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A CHILL IN THE SEA Worrying signs of Gulf Stream shutdown
FAT AND HAPPY Being in a couple really does make you pile on the pounds
GREENHOUSE CASH The new industry making money from carbon dioxide WEEKLY March 17 - 23, 2018
THE MAN WHO SHOCKED THE WORLD The truth about the obedience experiment
THE BIG BANG Time to rethink the origin of the universe No3169 US$6.99 CAN$6.99 1 1
Science and technology news www.newscientist.com US jobs in science
PLUS TECHNICOLOR DREAM SPECS FULL VISION FOR COLORBLIND PEOPLE / CRYSTALS ON TITAN / FAKING FACES/ALIEN SPACE JUNK /HOUSEBUILDING ROBOTS
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On the cover
A chill in the sea Worrying signs of Gulf Stream shutdown
Fat and happy Being in a couple really does make you pile on the pounds
THIS WEEK Ocean current nears tipping point. Climate wildlife threat
34 Greenhouse cash The new industry making money from carbon dioxide
NEWS & TECHNOLOGY Weird crystals on Titan. Leopards protect us from rabies. Plasma loops heat the sun’s corona. What relationships do to your health. Drones that run building sites. Strange life form forces fossil rethink. Brain zap dredges up old dreams. Black holes may make stars look cool. Babies have moral expectations. The search for alien junk. Smart toys pick the best guide dogs
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43 The man who shocked the world The truth about the obedience experiment 30 The (wasn’t) big (didn’t) bang Time to rethink the origin of the universe Plus Technicolour dream specs: Full vision for colourblind people (38). Crystals on Titan (8). Faking faces (24). Alien space junk (16). Housebuilding robots (10)
The Arctic is sending us signals of impending climate chaos
18 IN BRIEF Dinosaurs couldn’t sit on their eggs. Fake tweets travel further. Fibre diet helps diabetes. Movement powers electric skin
Analysis 24 Fake faces How the world will change now anyone can forge faces on video 26 COMMENT Make three-parent IVF a right for lesbian couples? Nice prize, shame about the cure 27 INSIGHT Breast cancer test may create false sense of security
Features 30 The big boil It’s time to rethink the origin of the universe 34 From pollution to solution The new industry making money from carbon dioxide 38 True colours How colourblind people are finally seeing the full spectrum 43 The man who shocked the world The truth about Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments
Culture 46 21st-century smart Boosting IQ is a hot topic, but a riveting read leaves big questions hanging 48 Slime moulds rule! Alien policy researchers are coming up with solutions to human problems
Regulars 28 APERTURE Slow-mo Wolverine 52 LETTERS Domesticated humans 55 SIGNAL BOOST Widening access to science 56 FEEDBACK Expensive lubrication 57 THE LAST WORD Going for gold
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Trouble at the top The Arctic is sending us signals of impending climate chaos WHEN the global warming Gulf Stream anxiety reached catastrophe movie The Day its apogee in 2005 when scientists After Tomorrow was released in at the University of Southampton, 2004, climate scientists found UK, discovered that the North themselves in the unenviable Atlantic current had weakened position of having to put the facts by a third. But follow-up in the way of a good story. The measurements by the same team premise of the film is that climate showed no clear trend. In 2006, change causes the Gulf Stream the science was clear enough for to shut down abruptly, plunging New Scientist to declare: “No new the northern hemisphere into a ice age for western Europe.” sudden and catastrophic ice age. This is science at its best: Although loosely based on science, hypothesis testing through the the deep-freeze scenario is wildly careful accumulation of data, implausible and scientists queued and a willingness to change up to pour cold water on it. “It is one’s mind when the evidence safe to say that global warming “Recent reports of a winter will not lead to the onset of a heatwave in the Arctic new ice age,” two distinguished suggest that all is not well climate scientists wrote in the in the far north” journal Science. In a curious instance of life imitating art, scientific anxiety demands it. In fact, the change of about the Gulf Stream also had consensus over the Gulf Stream cold water poured on it around is a good counterargument to the same time. The idea that climate deniers’ claim that the North Atlantic current – a climate science is policed by a northern extension of the Gulf rigid and alarmist orthodoxy. Stream – could shut down was But science is never settled first proposed in 1961. By the late and the fate of the North Atlantic 1990s, the scientific consensus current is back on the agenda. was that it had stopped in the past New findings from the Irminger and could do so again, possibly Sea south of Greenland suggest with disastrous consequences – that fresh water from melting albeit not overnight. ice is impeding the normal
ocean currents, reigniting fears that the system is heading towards an irreversible tipping point (see page 6). There is nowhere near enough data to suggest another U-turn is on the cards. But it tells us that the situation in the North Atlantic still requires careful monitoring. It also reminds us that climate change is a developing and worsening situation. The Gulf Stream may have been stable in 2006, but since then we have spent more than a decade recklessly pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Recent reports of a winter heatwave in the Arctic, with daily mean temperatures 20°C warmer than average, suggest that all is not well in the far north. The related polar freeze that struck Europe and North America brings home the fact that we live in an interconnected world and that what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay there. That weather could yet prove to be an anomaly, but could also be the new normal. The Day After Tomorrow remains a wild exaggeration, but life in the northern hemisphere may soon become a lot less comfortable than it was. ■ 17 March 2018 | NewScientist | 5
Circulation in meltdown Polar ice melt may shut down the Atlantic current that warms Europe Colin Barras GREENLAND
I EG RW O N
THE ocean current that gives western and northern Europe a relatively mild climate might be at greater risk of shutdown than we thought. If the North Atlantic current – the northern segment of the Gulf Stream – does grind to a halt, the effects could be severe, from greater sea level rise on Atlantic coasts to more intense droughts in Africa. During the winter months, seawater in the Arctic cools and sinks, causing warm water to flow into the region from the tropics. But this convection of water to the depths is threatened by the rapid warming in polar regions. To investigate, Marilena Oltmanns and her colleagues at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, studied seawater salinity and temperature data collected in the Irminger Sea to the south of Greenland between 2002 and
ATLA RR N TIC C U
This is how the North Atlantic current brings warm water to Europe. Fresh water from melting ice is putting this delivery process at risk
2014. In some summers, the seawater at the surface had an unusually high temperature and low salinity – particularly in 2010. This is a sign that more fresh water was flooding into the region, perhaps from melting ice in Greenland or the Arctic Ocean. The fresh water poses a threat
to convection because, being less dense than seawater, it has to be cooled to a greater degree before it will sink. To make matters worse, Oltmanns’s team also found evidence that the summers featuring the largest bodies of fresh water are followed by winters that are too mild to
Climate threatens iconic wildlife
IF WE don’t stop climate change, half the animals and plants in the world’s wildlife havens will be gone by 2100. That’s according to a study gauging what will happen to 80,000 species in 35 of the most wildlife-rich areas, including the Amazon rainforest and the Galapagos Islands. If no action is taken, the ensuing 4.5°C rise in global temperatures means the Amazon would lose 69 per cent, and Madagascar 60 per cent, of its plant species (Climatic Change, DOI: 10.1007/s10584-128-2158-6). Snow leopards may lose 20 per cent of their habitat, and rising seas could swamp 96 per cent of Sundarbans tigers’ Bangladeshi breeding grounds. 6 | NewScientist | 17 March 2018
provide adequate chilling. Measurements taken during the northern hemisphere winter of 2010-11 confirmed the significance of the problem. Conditions were mild, and so much fresh water had accumulated during the previous summer that 40 per cent of it still remained in the upper 200 metres of the water column when spring arrived. “We were very surprised that so much remained after winter,” says Oltmanns. “It shows that the fresh water clearly impeded convection.” It was a similar story in other years. For seven of the 12 winters examined, more than 25 per cent of the fresh water that pooled in the summer remained in place at the end of winter (Nature Climate Change, doi.org/cmbw). Oltmanns says that if several unusually warm years occur in succession, so much fresh water could build up that it would become impossible for
But if we limit global warming over the next century to 2°C – the target of the 2015 Paris Agreement – only 25 per cent of the species will be lost. “We can greatly reduce the impacts,” says Rachel Warren of the University of East Anglia, UK. She says we can cut losses to 20 per cent by also helping species move by creating wildlife corridors.
Fertility clinic malfunctions THOUSANDS of frozen eggs and embryos may have been damaged following the malfunctioning of a fertility clinic storage tank. When the tank at the Pacific Fertility Center in San Francisco
For new stories every day, visit newscientist.com/news
convection to begin at all in winter. In effect, part of the North Atlantic current might shut down (see map, left). No one knows for sure what would happen in the event of such a shutdown. Oltmanns says some people think it might spell the end of the North Atlantic’s relatively mild climate. Eirik Galaasen at the University of Bergen, Norway, says we could expect other impacts too. Some models suggest that a breakdown in ocean circulation would trigger
Oltmanns, representing a tipping point that leaves the climate fundamentally and irreversibly changed. Galaasen, however, points to evidence that convection has stopped a number of times in the past. “The Atlantic recovered every time,” he says. For instance, about 8400 years ago a vast glacial lake in North America burst, dumping at
least 150,000 cubic kilometres of fresh water into the North Atlantic. Circulation halted, but Galaasen says it restarted within roughly a century – barely anything in geological terms but quite a long period of time in human terms.
stopped working properly on 4 March, temperatures inside rose. A spokesperson told the Washington Post that “several thousand” eggs
What are Novichok nerve agents?
and embryos were affected – around 15 per cent of the total stored there. Reportedly, 400 people had all their stored eggs and embryos in the malfunctioning tank, while a further 100 had at least some tissue affected. Over the same weekend, a similar incident occurred at University Hospitals Fertility Center in Cleveland, Ohio, where around 2000 eggs and embryos are thought to be affected. It is currently unclear to what extent the tissue involved in these incidents may have been damaged or if it is still fit for use in treatments. A couple with embryos stored at the Cleveland clinic filed a class action lawsuit on 11 March.
THE poison used to target ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, UK, was a Novichok nerve agent, it has been revealed. Novichok agents – also known as the “N-series” – were secretly developed by the former Soviet Union from the 1970s. They work in the same way as other nerve agents, which disrupt signals to the muscles by inhibiting an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase. The gaps between nerve cells become flooded with acetylcholine, causing continuous muscle contractions. Symptoms include convulsions and difficulty breathing. The most potent members of the N-series are reportedly Novichok-5
and 7. Both are binary agents, made from two precursor chemicals mixed together just before use. The use of a Novichok makes it highly likely that Russia was involved, because no one else knows how to make them, says John Lamb at Birmingham City University, UK. “It could have been a demonstration of capability,” says Lamb.
Meltwater from Greenland is interfering with ocean currents–
a sea level rise of 40 centimetres or more around Europe and eastern North America. Others conclude that a shutdown would worsen the severity of droughts in West Africa. And some climate scientists argue that effects could be seen even further afield: South America might experience greater droughts, which could be bad news for the region’s rainforests. Some argue that a shutdown could be permanent, says
JOHN ELK III/GETTY
“A breakdown in ocean circulation could trigger a sea level rise of 40 centimetres”
Inhabit a robot from a distance A $10 MILLION competition aims to get people to control a robot and carry out tasks from 100 kilometres away. Not just that, but the controllers should be able to feel, hear and touch the robot’s surroundings too.
Not everyone is convinced the new research suggests that a shutdown – even a temporary one – is imminent. “The implications are physically conceivable,” says Carl Wunsch at Harvard University – but he says we can only speculate about how the entire ocean convection system would respond. “If North Atlantic convection slows down or stops because of local freshening, will there be an increased – or decreased – import of much saltier water from the south?” Michael Alexander at the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory in Colorado says making broad conclusions on the basis of limited data is speculative at best. But he thinks that the connections Oltmanns’s team makes are interesting and important. Oltmanns agrees that it is wise not to infer too much about ocean currents from this. But she says the study still gives us valuable information about ocean convection. “Until now, models have predicted that fresh water will threaten convection in the future,” she says. “It is already affecting convection to a greater extent than we thought.” ■
The XPrize non-profit organisation launched the ANA XPrize Avatar Challenge on Monday at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. Teams must submit their plans to a panel of expert judges by the end of January 2019. In April 2020 and April 2021, teams will then have to show what their avatars can do, and a $1 million purse will be available for the best performer each year. Then, in October 2021, a bumper $8 million will be up for grabs, with teams tested over a five-day finale. Eventually, XPrize hopes that the technology will enable people to deploy immediate emergency response in natural disaster scenarios. “The idea is that if there was another nuclear disaster like in Fukushima, we could send avatars instead of people,” says Jyotika Virmani of XPrize. 17 March 2018 | NewScientist | 7
NEWS & TECHNOLOGY
Weird crystals could coat Titan
Wild leopards protect people from rabies WHEN leopards stray into a city, people often fear them. But it turns out these big cats could be valuable neighbours: by preying on feral dogs in Mumbai, they are reducing the risk of people catching rabies. About 20,000 people die of rabies in India every year. Feral dogs are the main source, because many of them carry the virus and pass it on when they bite people. Christopher O’Bryan and Alexander 8 | NewScientist | 17 March 2018
STEVE WINTER/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
PECULIAR crystals could be abundant on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, potentially creating environments where microbes could live. Morgan Cable at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and her colleagues simulated Titan’s “The crystals are hardy methane rain and ethane flooding, and found that a salt-like and can pile up, creating chemical environments compound formed quickly and that are key to life” stuck around, even after being repeatedly washed over. This suggests that the chemical The existence of co-crystals on slurry on the surface could create Titan has been suggested before, a “co-crystal”. But rather than such as a benzene-ethane salt composed of sodium and compound that forms readily chloride, these are formed by in conditions like those of its ammonia and acetylene. hydrocarbon seas. Ammonia “The definition of a co-crystal is known to exist in Titan’s is not – excuse the pun – crystal atmosphere and is probably also clear,” says Jonathan Lunine of found in a liquid water ocean deep Cornell University in New York. under the moon’s icy surface. “It’s used mostly to denote solid This new study suggests that compounds of two or more ammonia moves around enough molecules or ions where the to encounter acetylene through bonding is a bit loose, so the cryovolcanism, precipitation or components retain their deposition on bedrock on the sea identities.” floor, where it would be in the
Braczkowski from the University of Queensland, Australia, and their colleagues compiled existing data on the diet of leopards living in Sanjay Gandhi National Park, on the edges of
NASA/JPL-CALTECH/SPACE SCIENCE INSTITUTE
Titan is like a parallel Earth: its thick clouds hide a surface covered in large bodies of liquid and muddy terrain, and it has regular precipitation. But instead of water, Titan’s surface is carved out by liquid ethane, methane and other hydrocarbons streaming and pooling just as water does on our planet.
most direct contact with acetylene (ACS Earth and Space Chemistry, doi.org/cmb5). In the lab, the co-crystals formed within minutes in the simulated environment, meaning they could be common on Titan’s surface. The crystals are hardy, so they can pile up and create many chemical environments. On Earth, we know that having such variety is key to life, so this odd chemistry could give rise to weird life forms. “While we have little if any info on this type of chemistry,
Titan’s hazy, orange atmosphere stands out against Saturn’s rings–
Mumbai. They found that feral dogs make up 40 per cent of the average leopard’s diet. All told, the 35 leopards in the park probably eat 1500 dogs per year. Given how often the dogs bite people and how many of them have rabies, the team estimates that the leopards’ kills are preventing about 1000 bite incidents per year – and 90 potential rabies cases (Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, doi.org/cmbg). “This study is a striking example of a large carnivorous animal providing a direct benefit to humans,” says O’Bryan. The same could be true of other leopard populations that encroach
on cities. The team found 19 studies describing leopards eating feral dogs in Asia and Africa. However, O’Bryan says that they would need to be studied more closely to be sure that they bring the same benefit. The researchers also emphasise that leopards can cause harm. In particular, they often kill livestock – leading to losses for farmers. “It’s difficult to weigh up the costs with the benefits with a large cat species that’s known to attack and even kill humans,” says O’Bryan. “We just want to provide an angle that hasn’t been explored before, despite the pieces of the puzzle being in front of us the whole time.” Amy Lewis ■
the introduction of ammonia is bound to make it more interesting for prebiotic – or exotic biotic – chemistry,” says Lunine. It may be some time before we know if the co-crystal is as abundant as these tests suggest. The next opportunity may be Dragonfly, a mission proposed to launch in 2025 that would use a drone quadcopter to hop around Titan’s surface, searching for prebiotic chemistry. ■
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THE mystery of the sun’s super-hot atmosphere may lie in giant loops of plasma that are mostly invisible to today’s solar probes. Normally, the further you go from a heat source, the cooler it gets. Not so with the sun. Its surface is a sizzling 6000°C, but the corona, despite being further from the sun’s nuclear core, reaches more than a million degrees. Physicists aim to solve this mystery by mapping the coronal loops: streams of hot, glowing plasma that follow magnetic field lines that rise from the sun’s surface and fall back in. Since 2010, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory has been providing pictures of these loops. The images show ultraviolet radiation that is emitted by ionised elements, such as iron, in the plasma. Now, Gregory Fleishman at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark and his colleagues have shown that these ions aren’t distributed uniformly throughout a loop. The researchers analysed the properties of the electric current that flows through the plasma along the loops, as well as its effect on the ions. They found that regions where the electric current is positive – meaning it is flowing out of the sun’s surface – act as ion traps, creating a high density of ions of heavy elements there, while depleting them elsewhere in the loop (arxiv.org/abs/1803.02851). The implication is that the loops may not be emitting UV light from their entire length, but rather only from regions where the ions are found in high concentration. This could mean we are missing part of the picture, says team member Sophie Musset at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “Maybe there are some loops which do not emit in ultraviolet,” she says. If so, these wouldn’t show up in UV images. This will have to be accounted for in models that try to explain the extreme temperatures of the corona, says Musset. Anil Ananthaswamy ■
DAVE AND LES JACOBS/PLAINPICTURE
Plasma loops may explain solar puzzle
You really do put on weight in a relationship FINDING love isn’t great for your if couples are happy with their waistline. A large study has found relationship, they are more that even though couples tend likely to want to live healthier to have healthier lifestyles than lifestyles because they want their single people, this doesn’t stop relationship to last longer too, them from piling on the pounds. says Jerica Berge at the University Stephanie Schoeppe of Central of Minnesota Medical School. Queensland University in But despite this, people in Australia and her colleagues relationships were more likely have analysed a decade of survey to be overweight. “It could be data from more than 15,000 that couples are eating more of volunteers. Each person had all food types together – both answered questions about “When you’re married, your lifestyle choices, such as how social behaviours tend to much fast food they ate, and how revolve around occasions much television they watched. that involve eating” The team found that couples and singles seem to do the same amount of physical activity, healthy fruits and vegetables, and watch similar amounts of and desserts, or rich foods, which television, even accounting increases the likelihood of being for variables such as age, sex, overweight,” says Berge. “This employment status and level may be because social behaviour of education. in marriage commonly revolves Generally, people in around eating occasions.” relationships seemed to make “When couples don’t need to other healthier lifestyle choices, look attractive and slim to attract says Schoeppe. Couples ate a partner, they may feel more more fruit and vegetables and comfortable in eating more, or less fast food, they drank less eating more foods high in fat alcohol, and they smoked less and sugar,” says Schoeppe. too (PLoS One, doi.org/gc3szg). “How long you’ve been in Other studies have shown that the relationship for probably
matters,” says Anja Heilmann at University College London. Past research has found that couples are more likely to be overweight or obese if they are married or have been living together for more than two years. Having kids may also have an effect. “When couples have children in the household, they tend to eat the children’s leftovers or snacks,” Schoeppe says. Relationship status seems to affect men and women differently. Heilmann has shown that single men who have divorced or separated from a partner are more than twice as likely to drink heavily as men still in relationships. But there is no such link between divorce and alcohol in women. Schoeppe hopes that understanding how relationship status affects health might help health practitioners give better advice to people who want to live more healthily. “When we look at interventions, we traditionally look at education, age and gender, but we less often look at relationship status,” she says. “Families and relationships play an important role in lifestyle choices. You’re a closed unit and can easily influence each other – so we have to consider that too.” Jessica Hamzelou ■ 17 March 2018 | NewScientist | 9
NEWS & TECHNOLOGY
building site and all the vehicles from the air, and constantly update plans on the fly as necessary. The drones themselves will know what tasks they will be overseeing each day, and won’t need to be programmed every time, says Sanz. The software
“Drones will be able to monitor the building site from the air and constantly update the plans”
Drones control construction gear Niall Firth
THERE’S a revolution under way at building sites across Japan. Drones soar in the skies while scanning the ground. In the dirt below, huge diggers are working semi-autonomously, levelling land and digging ditches. Californian firm Skycatch has supplied its quadcopter drones to more than 5000 building sites in Japan over the past three years. The sites are mostly in and around the Tokyo area and are run by Komatsu, the world’s secondlargest building firm, as part of its Smart Construction project. Now Skycatch is adding artificial intelligence to the mix, automating the process further and taking humans almost completely out of the loop. Soon it will hand over control of construction sites to smart, autonomous machines. “We’re looking at the vision of the automated job site,” says Skycatch’s Angela Sy. Until Skycatch came on board, Komatsu was using human 10 | NewScientist | 17 March 2018
surveyors to map sites, a process that typically occupies a small team for a few days. With drones, it takes just 15 minutes to scan and create an accurate 3D map of the terrain. The maps are then sent directly to Komatsu’s range of bulldozers and diggers, which proceed semi-autonomously with simple tasks, such as digging, levelling and piling up dirt. The machines have stereo cameras and GPS, and stay in
contact with the drones so they know where they are on the site. Skycatch is training machine learning systems on different aspects of the job. For example, it has used hundreds of labelled YouTube videos of diggers and other machines in action to train an AI model to recognise the different vehicles from above. Drones that can identify equipment, the stage of construction and potential safety hazards are already being rolled out at some Komatsu building sites now, says Skycatch CEO Christian Sanz. More will be deployed over the course of this year. Eventually, the plan is for the drones to monitor the entire
PRINT-A-HOUSE Your next home could be built by robot. In China, a firm called Winsun claims to have 3D printed 10 entire buildings from concrete in just 24 hours. Meanwhile, in Russia, US start-up Apis Cor printed a small concrete house in a day, although it still needed a roof, doors and insulation added separately. Robots could help with more traditional looks too. Hadrian, a prototype robot made by Fastbrick Robotics in Perth, Australia, can lay
1000 bricks an hour. It works direct from a computer plan of a building and uses a strong glue instead of cement to hold the bricks together. Then there is SAM (SemiAutomated Mason), a robotic arm that can lay up to 3000 bricks a day, but still needs a human supervisor to load the bricks and another to help it clean up the cement. It can create complex and ornate patterns, says its developers, Construction Robotics of New York.
is learning to store its own plan of the proposed building schedule and will soon be able to update it and let the other machines know, all without human input. It will also be able to spot anomalies, such as delayed deliveries or spills, that need to be dealt with. “The machines will be able to act on their own, rather than just following a set of rules,” says Sy. Crucially, they will do all the computation themselves, rather than in the cloud, as many construction sites lack reliable Wi-Fi or cellular connections. The move towards autonomous building sites is also being driven by a global shortage of construction labour. A survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in the UK last year found that more than 60 per cent of building firms were struggling to fill positions on sites. As well as making the job more efficient, automation could reduce accidents. “There are about 10,000 reportable injuries around heavy equipment every year on construction sites just in the US,” says Noah ReadyCampbell of Built Robotics, another Californian start-up. His firm is developing autonomous diggers and other vehicles that can work on a building site with almost no human intervention. Built Robotics’s driverless digger has been deployed at a few small building sites in the San Francisco Bay area. “If we can get people away from machines, we can create a safer job site,” he says. ■
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WE MIGHT need to rethink some of the oldest fossils ever found. Structures called stromatolites formed billions of years ago are one of the best records of early life. We assumed they were created by microbes that make food from sunlight. But the discovery of a modern stromatolite that formed in dark water in the deep Arabian Sea calls that into question. “I think this is unique,” says Russell Shapiro at California State University, Chico. Stromatolites are rock-like structures made up of many thin layers. They are created when sediments attach to “mats” of microorganisms. Modern stromatolites form in shallow seas and lakes that are flooded with sunlight – like Australia’s Shark Bay. As a result, researchers long assumed stromatolites are made by photosynthetic microbes. However, we now know that microbes on the dark ocean floor – which do not use sunlight – can also form such structures. In 2007, an expedition to part of the Arabian Sea just off the coast of Pakistan collected what looked
Electric jolt summons up old dreams MEET déjà vu’s rarer cousin. People with epilepsy sometimes recall old dreams during seizures – an experience called déjà-rêvé. Now a study has found that stimulating a particular part of the brain can trigger this too. Jonathan Curot of Toulouse University Hospital, France, and his colleagues collected examples 12 | NewScientist | 17 March 2018
like a 40-centimetre-tall stromatolite from 731 metres down, in dark water containing very little oxygen. A CT scan of the object confirmed that it had a finely layered internal structure. “This looks very much like a stromatolite,” says Pieter Visscher at the University of Connecticut, who was not on the expedition. The researchers now have an idea how it might have formed without light and oxygen. They suggest that microorganisms use sulphates in the water to oxidise methane seeping out of the sea floor. This “chemosynthesis” produces sulphides. If these are then oxidised using nitrates in the water, the water will become more alkaline – triggering the precipitation of thin layers of calcium carbonate, helping to build the stromatolite (Geology, doi.org/ck6q). This deep-water stromatolite seems a better match for those from Earth’s early history, says team member Tobias Himmler at the University of Bremen in Germany. “The Shark Bay stromatolites are characterised by coarse sediment and crude layering,” he says. “The Arabian
of déjà-rêvé from 30 people with epilepsy who reported experiencing this phenomenon while undergoing electrical brain stimulation to assess which regions of their brain are involved in their seizures. “I saw something, a dream – a nightmare I had a couple of years ago. An object on a table,” said one person. “I had the reminiscence of a dream I had a few days ago. I was in a closed room and I saw an orange colour,” said another. Altogether, they found evidence for 42 instances of déjà-rêvé. Analysing these revealed that they were all
Ocean oddity tells us about early life
Shark Bay in Australia has living as well as fossilised stromatolites
Sea stromatolites show a finely laminated fabric, typical of many [ancient] stromatolites.” So stromatolites from 3.5 billion years ago are not clear evidence that life was thriving in light-bathed shallow seas. “When you read textbooks, many of them will still make the point that finding stromatolites [is] evidence for
triggered by stimulation of a particular part of the brain – the temporal lobe, which is involved in long-term memory, dreaming and forming memories during sleep (Brain Stimulation, doi. org/ck9b). The team found no evidence that déjà-vu can be stimulated by zapping the same sites that cause déjà-rêvé, suggesting that these are two distinct phenomena.
“Electrical brain stimulation prompts a phenomenon that is almost impossible to examine in everyday life”
shallow water environments,” says team member Jörn Peckmann at the University of Hamburg in Germany. “This… is not necessarily correct.” The proposed chemical pathway isn’t likely to have existed on early Earth, as there probably wasn’t any nitrate, says Visscher. But there are other forms of chemosynthesis. “We really need to delve into alternate metabolisms when viewing ancient stromatolites,” says Shapiro. ■
Déjà-rêvé is rare in people with epilepsy, and Curot says there is no evidence yet that it occurs in people who don’t have the condition – although it might. “Electrical brain stimulation makes it possible to trap this phenomenon that is almost impossible to trap in everyday life,” says Curot. His team suggests the technique may be of use to researchers looking for new methods to investigate dreams. However, such researchers would need to find a way to do this that doesn’t require inserting electrodes into the brain first. Penny Sarchet ■
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DARK matter may have made hydrogen gas around the universe’s first stars colder than expected, it was suggested last month. Now new work indicates it is black holes that are to blame, through raising the background temperature and making the gas simply appear ultracold in comparison. That is what Aaron Ewall-Wice at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and his team found by modelling the radiation of the first black holes. Black holes emit lots of radio waves and the first ones were probably developing around 180 million years after the big bang, about the same time as the first stars. “They form from the very first stars and feed on the surrounding gas, and they’re eventually going to grow up to become these supermassive black holes that we see today,” says Ewall-Wice. The team found that early black holes could have heated up their surroundings, boosting apparent radio wave absorption by the gas by a factor of three, more than accounting for the observed signal (arxiv.org/ abs/1803.01815). That eliminates the need for cooling by dark matter. But there is a big problem with this scenario: growing black holes emit X-rays and ultraviolet light as well as radio waves. “If the hydrogen gas is heated by the X-rays, it can reduce the absorption signal and basically erase the gains that we make from the black holes in the first place,” says Ewall-Wice. And although the ultraviolet light could have ionised the gas – eliminating the signal – we know from studying the cosmic microwave background radiation that this process didn’t happen until later. One potential solution is dust, says Ewall-Wice. If the black holes were veiled in dust, much of their energy would get deposited in it rather than in the hydrogen gas. This would allow the black holes to coexist with the cold, non-ionised early universe other observations indicate. Leah Crane ■
Black holes made the first stars look cool
Babies with morals expect adult help Anil Ananthaswamy
woman folding laundry, with a pushchair at the back of the room. In some of the videos, a baby was heard crying and the pushchair began to shake, suggesting it contained an infant in distress. In one video, the woman went to rock the pushchair and stop the baby crying. In another, she just continued to fold laundry, ignoring the baby.
EVEN 4-month-old infants expect adults to comfort crying babies. This suggests we may be born with a foundation of morality that becomes the basis for more advanced ethical and social behaviour in later life. It is unclear whether moral behaviour is innate or learned. In 2007, Kiley Hamlin and her “Young infants expect an colleagues at Yale University unknown woman who is found that 6-month-old and alone with a crying baby 10-month-old babies prefer to try to comfort it” people who help others, and show an aversion to those who don’t. But to understand how we It is well known that when develop our moral beliefs, we infants are surprised by need to know not just whether something that doesn’t follow babies prefer those who help their expectations, they spend others, but also whether they longer looking at it. The team expect such behaviour. found that the infants stared To find out, Renée Baillargeon significantly longer at the video at the University of Illinois at in which the woman ignored the Urbana-Champaign and her baby, suggesting they expected colleagues played videos to babies her to comfort it (Cognitive aged 4 months and 12 months. Psychology, doi.org/ck89). These showed an unfamiliar The babies were also shown
scenes in which laughing sounds, not crying, seemed to be coming from the pushchair. When watching these, the babies didn’t look longer if the woman ignored the pushchair, unlike in the crying videos. In another series of tests, 8-month-old infants were given the choice of touching a screen to play either the “comfort crying baby scene” or the “ignore crying baby scene”. The 18 infants taking part chose to view the ignore scene more than twice as often as the comfort scene, suggesting they found it very surprising. The results tell us that the first draft of human moral cognition includes expectations about other people’s welfare, says Baillargeon. She thinks the babies would have responded the same way if there had been a man rather than a woman in the video. “I believe infants would expect any human adult who is alone with a crying baby to try to comfort the baby – but we have not tested that yet.” Hamlin, who is now at the University of British Columbia in Canada, is impressed. If babies don’t come into the world with such expectations, then perhaps they arrive prepared to figure them out very quickly, she says. ■ 17 March 2018 | NewScientist | 15
NEWS & TECHNOLOGY
Follow the space junk to find aliens around 35,800 kilometres up. So, geosynchronous satellites form a ring around the planet, known as the Clarke belt. Socas-Navarro calculated that the opacity of Earth’s Clarke belt has increased exponentially over the past 15 years. He found that if
ONE civilisation’s space trash may be another’s space treasure. Technologically advanced aliens could be revealed by the space junk around their planets. When considering signs of civilisation that could be visible around distant worlds, many people picture those that require extreme technological prowess, such as giant lasers or Dyson spheres – huge structures that harvest power from a star. But could we find civilisations that have advanced to about our own technological maturity? Hector Socas-Navarro at the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands in Spain calculated that it may be possible to find civilised – but not extraordinarily advanced – worlds by looking for the satellites that orbit them. Many satellites work best in geosynchronous orbits, where the satellite matches the planet’s rotation so it stays over the same general location on the surface. This is key for surveillance and telecommunications satellites. These orbits are all at about the same altitude – on Earth,
Guide dogs chosen by smart tug toys SOME dogs have jobs and others are pampered pets, but how can you tell which are suited to a life of hard graft? The answer may be smart toys, and they could stop us wasting time and money on attempting to train dogs that will never make the grade. In the US, 60 per cent of dogs that start guide dog training never finish it. The process is arduous, taking two 16 | NewScientist | 17 March 2018
Give me a ring: A belt of orbiting satellites could be a dead giveaway
DR SETH SHOSTAK/SPL/GETTY
this trend continues, it will be observable from nearby alien worlds around the year 2200. If we know a planet’s mass and rotation period, we can determine the radius of its Clarke belt. Then, when the planet passes between its star and us, we can look for an additional dip in starlight that matches this belt. For a dip to be observable from tens of light years away, Socas-Navarro says
years to complete and costs about $50,000 per dog. To try to predict which dogs will succeed, a team at the Georgia Institute of Technology developed a sensor-filled ball and tug toy, which a training centre has used with a new cohort of 40 dogs. After collecting two years’ worth of play data, such as the duration, force and frequency of bites, “we were able to find patterns that could go on to predict the outcomes with 87.5% accuracy”, says Melody Jackson, one of the team (doi.org/ck88). Due to the nature of the analysis, it wasn’t possible to say whether one
particular way of biting or playing will make a good guide dog and another won’t. The machine-learning algorithms used are notoriously difficult to interpret. Despite this, the team says that using the smart toys to identify the most promising dogs could save a significant amount of money, with testing only taking a few days. The group estimates that the Canine Companions for Independence
“Guide dog training is arduous, taking two years to complete and costs about $50,000”
the belt would need to have between 10 billion and 1 trillion satellites, each with an average radius of 1 metre and mass of 100 kilograms (arxiv.org/abs/ 1802.07723). For reference, there are only a few thousand satellites orbiting Earth now. Launching a trillion satellites into similar orbits is different from launching a million because at that density, it would be tough to stop them from clumping or crashing. “It’s like building the pyramids,” says Avi Loeb at Harvard University. “Each building block is easy, but putting it together is the hard engineering task.” Socas-Navarro says this may be a plus: an alien civilisation could build a Dyson sphere and then die out, but a Clarke belt needs active management. That means its operators must still be alive. If nearby Proxima b had enough satellites, Socas-Navarro calculated that we would have already been able to detect them with existing telescopes. Moons or natural rings around planets should cause similar signals, though, and exoplanet surveys haven’t found any of those yet. “The nice thing is that looking for Clarke exobelts comes for free with the search for moons and rings,” he says. “It’s as if someone gives you a free lottery ticket. You know it’s utterly unlikely that you’ll win the prize, but wouldn’t you check, just in case?” ■
training centre, where the toy was trialled, could save nearly $5 million if they used it for a year for all its dogs. The toys could also lead to more effective training, says Elaine Cannon at the Irish Guide Dogs charity. “Any test that can give us an insight into a dog’s potential is very useful and can help us tailor the training or select the trainer from the outset so they can unlock their potential,” she says. The team at Georgia Tech hopes to use the smart toys with other working animals, such as police dogs and search and rescue dogs, in the future.
Becca Caddy ■
Fake news travels the fastest
Blood chemicals protect you from morning heart attacks THE start of your day is the most dangerous part of it – heart attacks are both more likely and more lethal in the morning. But chemicals made by your body can protect you, and may lead to new drugs for heart disease. Resolvins are made from an omega-3 fatty acid by your immune cells. Jesmond Dalli of Queen Mary University of London and colleagues found that the level of resolvins in our blood peaks around 7 am. But, looking at the blood of 16 people with heart disease, they discovered that these people had only around a third as much resolvin in their blood in the morning as people without heart disease.
Lab tests indicated that resolvins suppress inflammation of monocytes and neutrophils, two types of immune cell. “This reduces their ability to form tiny clots,” says Dalli. Such clots are a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes, he says. When resolvins were given to mice fed a high-fat diet, they produced half as many tiny clots (Circulation Research, doi.org/ck8q). But fish oil supplements rich in omega-3s won’t be enough to help people with heart disease make more resolvins. Dalli and his colleagues found that people with heart disease lack a key enzyme in their monocytes and neutrophils so they cannot make resolvins as easily. Dalli’s team hopes that, one day, slow-release capsules of resolvins taken before bed could maximise the level of these compounds in the blood at daybreak.
Nanowood is the new styrofoam STRIPPING wood back to its bare fibres has created a material that outperforms just about all existing insulators. This “nanowood” is produced by exposing wood to sodium hydroxide, sodium sulphite and hydrogen peroxide. These cheap, simple chemicals strip out the cell walls, made up of lignin and hemicellulose. The parallel arrangement of the 18 | NewScientist | 17 March 2018
surviving cellulose nanofibres gives nanowood its properties. Heat can’t travel easily across the fibres and is mostly reflected. Lab tests by Liangbing Hu at the University of Maryland and his team showed that nanowood’s capacity to block heat penetrating from one side to the other is on a par with that of styrofoam, which is hundreds of times better at blocking heat than epoxy or glass
(Science Advances, doi.org/cmbq). Nanowood is also strong, able to withstand up to 13 megapascals – equivalent to almost 2000 pounds per square inch. The sample the team used was15 centimetres long and 2 centimetres thick, but the researchers say it could be made in virtually any size or shape already obtainable with wood, and could be used to insulate entire buildings or tiny computing components.
AN ANALYSIS of posts on Twitter shows that fake news spreads significantly more than the truth on social media. Soroush Vosoughi and his colleagues at Massachusetts Institute of Technology followed the spread of 126,000 stories on Twitter in posts made by three million people between 2006 and 2017. The claims were then fact-checked by six independent organisations. Truthful tweets took six times as long as fake ones to spread to 1500 people across Twitter – in large part because falsehoods were 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than the truth, even after accounting for the posters’ account age, activity level and number of followers (Science, doi.org/gc3jt6). And despite the belief that armies of bots are sowing discord, people are more likely than automated accounts to share false facts.
Broccoli is an insect battleground APHIDS and caterpillars both like to eat broccoli. Aphids suck the plant’s juices, and caterpillars chew the leaves, but they are still competing to extract the most nutrients. Surprisingly, though, caterpillars can benefit aphids. Carmen Blubaugh at Clemson University in South Carolina found that when caterpillars also snack on plants infested by aphids, the number of parasitoid wasps that attack the aphids decreases (Ecology, doi.org/ck8v). “The plant uses a different toolkit to defend against a caterpillar,” she says. When set on by aphids, the plant produces chemicals to attract wasps that parasitise the aphid – but if caterpillars join in, the plant doesn’t have the resources to summon wasps.
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EARLY birds like Archaeopteryx were too heavy to sit on their eggs without cracking them. The conclusion holds true for non-bird dinosaurs too, leading to doubts about how to interpret spectacular fossils that appear to show dinosaurs brooding their eggs. Most birds today lay eggs with strong, hard shells. This strength is necessary because many birds rest their body weight directly on the eggs when incubating them. But it doesn’t follow that ancient bird eggs could withstand this, say Charles Deeming at the University of Lincoln, UK, and Gerald Mayr at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Germany. The pair looked at fossils of 21 ancient bird species and estimated the size of egg they could have comfortably laid, and their body weight. The results suggest that all of the extinct birds would have struggled to sit on their eggs safely (Journal of Evolutionary Biology, doi.org/ck8n). “Archaeopteryx was over four times heavier than its predicted egg would hold,” says Deeming. It’s not because the birds were heavy, more that their eggs were so small. Deeming says fossils of dinosaurs like Oviraptor apparently “brooding” eggs are more likely to be dinosaurs squatting over vegetation on a nest mound to protect it from predators.
Seas are rising fast and bits of San Francisco are sinking faster RISING waters aren’t the only problem facing low-lying coastal areas. Many are also sinking, increasing the risk of flooding, a study on the San Francisco Bay area shows. On its own, sea level rise could inundate between 50 and 410 square kilometres of this area by 2100, depending on how much is done to limit further global warming and how fast the polar ice sheets melt. But if land subsidence is also taken into account, the area vulnerable to flooding during high tides and
storm surges rises to between 130 and 430 square kilometres. That is the conclusion of Manoochehr Shirzaei at Arizona State University and Roland Bürgmann at the University of California, Berkeley. They used satellite data from 2007 to 2010 to work out how land heights changed around the bay. Some places, including parts of San Francisco itself, plus its airport and Foster City, were sinking by up to 10 millimetres a year. That is because they are built on mud deposits, or landfill sites
that are still compacting. The subsidence means these areas are sinking faster than the sea is rising because of global warming: currently 3 millimetres a year. The results show the importance of taking subsidence into account when calculating the risk from coastal flooding, the researchers say (Science Advances, doi.org/ck8p). James Syvitski at the University of Colorado at Boulder says most people now include land subsidence in their calculations of sea level rise. GETTY
Ancient birds too big to brood
Make electricity with your moves AN “ELECTRIC” skin material can harvest energy from motion, making enough power to light 20 small LEDs. Ting Liu at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and her colleagues built the nanogenerator by sandwiching a layer of hydrogel between a stretchy plastic material called an elastomer, then coating it in silicone rubber to keep the hydrogel from drying out. The final bonded material is just under 0.4 millimetres thick and almost transparent. When the material is pressed against skin, electrons flow into the lower elastomer layer, pushing positive ions through the hydrogel and into the upper elastomer layer. If it is bent or stretched and then released, the movement of oppositely-charged layers creates an electrical current. The nanogenerator can provide up to 135 milliwatts of power per square metre. It would take about 40 hours to fully charge an iPhone at peak power production. Roel Vertegaal at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, says it could be useful for self-powered medical sensors, such as a bandage that can take your blood pressure.
Fibre-rich diet helps control diabetes A HIGH-VEG diet can help treat type 2 diabetes – and it seems to do this by altering gut bacteria. Liping Zhao at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China and his colleagues compared the effects of two diets in people with type 2 diabetes. Over 12 weeks, 16 people followed a low-fat, low-carb diet, while 27 people ate a lot of high-fibre foods, such as wholegrains and vegetables. Both groups also took a drug that slows the digestion of starch, allowing it to reach the large intestine, where microbes feed upon it. By the end of the trial, 89 per cent
of those on the high-fibre diet showed signs of better blood sugar regulation – compared with 50 per cent of the control group. The team then looked at strains of gut bacteria that produce short-chain fatty acids, which are thought to be good for our health. They found that 15 strains became more abundant in those that responded best to the diet (Science, doi.org/ck8w). Zhao wants to find other ways to boost these strains in people with diabetes, and hopes the team’s findings could be used to develop probiotic treatments.
17 March 2018 | NewScientist | 19
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How much can you earn? On average, Europeans earn less than Brits who earn less than American scientists. But the 2017 New Scientist/SRG salary survey reveals a great deal more
Average salary over time (UK) £35,900
£32,960 £28,280 Represents an annual increase of 2.82% each year since 2006
Salary banding updated in 2016 SOURCE: NEW SCIENTIST/SRG/2017 SALARY SURVEY
ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS
“Engineering is the most lucrative field, with UK salaries averaging £46,100”
RE you adequately rewarded for your work? Do you ever wonder about the salaries of other scientists and engineers around you or in different places, and think about making a change? Weighing up the benefits of taking a new professional direction can be hard, especially without reliable information on the potential earnings. If such questions play on your mind, help is at hand. New Scientist and science recruitment company SRG have gathered data on the earnings of 4300 scientists and engineers from a wide range of sectors, fields and roles in the UK, mainland Europe and the US. 22 | NewScientist | 3 March 2018
The online survey shows, for example, that one of the best ways for Europeans to up their earnings is to cross the Atlantic. While the average salary excluding benefits in the UK and mainland Europe in 2017 was £37,200 and €39,400 (£34,700) respectively, in the US it was $69,600 (£50,000). Or you might want to consider Switzerland, where survey participants reported even higher salaries, averaging €90,100 (£79,000), although that has to be balanced against higher living costs of course. Also well paid were those in the Republic of Ireland, who earn €51,600 (£45,300) on average, and those in
Germany who are on €48,200 (£42,300). By contrast, the lowest earners were in Italy, where the average is just €30,300 (£26,600). The survey also reveals the extent of variations between fields and sectors. UK information technology specialists reported the highest average salaries of around £52,700, followed by project managers and those in regulatory roles. The lowest earners were those in quality control and in food (see “Average UK salary by specialism” graph, opposite). “It’s a good time for people to explore their options,” says Kelly Morton, managing director of SRG. “There are shortages of
In association with
Average UK salary by sector Industry
Average UK salary by industry Engineering
Government laboratory or agency
Contract research organisation
Independent charity or foundation
Based on 2600 UK respondents
SOURCE: NEW SCIENTIST/SRG/2017 SALARY SURVEY
Based on 2600 UK respondents SOURCE: NEW SCIENTIST/SRG/2017 SALARY SURVEY
Average salary by UK region
Average UK salary by specialism Information technology
Yorkshire and Humberside
Average £37,228 Based on 2600 UK respondents SOURCE: NEW SCIENTIST/SRG/2017 SALARY SURVEY
Based on 2600 UK respondents SOURCE: NEW SCIENTIST/SRG/2017 SALARY SURVEY
candidates with niche technical skills and experience, which, together with an increasing focus on innovation, is driving pay up in certain areas.” In the UK, respondents working in industry have the highest average earnings at around £40,000. Then come those carrying out medical trials, in government labs or agencies, at contract research organisations, in charities and foundations, and academia (see “Average UK salary by sector” graph, above right). There are large variations here by sector, too. Engineering and pharmaceuticals are the most lucrative, with average salaries of around
£46,100 and £40,200 respectively. The least well paid are people working in biotechnology and manufacturing (see “Average UK salary by industry” graph, above). Survey respondents in London had the highest average salaries, closely followed by those in the South-East. The regions with the lowest salaries were the North-East and Yorkshire and Humberside (see map, above). There was a crumb of comfort for those in the North-East, where the average reported salary increase was 2.85 per cent in 2017 – the highest in the UK and almost 1 per cent above that in London.
People thinking about which scientific field to enter, or considering a switch, may want to consider which skill sets are in demand. According to our survey, jobs in chemistry, the biological sciences and data analysis are the hardest to recruit for in the UK. Elsewhere in Europe, the top three are the biological sciences, bioinformatics and data analysis. In the US, the picture is similar, with biological science skills most in demand, followed by statistics and bioinformatics. Nic Fleming ■ This article was written and edited independently by New Scientist 3 March 2018 | NewScientist | 23
ANALYSIS FAKE FACES
Rise of the nobodies It is easier than ever to create fake people and doctored video. What does this mean for society, asks Douglas Heaven THE human face is being disrupted. Advanced artificial intelligence software is driving an explosion of online videos in which people’s likenesses are seamlessly swapped on to other people’s bodies. Some are harmless fun, such as those in which the face of actor Nicolas Cage is pasted into films in which he never appeared. Others are far darker, including many in which the faces of female celebrities have been pasted over those of people in pornographic videos. Hollywood has been swapping 24 | NewScientist | 17 March 2018
faces for years. The crucial potential harm that manipulated difference is that now it can be video footage could cause. “I’m done quickly and cheaply by usually a tech optimist but this is almost anyone. “It has become a one where the red flags went up,” viral meme,” says Samim Winiger, says Kate Devlin at Goldsmiths, co-founder of AI firm Creative.ai. University of London. “I think it Meanwhile, researchers have could be really insidious.” used AI to generate convincing You don’t even need to fake footage of world leaders made to a video to cause a stir – just the say words that never actually left fact that video manipulation their mouths. So in a world where is so easily done is enough seeing is no longer believing, to cast doubt. Take Donald what does the future hold? “Much of the discussion Given existing fears about about AI-generated faces misinformation and fake news, misses the broader impact it is not surprising that many the tech could have ” people are worried about the
Trump’s U-turn concerning the authenticity of the Access Hollywood video in which he is seen making misogynistic remarks. “We don’t think that was my voice,” he reportedly said. There are a few ways we could combat this threat. Some are calling for methods to authenticate video clips, or at least stop fake footage from spreading online. Videos could be given digital signatures that only their creators know in order to verify their authorship – the same technique is already used to secure some emails. This could
For daily news stories, visit newscientist.com/news
fake news: deeply immersive films or video games, novel forms of therapy and virtual humans to entertain or keep us company. Take Stephen Rosenbaum of San Francisco-based company Vesalius Creations, a visual effects artist who has won Oscars for his work on Forrest Gump and Avatar.
These famous-looking faces only exist inside a computer
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be automated, built into both the web and also cameras and smartphones. “You want to know that a video was taken at a particular time and place,” says Aviv Ovadya at the Center for Social Media Responsibility in “Stephen Rosenbaum San Francisco. People may even start recording makes virtual people, and his latest project is digital alibis, to guard against cloning the band Abba” videos that show them elsewhere. This could be done using the tracking data on smartphones, for He is now in the business of making virtual people, and his example .“You’d have continuous latest project is cloning the band alibi creation,” says Ovadya. Abba, now in their 70s. But Winiger is wary of tech “They don’t have the energy to solutions. “A lot of people will go out and tour,” says Rosenbaum. jump in and say we’ll solve this “That’s why they asked us if we with blockchains and virtual could recreate them digitally.” reality with AI on top,” he says, Rosenbaum’s team is capturing but the reality is that teaching likenesses of each of the four people digital media literacy members, right down to facial tics and to be more sceptical of what and quirks in the way they smile. they see online would probably These avatars will star in a music be more helpful. video due to be released this summer, and next year will Lawyer up perform in stadiums packed If tech doesn’t work, lawyers with real people. might. Using AI to steal people’s As these state-of-the-art tools faces without consent seems like trickle down into the mainstream, something existing laws aren’t we can expect to see more digital equipped to handle, but Neil doppelgängers of people, both Brown at UK technology law firm alive and dead. Actors could decoded:Legal says courts could appear in films without fall back on existing principles, Hollywood has been copying such as copyright infringement. Most people do not have exclusive Nicolas Cage’s face for decades rights over their appearance, but if a video was produced using footage or photos that you took then you might have the right to sue, says Brown. New laws may also seem like a good idea, but they could backfire. “There is a risk that if we legislate against the technology itself, we could outlaw beneficial applications, including those that we cannot currently predict,” he says. It’s true that much of the discussion about AI-generated faces misses the broader impact the tech could have. Applications go far beyond viral memes and
performing, or studios could cast a Frankenstein-type creation, by combining different actors into a virtual performer. We could also enjoy personalised experiences, with virtual versions of friends and family members starring in bespoke films or video games. “You could be talking to your deceased grandmother with her face and her voice,” says Winiger. For many people, virtual humans could simply provide comfort. “There are a lot of lonely people out there who want somebody to talk to,” says Rosenbaum. Companies like Soul Machines in New Zealand, founded by Mark Sagar, who pioneered facial capture techniques in films such as Avatar and King Kong, are trying to create virtual humans to be companions or even therapists. Studies have shown that different people respond favourably to different types of face. Tailoring a virtual human to individual preferences could ease therapy sessions and simply make an avatar better company. Digital therapists could look like celebrities, relatives from the past or your partner. Or they could look like nobody. A few months ago, researchers at graphics hardware firm Nvidia released images of faces that a machine learning system had invented after being trained on thousands of photos. The faces
are eerily realistic, but none of these people actually exist (see image, left). The current system can’t make a particular sort of face on demand, says team member Timo Aila, but in the future it could be possible to control things like age, race and gender to generate any face you wanted. “This would be immediately useful to law enforcement, helping eyewitnesses to create much more realistic-looking sketches of the people they saw,” he says.
Virtually here Devlin suggests we could do something similar for pornography, creating images and video without the need for actual performers. Winiger agrees: “In a few years the porn industry will be an AI industry,” he says. Yet even with avatars invented from scratch, there are ethical concerns. It is easy to chat to a customer service bot online without realising it isn’t human, for example. But forgetting that we are interacting with software means we let our guard down and reveal things we might not have wanted to, says Devlin. This will only get worse when we have photorealistic avatars as therapists or companions. “There are those who go as far as saying we shouldn’t be deceiving people in this way at all and we should be developing machines and AI that are obviously computers or computer generated,” she says. That may be wishful thinking, however. Now that anyone with a small amount of know-how is able to conjure up hyperreal likenesses of people, the future is looking a lot more crowded. Virtual humans – some digital doppelgängers of real individuals, others dreamed up by AIs from scratch – are here to stay, for good or ill. “You see something, you expect it to be real,” says Ovadya. “But that isn’t an assumption you’re going to be able to make any more.” ■ 17 March 2018 | NewScientist | 25
Three for all Allow lesbians to use three-parent baby IVF to have genetically related children, says Alex Pearlman ADVANCES in assisted reproduction are never without controversy. There are always questions of ethics and policy, as well as safety and efficacy concerns. Once a technology is available to the public, suggested new uses for it inevitably spark fresh debate. Mitochondrial replacement techniques (MRTs) are the latest example. The suite of procedures use DNA from three people to make a baby: the nucleus of one woman’s egg, the mitochondria of another woman’s egg and a sperm. MRT can be used in the UK for women who risk passing on mitochondrial disease. But discussion has now turned to a specific application: allowing same-sex female couples to have genetically related children. In the absence of other means to share genes between two eggs, and despite the low level of
genetic relatedness between mitochondrial donor and child (about 0.2 per cent), MRTs seem an obvious way to fulfil this need. Debate has been sparked by a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics by researchers at King’s College London. They argue that “if MRTs fall within the remit of the reproductive freedom of heterosexual couples at risk of transmitting [mitochondrial] disease, ...they also fall within the remit of the reproductive freedom of [same-sex female] couples”. The desire for genetically related children is powerful, no matter gender or sexuality. There are strong social and cultural reasons to believe relatedness is a key part of a family dynamic, and the prevalence of assisted reproduction technologies (ARTs) supports this idea. Are there any good reasons not to allow it? Bioethicist Francoise
The drugs don’t work Honouring research into Alzheimer’s is great, but big challenges remain, says Jacqui Wise ALZHEIMER’S disease is back in the news, with last week’s announcement that the annual Brain prize has been awarded for work on the genetic and molecular basis of the illness. In giving the €1 million prize to four researchers in the UK, Germany and Belgium, Denmark’s Lundbeck Foundation 26 | NewScientist | 17 March 2018
these people and their families, Alzheimer’s research has been a roller coaster of raised hopes and crushing disappointments. Again and again, there has been feverish media excitement over a potential cure. A drug that looks promising in mice leads to overblown headlines, yet when it reaches phase III studies in humans the results disappoint. The disheartening reality is that there has been no new drug for dementia in 15 years. Instead we
is likely to rekindle hopes of a cure being within reach. However, translating the work – much of it in animals – into drugs remains as frustratingly out of reach as ever. There are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK alone, and the “The disheartening reality figure could top 2 million by 2051. is that there has been no new drug for dementia in Worldwide, someone develops 15 years” dementia every 3 seconds. For
have seen a long line of failures. Of 214 compounds tested between 2000 and 2014, only one was ever licensed. For example, there were high hopes that solanezumab – a monoclonal antibody targeting protein plaques that damage brain cells – would be the first to slow Alzheimer’s. But in late 2016 a clinical trial found it produced no meaningful benefit. In January, there was yet more disappointment when the experimental drug idalopirdine did not help in mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. The drug increased levels of serotonin and four other neurotransmitters affected by the disease, and seemed promising in
For more opinion articles, visit newscientist.com/opinion
Alex Pearlman is a bioethicist and journalist covering policy and human rights issues in emerging science
earlier safety trials. Its collapse probably closes the door on yet another approach to treatment. With such a high failure rate, it was no surprise that pharma giant Pfizer recently announced it is pulling out of research into drugs for Alzheimer’s disease. The G7 countries had set a target of finding a diseasemodifying Alzheimer’s treatment by 2025. Sadly, this is looking unlikely. Honouring the hard work on this illness with the Brain prize is great – just don’t expect rapid breakthroughs. ■ Jacqui Wise is a medical journalist based in the UK
INSIGHT Gene testing
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Baylis, a long-time critic of MRTs, classifies use of MRTs by same-sex female couples as a “harm to society”. It’s unclear to me, and the King’s College authors, why – other than an argument that says non-medical use is unethical on religious grounds, or because many critics believe that by allowing parents to change inheritable mitochondrial DNA, MRT is eugenic in nature. These are not compelling, as other forms of ART are used for nonmedical reasons. Others raise a futile argument against taxpayer funding for ARTs for same-sex couples. The UK settled that debate in 2013 when its National Health Service ruled same-sex female couples eligible for intrauterine insemination with donor sperm. And if that failed, IVF should be offered. There is no specific, legal, positive right to a biologically related child in the UK. But there is political, social and cultural significance in producing one. Reproductive freedom can be seen as a human right: every person has the right to have children or not, and to use the technology available to do so. ■
Cancer test could spur false sense of security Andy Coghlan
45 to 85 per cent chance of developing breast cancer and a 39 to 46 per cent risk of developing ovarian cancer. In the general population, however, doctors regularly test women for other well-established common variants of BRCA1 and BRCA2. Around 70 per cent of carriers will go on to develop breast cancer by the age of 80. The 23andMe test says nothing about these variants. The company is adamant that women testing positive for any of the three gene variants shouldn’t take this as gospel, but should seek further advice. “We state clearly in the results that if you have one of these variants,
WOMEN can now buy a test telling them if they carry variants of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that raise their risk of breast cancer. That sounds like a welcome advance in medical technology. But the particular variants identified are very rare in the general population. If women buying the test don’t understand that, there is a risk they could be lulled into a false sense of security if they test negative. The test is being sold by 23andMe, a Californian company that has pioneered personal DNA analysis. The US Food and Drug Administration “Those with the gene (FDA) approved its sale last week, variants are thought to and if you have recently submitted have a 45 to 85 per cent your DNA to 23andMe, the results risk of breast cancer” should be available online soon if you request them. you should see a healthcare But should you look at them? professional and seek confirmatory There are more than 1000 known testing,” says a 23andMe mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, but the test only detects three. spokesperson. “These mitigations They are carried by 1 in 40 people of were required by the FDA.” Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, compared Previously, 23andMe has been in trouble with the FDA. In 2013, with 1 in 400 of the general it ordered the company to withdraw population, and are thought to pose a high risk for carriers, giving them a a $99 test that claimed to reveal
gene variants linked with conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The decision was made on the grounds that people might seek drastic medical treatment based on the tests. More recently, the FDA’s stance has shifted. A year ago, it approved a 23andMe test that claimed to flag up the risks of 10 conditions, including late-onset Alzheimer’s disease and coeliac disease. In November 2017, the FDA announced a relaxation in the requirements for direct-to-consumer gene tests and said it would favour applications from companies that had previously done so successfully, a move that should help 23andMe. The FDA says that strict conditions called “special controls” apply to the new breast cancer test. “They include not using the test to determine medical treatments, which would require confirmatory testing, and consulting with a physician to discuss test results,” a spokesperson told New Scientist. But it remains to be seen whether that message will get through to consumers, particularly those who have already submitted their DNA and will be able to just see the test results when they appear online. 23andMe is taking the risks seriously and says its customers will be given an “education module” along with the results that details how they should be used. “The information from the test can be lifechanging,” says its spokesperson. ■ 17 March 2018 | NewScientist | 27
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Slo-mo Wolverine DON’T be alarmed. This creature is the size of a small house cat, with a distaste for haste. And those Wolverine-like claws are hangers, not daggers. The pygmy three-toed sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus) exists solely on a single island, Escudo de Veraguas, off the coast of Panama. It is the only sloth species on the island, which was separated from the mainland by rising sea levels 9000 years ago. Since then, B. pygmaeus has been shrinking, and is now 40 per cent lighter than its mainland sibling, the brown-throated three-toed sloth (B. variegatus). It weighs in at about 3 kilograms. Bigger bodies give an edge against predators, but require more energy to maintain. B. pygmaeus, cut off from mainland predators, is not under that evolutionary pressure. The fur of the pygmy sloth plays host to a single species of algae, which the animals may nibble to supplement their diet. The algae also gives the sloths a greenish hue. Escudo de Veraguas has an area of 430 hectares, with 10 hectares of mangroves. This is where B. pygmaeus prefers to hang out, although it also lives in the mixed tropical forest of the island’s interior. Estimates of this tree-dweller’s numbers vary widely, from fewer than 100 to several thousand. Regardless, the logging of mangroves for fuel and to maintain wooden houses on the island means this critically endangered – and actually quite adorable – species is diminishing in number as well as size.
Photographer Suzi Eszterhas Minden Pictures
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THE BIG BOIL Forget the big bang – an eternal roiling chaos could have spawned the universe, says Jon Cartwright
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E ARE told it was big, yet it was probably unimaginably small. We are told there was a bang, yet there was apparently no sound, and no space for anything to explode into. Some think it might have happened multiple times, so even its definite article is in doubt. Although everyone has heard of the big bang, no one can say confidently what it was like. After all, recounting the beginning of time is about finding not just the right words, but the right physics – and ever since the big bang entered the popular lexicon, that physics has been murky. Perhaps no longer, thanks to an unusual way of delving into our universe’s backstory that has emerged over the past few years. In this view, the essence of space and time can exist beyond the confines of the cosmos, but in a state of roiling chaos we would not recognise. The big bang is not a hard-and-fast beginning, but a moment of profound transformation – one quite different from anything most of us could have imagined. Though often misattributed to the US astronomer Edwin Hubble, the basic idea of the big bang dates back to the Belgian priest and astronomer Georges Lemaître, who observed in the late 1920s that the universe is expanding. Extrapolating backwards,
Lemaître imagined a “primeval atom” that ballooned into everything we see today. What was this primeval atom, and where did it come from? Such questions can’t be posed without some trepidation. Stephen Hawking famously argued that asking what came before the big bang is like asking what is north of the north pole. Since time itself was created at that moment, he reckoned, the question of a prior origin is meaningless. That hasn’t stopped physicists from trying to pick it apart. Lemaître himself floated the possibility of a phoenix universe, whose expansion slows, reverses and ultimately collapses into a new primeval atom – before bursting outwards into life once again. A more elaborate version of this cyclical story was proposed at the turn of this century by Paul Steinhardt at Princeton University, Neil Turok, then at the University of Cambridge, and others. In their ekpyrotic hypothesis – a name derived from an Ancient Greek word for a conflagration – an early speck of our universe drifted around in another dimension, eventually smashing into another universe, liberating untold energy and sparking explosive growth. Wild as that may sound, some proposals get wilder. Take inflation, a widely supported theory that supposedly explains how the primeval atom blew up from something infinitesimal, before expanding at the more leisurely pace we see today. This growth spurt was instigated by a random fluctuation in a quantum field, and something similar could happen at any time and any place. That not only means that other universes could be invisibly branching off from ours, but also suggests our own universe could be one branch of an infinitely old multiverse. Yet whether we invoke ekpyrotic collisions or infinite inflation, attempting to >
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The universe could change form, like a liquid turns to gas
AL FENN/THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/GETTY
demystify the big bang as a moment that recurs throughout eternity doesn’t get us any closer to describing exactly what happens in that key moment. The big bang was born from our best theory of gravity, general relativity. Here space and time are unified as space-time, the invisible canvas of reality. Stars and planets deform space-time, and this warping creates the pull of gravity. We know from astronomical observations that space-time is expanding, and so according to general relativity it must once have been an infinitely tiny, infinitely dense point known as a singularity. That’s nice and neat as far as it goes. But it stops short of describing all the stuff within space-time – stuff that is governed by quantum theory. This most successful of theories deals with the small, yet finite: particles and chunks of energy. “Finite” is the operative word here. Rewind the quantum universe, and you see galaxies collapse and stars unborn, and atoms dissociate into their nuclei and attendant electrons. When space is very tight indeed, you see signs that all nature’s forces, bar gravity, unify into just one. But that force still comes in chunks – and that is as far as quantum theory can take us. It can do incredibly small, but unlike space-time it can’t diminish smoothly to zero. This conflict is what makes understanding the big bang so tricky. For the past few decades, the obvious way forward has been to develop a quantum theory of gravity. That entails unravelling the inherently continuous space-time canvas into discrete threads – “atoms of space”, as Bei Lok Hu, a theorist at the University of Maryland, calls them. In one popular theory, loop quantum gravity, these atoms of space are loops of
nothingness defined by mathematics. There are other options too, but most focus on describing the atoms of space accurately in the assumption that a coherent quantum description of space-time, including the big bang, will then fall into place. Hu believes that’s optimistic. “That last step is made out to be straightforward,” he says. “It isn’t.”
Nebulous netherworld For more than a decade, Hu has backed attempts to bridge that gulf. And it is out of this quest that a potentially satisfying description of the big bang has sprouted. Hu set off down this avenue by musing about liquids. Imagine tipping a bucket of water over your head. The water is made of molecules that are ultimately governed by quantum theory, but you needn’t be aware of the details to know you will be soaked.
COLD, DARK AND… WET? A growing number of experiments suggests that the connection between space-time and a fluid is more than just mathematics. Back in 2001, for example, Elizabeth Donley, now at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, and her colleagues were working with a special fluid called a Bose-Einstein condensate, which consists of atoms supercooled so that they act as one. By tweaking
the magnetic field confining the fluid, they made it briefly swell, then explode. The blast appeared to conjure up jets of particle pairs, similar to the creation of matter after the big bang. In 2016, Jeff Steinhauer at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology used a similar trick to make an analogue of a black hole, an infinitely dense region of space-time that sucks in energy and matter like water
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going down a plughole. The idea was to test one of the most famous predictions about black holes: that their edge, or event horizon, glows with so-called Hawking radiation. Steinhauer blasted his fluid analogue with a laser to create something similar to an event horizon. Sure enough, he observed spontaneous sound fluctuations that mirror the ghostly Hawking radiation.
You could even work out precisely how the water would cascade using the science of hydrodynamics, which existed long before quantum theory. If hydrodynamics allows us to describe fluids without fussing over the fine details of molecules, thought Hu, it ought to be possible to create space-time from atoms of space, without first perfecting a description of those atoms. There is more to Hu’s analogy than meets the eye. In the past few years, physicists have made models of warped regions of space-time from fluids, and found that the two are eerily similar. Taking that together with similarities in the underlying mathematics, Hu suspects space-time isn’t just like a fluid – it is a fluid (see “Cold, dark and… wet?”, below). To see what he is getting at, think of water in its three familiar phases: ice, liquid water and steam. All are made of water molecules, but how those molecules interact varies. In steam, they whizz around, doing their own thing. If they hit a cold window pane, however, they begin huddling together, condensing from gas to liquid. Hu thinks space-time can undergo similar phase changes. Without something like condensation, the atoms of space would exist as some nebulous netherworld bereft of time and geometry (see “Fluid picture”, right). Daniele Oriti, a theorist at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam, Germany, stumbled upon this line of reasoning as a young researcher. It offered a new and tantalising way of making sense of space-time, including, he thought, the big bang. But he couldn’t immediately see how to translate the analogy to an idea that could be expressed mathematically. One hint came in 2006, when theorists Tomasz Konopka, Fotini Markopoulou
and Lee Smolin, then all working at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada, devised a description of space-time as a complex mathematical network of nodes, each attached to all others like some nightmarish cat’s cradle. Though too abstract to fit Hu’s condensation analogy, the nodes could still undergo an orderly phase change into something resembling space, with basic features we take for granted, like geometry. Inspired by this result, Oriti began to explore whether a similar feat was possible using more established descriptions of the atoms of space. He began with a loop quantum gravity description of these atoms. But he then used a second mathematical framework called group field theory, a version of quantum theory used to describe normal atoms, to show how they would condense. It took him seven years to organise his ideas, but in 2013, together with Lorenzo Sindoni at the Max Planck Institute and Steffen Gielen at the University of Hannover, Oriti showed that group field theory could condense his atoms of space. Granted, they couldn’t tell whether
the fluid that emerged looked much like our universe, but it seemed to at least have a size and a shape. It was quite a breakthrough. In terms of condensing atoms of space into space-time, “I think we’ve been the first”, says Oriti. Then last year, he made more detailed calculations with Sindoni and his colleague Edward Wilson-Ewing. This time, what emerged looked like the expanding space-time of our universe. And there was a surprise: the space-time fluid didn’t like being funnelled into a singularity at the moment of the big bang. Instead, it wanted to bounce back outwards, rather like the phoenix universe. Lemaître would be pleased. But that isn’t the end, or indeed the beginning, of the story. So far, the work has relied on certain approximations, and Oriti believes that once these are examined more closely, there is every chance that the big event at the start of their universe will be neither a bang nor a bounce. In such extreme conditions, he says, spacetime could well have changed from one phase to another, meaning it didn’t have a definite
Fluid picture Did the big bang create space and time, or could they have existed already in a bizarre, unfamiliar form? Water provides clues
When steam turns into liquid water, the molecules get closer together and are less able to move randomly
Time Space-time may also be built of atom-like parts. The big bang could have been when they "condensed", allowing familiar features like geometry and time to emerge
beginning at all. What we think of as the big bang was just the moment of condensation. The big condensation, you might say. Or, if we are still in rewind, the big boil. So what is the space-time netherworld on the other side of the big boil like? Here language fails, because every question – what, where, how – presupposes concepts that
“Thinking how space-time used to be is like a fish trying to imagine steam” simply wouldn’t have existed. “You have to think about these atoms of space without them existing somewhere in space, or evolving somewhere in time,” says Oriti. “The very notion of time and space has to be constructed out of them.” It is as if fish were trying to imagine steam. Other theorists are impressed with Oriti’s work. Stephon Alexander at Brown University in Rhode Island calls it “a creative feat”. But he questions where the creation of matter fits into the picture. “Because the universe also has matter in it, right?” João Magueijo of Imperial College London also praises the work, but says Oriti and his colleagues need to make their ideas testable. “He should take the bull by the horns, and try to make predictions on large-scale structure that will rule out other theories,” he says. Oriti has yet to do that, but the wider idea that space-time is like a fluid can be put to the test. In 2014, Stefano Liberati at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, and Luca Maccione at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany studied high-energy photons from the Crab Nebula, looking for signs that they had traversed a liquid-style space. Although the results were inconclusive, the experiments did suggest a path to testing the condensation idea. Still, evidence that space-time is fluid-like doesn’t necessarily equal evidence for the big boil – maybe space-time was only ever a fluid. To really nail that moment of creation, Oriti must find a consistent mathematical description of the free atoms of space, existing before space-time as we know it. That is a mind-bending task, given that notions of time, space and geometry are hardwired into our brains. “In this sense, it’s the most radical thing you can think of,” says Oriti. But that is his challenge: to be a fish out of water. ■ Jon Cartwright is a consultant for New Scientist based in Bristol, UK 17 March 2018 | NewScientist | 33
From pollution to solution Can we save the planet by turning carbon dioxide into useful stuf? Michael Marshall inds out
AKE a breath. You have just inhaled about 0.6 grams of air, including 0.4 milligrams of carbon dioxide. Had you lived in the 1600s, you would have taken in less than 0.3 milligrams of CO2 with each breath. Although it might not seem like a big difference, the additional greenhouse gas now in the atmosphere is altering the climate at a pace that threatens global havoc. What if we could take CO2 right back out of the air and put it to use? What if, instead of being the most dangerous waste product in human history, it could become the basis for new industries that clean up the planet instead of harming it – and turn a profit too? That is the promise of carbon capture and use (CCU), a burgeoning industry that has attracted billions of dollars in investment, some of it from major oil and gas companies. There are notable success stories. Already, companies are turning carbon dioxide into plastics, fuel and concrete – meaning that you could build your house or power your car with products that keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The real question is whether these start-ups can grow fast enough and to be big enough to make a difference. For that, they need to use enough CO2 to make a significant dent in the billions of tonnes that we emit each year. Governments have agreed to reduce 34 | NewScientist | 17 March 2018
annual emissions and limit global warming to 1.5 or 2°C, the international target enshrined in the 2016 Paris Agreement. But they have left it so late that even if we all made huge cuts to our greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, the target is nigh-on impossible. A decade ago, policy-makers began advocating the idea of grabbing CO2 and storing it underground, a technology called carbon capture and storage (CCS). Oil and gas companies had been doing this on a small scale since the 1970s, because it helped their bottom line. By pushing the gases emitted by their industrial plants back down into nearly spent oil seams, they were able to squeeze out the last remaining drops of crude. On a technical level, CCS works. The Boundary Dam coal-fired power plant in Canada has been burying much of its CO2 emissions since 2014, for example. But despite a number of governments appearing to back the technology in the early 2000s, CCS is stuck on the starting line. The sector has come up against a significant challenge: capturing carbon is expensive, and there are no financial rewards for storing it. That is where the “use” bit of CCU comes in. Could CO2 make money? Aside from enhancing oil extraction, it forms the bubbles in fizzy drinks and fuels plant growth in greenhouses. All this adds up to a global >
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demand of about 80 million tonnes each year, according to a 2011 report by the Global CCS Institute. This is a mere 0.2 per cent of the 37 gigatonnes emitted globally in 2017. To increase that, researchers are now proposing that instead of trying to use pure CO2 directly, we should make other things with it. The gas is already used to produce urea, for instance, sold as fertiliser. And in the 19th and early 20th centuries, chemists developed reactions involving carbon dioxide to make something that most of us have in our medicine cabinets: acetylsalicylic acid. “Aspirin was probably the first [product] to be done commercially,”
OUT OF THIN AIR A flurry of companies are selling products that use carbon dioxide. The gas is either extracted from industrial emissions before they are released or sucked from the air Carbon8 Aggregates (UK)
Creates a building material from industrial waste and contaminated soil using CO2 CCm Research (UK)
Has developed a system to enrich fertilisers with carbon from CO2 and make CO2-coated fibres that are incorporated into plastics Covestro (Germany)
Makes polyurethane plastics for mattress foams Sunfire (Germany)
Has developed a synthetic fuel called Blue Crude. Mass production is scheduled to begin in 2020, using CO2 from air capture. Partnered with Audi Oberon Fuels (California)
Makes dimethyl ether, a synthetic diesel that emits less particulate pollution and no sulphur. Partnered with Volvo, Ford and US truck manufacturer Mack CarbonCure (Canada)
Sells a system that infuses CO2 into concrete. The firm announced in January that a major US producer, Thomas Concrete, will be installing the technology at 22 of its plants Solidia Technologies (New Jersey)
Makes a concrete that locks up CO2. Claims to reduce energy and water use 36 | NewScientist | 17 March 2018
says Peter Styring at the University of Sheffield, UK. The drug was initially extracted from willow bark. Then, in 1859, Hermann Kolbe at the University of Marburg in Germany found that he could produce aspirin’s precursor, salicylic acid, by reacting sodium phenolate with CO2. But since these early experiments, few reactions have been devised that use the chemical, says Charlotte Williams at the University of Oxford. As a result, many of the fundamentals of CO2 chemistry are still unknown, including how to break the bonds between the oxygen atoms and the carbon at the centre of the molecule. Carbon dioxide is fairly unreactive but certainly not inert, says Styring. “It needs a little bit of help to react.” That help comes in the form of catalysts, which lower the amount of energy that has to be put in, and so much of the research around CCU involves finding the right catalysts for the job. Williams has had her own trials and tribulations attempting to break carbon dioxide’s bonds. Her expertise is in polymers, the long, chain-like molecules that plastics are made of. At the start of her academic career, in the early 2000s, she became fascinated by the idea of taking the carbon out of carbon dioxide and using it to build a polymer backbone. The idea was simple but impossible to implement without the right catalyst to start the reactions. “We went through four years of complete failure,” she says, before finally identifying several that worked. Her team immediately filed patents and
“Aspirin was probably the first commercial product to be made from CO2” formed Econic Technologies, based in Macclesfield, UK. Today, the firm sells its catalysts to major chemical companies making polyurethane, a plastic widely used in insulating foams, kitchen sponges, the wheels on shopping carts and skateboards, and even latex-free condoms. Williams brought samples of plastics that had been made using Econic’s catalysts to a meeting on CCU just outside London in October 2017, where dozens of researchers, investors and industry representatives gathered to discuss the prospects of the growing industry. The meeting was convened by the Sackler Forum, a collaboration of the UK Royal Society and the US National Academies of Sciences, to assess the potential
Sunfire, in Germany, is building power plants that convert water and CO2 to liquid fuel
of CCU technologies and look at the range of existing ventures, from synthetic fuels to building materials (see “Out of thin air”, left). Some of these may seem odd at first glance. Why change carbon dioxide into artificial petrol? The reason is that by doing so we can keep using familiar, liquid fuels in our existing infrastructure without digging up additional fossil reserves. In theory, fuel made from CO2 should also be carbon neutral, generating no net greenhouse gas emissions: carbon dioxide equivalent to that released as the fuel is burned is captured and recycled to make the next batch of fuel. This is particularly useful for aircraft, which need a lot of energy to fly long distances, but can’t carry heavy batteries powered on ecoelectricity. Today, they burn energy-dense but polluting kerosene. An artificial kerosene made from CO2 might be the best way to make planes climate-friendly, says Styring. Similarly, it may not seem obvious that CO2 can be used to make buildings, but it is a simple chemical step away from limestone and other carbonates. “I can take a slurry of calcium oxide, put CO2 into a bottle, shake it up and it’ll react very quickly [to make calcium carbonate],” says Styring. All these reactions depend on new catalysts
capture and use from its predecessor, carbon capture and storage. “It has to make commercial sense,” says Dairanieh. The firms may need help at the start, but ultimately some will succeed and make money. Governments could provide support in a number of ways, from accelerating patent applications to setting a high price on carbon
SUNFIRE GMBH, DRESDEN/RENEDEUTSCHER.DE
“We need to move towards a circular economy, where everything is reused”
like Econic’s, and much of the talk at the Sackler Forum centred on trial-and-error attempts to find the ones that work best, minimising the energy we must put in. The other challenge the meeting highlighted was hydrogen. Many CCU products, including some of the synthetic fuels, are built around a carbon and hydrogen backbone that we can make only if lots of hydrogen is available to react with CO2. The trouble is, hydrogen gas is hard to come by. Its molecules are so light that the newly formed Earth had already lost almost all its free hydrogen to space. Nowadays, the planet’s hydrogen is locked up in molecules like water, and breaking them apart, as with CO2 , takes energy. The hydrogen hurdle may simply narrow the usefulness of CCU, says Styring. It might not be worthwhile to create synthetic fuels for cars if you have to first make hydrogen – we can make electric cars instead. But the trade-off might make sense for aircraft since batteries cannot carry enough power for them. Undoubtedly, it is early days yet, but it hasn’t stopped big bucks from pouring in. “We think that by 2030 the market opportunity would be between 800 billion and 1.1 trillion dollars a year,” says Issam Dairanieh of the Global CO2 Initiative, a private company that both funds research into CCU and invests in start-ups working in the field. The company estimates that CCU’s future
market potential is about double the size of today’s smartphone market. Coming from an organisation that has money in the game, that shouldn’t be a surprise. But it is worth noting that big oil is also dipping its toe in the CCU pond. The Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) is a collaboration between large fossil fuel companies, including Shell, BP, Statoil and Total. Together, they have committed to investing $1 billion in CCU start-ups over the next 10 years. Pratima Rangarajan, CEO of the OGCI’s investment wing and formerly employed in the renewables sector, says CCU is in the same place recycling was 20 years ago.
Carbon recycling “People said, ‘Look, there’s no way everyone’s going to collect all the rubbish and people won’t separate it’,” she says. Newspapers also mocked the idea that they might one day be published on “second-rate recycled paper”. Yet in 2016, 67 per cent of paper used in the US was recycled, according to the American Forest & Paper Association. Rangarajan says CCU needs to become normalised the way recycling has been. “If it’s just 10 companies and only we are successful, we might make a lot of money, but we’re not going to make the impact we need,” she says. Profit is ultimately what people like Rangarajan hope will distinguish carbon
emissions. The latter is a long-cherished dream of many climate activists. A global price on carbon is still a long way off, but regions are setting precedents, such as in the Canadian province of Ontario, where a sweeping carbon price system came into force in January 2017. Even if all this comes to pass, CCU is not, by itself, going to mop up all of our greenhouse gas emissions. In 2015, Styring and his colleague Katy Armstrong outlined a “realistic yet challenging” scenario in which we would make use of 1.3 gigatonnes of CO2 annually by 2030. That is only 3.5 per cent of our current annual emissions. A more optimistic report published in 2016 by the Global CO2 Initiative, using data from consultants McKinsey, said we could be using 7 gigatonnes of CO2 per year by 2030 – still far short of what is needed. There is also the matter of timing. Most CCU technologies are “still in the difficult phase of needing to prove [themselves] at scale, engage with customers and get product to market”, says Williams. So CCU is not the proverbial silver bullet. “The way to solve [climate change] is to stop burning fossil oil, and that’s the only way,” says Styring bluntly. CCU’s promise is that it fleshes out a vital principle. Every year, environmentalists mark Earth Overshoot Day: the point when our collective demand for resources passes what the environment can generate in a year. In 2017, it fell on 2 August. To stop us living on credit, many environmentalists advocate moving towards a circular economy, one where everything we use is reused. Not just paper and glass, but every by-product of industrial processes – including gases. As one participant pointed out at the Sackler Forum: “Carbon dioxide is the only gas we can emit into the atmosphere with impunity.” It is time we started recycling it. Q Michael Marshall is a freelance writer based in Devon, UK. Additional reporting by Catherine Brahic 17 March 2018 | NewScientist | 37
[ full colour vision ]
[ deuteranopia ]
[ protanopia ]
[ tritanopia ]
38 | NewScientist | 17 March 2018
A pair of sunglasses can “ix” colour blindness, but would you want to, asks Frank Swain
HE man steps out onto the garden deck, where his family hands him a gift. “Open it!” they shout, from behind the video camera. After fumbling with the wrapping, he pulls out a pair of dark glasses. When he tries them on, his jaw drops. He slowly moves his gaze from the grass to the trees to the pots of flowers. He lets out a few hushed “wows”. Eventually, he removes the glasses to wipe tears from his eyes. This video is one of thousands like it that have appeared online over the past few years after a pair of glasses hit the market that promise to let colour blind people see what they have been missing. Elsewhere, scientists working on a more permanent treatment for colour blindness have witnessed a similar fervour. “I’ve gotten thousands and thousands of emails. I still get people who write or call me and say they want to be the first human being who gets treated,” says Jay Neitz at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has been working on a gene therapy. Around the world, 300 million people lack full colour vision. For most, from the moment they first opened their eyes as newborns, they saw the world with a different palette to others. And I am one of them. So when I discovered the hype around the glasses, I had to try them. But this obsession over a way to
A watermelon, as seen with different kinds of colour vision (see “Contrasting colours”, overleaf)
correct colour blindness also got me thinking. How big a problem is colour deficiency really? And do we actually want to treat it? Humans see in colour thanks to cone cells in the retina. There are three types of these cells, each tuned to different wavelengths of visible light that roughly correspond to what we see as three colours: blue (short wavelengths), green (medium) and red (long). In most people, the brain uses the output of the cells to process
DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE? People from many cultures, including Ancient Egyptians and Native Americans, used a single word for both green and blue. Did they see the same colours we do? Strangely, the answer is probably no. Linguistic experiments suggest that having a name for a colour makes it easier to perceive. The Himba people of Namibia, for example, have a five-colour system that uses the word buru to describe both greens and blues. Tests show that they are better at telling apart similar shades of green than Westerners, but slower to spot subtle differences in blue-green, suggesting that the brain takes longer to tell apart colours that sit in the same category.
a full spectrum of colours. These individuals are called trichromats. But 1 in 12 men and 1 in 150 women are affected by colour blindness, of which there are several kinds. It affects more men than women because the faulty gene responsible is passed on via the X-chromosome – so women need two copies to have the condition, otherwise their unaffected X-chromosome can compensate. Total colour blindness, where the cones don’t work at all and the world appears only in shades of grey, is extremely rare. Then there is dichromacy. Here, one type of cone is lost, leaving these individuals only able to see the world in combinations of two colours instead of three. The chemist John Dalton was one of the first to describe this condition, as he couldn’t see red at all. He suspected a discolouration of the fluid in his eyes was filtering out red light, and asked for them to be examined upon his death. No tinge was found, but his name lives on in many languages, where the inability to distinguish red from green is known as daltonism. Even more common is for signals from the cone cells to be diminished but not entirely absent. Most of those who identify as colour blind can in fact see a full range of hues, but not quite in the same way as everyone else. Some will appear less vibrant. Many people don’t know they have the condition until adulthood, when they have their colour vision tested as part of certain job applications. > 17 March 2018 | NewScientist | 39
PERMANENT FIX Jay and Maureen Neitz at the University of Washington in Seattle made headlines in 2009 when they used a virus to deliver genes coding for long-wave photopigments into the retina of male squirrel monkeys. This transformed some of their cone cells, making them sensitive to red-green light and allowing the animals to see in three wavelengths of light instead of two. A human version of the treatment – a gene therapy for colour blindness – seemed imminent. Yet almost a decade later, the world is still waiting. What happened?
First, the method had to be improved. In monkeys, the virus was injected under the retina, which can be risky. “We never felt this was going to be an acceptable way to treat humans,” says Jay Neitz. Instead the pair wanted to inject the virus into the eyeball, which is much safer. The technique was licensed to a company now called Adverum Biotetchnologies, and in 2015 it was announced that a cure for colour blindness was two years away. But the firm struggled to perfect the method, and other priorities meant the treatment fell to
Often, this variant is due to too much overlap between the wavelengths picked up by the red and green cones. As a result, the two colours aren’t seen as separate and people struggle to distinguish subtly different shades. This is known as anomalous trichromacy, and makes up the bulk of colour blindness. I have the most common subtype of this variety, deuteranomaly, which means I have a reduced sensitivity to green light. Shades that contain a blend of red and green take on a muddy hue. Deutans, as we are known, also confuse shades of purple. Keen to see where I’ve been going wrong, I arrange to be sent a pair of the glasses by Enchroma, the company that makes them. But when they arrive, I find myself hesitant to put them on. After all, I just decorated this apartment. What if I discover my carefully balanced colour palette resembles an Austin Powers motif? And home decor aside, I’m still not sure why there’s such a demand for colour-correcting specs. According to Neitz, for many of those who write to him, it comes down to career choice. Colour deficiency can still exclude you from a surprising number of professions. Airline pilots, air traffic controllers, police officers, firefighters, train drivers and many others must pass colour-vision tests to be certified in several countries. And when I hear about the lengths to which some people will go to pass these assessments, I start to understand the enthusiasm for a fix. 40 | NewScientist | 17 March 2018
the back of the agenda, while the technique’s two creators returned to the lab to refine the mechanism. This determination paid off: the pair have now developed what should be a safe way to deliver the gene in humans, says Jay Neitz. However, untangling who owns the patent to this version of the technique – and is entitled to the millions of dollars that could be made from it – is causing fresh setbacks. For now, the thousands who have expressed an interest in the treatment (see main story) can only wait and see.
You may be familiar with the Ishihara test, where numbers are hidden in plates of coloured dots, but the system isn’t perfect. “If you insist on zero errors in the Ishihara complete edition, about 20 per cent of people with normal vision will fail,” says John Barbur, who studies optics at City, University of London. So Barbur developed the more advanced Colour Assessment and Diagnosis (CAD) test, which can detect those with anomalous colour vision with almost perfect accuracy. It uses blocks of colour that move across a
Contrasting colours Colour perception varies widely between people with diferent forms of colour blindness Full colour vision
“Putting the glasses on is like applying an Instagram filter. Without them, the world feels drab”
background of sparkling pixels, similar to static on an old TV. As companies switched to using CAD, Barbur found that some of those who had previously passed workplace Ishihara tests were in fact colour deficient – sometimes markedly so. This wasn’t just down to the test’s fallibility. “When you have a job that pays €150,000 a year, and when that job depends on your colour vision, you will make use of any possible cues to ensure that you pass the test,” says Barbur. One popular trick is to memorise the complete set of Ishihara plates, recognising them by the pattern of dots instead of the colours. In the CAD test, it is impossible to use any other visual cues except colour vision to spot the blocks. Another trick is to smuggle in coloured contact lenses. These would impair the person’s eyesight in general, but can help them pass the test. This doesn’t work for CAD, though. Of course, there are other reasons for wanting to see the full spectrum of colours. “I get a lot of people [contacting me] who have some sense that they’re missing out on the aesthetics of having colour vision,” says Neitz. I can understand this: I’ve never wanted to be a pilot or a police officer, but I, too, am curious to know what I’ve been missing. So I open the box. The glasses look like regular shades. At a glimpse, the lenses seem to paint things rose pink. I walk onto my roof terrace and slip them on. “Huh,” I say to myself. “Huh.” Putting them on feels a little like applying an
Beach scenes take on a different vibe when you’re colour blind.
Left to right: Full colourvision Deuteranopia Protanopia Tritanopia
Instagram filter. Contrast increases and details are easier to pick out, especially in the trees below. Colours feel more intense, saturated. The sense of everything being rose-tinted soon passes as my eyes adjust their white balance. Shades of red are lustrous. A red towel hung out to dry on a balcony flares angrily. Even when I leave to walk through the shady alleyways of Barcelona, a red motorcycle gleams with a fluorescent hue in the gloom. Without the shades, the world seems rather drab.
New shades Glass scientist Don McPherson co-founded Enchroma in 2010, after the serendipitous discovery that lenses he was developing to protect surgeons’ eyes from medical lasers also enhanced colour perception in those who were colour blind. The reason was that coloured filters can make certain hues pop out against the background. Looking through a pair of bright pink lenses, for example, will make reds appear more vibrant – albeit at the cost of turning greens almost black. This effect has been recognised for over a century, and many other companies offer tinted lenses to address colour deficiency. McPherson says it is the ability of Enchroma’s glasses to bring relevant colours to the fore without diminishing others that stands them apart, making them worthy of their hefty price tag. They do this by filtering out the light wavelengths that trigger both red and green cones, essentially removing the colours that
my eyes get easily muddled over. A pair of such glasses could certainly have saved me embarrassment during my early years, when I frequently confused one crayon for another. They might also stop me buying grey shirts that turn out to be a wan shade of green, or struggling to know when meat is cooked. Later that evening, I pop mine back on to watch the sunset from the roof. The blank lemon-yellow sky is transformed into a fiery landscape, streaked with blazing reds. My jaw drops – this really is breathtaking. But is it any more true to life than the ochre sunsets I’m used to? Visually, I don’t perceive anything “wrong” with my usual field of view – those who are visually impaired in some way from birth never do. So while it is fun to try the glasses, I don’t think I would miss them that much. Still, for others with more extreme forms of colour blindness, a more permanent solution has appeal (see “Permanent fix”, above left). As part of my research, I spoke to Arthur Collyer, who has only ever seen in black and white. He tells me he would be interested in a gene therapy. “I’ve never seen colour, so I don’t know what I’m missing,” he says, “but it does prevent me from doing a lot of things.” We may want to approach a cure with caution, however. Seeing new colours doesn’t necessarily mean enjoying it, says Ken Knoblauch of the Stem-Cell and Brain Research Institute in Lyon, France. He himself has a lack of cone cells that leaves him with a
sharply diminished sense of red. “History is chequered with accounts of restored vision not holding the hoped-for promise,” he says. Knoblauch says that having learned to distinguish objects by other means, having a new channel of colour might confuse more than assist. “Would it be ugly to see the colour, would it get in the way of existing perception?” Both Knoblauch and Barbur point out that there is no fundamental normal standard of colour vision, and variability exists even among trichromats (see “Do you see what I see?”, p39). Even so, a permanent change may be nearer than we think. While McPherson is keen to emphasise that his firm, which is now working on contact lenses that offer the same visual adjustment as its glasses, doesn’t claim to treat or cure colour blindness, he tells me that some customers have reported the corrective effect of the glasses seems to persist even when they take them off. It might be that wearing them mimics the brain’s development of colour vision, he says. “Now you know what purple looks like, you can perceive it.” A week later, I find myself cruising at 30,000 feet, glasses stowed away, when the setting sun slices through the cabin windows, igniting everything it touches. I hold my hand out in front of me, watching the light play on skin glowing a now-familiar shade of rose-gold, and wonder if he’s right. ■ Frank Swain is a science writer based in Barcelona, Spain 17 March 2018 | NewScientist | 41
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Fifty shades of obey Stanley Milgram dismayed the world when he revealed how little it took to turn everyday people into torturers. But the world was misled, says Gina Perry
© ALEXANDRA MILGRAM
EARING a neat suit and tie, Adolf Eichmann brought the horror of Nazi concentration camps into American living rooms, making a new generation aware of the second world war’s atrocities. Eichmann was a high-ranking officer of the Third Reich, and his trial for war crimes was televised nightly across the US from April to August 1961. Stanley Milgram was riveted. He was a 26-year-old assistant professor at Yale University with childhood memories of the war, such as gathering around the radio with his family in their Brooklyn apartment for news of Jewish relatives in Eastern Europe. As the trial unfolded, Eichmann insisted he was merely following orders. This gave Milgram an idea for a research project that would become one of the most controversial experiments in the history of psychology.
Milgram’s exploration into the limits of obedience to authority captured the public imagination, not least because of his chilling conclusion: that the majority of us could become torturers with just a few words of encouragement from a single authority figure. I arrived at Yale in 2007, excited to take a close look at this classic experiment and its recently released archive material. But what I found revealed a disturbing, twisted tale. This landmark research is as misunderstood as it is famous. In the early 1960s, social psychology was still an emerging discipline, one that quickly gained a reputation for experiments that concealed their true nature so as to trick people into behaving naturally. Pioneers like Milgram were expected to develop storytelling, acting and stagecraft skills as part of their research toolkit.
Milgram advertised in the local paper for paid volunteers (see picture, page 44). Each one was met in the laboratory by the experimenter, “Mr Williams”, who explained the ostensible trial. To explore the effect of punishment on learning, the volunteer was to be the teacher in a memory test, training and quizzing a learner. Whenever the learner gave an incorrect answer, the teacher was expected to give them an electric shock, increasing the voltage with each mistake. Next door, Williams strapped the learner into a chair, attached electrodes to his wrists and showed them how to indicate answers by flipping a switch to illuminate a light in the other room. Once the test started, if the teacher hesitated or protested about administering shocks, Williams would urge them to continue with four increasingly authoritative commands, ranging from > 17 March 2018 | NewScientist | 43
The advert for volunteers gave no hint of the pain ahead
“Please continue, teacher” to “You have no other choice, teacher, you must go on”. At 75 volts, the learner could be heard through the adjoining wall, grunting in pain; at 120 there were loud complaints; at 150 the learner demanded to be released; at 285 they screamed in agony, then fell silent – presumably unconscious, or even dead. Yet the majority of volunteers pushed the voltage up to the maximum, Milgram reported. In reality, both Williams and the learner were actors, the shock machine was a prop and the learner’s cries were a tape recording. No one was physically harmed.
was drawn from his first journal article on obedience, which involved just 40 male volunteers. Could he fairly claim to have discovered a universal fact about human nature based on the actions of just 26 men? In fact, Milgram conducted 23 variations of his experiment, each with different actors and scenarios. In one, the learner made no noise at all until 300 volts, at which point they pounded on the wall then fell silent; in another, the learner refused to participate, so the experimenter played both roles, crying out in pain and instructing the surely nonplussed volunteer to continue to shock him. In more than half of the variations,
Banality of evil In the opening paragraph of his first journal article on obedience, Milgram referenced “death camps”, “gas chambers” and “daily quotas of corpses”. All of these things, he argued, would not have been possible without mass obedience to orders. The link between the perpetrators of genocide and his volunteers gave the experiment immediate resonance, and the article made headlines around the world. Milgram, it seemed, had recreated “the banality of evil” in the lab. Media reports of his research, with the shocking fact of his duped volunteers’ obedience, quickly brought Milgram fame and infamy in equal measure. Some hailed his research as a profound insight into human nature; others decried it for disregarding the potentially traumatised volunteers’ welfare. To explain his volunteers’ reported behaviour, Milgram formulated a theory of a what he called the agentic state, in which people become like sleepwalking automatons, their consciences evaporating in the face of an authority’s instructions. The dramatic experiment, and its bleak reflection of human nature, has been absorbed into our culture and reproduced in countless textbooks, articles and films. But many aspects of Milgram’s work have been forgotten, or were airbrushed out by Milgram himself. Fortunately, he audiotaped his 780 experiments, and produced 158 boxes of paperwork. When I began listening to his recordings, interviewing his volunteers and trawling through the papers, it dawned on me how much had been left out of the official narrative. I was struck by the flimsiness of the claims the world came to accept as fact. Take Milgram’s most famous conclusion, that 65 per cent of us will follow an authority’s orders and continue with torture, despite evidence of a victim’s pain. That statistic 44 | NewScientist | 17 March 2018
volunteers who resisted four times were classed as disobedient and the experiment was ended; later, that same behaviour was ignored. And the actor playing Williams increasingly went off-script. In the one variation with female volunteers, Williams insisted 26 times that one woman continue. Another volunteer, a 46-year-old woman, argued heatedly with Williams, then got up and turned off the shock machine. But Williams turned it back on, insisting she continue, which she reluctantly did. Listening to the tapes, you could be forgiven for thinking it was research into bullying and coercion, not obedience. In fact, the archive reveals that volunteers tried all sorts of strategies to avoid shocking the learner. Some offered to swap places; others emphasised the right answer, hoping the learner would notice and get fewer wrong; some cheated by giving lower shocks than they were supposed to. Many pleaded, argued with and challenged Williams. A few even threatened violence. If the ethical transgressions weren’t problematic enough, methodological criticisms accumulated. In 1968, psychiatrist Martin Orne published a high-profile article
“Significant science or effective theatre? I am inclined to accept the latter”
the majority of volunteers disobeyed the experimenter and refused to continue. These facts have been largely forgotten. In published accounts, Milgram comes across as a thorough, neutral scientist who publicly professed surprise at the results from the outset. It was his volunteers who behaved in a “shockingly immoral way”, as he put it in his first full-length account, the 1974 book Obedience to Authority: An experimental view. But privately, in an unpublished note in the archives, Milgram worried whether his experiments were “significant science or merely effective theatre… I am inclined to accept the latter interpretation”. That makes sense, because Milgram’s team shaped the results he wanted in a decidedly unscientific way. Early in the research,
arguing that subjects in social psychology experiments are not passive vessels but are sensitive to cues and incongruities. How feasible was it, he asked, that Milgram’s volunteers believed the scenario? How many truly thought that a reputable institution like Yale would permit experiments in which people were physically harmed, tortured or potentially killed? Milgram’s funders, the National Science Foundation, had expressed similar doubts in 1962. They refused Milgram’s funding request for more experiments, and instead gave him money to do a follow-up survey gathering evidence of volunteers’ interpretations of what happened in the Yale lab. The sceptics had a point. Conclusions drawn from a deceptive experiment like Milgram’s are built entirely on the assumption that the volunteers had no clue they were being tricked. Take that foundation away, and everything collapses. In fact, the archive is littered with volunteers’ descriptions of their suspicions, how they found it hard to believe that a learner who in one case warned of a heart condition
Milgram (far right) with his team, the shock box, and a wired-up “learner”
would agree to be shocked anyway, or the unrealistic disregard Williams had for the learner’s apparent agony. Milgram’s experiment was, for many volunteers, just too bizarre to be credible. The archive also revealed that in 1962, Milgram had done a detailed analysis of his follow-up survey data – and then suppressed the results for a decade. Only tucked away in the last chapter of Obedience to Authority did he finally confess that just 56 per cent of his volunteers fully believed that the shocks were causing the learner pain. That alone should have been enough to undermine his sweeping conclusions about human nature. But it’s worse than that. Milgram’s earlier, unpublished, analysis had found that in most experimental variations, the people who were most likely to disobey were those who said they believed someone was genuinely being hurt. On the flip side, the 44 per cent of people who doubted the shocks were real were the ones most likely to pump up the voltage. The house of cards he built had no foundation, even if it still stands in our collective cultural memory. In 1963, still freshly famous, Milgram bagged a job at Harvard University, hoping it would be a fresh start. But the controversy dogged his career, and when his contract at Harvard ended, they let him go. He continued in academia but fell forever from the Ivy League. Looking back, it is easier to see Milgram’s obedience experiments as a misguided echo of Eichmann’s alibi – an excuse rather than an explanation for humanity’s capacity for atrocity. Indeed, scholars of the Holocaust have largely abandoned Milgram’s ideas, recognising his flawed methodology and the inadequacy of his theory. Milgram fashioned a powerful tale of saints and sinners, a morality play cloaked in the language of science that captured a particular view of humankind at a specific time and place in history. But in reconstructing Eichmann in his lab and ignoring evidence that didn’t fit his narrative, Milgram deprived us of a richer, more hopeful story. The archives offer a portrait of people not as one-dimensional followers of orders, but as active searchers-for-meaning who make sometimes clumsy, sometimes clever and largely successful attempts to resist the cruel demands of an unyielding and enigmatic authority figure. Humans are built to obey? Don’t buy it. ■
FROM THE FILM OBEDIENCE ©1968 BY STANLEY MILGRAM. ©RENEWED 1993 BY ALEXANDRA MILGRAM. DISTRIBUTED BY ALEXANDER STREET PRESS. STANLEY MILGRAM PAPERS, 1927-1993 (INCLUSIVE) . MANUSCRIPTS & ARCHIVES, YALE UNIVERSITY
Gina Perry is a psychologist and writer in Melbourne, Australia, and author of Behind the Shock Machine (Scribe, 2012) 17 March 2018 | NewScientist | 45
Getting smart in the 21st century Boosting IQ is a hot topic in self-improvement. But a riveting new read leaves some big questions hanging, finds Sally Adee
The Genius Within: Smart pills, brain hacks and adventures in intelligence by David Adam, Pan Macmillan
on a home rowing machine. He recruits his wife to run a DIY trial of one. Twice he rows himself to exhaustion. During both sessions, he wears headgear – bought commercially – with electrodes pressed to his skull. To minimise the placebo effect, he asks his wife to choose when to turn the current on. The results are thrilling: nearly identical times. His delight ends when he asks which session was juiced up. “You asked me to choose
BEFORE David Adam can convince himself to ingest modafinil in a bid to cheat his way into Mensa, the society for people with a high IQ, he has a long way to go. First, he settles on a dodgy online “Adam’s own definition of pharmaceuticals outfit in India intelligence is the ability that apparently doubles as a to use what you have got honeymoon travel agency. to get what you want” But when pills finally arrive in unlabelled blister packs, the risk proves too much for the author of so I turned it on both times.” The Man Who Couldn’t Stop (in Such stunts illustrate the perils which he chronicles his triumph of neuroenhancement, and form over OCD). It is legal to possess the backbone of Adam’s truly the sleep disorder drug in the UK, moreish The Genius Within. This, but he still needs to know if it is his second book, is of its time, indeed modafinil he is about to as people reach for ever-more put in his body. extreme ways to boost cognition. Adam pleads with university We used to have brain training, chemistry labs to do the analysis. now we have modafinil and brainWhen he finally finds one willing, zapping headgear – and we don’t he has to hand over a blank know how well they really work. cheque in return for the alarming But questions of effectiveness promise that “we will try our quickly give way to much more best not to spend too much”. interesting ones: what do we Some £230 later, spectroscopic mean by “intelligence” and analysis puts his mind at ease: “boosting intelligence”. If the the honeymoon travel agency answers seem obvious, the has supplied the real thing. controversial history of Later, Adam turns to boosting intelligence research sets you his brain with electrical straight. After nearly a century stimulation to improve his of prying into what makes some physical intelligence – as measured people cleverer than others, there 46 | NewScientist | 17 March 2018
is still no scientific definition of intelligence. In the end, Adam coins his own – and I will hazard it is a pretty good one. Blending various definitions, he comes up with: intelligence is the ability to use what you have got to get what you want. This provides his book with its structure, as each chapter explores a different facet of what he means by “what you have got”. Many words are devoted to the mystery of general intelligence, or g: the innate, genetically linked (possibly, but hints of racism have made this research area too hot a potato) trait that started the hunt for the meaning and measurement of intelligence. As well as g, there is also the kind of executive control that can override the body’s decision as to when enough physical exertion is enough (hence the rowing experiment). Then there is creativity, emotional intelligence and even rationality. Each chapter includes the most eye-popping examples of when these have been accidentally or purposefully altered or enhanced. Thus a blow to the head turns a mediocre artist into a savant, and electrodes that regulate one man’s epilepsy also restore his photographic memory. A book on brain enhancement must pay at least lip service to the ethical objections and health concerns of well-meaning medics. The most common criticism is that it will increase the divides
Pill-popping: does anything go in the quest to boost intelligence?
between haves and have-nots. All bets for egalitarianism must be off if the poor can no longer rely on the meritocracy because the rich can buy all the best brains. Adam dispenses with these issues briskly but fairly. And in one of the book’s most satisfying reversals, he reveals that modafinil works better the further you are from high intelligence: brain enhancement turns out to offer the promise of doping as the great equaliser. He also defends it by extending his definition of intelligence to encompass the ability to be resourceful. If you can figure out how to obtain modafinil to boost
For more books and arts coverage, visit newscientist.com/culture
after the researcher who identified it. If the industrial revolution led to that rise, it was because it “demands an upgrade to the average working person”. And it wasn’t just a mental upgrade. Our corporate wellness programmes also sprang from the sense that “people who don’t carefully cultivate their personal wellness are seen as a direct threat to contemporary society, a society in which illness… is defined as the inability to work”, says Spicer. But in the so-called fourth industrial revolution we are now living in, the relationship between
“Magnetic stimulation won’t stop populism replacing democratic institutions with autocracy”
your intelligence, that determination also counts as a facet of your intelligence. While The Genius Within is hardly alone in the bookstore, it is among the best, and the least likely to make you struggle. In part, this is because it is generous with anecdotes, sharp-witted evasions of obvious conclusions and pub facts (who knew that a Japanese chemist first synthesised methamphetamine in 1919 as a medicine for people with lethargy and depression – or that it was given to kamikaze pilots in the hope it would make them less likely to change their minds?). In the end, however, this vastly entertaining book never quite delivers a satisfying answer to its questions about what intelligence
is for, and why we are going to such possibly illegal or maybe damaging lengths to increase it. You might be forgiven for wondering whether some common anxiety hides behind our apparently unslakeable thirst to hack and boost our minds and bodies. André Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at London’s Cass Business School, certainly thinks so. He coauthored Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement with Carl Cederström of Stockholm University. Our obsession with self-enhancement, Spicer argues, is a psychological bulwark against the increasing loss of control we face in our lives. Uncertainties like automation and rising inequality are fuelling a “collective nervous
breakdown” that manifests in an effort to take greater control over our minds and bodies. Against this backdrop, Adam points to a slightly uglier motive for trying to eke out an extra 5 IQ points by any means necessary: “The population is growing, and opportunities are shrinking.” He illustrates the point of cognitive enhancement in an increasingly brutal society with a familiar joke. “You’ll never outrun that lion,” says a wildlife photographer to another in the bush. “I don’t need to,” says the colleague. “I just need to outrun you.” We have been cognitively “outrunning” each other for the past century. A steady increase in IQ in Western countries has been documented as the Flynn effect,
increasing intelligence and the tasks demanded of the average worker is less clear. In particular, the “knowledge economy” has replaced manufacturing jobs with desk jobs such as telemarketing, admin and PR. These don’t require IQs to rise any further, and indeed there is evidence that the Flynn effect may be tapering off. At the end of the day, what is the point of neuroenhancement? And how much improvement can we expect? The modafinil and electrical stimulation did help Adam get into Mensa, but not quite in the way you might expect. Like a good scientist, he first ran a baseline experiment, taking the Mensa qualification test undoped. To his chagrin, he got in – albeit only just. It would have been a neater experiment if he had failed. When he repeated the test a year later, now with modafinil, he got in again – this time with room to spare. A few extra points added to our IQ might help us outrun the lion of automation, but with neuroenhancement becoming more pervasive, we will always be looking behind us. Q Sally Adee is a freelance writer 17 March 2018 | NewScientist | 47
Slime moulds may rule us Brendan Byrne discovers alien solutions to human problems
FOR the first time, non-human researchers have issued policy advice on everything from the proposed border wall between the US and Mexico to the correlation between environmental hardship and material affluence. The Plasmodium Consortium at Hampshire College, Massachusetts, is a policy research institute composed of “visiting non-human scholars” – members of the species Physarum polycephalum, one of the more common types of slime mould. A minor celebrity in philosophical circles, slime moulds are neither unicellular nor multicellular, but something in between. They move very slowly, via decentralised protoplasm tubes. Despite having no central nervous system or brain, they are excellent at solving tough computational problems, such as negotiating mazes. They are also immortal and can appear faintly terrifying, like a 1950s movie monster. Presented by experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, curator Amy Halliday and biology professor Megan Dobro, the consortium has been showcasing the policy decisions of these “scholars”. Scenarios constructed around urgent social issues were modelled in petri dishes, often using slime moulds’ favourite food, oat flakes, and strongest deterrents, salt and light. Keats then summed up the findings in a series of letters to federal and international bodies, stamped with the consortium’s seal. Solving problems by feel: dishes of Physarum polycephalum 48 | NewScientist | 17 March 2018
In the border control scenarios, regions”. Mr Trump: slime moulds two countries were represented say “don’t build that wall”. by slime mould snacks, Another scenario models the one protein-based, the other a US opioid crisis using valerian carbohydrate. In the first scenario, root, which distracts slime a Plexiglas wall was erected moulds to the point of starvation. between the “countries”. In the Pure valerian root is placed at second, a “controlled border” the centre of a Petri dish, with was set up using a light source. concentric circles featuring In the third, an intermittent light diminishing amounts of it source represented an “erratically mixed with escalating nutrients. controlled border”. The final The final ring is pure nutrient. part had no formal border. US Attorney General Jeff Writing to Kirstjen Nielsen, US Sessions, the recipient of Keats’s Secretary of Homeland Security, “Slime moulds are excellent Keats says that “unconstrained at solving problems. slime molds… thrive[d] in the open border zone, suggesting that They are also immortal and faintly terrifying” borders may be especially vital
Plasmodium Consortium, Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts
letter, will no doubt be thrilled to read that facing a choice between a highly addictive chemical and a nutritionally balanced meal, slime mould choose the former, with potentially fatal consequences. However “when presented with a chemical gradient between the addictive substance and nutrients – equivalent to availability of gateway drugs in a human environment – slime molds show a distinct tendency to migrate from the former toward the latter” – but not vice versa. Thus “gateway drugs” shouldn’t be considered dangerous, but rather as potential off-routes for addicts. Clearly the scenarios are meant as provocations rather than experiments; the scholars’ pronouncements are witty, but not jokes. The conclusion of the border control scenario – that the US government should “replace current national barriers with parklands” – seems ridiculous only until we remember that historically, the chief centres of cultural and economic development were port cities, where cultures interact with the least governmental inhibition. My favourite scenario tackles the thorny issue of the positive correlation between material affluence and environmental hardship. No one will be surprised to find slime moulds are leftists. Hampshire College’s Center for Plasmodial Research is to host more scholars, with projects exploring food deserts – areas where people struggle to access healthy ingredients – and redrawing a bus route. ■ Brendan Byrne is a writer and critic based in New York
Humanity will need the equivalent of 2 Earths to support itself by 2030.
People lying down solve anagrams in 10% less time than people standing up.
About 6 in 100 babies (mostly boys) are born with an extra nipple.
60% of us experience ‘inner speech’ where everyday thoughts take a back-and-forth conversational style. We spend 50% of our lives daydreaming.
AVAILABLE NOW newscientist.com/howtobehuman
LETTERS EDITOR’S PICK
Language and domestication, by whom? not language that caused this initially. If Homo sapiens was the first hominin species to have fully developed language, this would have allowed our ancestors to understand one another better, negotiate, network and deploy humour to defuse social tensions. The other adaptations described – less massive skulls and the rest – would follow as the better communicators got on at the expense of less articulate peers.
From John Leonard, Canberra, Australia
From Brian Horton, West Launceston, Tasmania, Australia
Colin Barras asks whether Homo sapiens domesticated ourselves to become more social and less violent than other hominin species, such as Neanderthals (24 February, p 28). He mentions language as an effect of this change, but I wonder whether it was
Did we domesticate ourselves? Perhaps not. Domesticated species commonly have floppy ears. What species has been associated with us for thousands of years, but rarely has them? Clearly humans were domesticated by cats.
Messages coming back from several futures From Andy Howe, Sheffield, UK So, letting the future affect the past might explain quantum weirdness (17 February, p 28). That’s a mind-bending postulate for the desired effect. Take your example of a measurement on one photon instantaneously affecting the measurement of its entangled partner, regardless of the distance between them and of the speed of light. Adam Becker reports proposals that the measurement sends a message back in time to when the photon pair was created, giving the partner particle information about what state it should be in when the first one is measured. But this can’t be changing the past. It means that the message
always was there when the photon pair was created. So the future is predetermined: at least when and where the measurement will occur, and by implication the future in general. We might avoid this by considering “the message” as a probability cloud encompassing all possible messages about when and where either photon could be measured in the future. Or maybe the messages back in time create alternative universes where all the alternative futures happen. Hang on: these ideas sound rather like the quantum weirdness this hypothesis seeks to avoid… From Mycal Miller, London, UK Retrocausality, the future’s influence upon the past, is not so weird. I often experience it. For example, if I am due to have an unusually early meeting in the
Could you help transform a life? It costs $50 to send a child to a UWS school for a whole year. That’s less than $1 per week. hŶŝƚĞĚtŽƌůĚ^ĐŚŽŽůƐĐƌĞĂƚĞƐĞĚƵĐĂƟŽŶĂůŽƉƉŽƌƚƵŶŝƚǇ for children living in the world’s poorest regions. We are driven by our global mission to help reach children that ĚŽŶŽƚƌĞĐĞŝǀĞĞǀĞŶƚŚĞŵŽƐƚďĂƐŝĐĞĚƵĐĂƟŽŶ͘ We have now reached over 15,000 previously outŽĨͲƐĐŚŽŽůĐŚŝůĚƌĞŶĨƌŽŵƌĞŵŽƚĞĐŽŵŵƵŶŝƟĞƐĂĐƌŽƐƐ Cambodia, Myanmar and Nepal, thanks to the support of people like you. Please help us to reach our target of 50,000 children by 2019. Every penny, pound, cent or dollar donated goes towards helping girls and boys in marginalised and ƉŽƐƚͲĐŽŶŇŝĐƚĐŽŵŵƵŶŝƟĞƐ͘ www.unitedworldschools.org I @teamuws| [email protected]
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52 | NewScientist | 17 March 2018
“Now she’s just wondering when they’re going to leave home and pay their own bills” Yvie attempts empathy with the 520-million-year-old fossil Fuxianhuia protensa seen caring for four offspring (10 March, p 6)
morning, it causes me to set my alarm clock for an hour earlier the night before. From Anthony Wilkins, Ripponden, West Yorkshire, UK I was fascinated by your article on the future coming before the past. I started this congratulatory letter early next year, but set it aside when I saw that it didn’t get accepted. Upon reading the “Incontrovertible proof of the block universe” article after it appeared in next week’s issue, I thought I would pick up where I left off to commend you on your prescience. Now I hope that this didn’t get published and unravel the space-time continuum. From Ed Subitzky, New York, US .fascinating most it found I .past the before comes future the when on article your for you Thank
Couldn’t our interstellar visitor be round? From Ben Haller, Ithaca, New York, US The tale of interstellar interloper ’Oumuamua was fascinating (3 February, p 28). But I was puzzled by astronomer Karen Meech’s conclusion that it is elongated, with a length as much as 10 times its width, based upon the variation in its brightness as it tumbles through space. Couldn’t a spherical body with a bright and a dark side produce the same pattern of variation? We know of such a body in our solar system: Iapetus, a moon of Saturn, has a dark splotch on one side, perhaps as a result of accretion of debris in orbit. The editor writes: Q The dip in the light curve is very steep, which is what you would
expect from a spinning elongated object. If the shape were similar to Iapetus, the curve would be more sinusoidal. But the models do assume a constant reflectance across ’Oumuamua’s surface. If this varies significantly then its length might be only four times its width, for example.
benefits have been achieved despite the Scottish government having a fixed budget, and losing money whenever part of the English NHS is privatised or the Westminster government changes its accounting system.
Claims of hate speech can be abused
Scotland has a different and better health service From Gordon Drennan, From Susan Forde, Scotlandwell, Perth and Kinross, UK You refer again to “the UK’s National Health Service” (16 December 2017, p 24). But NHS Scotland is very different from the English version. Prescriptions are free; personal care is free; social and medical care are now closely linked; and the standards for times from hospital entry to treatment and discharge are much stricter. These
d e m r o f n 100% i d e l c y c e r 66%
Burton, South Australia I am by inclination a supporter of civil and courteous debate, as your Leader describes (24 February, p 3). But some supporters of the state of Israel and its policies and actions try to get any criticism of it labelled “hate speech” under the umbrella of “anti-Semitism”, and shut down debate. So with regret I have to stand beside those who advocate free speech, as malignant as some of >
Did you know that 66% of all paper in the United States is † collected and recycled? In fact, it’s one of the most recycled products of all. Magazines are printed on paper made from renewable wood… Good news if you love spending DOHLVXUHO\DIWHUQRRQOHDåQJ through your favorite magazine.
To discover some surprising environmental facts about print and paper, visit www.twosidesna.org
Two Sides is an industry initiative to promote the responsible use of print and paper as a uniquely powerful and natural communications medium. †American Forest & Paper Association, 2015
17 March 2018 | NewScientist | 53
LETTERS them are. No one has the right to have their beliefs and the actions of those who subscribe to them shielded from criticism.
We can explain the Great Dying in the oceans too From Ralph Reid, Coolamon, New South Wales, Australia Colin Barras describes the theory that the “Great Dying” at the end of the Permian period might have been caused by excess UV-B light reaching Earth, destroying plant life and causing extinctions (17 February, p 8). He also notes objections that this does not explain marine die-offs. Such episodes might, however, have inhibited algal production at the base of the marine food chain, with considerable knock-on effect.
But the artists may have been drawing African animals because they or their forebears came from Africa, and they aimed to preserve the memory for their children.
The smart option to avoid sharing too much From Andrew Shand, Irvine, North Ayrshire, UK You report on the latest worry for tech addicts, that “always on” smart glasses may transmit their users’ intimate moments to the world (3 February, p 19). That would lead to a sort of “ménage à multitude”. You also report that software called PrivacEye can turn the glasses off as required. Alternatively… why not try not wearing them in the first place?
Rock art, a picture book for the kids
Another way to think yourself out of a seizure
From Colin Sutton, Newtown, New South Wales, Australia Jake Buehler’s report on rock art in Saudi Arabia is premised on the idea that it tells us what animals lived there (10 February, p 8).
From Richard Hind, York, UK Clare Wilson reports that some people with epilepsy can be trained to boost their mental alertness to avoid having a seizure (10 February, p 9). This reminds
me of reports of people using the t’ai chi “pushing hands” work, which involves training to sense your partner’s centre of gravity and muscle movements, through minimal hand contact. It is more mental than physical, and the process can be used to deal with an approaching seizure much as an approaching opponent. I appreciate that the belief system and terminology may leave some science-oriented people a bit cold. But if we can accept it as a way of describing observations, we can appreciate the benefits of these ancient systems without getting hung up about “fruitloopery”.
Ceurstemont’s report on the pollution caused by clothing (24 February, p 36). We are now equally concerned about the huge impact of fibre manufacturing and processing, and washing clothes. We sincerely hope the various ideas work out: it is much too cold this winter to turn nudist!
Veganism and lifestyle change, or bacon offsets
Artificial stupidity meets face recognition again
From Sandy and Richard Emmett, Tigard, Oregon, US We were convinced by Chelsea Whyte’s discussion of going vegan (27 January, p 26) and the huge global warming impact of livestock farming. We are now willing to do our bit to save the planet by eating vegetarian. We have, however, just read Sandrine
From Peter Norbury, Lichfield, Staffordshire, UK Face recognition software that can “guess your gender with amazing accuracy” seems to be light years away from what’s available on products such as the iPad (17 February, p 5). Mine identifies “people” in my photo album, including an individual I would not have thought of putting on my friends list, although other sheep may find it charming.
From Tim Robinson, Oxford, UK The raging debate about being vegan reminds me of carbon offsetting (24 June 2017, p 35). I am offsetting my personal travel and power generation at a cost of about £82.50 for the year. I could add a bit on for a bacon sandwich.
For the record Q John Hume breeds rhinos to harvest their horns (13 January, p 42). Q Security researcher Nitesh Saxena is at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (3 March, p 9). Q Reaching for a clockwork calculator, we find that 30 years passed between 1975 and 2005 (Old Scientist, 3 March).
Letters should be sent to: Letters to the Editor, New Scientist, 25 Bedford Street, London, WC2E 9ES 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. New Scientist Ltd reserves the right to use any submissions sent to the letters column of New Scientist magazine, in any other format.
54 | NewScientist | 17 March 2018
SIGNAL BOOST Offering your projects a helping hand
Widening access to science RESTRICTED social mobility is a major problem in the UK today, and the ever-widening divide it reinforces threatens the economic and social cohesion of the country. The Social Mobility Commission has found that almost 60 per cent of academics and life science professionals, and more than 50 per cent of scientists in general, come from professional or managerial backgrounds. In comparison, the corresponding figures for those from working-class backgrounds are less than 15 per cent and 6 per cent. In2scienceUK’s mission is to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds progress into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers.The charity aims to not only improve social mobility, but also encourage a more diverse and inclusive science culture. We do this by offering those studying STEM subjects work placements with researchers in academia and industry. Could you or someone in your group volunteer to host one of our students for two weeks? Volunteers are given support to ensure both they and the students they host get the most out of the experience. All our students are interviewed prior to any placement, and are given careers advice and university-access workshops. The programme’s impact is excellent: 83 per cent of our students go to university, with 58 per cent attending a top one. Normally, only 16 per cent of students on free school meals, a key socio-economic indicator, go to university (and only 2 per cent get into highly selective institutions). We offer researchers a chance to make a lasting difference to some of the most disadvantaged and under-represented groups in the UK. At present, the scheme runs mainly in London and Oxford, but we will be expanding nationwide over the next few years. Sign-up closes in early June, for flexible placements running throughout the summer. Joy Aston, In2scienceUK
For more information and for details on how to sign up, please visit in2scienceuk.org Signal Boost is your chance to tell our readers about a project that needs their help. We’re looking for campaigns, programmes or ideas from non-profit or voluntary enterprises. Send a proposal, together with images and information about yourself, to [email protected]. New Scientist does not endorse any claims made in this donated advertising space. We reserve the right to edit contributions for clarity and style.
Spectacular wall art from astro photographer Chris Baker
Available as frameless acrylic or framed backlit up to 1.2 metres wide. All limited editions NEWS! See the recently launched Chris Lintott Galaxy Collection
www.galaxyonglass.com +44 (0) 7814 181647 [email protected] 17 March 2018 | NewScientist | 55
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WHETHER it be micellar water or chakra-charging crystals, the practitioners of alternative lifestyles strive to offer novelties that will lubricate the wallets of the worried well-off. Few do it with as much aplomb as Goop, the Hollywood lifestyle brand of Gwyneth Paltrow. The queen of yoni balls, moon-dust smoothies and ashwagandja (us neither) has continually stayed one step ahead of her satirists, dreaming up ever more bizarre concoctions that are set against a backdrop of quasispiritual wellness advice. But automation comes for us all eventually. Witness the birth of Goob, the computer-assisted lifestyle magazine from Botnik.org. By training a predictive text generator on a library of material from Goop, Botnik was able to produce an even more adventurous brand. Goob subscribers can browse products such as Chicago Dad Soothing Mortgage Advice Salve (“get back to the realm of your own essence”) and “Cancer Gossip Jeans”,
all wrapped up in bold headlines such as “Is the soul more supple when you’ve been divorced? We asked two dogs for some advice.” In the interests of balance, Feedback trained the program on material gleaned from New Scientist itself. Stay tuned for the upcoming feature “Our multiverse is great: the laws of physics don’t wash out.”
WATER, water everywhere, so how to make your heavily marked-up version stand out from the crowd? Faced with the inconvenient truth that plain water is an ideal thirst quencher, marketeers have plumbed for ever more exotic ways to dress up the bottles – and occasionally their contents. Following in the grand tradition of hexagonal water, alkaline water, iceberg water and sacred geometry water (all seen on these pages) comes Frequency H2O, offering a drink said to be infused with frequencies of love, the moon or “rainbow”. Spotted by Hamish Bowden
Police were called to Oberlin High School in Louisiana last month after students expressed concern during a maths lesson that the squareroot symbol “resembled a gun” 56 | NewScientist | 17 March 2018
and Asa Wahlquist, the tipple was named best bottled water at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting Awards in West Virginia last month. The company claims to employ a “trade secret two-stage kinetic energy process” and the resulting water is “infused with a blend of Solfeggio, sound and light frequencies.” For those who are wondering, solfeggio is not a water-soluble mineral but a way of teaching the major scale, as immortalised by Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music when she sang Do-Re-Mi. How this ends up inside a plastic bottle of water remains unclear. Feedback is reliably informed that this process “enlivens the molecules producing noticeable texture, softness and ultrahydrating taste, feel and effect”. Those who wish to gulp down some love can pick up Frequency H2O for around A$3.30 per litre. Feedback will be drowning our disbelief with something stronger. THE Lowy Institute, an esteemed Australian think tank, has published a paper on the serious topic of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive. “The corrupt trade in beche-de-mer had been of low priority because there were larger fish to fry,” writes Graeme Lindenmayer, “until an unrelated report from a Chinese environmental scientist happened to reach Xi’s attention.” Lax enforcement of fisheries was seriously depleting the stocks of this highly valuable animal, says Graeme, spurring the president into action. Or, as the Lowy Institute titled the paper: “Xi saves sea slugs on the sea floor”.
NORTH America’s tallest peak has a big problem: a mountain of excrement, left by the 1100 or so climbers who attempt to reach the summit each year. The Associated Press reports that an estimated 100 tonnes of solid human waste has been deposited on Denali in Alaska
since 1951 and is inching down the Kahiltna glacier toward the meltwater river below. Dumped in biodegradable pouches, it was believed that the faeces would decompose over time. But research by glaciologist Michael Loso found that the waste – and most likely the bacteria within – survives its trip down the mountainside intact. Loso predicts the mid-century sewage will start to appear at the bottom of the glacier in about seven years. New rules have been proposed by Denali National Park authorities which will require climbers to relieve themselves of bagged faeces at two fixed locations to keep the mountain pristine. Feedback hopes that Alaska’s climbers will be happy to carry out their duty, so to speak. FEEDBACK is soliciting creative scientific theories cooked up by your enquiring childhood minds (24 February). Luce Gilmore writes: “As a boy, I learned about the deadly, diseasespreading tsetse fly. Not much later,
I read that human eggs are fertilised by sperm, ‘from the testes’, though how the two came together was left unexplained.” Luce misread testes as tsetse, and so for a while “believed that women were pollinated at night, by flies”.
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.
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THE LAST WORD Going for gold Given that athletics races can be won or lost by a margin as small as a hundredth of a second, do athletes risk a gold medal by wearing gold chains?
same power output would be beneficial, it seems. If the finalists all wore chains – and most appear to – then no one would have an unfair advantage. But it would be helpful to wear a gold-plated aluminium chain, saving a solid gold one for the podium (assuming the runner is among the medallists). Tennis players do something similar when they don expensive watches for the presentation. Boxers can get a little lighter by spitting into a bucket if they have difficulty meeting their class weight. A sprinter wanting to wear a 50-gram chain without being disadvantaged could easily spit 50 millilitres into a bucket just before the race. However, don’t discount the inspirational value of the medallion hanging from a
QHorse racing has always understood the relationship between a jockey’s weight and the power output that a horse can sustain. This is why jockeys are weighed together with their saddle, boots and gold chains, if any, before each race. Lead weights may be added to the saddles (known as a handicap) to ensure that no horse and rider have an unfair advantage. A human sprinter trains to maximise power output and uses this to accelerate body weight from rest up to a peak velocity, maintaining this to the finish. “Olympic champion Usain For a fixed power output, the Bolt achieves an amazing rate of acceleration goes down velocity of more than as weight rises. So gold chains 43 kilometres an hour” will mean a slower acceleration. A 100-metre sprinter accelerates for almost two-thirds of the race. sprinter’s neck. Looking at closeOlympic champion Usain Bolt ups of sprinters’ faces crossing achieves an amazing velocity of the finish line in record-breaking more than 43 kilometres an hour. times, one could be forgiven for As your questioner points out, thinking that the result would be the winning margin in a race can no different even if they wore be as little as 0.01 seconds. That three chains! amounts to 0.1 per cent of the Andrew Carruthers men’s 100 metres world record, Beaconsfield, Quebec, Canada which is 9.58 seconds. If a sprinter weighs 93 kilograms and their QThe International Association gold chain 50 grams, then the of Athletics Federations (IAAF) chain represents 0.05 per cent of uses a somewhat quaint rule – the their weight. Reducing a sprinter’s winner of a race is judged to be the weight while maintaining the athlete who gets his or her torso
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across the line first. Heads, hands and feet do not count. The finish is recorded using a camera that takes at least 1000 pictures a second specifically of the line, and nothing but the line. Officials use these to judge which torso belongs to which runner, and to determine how long each athlete took to run from the start to the finish line in thousandths of a second (or hundredths in the days when equipment didn’t have the necessary precision). The results are almost instantly flashed up on the scoreboard in the stadium, and within fractions of a second can be relayed to the millions of people watching the race live on TV. Obviously no official would make a judgement based on jewellery dangling from an athlete’s neck, because it isn’t part of the torso. But might a gold chain worn within the athlete’s vest cause the vest to arrive a scant fraction of a second earlier than it would otherwise have? Consider an athlete who can run 100 metres in 10 seconds. On average, they would be covering 10 metres in one second, 1 metre in a tenth of a second, 10 centimetres in a hundredth of a second, and 1 centimetre in a thousandth of a second. From a standing start, they must be crossing the finish line at a speed slightly faster than the whole-race average, we can assume. So in that final thousandth of a second, they are perhaps travelling a distance of 1.5 centimetres. Wearing a gold
chain this thick would be a crippling handicap. Phil Walker Gloucester, UK
This week’s questions WISDOM OF THE CROWS
New Scientist recently ran an article about crows making up after a fight, or keeping their distance from another crow they had beaten (6 January). So how do crows tell each other apart? They all look alike to me. Eric Kvaalen Les Essarts-le-Roi, France HIGH-RISE RESCUES
In the aftermath of the horrendous Grenfell Tower disaster in London last year, I would like to know why rescuing trapped individuals appears to be beyond our present capabilities. Why can’t we construct ladders that will reach people trapped in tall buildings? Why can’t all towers have nets that can be deployed around their bases to catch those willing to jump, especially if combined with occupants being provided with inflatable suits to cushion their fall? Why can’t helicopters be deployed to rescue those in windows or balconies? Why aren’t all occupants of high-rise apartments given the chance to escape by sliding down wires or slides? Why are such suggestions considered outlandish? James Thomas Cardiff, UK
WHERE WILL STEM
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