and forms jagged ice crystals that slice cell walls open. When defrosted, you end up ■ There are a number of reasons with mush. why the frozen broccoli did not The faster you freeze turn out well. Commercially something and the colder it produced frozen vegetables are becomes, the smaller the ice generally more palatable than crystals are. When water is below home-frozen vegetables because freezing point, crystallisation they have been prepared soon starts at random nucleation after harvesting and will not have points, usually around impurities, been packed, transported, that grow larger and larger (think warehoused and at some point of an icicle) until everything is “Freezing continues frozen. But the colder it is, the the breakdown of the more likely it is that any given broccoli’s cells started point will form an ice crystal by the boiling process” nucleus – and the more crystals there are, the less room any given crystal has to grow. exposed to room temperature. Almost all commercial flash The main reason, however, is that freezing schemes involve factory freezing is done at a far circulating very cold air at lower temperature than that temperatures as low as 196 °C, reached by the average domestic because otherwise an insulating freezer, which is generally set boundary forms at each surface of somewhere between -18 °C and the food. To avoid florets sticking -30°C. There are various methods together, a fluidised bed freezer in use commercially; cryogenic blows freezing air up from freezing with liquid nitrogen can

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produce temperatures as low as -196 °C. The small crystals that occur with fast freezing at ultra-low temperatures do minimal damage. The pioneer of commercial freezing, Clarence Birdseye, noted that fish caught in the Canadian Arctic froze almost instantly in the ultra-cold air after being removed from the water and remained in good condition. His techniques have been refined up to the present day. Your correspondent also boiled the broccoli. Freezing would then have continued the breakdown of the cells started by the boiling. Blanching the florets is generally recommended for home freezing. This involves brief immersion in boiling water followed by chilling in cold water, so the vegetable is

not cooked through but natural enzyme activity in the plant tissues is slowed. If this doesn’t happen the plant’s enzymes remain active and can break down the tissues, even below 0 °C. Chris Warman Hinderwell, North Yorkshire, UK

This week’s question SPIDER SHROUD

I went on holiday for two weeks and returned to find this ghostly impression of a spider on our toilet roll (see photo), but no spider or spider body anywhere around. How did the spider cause this pattern? Jay Willis Department of Zoology University of Oxford, UK

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