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  • 1. New Science Publications Editorial–Editor-in-Chief Jeremy WebbEditor Roger HighfieldAssociate EditorsLiz Else, Stephanie PainNews Editor Shaoni BhattacharyaEditors Helen Knight, Celeste Biever,Richard Fisher, Sumit Paul-Choudhury, What were they thinking?Priya ShettyTel +44 (0) 20 7611 1206Fax +44 (0) 20 7611 1250ReportersLONDON Andy Coghlan, Paul Marks,Linda Geddes, David Shiganews@newscientist.comBOSTONUS Bureau Chief Ivan Semeniuk Neuroscience could learn much from the humility of Charles DarwinSAN FRANCISCOBureau Chief Peter Aldhouspeter.aldhous@newscientist.comJim Giles IT IS two centuries since the birth of at last to be becoming Charles Darwin, but even now his advice can Now it seems that a good chunk ofTORONTO Alison MotlukBRUSSELS Debora MacKenzie be spot on. The great man attempted a little the papers in this field contain exaggeratedMELBOURNE neuroscience in The Expressions of the claims, according to an analysis whichAustralasian Editor Rachel Emotions in Man and Animals, published in suggests that “voodoo correlations” oftenFeatures Editors Ben Crystall, 1872, in which he discussed the link between inflate the link between brain areas andKate Douglas, Clare Wilson, David Cohen,Graham Lawton, Valerie Jamieson, facial expressions and the brain. “Our present particular behaviours (see page 11).Michael Le Page, Caroline Williams, subject is very obscure,” Darwin warned in his Some of the resulting headlines appearedRichard WebbFeatures Contacts book, “and it is always advisable to perceive in New Scientist, so we have to eat a littleTel +44 (0) 20 7611 1201Fax +44 (0) 20 7611 1280 clearly our ignorance.” humble pie and resolve that next time a Modern-day neuroscience might benefit sounding brain scan result appears we willOpinion Editor Jo Marchant from adopting a similar stance. The field has strive to apply a little more scepticism toEditors John Hoyland, Amanda Gefter,Alison George, Eleanor Harris produced some wonderful science, including our coverage. Neuroscientists should alsoTel +44 (0) 20 7611 1240Fax +44 (0) 20 7611 1280 endless technicolor images of the brain at take a hard look at their techniques, but don’ work and headline-grabbing papers about expect anyone to rush back to reanalyse theResearcher Lucy DodwellEditorial Assistant Amy Galloway the areas that “light up” when registering data. Science is too competitive to spend timeProduction Editor Mick O’Hare emotions. Researchers charted those sad raking over old results.Asst Production Editor Melanie Green spots that winked on in women mourning the This is not the first time neuroscientistsChief Sub John LiebmannSubeditors Vivienne Greig, Julia Brown, end of a relationship, the areas that got fired have been criticised for over-egging brainSean O’Neill, Eleanor Parsons up when thinking about infidelity, or those scanner results (New Scientist, 21 SeptemberArt Director Alison Lawn that surged in arachnophobes when they 2002, p 38). It probably won’t be the last. ButDesign Craig Mackie, Ryan WillsGraphics Nigel Hawtin, Dave Johnston thought they were about to see a spider. at least there are signs that the self-correctingPictures Adam Goff, Kirstin JenningsTel +44 (0) 20 7611 1268 The subjective subject of feelings seemed nature of science will win the day. ●Fax +44 (0) 20 7611 1250Careers Editor Helen Thomsoncareers@newscientist.comTel +44 (0) 20 7611 1248Fax +44 (0) 20 7611 1280Consultants Alun Anderson, Stem cell bonanzaAnil Ananthaswamy, Stephen Battersby,Michael Bond, Michael Brooks, DESPITE progress ranging from bone The method would use a person’s ownMarcus Chown, Rob Edwards, Richard Fifield,Barry Fox, Mick Hamer, Jeff Hecht, marrow transplants to reconstructed stem cells, so there is no need to tinker withBob Holmes, Justin Mullins, Fred Pearce, windpipes, it is still easy to forget that many cells outside the body, nor any possibilityHelen Phillips, Ian Stewart, Gail Vines,Gabrielle Walker, Emma Young stem cell treatments are still some way off. of rejection. To fix other kinds of tissue wePress Office and Syndication Which is why a new discovery gives us grounds will still need the most versatile of stem cells,UK Claire BowlesTel +44 (0) 20 7611 1210 Fax 7611 1250 for optimism (see page 6). If it works as well in the embryonic kind.US Office humans as it has in mice, it should enable The good news is that Mozobil and theTel +1 617 386 2190 patients to produce floods of potentially growth factor are all already commerciallyNEWSCIENTIST.COM curative stem cells in their own bone marrow. available, making it easier to do furtherOnline Publisher John MacFarlaneOnline Editor Rowan Hooper All it takes is a drug called Mozobil, plus animal experiments and human trials. BestEditors Maggie McKee, Tom SimoniteReporters Catherine Brahic, Colin Barras, a natural growth factor, to boost production of of all, we can take heart that dazzling advancesSandrine Ceurstemont, Michael Marshall, stem cells with the potential to repair blood, genuinely promise new treatments, and don’tEwen Callaway, Rachel CourtlandOnline Subeditor Dan Palmer muscle, bone, ligaments and blood vessels. just swell the academic literature. ●Web team Neela Das, Cathy Tollet,Ruth Turner, Ken Wolf, Edin Hodzic,Vivienne Griffith, Rohan Creasey,Matteo Giaccone Reasons to be cheerful ACCORDING to a deeply unscientific but of this year feel particularly depressing for oft-quoted formula, 19 January will be “blue many. But consider this: it turns out that Monday”, the most miserable day of the being too happy can actually be bad for you year. That is the day when we are supposedly (see page 36), leaving you unwilling to make most likely to wallow in self-pity, feeling fat, the effort to change your life for the better. broke and washed-up. So why not stop being miserable about being The credit crisis and consequent global miserable, and start to enjoy it for a change? economic woes have, it’s true, made the start Just don’t smile and wreck all the benefits. ● 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 3
  • 2. News in perspective Upfront– THREATENED BY AN ANGRY SUNROB ATKINS/GETTY Our technologically dependent society effects on supplies of water, medicine could be brought to its knees the next and other necessities, the report says. time Earth is walloped by an extreme Damaged transformers could be solar outburst. a particularly big problem. “If a large Intense outbursts of plasma from the number were taken out it could take sun, called coronal mass ejections, can quite a while to replace them,” says create electromagnetic interference that Baker. “There’s not a lot of stock… plays havoc with technology. In 1989, one and they have to be built to order.” nasty blast knocked out the power grid in Fortunately, there are ways to reduce Quebec, Canada, for several hours. Future the risk of catastrophe. Relatively cheap blasts could be much worse, according modifications could make transformer to a report by a US National Research circuits up to 70 per cent less vulnerable Council committee led by Daniel Baker to solar storm damage, the report says. of the University of Colorado in Boulder, One small mercy is that some based on workshops held last year. scientists argue the sun is likely to enter The most powerful solar outburst on a decades-long quieter period soon, record happened in 1859. Then, it merely during which big outbursts would be disrupted telegraph communication. If less likely (New Scientist, 10 January, it happened today, it could cause lasting p 11). However, this prediction is damage to power grids, with knock-on fraught with uncertainty. –Technology in the firing line– Runaway rabbits of Applied Ecology, vol 46, p 73). The Tasmanian Parks and Drug safety fears 30 to 74 (The New England Journal of Medicine, vol 360, p 231). Ray THE rabbit population boom Wildlife Service (TPWS), which FRESH fears have been raised over believes a perception that these ravaging Macquarie Island, eradicated the last cat in 2000, the safety of antipsychotic drugs. drugs are safe has led to them halfway between Australia and expected myxomatosis to limit First-generation antipsychotics, being prescribed more. Antarctica, is providing an urgent rabbit numbers. But Bergstrom which are mainly used to treat Meanwhile Clive Ballard at reminder of why conservationists believes that had the TPWS “done schizophrenia, mania or delusion King’s College London and his need to analyse all aspects of an their calculations” it could have disorder, are known to raise the colleagues have completed the eradication programme. avoided a population explosion. risk of heart problems. first long-term study of the effect A plan to save the island’s birds A spokesperson for TPWS, Now Wayne Ray at Vanderbilt of antipsychotics on people with by ridding it of its 160 feral cats however, told New Scientist University in Nashville, Tennessee, Alzheimer’s, who are given the has gone disastrously wrong, with that it was a “conservation and colleagues report that newer drugs to reduce aggression and the rabbit population now at a achievement” to remove one of antipsychotics such as olanzapine, agitation. They found that whopping 130,000, up from just the island’s main pests. It is now risperidone and quetiapine, which prolonged use increases the risk of 4000 in 2000. Clearing up the planning a rabbit and rodent were thought to be safer than premature death, and recommend world heritage site is expected to eradication programme for next their older counterparts, also pose antipsychotics only as a last resort cost AU$24 million (US$16 million). year. This time, TPWS says, it risks. The researchers found these in people with Alzheimer’s (The “We need a culture change,” intends to conduct a quantitative drugs double the risk of sudden Lancet Neurology, DOI: 10.1016/ says ecologist Hugh Possingham risk assessment first. cardiac death among people aged S1474-4422(08)70295-3). of the University of Queensland JANET JARMAN/CORBIS in Brisbane. Environmentalists “are often averse to maths, Tequila hangover and so avoid quantitative risk THE benefits of a good name assessments”, he says. only stretch so far. A “geographical indication” (GI) that legally ties products like “The rabbit population is champagne and tequila to their now at a whopping 130,000, place of origin and cultural up from just 4000 in 2000” heritage does not always help the region it sets out to protect. The rabbits have trashed the Sarah Bowen of North Carolina vegetation on 40 per cent of the State University in Raleigh and island, according to an estimate her colleagues found that tying by Dana Bergstrom of the the making of tequila to the Australian Antarctic Division in Jalisco region of Mexico has Tasmania and colleagues (Journal –Agave blues– made its production socially 4 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 3. 60 SECONDSand ecologically unsustainable. Tequila’s blue agave plant takes Epidural safety the chance of lasting harm from a spinal anaesthetic is between Nuclear budget explodessix years to mature, leading to an WOMEN in pain during childbirth 1 in 50,000 and 1 in 23,000 The US government spent $52.4 billion onunstable local supply. This, plus a now have one less thing to worry (British Journal of Anaesthesia, nuclear weapons in 2008, according tohuge leap in demand for the drink about. The most comprehensive DOI: 10.1093/bja/aen360). If US think tank the Carnegie Foundation.since the 1990s, has driven many study into the risks posed by only women in childbirth are This is twice the total spend on science,liquor companies to grow their epidurals concludes that they are considered, it is between 1 in space and technology, and 14 timesown near Jalisco (Journal of safer than previously thought. the budget for energy research. WhileRural Studies, DOI: 10.1016/j.jrurstud.2008.07.003). Estimates of the risk of lasting harm from these spinal injections, “Past results were variable, $47 billion goes towards maintaining the US arsenal, only $5 billion is spent This has led to “environmental often offered to women in labour which has been confusing for on preventing nuclear threats.degradation and the elimination to numb the pain of childbirth, anaesthetists and patients”of traditional practices”, says vary quite a bit, but a figure used Brown revolution beginsBowen. Tequila – the first GI widely was 1 in 25,000. 320,000 and 1 in 80,000.granted outside Europe – should Now a panel led by Tim Cook of “Past results have been African scientists this week beganbe a lesson to other poor nations, the Royal United Hospital in Bath, very variable, which has been a project to boost food productionsays Bowen. “The specification of UK, has collected information confusing for anaesthetists and by compiling a digital map of thesustainable production practices from all National Health Service made it difficult for them to continent’s horrendously depleted soils.within [the GI] legal framework hospitals in the UK that carry out communicate the risk to Launched by the International Centeris essential,” she says. the procedure. It concludes that patients,” says Cook. for Tropical Agriculture in Nairobi, Kenya, the map will show whichWatchdog’s woesNASA’s financial watchdog is a IRON-SEEDING SHIP SETS SAIL compounds – such as phosphate – are needed where to restore soil fertility.toothless organisation that does Legal controversy surrounds the detrimental effects on ecosystems. The Telescope marathonnot understand the role of an largest ever “iron-seeding” experiment IMO’s rules on marine protection do notauditor. That is the scathing to geoengineer the climate as it sets cover experiments like Smetacek’s, but Astronomers looked set to breakconclusion of a report from the sail from South Africa. “it will be in clear defiance of the UN records this week by monitoring threeUS Government Accountability Within weeks, a team led by Victor Convention on Biological Diversity”, quasars for 33 hours – the longest timeOffice (GAO). Smetacek of the Alfred Wegner Institute warns Jim Thomas of environmental this has been achieved “live”. On NASA’s Office of the Inspector in Bremerhaven, Germany, hopes to research organisation ETC Group. 15 and 16 January, telescopes fromGeneral (OIG) is charged with dump 20 tonnes of ferrous sulphate into Smetacek says his expedition has been Asia, Australia, Europe and theimproving the space agency’s the Southern Ocean. The aim is to trigger approved by the German government, Americas were due to stream data viaefficiency while also identifying a plankton bloom that will suck carbon which helped define the UN guidelines. high-speed fibre links directly to aany mismanagement or abuse out of the air and lock it up at the Others point out the experiment is supercomputer – creating the biggestof its $17 billion annual budget. bottom of the ocean. unlikely to cause harm. “Twenty tonnes real-time telescope ever.Yet out of the 71 NASA programme After a company called Planktos of iron particles in the vast ocean is veryaudits carried out between 2006 sparked controversy in 2007 with plans much a drop in the bucket,” says Ken Goats against clotsand 2007, only one identified to dump iron filings in the Galapagos, Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution atany potential cost savings, claims both the International Maritime Stanford University in California. “The A drug expressed in the milk ofthe GAO report. This makes Organization (IMO) and the UN rational concern is that experiments genetically engineered goats has wonNASA’s inspectorate poor value Convention on Biological Diversity will lead down some slippery slope – a favourable review from the US Foodfor money, say the authors, who recommended that governments restrict that small experiments could be scaled and Drug Administration. Made bycalculate that the OIG recoups only such activities because they could have up without any regulation.” GTC Biopharmaceuticals of Rockville,36 cents for every dollar it costs Maryland, antithrombin prevents JACQUES DES CLOITRES/MODIS/GSFC NASAto run, compared with an average blood clots during surgery or childbirthof $9.49 for those overseeing in people with a rare clotting disorder.other US agencies. It received European approval in 2006. Most of the blame is directedat Robert Cobb, head of the OIG, Cancer-free baby?for choosing investigations notintended to save money. He The first baby to be screened as ancounters that the GAO report is embryo for the presence of a geneflawed because it uses “selective that raises the risk of cancer has beenand incomplete data”. Politicians born. Paul Serhal’s team at Universitymay have had enough, however. College London discarded six embryosBart Gordon, chairman of the with the BRCA1 gene, which raises theUS House Committee on Science risk of breast cancer by 80 per cent,and Technology, wants Barack and implanted two lacking it, resultingObama’s administration to in one birth.remove Cobb from his post. –Blooming disaster?– 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 5
  • 4. International news and exclusivesThis week–This week–Heal yourself, withstem cells’ helpDrugs that free up the body’s own stem cells couldbring simpler, cheaper therapies a step closerANDY COGHLAN stored ready for transplant into the bone marrow followingIT HAS been an uplifting week for chemotherapy to kill cancerousstem cell research. Not only is US blood cells, where they restockpresident-elect Barack Obama the blood cells destroyed by thepoised to sweep away restrictions anti-cancer drugs.on stem cells when he takes office Now Rankin’s team has shownon 20 January, but a new that it is possible to persuade thetreatment based on the drug bone marrows of mice to produceMozobil promises to harness an two additional categories ofindividual’s stem cells to help stem cell – mesenchymal stemthem heal their own bodies. cells (MSCs) and endothelial A few days ago Sara Rankin progenitor cells (EPCs) –and her colleagues at Imperial broadening considerably theCollege London announced that types of damage and disease thatMozobil, in combination with might be treatable. “It’snatural growth factors, can promoting self-healing,” saysfree up specific types of stem Rankin, whose team’s research –Broken bones could mend faster –cells from the bone marrows of was published last week inmice and send them flooding Cell Stem Cell (DOI: 10.1016/j. down inflammation, and so could Mozobil plus a natural substanceinto the bloodstream. stem.2008.10.017). “We’re simply be used to treat autoimmune called vascular endothelial The discovery is important boosting what’s going on diseases. EPCs repair blood vessels growth factor (VEGF). Rankin’sbecause it opens up the possibility naturally, and we’ve shown that and form new ones, so they have team also used GSCF and Mozobilof treatments tailored to the we can selectively mobilise the potential to restore vital blood in mice to show that, in principle,individual, who would for different types of stem cell.” supplies to tissues damaged by drug therapies can be tweaked toexample take drugs to stimulate MSCs grow into muscle and strokes or heart attacks. produce either blood stem cellsthe growth and release of specific bone, and so have the potential Rankin and her colleagues or those that become muscle,stem cells to repair cardiac to repair cardiac tissue following showed that they could persuade bone and blood vessels.tissue after a heart attack. Such heart attacks, or to accelerate mouse bone marrow to release What is more, the stage istreatments would be free of the healing of broken bones or floods of both types of cell at the set for these treatments toethical baggage associated with ligaments. They also damp same time by giving the mice be tried in people, as boththerapies based on extracting growth factors are availablestem cells from human embryos – commercially. Mozobil’s maker,though their development wouldnot remove the need for STEM CELL DELIVERANCE IS NIGH Genzyme of Cambridge, Massachusetts, received approvalembryonic stem cell research as After Barack Obama is inaugurated as Bush introduced to satisfy opponents in December from the US Foodthey do not cover all cell types. US president on 20 January, expect him of research on human embryos. and Drug Administration to sell Treatments to stimulate the to make good on his promise back in Congress may later pass legislation the drug in combination withbone marrow to make stem cells August to reverse George W. Bush’s to block reintroduction of the GCSF for treating lymphoma.are already widely used to treat restrictions on stem cell research. restrictions by future administrations. Genzyme told New Scientistleukaemias and other blood “As president, I will lift the current In a memo to the transition team this that it is looking into othercancers. Based on a natural administration’s ban on federal funding week, the US Center for Genetics and ways of using Mozobil. “Itsgrowth factor called granulocyte of research on embryonic stem cell lines Society in Oakland, California, called on novel mechanism of actioncolony stimulating factor (GCSF), created after 9 August 2001 through Obama to work with Congress to opens the door for a rich area ofthey prompt the bone marrow to executive order,” he said. introduce comprehensive laws research,” says Richard Peters,produce extra haematopoietic Now the smart money is on him overseeing all stem cell research in the vice-president of global medicalstem cells (HSCs), which grow into issuing an executive order himself US, which at present is completely affairs at Genzyme Transplantall types of blood cell. These cells within days to get rid of the veto that unregulated in the private sector. and Oncology.can be extracted over weeks and One big question is whether6 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 5. In this section ● ‘Phoenix’ universe, page 8 ● Novels act as societal glue, page 10 ● Doubt over brain image results, page 11 Warmer climate stifles DAVID BABCOCK/ALT-6/ALAMY ethical and regulatory issues associated with other types of stem cell therapy, and it would be a lot cheaper,” says Rankin. But she stresses that the approach can’t be used for every type of poor nations’ economies disease, and so should not be used by governments as a reason to GlOBAL warming will not only likely, as were political coups. reduce funding for other stem devastate agriculture in developing Olken says his results fit with cell research. She points out, for countries, it will undermine other studies showing that high example, that there are no known economic and political stability to temperatures increase civil unrest, bone marrow stem cells that a far greater extent than previously and that drought can lead to make nerve or brain cells. These imagined, according to new study. political instability. The results were can only be made from embryonic The link between “high presented last week at a meeting of stem cells, or from induced temperatures and poor growth is the American Economics Association, pluripotent stem cells produced much stronger than we’d realised”, in San Francisco. by introducing genes that coax says Benjamin Olken, an economist Slowing growth rates would skin and other cells back into an at the Massachusetts Institute of have cumulative effects that studies embryonic-like state. Technology. Crucially, says Olken, might miss if they were only focusing Robin Lovell-Badge of the UK’s his team’s study is the first to link on specific issues such as the impact National Institute for Medical climate change with economic of drought on food supply, he says. Research in London agrees. “It growth – as opposed to output – If global temperatures rise as doesn’t change the need to do which will have a bigger long-term predicted, the economic gap embryonic stem cell research at effect on a country’s fortunes. between rich and poor nations will all.” Bone marrow stem cells, for High temperatures could even have doubled a decade from now. example, can’t make insulin- undermine scientific productivity, In 50 years’ time the gap will have producing islet cells for treating say Olken’s team. If they are correct, widened 12-fold. diabetes, he adds. the economic gulf between rich and The study’s breadth and What Rankin hasn’t shown yet, poor nations will widen dramatically emphasis on growth is welcome as she herself admits, is whether this century. but the results need to be treated the stem cells produced in her The team looked at how with caution, economist Eric Strobl the new approach will supplant study do indeed accelerate or temperatures affected economic of the École Polytechnique in Paris, or simplify other stem cell improve healing. And as Lovell- growth in the past 50 years. While France, told New Scientist. He points treatments in development. Badge points out, “Giving patients rich economies seemed resilient to out that Olken failed to find a link Many of these rely on extraction Mozobil plus VEGF could have temperature rises, the GDP of poor between rainfall and economic and multiplication of specific other effects on the body.” countries dropped by 1 per cent in years growth that previous work on stem cells from patients’ blood, Tantalisingly, however, there is when those temperatures rose 1 °C or agriculture suggests should exist. a process which takes weeks and unpublished evidence that more above the regional average. Richard Tol of the Economic and is technically difficult. Given Mozobil-derived EPCs help heal The number of scientific papers – Social Research Institute in Dublin, Mozobil plus growth factors, cardiac tissue in mice after heart a measure of innovation – also fell Ireland, adds that poor nations often patients could potentially make attacks. The research, presented in poor countries in hot years, as did suffer from corruption, a factor that extra copies of the same cells in 2003 at the American Heart economic investment in the region. Olken’s analysis did not explicitly in their own bodies. Association’s annual meeting, was Breakdown in government was more control for. Jim Giles ● led by Atsuchi Iwakura and his“We’re simply boosting what’s colleagues at AnorMed, the AMI VITALE/PANOS going on naturally, and we can company in Boston which The originally developed Mozobil. selectively mobilise different results show that the hearts of types of stem cell” treated mice recovered faster and had less scarring a month after An international registry of the heart attack. clinical trials run by the US Rankin favours further National Institutes of Health research in animals before included 720 new or ongoing trials moving into people, but she which specified enriching patients’ acknowledges that all the own stem cells outside the body ingredients are available as part of the treatment. In many commercially, and so could be cases the new drug regime could used by anyone contemplating potentially be used instead. clinical trials. “It’s feasible this “Ours is a much more direct will happen in the next five to 10 approach, and doesn’t have the years,” she says ● –No way to grow when the heat is on– 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 7
  • 6. This week– SOUNDBITESDark energy gave first 10 billion years or so. The pair ‹ I guess I could have been say their calculations show that dark energy may in fact last much popular by accepting Kyoto.›us our home longer, and so is “absolutely In his final press conference, President essential” for the endurance of George W. Bush said he could easily habitable regions. After each clash have won popularity in Europe, if he had it would stretch the habitable wanted to, by agreeing to international regions so there is enough left initiatives such as the Kyoto protocolJESSICA GRIGGS spatial dimensions that the after the next clash, and so on in (The Guardian, London, 13 January) initial scenario envisaged. subsequent cycles (see diagram).OUR universe may have arisen Unfortunately, adding extra “Most of the universe is consumed ‹ He’s not a genius. They hadfrom seeds preserved in a universe dimensions throws up another in ashes, but the phoenix universethat existed before the big bang – problem. As two branes approach, emerges once again from the small no passwords, no firewalls,all thanks to dark energy. the additional dimensions must surviving seed,” says Steinhardt and that’s the problem – One of the models put forward shrink or grow in sync with the ( Gary embarrassed them.›to explain how the universe dimension that separates the This is not the first use of the Janis Sharp defends her son Garybegan proposes that it is just the branes. Otherwise, large areas of term “phoenix universe”. It was McKinnon, who faces extradition tolatest phase in a never-ending the brane become warped, so that coined in 1933 by Georges Lemaître, the US with a possible 70-year sentencecycle. Proposed in 2002 by Paul most of it ends up as black holes an advocate of the big bang theory. for hacking into NASA computers,Steinhardt of Princeton University and only a tiny proportion as “Our model is a more appropriate apparently to search for evidence ofand Neil Turok from the University ordinary, habitable space. After use of the name,” Steinhardt extraterrestrial life (The Times, London,of Cambridge, the model argues several cycles, this space shrinks to claims. “We were motivated by 13 January)that our universe exists on a 3D the same conceptual issue: whatregion called a “brane” separated “Without dark energy, most of happened at the big bang. Was itfrom similar branes by a fourth the beginning or not?” ‹ Fetal testosterone not the brane would end up asspatial dimension. Under the Like its predecessors, the pair’s only masculinises the body,right conditions, these branes black holes, leaving only a tiny work is built on a variant of string it masculinises the mind.›collide, triggering a big-bang-like proportion as habitable space” theory called M-theory which hasevent. After the collision, the yet to be completely fleshed out, Autism researcher Simon Baron Cohenbranes bounce apart, before nothing, so the process is unlikely says Peter Coles of the University from the University of Cambridgeanother collision occurs many to have led to our universe. of Cardiff in the UK. Andrew on his finding that children exposedbillions of years later. Now calculations by Steinhardt Liddle of the University of Sussex, to high levels of testosterone in the This model initially struggled and Jean-Luc Lehners, also at UK, describes their model as a womb have a greater risk of developingto explain the ripples in the Princeton, show that when dark “neat and novel” picture, but adds autism-spectrum characteristics,temperature and density of the energy – the stuff that appears to that it is “hard to believe that we’ll which he believes are more “male”universe that can be seen in the be causing the expansion of the ever make observations that could (AFP, 12 January)cosmic microwave background universe to accelerate – is brought show whether it is right or not”.radiation left over from the big into the picture, the cycling can However, Martin Bojowald ‹ We can’t fire our bears orbang. The only way to make be sustainable, so long as dark of Pennsylvania State University, furlough our sea lions.›calculations based on the cyclic energy dominates for around University Park, says their model Many US zoos and aquariums are losingmodel produce the observed 600 billion years. is “more realistic” than previous government funding as a result of thepattern of ripples is to add extra In earlier cyclic models, dark versions, and that future financial crisis, but John Calvelli of thedimensions, as predicted by energy has merely kept the cycles measurements of dark energy Wildlife Conservation Society, whichstring theory, on top of the four stable, and only dominated for the may allow the idea to be tested. ● operates zoos and aquariums in New York, points out that it’s hard to seeCOSMIC RECYCLING where cuts can be made (AssociatedIn one model of how the universe began, dark energy lasting hundreds of billions of years is an essential ingredient Press, 13 January) As branes collide... ...only a fraction of the ...but thanks to dark energy habitable areas survive the seeds expand enough to seed the new universe for the cycle to repeat ‹ We applaud the folks at City Crab and Seafood for their compassionate decision.› SEED Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA, responding to the news that George,HABITABLE a lobster thought to be as old as 140 –REGIONS an age rarely seen in captivity – has been returned to the ocean from his previous home, a New York restaurant (Reuters, 9 January) COLLAPSED BLACK HOLES8 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 7. M.DEUTSCH/CORBISModel of surprise has‘wow’ factor built inWE ALL know what surprise feels attention by being surprisinglike, but a computer model has or unexpected. Surprise as theynow defined the concept. It is the compute it may also explain whatchange in expectation caused by causes the “orienting reflex”,the arrival of new data, it says. The whereby our attention is caughtmodel uses an aptly named unit by novel stimuli.of measurement – the “wow”. To test their hypothesis, the Pierre Baldi at the University pair developed a computer modelof California, Irvine, and Laurent which simulated a population ofItti at the University of Southern visual neurons “watching” videoCalifornia in Los Angeles devised clips, just as your brain wouldthe model while investigating watch it through the eye’s retina.human attention. They used the model to analyse A dominant theory from the short video clips and mark which1950s has it that the amount of regions of the videos it considered –Simulated surprise–attention we pay to an object or the most surprising – which theyevent is linked to the volume of rated in wows. “Something that is Itti (Vision Research, DOI: 10.1016/ example, it could be used to rankinformation our brains need to very surprising has a high wow j.visres.2008.09.007). websites for interest, as thoseform an understanding of it. For content,” says Baldi. This study is a long-awaited providing more original contentexample, our attention should When they showed the videos “satisfactory theoretical account” would stand out, while spammers,hover over intricate patterns to human volunteers, their eye for what holds our attention, says copycats and aggregator sites maylonger than over a plain surface. movements correlated with what Aapo Hyvärinen, a computer be classified as boring. It could But this model did not consider the computer had rated as being scientist at the University of also be used to design more eye-that the majority of data is useless, worthy of attention. Helsinki in Finland. He adds that catching advertisements, he says.says Itti, while only a little is of “We found that human it formulates “a Bayesian theory He and Baldi are now carryinginterest to you or might indicate a observers did indeed look at of surprise in which an event is out experiments in monkeys tothreat. Instead, he and Baldi reckon surprising things while watching surprising if it changes our beliefs”. see if individual retinal neuronsthat we focus more on objects or TV, much more than they looked Itti says the model could have compute surprise in the way theirmovements that attract our at information-rich objects,” says wide-ranging applications. For model predicts. Linda Geddes ●Self-replicator to DNA. One of the reasons for this is that, unlike DNA, RNA molecules can versions of R3C ribozyme pairs to test tubes containing a wider range of RNA alive,” he cautions, since life is not simply the ability to replicate likesuggests life catalyse chemical reactions. “We’re trying to jump in at the last signpost building blocks. Giving the ribozyme pairs an array of components meant crazy. The molecules must also gain new functions without laboratorybegan with RNA we have back there in the early history of life,” Joyce says. they could concoct new ribozymes. Since each enzyme has slightly tinkering – something that Joyce says he has no idea how to create yet. Joyce and Lincoln created their different properties, these new A life-mimicking molecule will alsoA SYNTHETIC molecule that performs RNA enzyme, or ribozyme, called R3C, forms might be better or worse at need to assemble itself from simpleran essential function of life – self- from scratch to perform a single replicating their sister ribozyme. components than two halves, saysreplication – could shed light on function: stitching two shorter RNAs What came out bore an eerie Michael Robertson, a biochemist atthe origin of all living things. The together to create a clone of itself. resemblance to natural selection: a the University of California, Santa Cruz.lab-born strand of ribonucleic acid Next, Lincoln redesigned R3C, few sequences proved to be winners, DNA and RNA normally replicate(RNA) can evolve in a test tube making a sister RNA that could itself but most lost out (Science, DOI: 10.1126/ with the help of a protein enzymeto double itself ever more swiftly. join two RNAs into a ribozyme. Rather science.1167856). The victors emerged that joins individual nucleotide This is the first time that an than replicating themselves, each because they could replicate faster in “letters” together. Early life may haveexperiment has produced an RNA molecule was able to make a copy the face of competition, Joyce says. had an enzyme that did the same, orthat can sustain its own replication. of its sister, a process called cross “I wouldn’t call these molecules this enzyme could have joined short Gerald Joyce, a biochemist at the replication. The pairs double until stretches of RNA, Robertson says.Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, there are no more starting bits of “A few RNA sequences proved The true story of the origin of lifeCalifornia, and colleague Tracey RNA left. “We just let them amplify will always remain elusive, however.Lincoln studied RNA because most themselves silly,” says Joyce. to be winners. These were the “[It] is a historical problem that we’reresearchers think early life stored The team then sought to “evolve” ones that could replicate faster never going to be able to verify,”information in this sister molecule their molecule. They added different in the face of competition” Robertson says. Ewen Callaway ● 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 9
  • 8. This week– agrees. “Modern democracies, Starving bacteria Novels help to with their formal checks and balances, are carrying forward an egalitarian ideal.” bumped up early uphold social order A few characters were judged to be both good and bad, such as Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Earth’s oxygen Wuthering Heights or Austen’s HUNGRY nickel-grabbing bacteria PRIYA SHETTY Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula Mr Darcy. “They reveal the pressure could be to thank for the surge in scored highly on status-seeking being exercised on maintaining atmospheric oxygen 2.5 billion years WHY does storytelling endure and social dominance. the total social order,” says Carroll. ago that made Earth hospitable to life. across time and cultures? Perhaps In the novels, dominant Boehm and Carroll believe Stefan Lalonde of the University the answer lies in our evolutionary behaviour is “powerfully novels have the same effect as of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, roots. A study of the way that stigmatised”, says Gottschall. “Bad the cautionary tales told in older and colleagues measured the people respond to Victorian guys and girls are just dominance societies. “Just as hunter-gatherers concentration of nickel deposited literature hints that novels act as machines; they are obsessed with talk of cheating and bullying as a in layered sedimentary rocks, or a social glue, reinforcing the types getting ahead, they rarely have way of staying keyed to the goal “banded iron formations”. They found of behaviour that benefit society. pro-social behaviours.” that the bad guys must not win, that levels had dropped by two- Literature “could continually While few in today’s world novels key us to the same issues,” thirds in the 200 million years prior condition society so that we fight live in hunter-gatherer societies, says Boehm. “They have a to the “Great Oxygenation Event”. against base impulses and work in “the political dynamic at work in function that continues to The team speculate that this a cooperative way”, says Jonathan these novels, the basic opposition contribute to the quality and drop in nickel starved primordial Gottschall of Washington and between communitarianism structure of group life.” ocean-dwelling bacteria called Jefferson College, Pennsylvania. and dominance behaviour, is a “Maybe storytelling – from methanogens that used dissolved Gottschall and co-author universal theme”, says Carroll. TV to folk tales – actually serves nickel in seawater to help turn Joseph Carroll at the University Christopher Boehm, a cultural some specific evolutionary food into energy and methane. of Missouri, St Louis, study how anthropologist whose work function,” says Gottschall. As methane reacts with oxygen to Darwin’s theories of evolution Carroll acknowledges was an “They’re not just by-products of remove it from the atmosphere, a apply to literature. Along with important influence on the study, evolutionary adaptation.” ● decline in the methane produced John Johnson, an evolutionary by bacteria would have led to a psychologist at Pennsylvania build-up of oxygen. State University in DuBois, the Though it is not clear quite how researchers asked 500 people much the ancient bacteria relied to fill in a questionnaire about on the metal, “growing modern 200 classic Victorian novels. The methanogens in the lab requires respondents were asked to define extremely high concentrations of characters as protagonists or nickel”, says Stephen Zinder at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.“The characters in the novels So what could have caused the nickel shortage? A surge in the fell into groups that mirrored number of magma plumes just the egalitarian dynamics of before the nickel decline removed hunter-gatherer society” a large amount of heat from Earth’s core, say the team. In these cooler antagonists, and then to describe conditions, more oceanic crust was their personality and motives, created relative to continental crust. such as whether they were This contains less of the nickel that conscientious or power-hungry. the bacteria can use. The work was The team found that the presented at the American Geophysical characters fell into groups that Union meeting in December. mirrored the egalitarian “This study is one of the first dynamics of hunter-gather to look at hard data about metal society, in which individual concentrations, which is an dominance is suppressed for important new idea,” says Timothy the greater good (Evolutionary Lyons of the University of California, Psychology, vol 4, p 716). Riverside. But he suspects the Protagonists, such as Elizabeth oxygenation effect may be less AIP/RONALD GRANT ARCHIVE Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and than the team thinks, because the Prejudice, for example, scored bacterial famine could have enabled highly on conscientiousness and other atmospheric reactions that nurturing, while antagonists like –Heathcliff’s personality reflects societal pressures– used up oxygen. Devin Powell ● 10 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 9. MARK LYTHGOE & CHLOE HUTTON/WELLCOME IMAGESDoubts raised overbrain scan findingsSOME of the hottest results called voxels, which can eachin the nascent field of social contain millions of neurons, andneuroscience, in which emotions attempt to correlate the activityand behavioural traits are linked of particular voxels withto activity in a particular region of emotional changes reportedthe brain, may be inflated and in by the volunteers.some cases entirely spurious. The problem arises when So say psychologist Hal Pashler researchers attempt to calculateat the University of California, San the strength of this correlation. –Meaningful result, or just noise?–Diego, and his colleagues, who This has to be done in two stages.examined more than 50 studies The first is to identify regions and has the potential to produce it is problematic. And in 2007,that relied on functional magnetic in which the correlation between apparent links between emotions researchers withdrew part of anresonance imaging (fMRI) brain voxel activity and the emotion and brain regions when none fMRI paper published in Naturescans, many published in high- exceeds a certain threshold. In exists, Pashler’s team claims. Neuroscience (DOI: 10.1038/profile journals, and questioned the second stage, the researchers To demonstrate their point, the nn0107-1) after anotherthe authors about their methods. assess the strength of the team used this technique to search researcher showed that random Pashler’s team say that in most correlation in that region. for correlations in simulated noise could have produced theof the studies, which linked brain Pashler recommends that two brain scan data. This appeared reported correlation.regions to feelings including independent sets of scans be used to reveal statistically significant The researchers criticisedsocial rejection, neuroticism and in these two stages. If the same set correlations, when in fact there by Pashler strongly contest hisjealousy, researchers interpreted were none. The critique has been team’s conclusions. Tania Singertheir data using a method that “Some experiments correlating peer-reviewed and accepted for at the University of Zurich ininflates the strength of the link publication in Perspectives on Switzerland says Pashler’s surveybetween a brain region and the brain regions to feelings used Psychological Science. questions were “ambiguousemotion or behaviour. a method that inflated the Many researchers are not and incomplete”, causing him The claim is disputed by at apparent strength of the link” surprised by Pashler’s conclusions, to misjudge the way her groupleast two of the critiqued groups. as the more rigorous analysis corrected for random noise.Both argue that Pashler has is used for both, there is an that his team recommends Matthew Lieberman of themisunderstood their results and increased risk of misinterpreting requires more data. It is expensive University of California, Losthat their conclusions are backed random noise as a genuine signal. to run fMRI scans and difficult Angeles, says that even if his 2003by other studies. Yet in almost 30 of the to find volunteers. study in Science (DOI: 10.1126/ In many of the studies, papers Pashler’s team analysed, Nikolaus Kriegeskorte at the science.1089134) inflates theresearchers scan volunteers’ researchers used the same scans US National Institute of Mental strength of the link betweenbrains as they complete a task to identify the voxels of interest Health in Bethesda, Maryland, is feelings of rejection and physicaldesigned to elicit a particular and determine the final trying to gauge the number of pain, the link itself stands, asemotion. They then divide the correlation. This inflates the neuroscience papers that use this studies using different methodsimages from the scans into cubes correlation above its true value, method, because he also believes also identified it. Jim Giles ●Are successful found that traders who started the day with elevated testosterone made by many researchers to be a marker of prenatal testosterone exposure. other factors no doubt play a role in success in this particular career.traders born, more money than those who didn’t. He wondered whether another effect Traders with a longer ring finger, and therefore higher prenatal Coates agrees, and cautions against bosses using finger lengthnot made? could also contribute: individuals who had higher exposure to testosterone testosterone, made on average six times the profits of traders with to make hiring decisions. The effects of high prenatal testosterone may in the uterus are more likely to feel shorter ring fingers, and tended to even be a disadvantage in otherSUCCESSFUL financial traders may be the effects of the hormone in later life. remain traders for longer (Proceedings types of trading. For example, otherborn, not made. Men who excel at Coates recruited 49 male “high- of the National Academy of Sciences, studies have suggested that peoplefast-paced financial trading may frequency” traders from the City of DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0810907106). with a high index to ring finger ratiohave been exposed to higher levels London, who buy and sell over the The study confirms that exposure make better mathematicians. Johnof testosterone in the uterus than space of minutes or seconds, requiring to sex hormones early in life enables Manning, author of The Finger Book,their less successful colleagues. high levels of confidence and quick particular behaviours to develop, wonders whether finger ratios might Last year, John Coates at the reaction times. He measured their says Bruce McEwen of the Rockefeller turn out to correlate with success inUniversity of Cambridge and colleagues index to ring finger ratio - thought University in New York, but adds that other professions. Linda Geddes ● 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 11
  • 10. Research news and discovery In brief–JOEL SARTORE/NGS/GETTY Dating droughts CHARRED remains of ancient rainmaking fires are helping to date droughts in Iron Age Africa to within 20 years. After a several years of little or no rainfall, the Bantu people near modern-day Zimbabwe would send a rainmaker to nearby hills. “They’d burn fires with dark smoke to call black rain clouds from the mountains,” says Thomas Huffman at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Villagers were also made to burn grain bins if they had planted “unlucky” foreign seeds. Huffman’s team uncovered the ashes within archaeological remains. With the help of carbon dating and analysis of tree rings they discovered and dated previously unknown droughts (Journal of Archaeological Science, DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2008.11.026). The results also date a drought in AD 1300 thought to have made a Bantu society vulnerable to they found (Proceedings of the National Academy invasion from Great Zimbabwe. Humans’ prey species evolving of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0809235106). dangerously fast to escape us It was well known that hunting and fishing, which often target the largest individuals, can cause species FISHING and hunting by humans may drive evolution in to become smaller and mature more quickly. However, Pop a pill before a way unlike anything else on Earth, and the rapid changes Darimont’s study is the first to show that this effect occurs triggered in wild species risks severe damage to ecosytems. for species ranging from cod to caribou (pictured), and that taking a drag? Chris Darimont, an evolutionary ecologist at the these species change far more quickly than they otherwise University of California at Santa Cruz, and his team, would, says Andrew Hendry, an evolutionary biologist at EXTRA doses of a molecule that reviewed 34 studies that measured how fast traits such McGill University in Montreal, Canada. helps to protect lung cells from as body size and growth rate had changed in 29 species Rapid changes in size may threaten ecosystems by the damage caused by smoking that people harvest for food. disrupting size-based interactions such as predation and might one day reduce some of the The average rate of change was three times as fast competition, says Darimont. For example, smaller fish may dangers associated with the habit. as comparable changes seen in unhunted populations, no longer be big enough to eat species they once preyed on. Avrum Spira at Boston University School of Medicine and colleagues identified This could temporarily lessen 28 microRNAs – molecules Try Tetris to help treat trauma its ability to lay down memories that control the expression of with a strong visual component, networks of related genes – that PLAYING video games after showing them graphic videos such as those that can cause were less prevalent in the airways a harrowing event may help to of car crashes, drownings and involuntary flashbacks of of smokers than non-smokers reduce the effects of the trauma. surgery. Participants who played a horrific event. Crucially, there (Proceedings of the National Post-traumatic stress disorder the video game Tetris for half an was no difference in volunteers’ Academy of Sciences, DOI: (PTSD) can trigger involuntary, hour immediately afterwards had ability to recall the event in 10.1073/pnas.0806383106). distressing flashbacks in people fewer flashbacks in the following narrative terms, so playing Tetris One microRNA, called mir-218, who have been through trauma, week and scored lower on a only seemed to prevent flashbacks. seems to control a group of genes such as soldiers or victims of rape. standard PTSD test (PLoS One, DOI: Visuospatial tasks might that help to protect lung and Emily Holmes at the University 10.1371/journal.pone.0004153). one day be given to people after airway cells from smoke damage. of Oxford and her team tried to Holmes says that playing Tetris a traumatic event, but Holmes So Spira suggests that giving spark minor flashbacks in people may “use up” the brain’s cautions that further research smokers extra mir-218 might who did not have PTSD by visuospatial processing resources. is needed. make their habit less hazardous. 12 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 11. Cars, the spark Mouse immune system devours brain tumours plugs for the sky COULD a cancer patient’s immune brains from potentially damaging the tumour but crucially, the COMMUTERS’ car exhaust doesn’t just cells be coaxed into gobbling up immune responses. dying cells released a protein that warm the globe – it can also increase the deadliest brain tumours? Now Maria Castro, Pedro stimulates brain immune cells lightning strikes for miles around. Most people with glioblastoma Lowenstein and their colleagues to recognise tumour cells as a During the working week, air multiforme die within a year of at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in target and attack. And because pollution rises because of all the diagnosis, as standard treatments Los Angeles, California, may have immune cell levels are boosted vehicles on the road. This effect has cannot eradicate these tumours. a solution: they have persuaded due to the second inserted gene, been shown to modify rainfall One potential approach is to the immune systems of mice to the immune response to tumours patterns both at the weekend and harness the immune system to shrink, and even completely was strong enough in some cases during the week by creating stronger fight the tumours. The trouble destroy, some glioblastomas. to entirely destroy them (PLoS updrafts of air and bigger clouds. is that the brain contains few They injected the mice’s Medicine, DOI: 10.1371/journal. Now it seems weekday pollution immune cells, and those that are tumours with a gene that attracts pmed.1000010). can bring lightning as well as rain. present often fail to recognise chemotherapy drugs, and one The researchers hope to begin Daniel Rosenfeld of the Hebrew tumours as targets for attack. that attracts immune cells. When clinical trials in humans soon and University of Jerusalem, and These are evolutionary they gave the mice chemotherapy, test the method on cancers colleagues, counted strikes recorded adaptations to protect healthy the drugs killed only a fraction of elsewhere in the body. across the US by the ground-based National Lightning Detection Network NASA in June to August, from 1998 to 2008. In the south-eastern states, Black holes blew lightning strikes increased with pollution by as much as 25 per cent up from nothing during the working week. The moist, muggy air in this region creates low- HOW did black holes lurking at lying clouds with plenty of space to the centre of galaxies like ours get rise and generate the charge needed so big so quickly? That’s the puzzle for an afternoon thunderstorm. posed by the discovery of fully Surprisingly, the effect was not grown, supermassive black holes strongest within big cities with high surrounded by fledgling galaxies pollution, but in the suburbs and early in the history of the universe. rural areas surrounding them. “There Chris Carilli of the National is a misconception that if you get Radio Astronomy Observatory in away from cities, you get away from Socorro, New Mexico, and the pollution. Actually, it follows you colleagues studied four galaxies for hundreds of miles,” says from less than 2 billion years after Rosenfeld, who presented the the big bang. They found the research at the American Geophysical black holes at the centres of these galaxies were as heavy as corresponding to Venus and Earth. Union meeting in December. He says the heat generated by anything seen in the modern Mercury and Mars – A number of smaller bodies also form urban areas may locally override universe, with one estimated to separated at birth within the ring. These are typically pollution’s effect on lightning. have the mass of 20 billion suns. scattered away by the larger two, but Meanwhile, it looked as LINE up Mercury, Venus, Earth and if they experience collisions on theETHAN MILLER/REUTERS if the host galaxies had only Mars according to their distance from way, they can end up in stable orbits begun to grow, with only modest the sun and you’ll see their size similar to those of Mercury and Mars. masses compared with galaxies distribution is close to symmetrical, Once beyond the ring, they cannot harbouring similarly sized black with the two largest planets between acquire mass and so remain pint-sized. holes today. “This suggests the the two smallest. That would be no “This is nicely consistent with black holes came first,” says coincidence – if the pattern emerged various properties of Mercury and Carilli, who presented the results from a debris ring around the sun. Mars,” says Hansen, who presented at a meeting of the American Brad Hansen of the University the work at the American Astronomical Society in Long of California, Los Angeles, built a Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach, California. numerical simulation to explore how Beach, California. Both small planets Whether the seed black holes a ring of rocky material in the early have features that could have been formed from the contraction of solar system could have evolved into caused by giant impacts. In one run massive gas clouds or the collapse the planets. He found that two larger of Hansen’s simulation, Earth received of stars, the black holes must have planets typically form near the inner a smash, too, much like the one grown at tremendous rates to get and outer edges of the ring, thought to have created the Moon. so big so early on. 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 13
  • 12. Comment and analysis– places where key discoveries wereUnder one sky made. This is an important part of science heritage in general (also poorly represented on the World Heritage List). Again, a few examples areAll peoples, past and present, share a fascination with the sky. We must save our recognised, but mostly as part of sitesastronomical heritage before it is lost, says archaeoastronomer Clive Ruggles that have broader significance. These include the 15th-century observatory ofTHE Acropolis in Athens, the elaborate Ulugh Beg in Samarkand, Uzbekistan,temples of Angkor in Cambodia, and the 18th-century observatory of Stthe stone statues of tiny Easter Island, Petersburg in Russia, and the Old Royalhome for 1000 years to the most Observatory in Greenwich, UK.isolated human community on Earth. When protecting sites, UNESCOThese are among the 878 World recognises that they did not exist inHeritage Sites (both cultural and isolation, though it may seem that waynatural) protected by UNESCO as places when we visit them in the modernof “outstanding universal value” to landscape. They stood among all thehumankind. As such, each contains places where people lived, worked andextraordinary creative masterpieces died. Hence the Stonehenge andfrom lost cultural traditions. And each Avebury World Heritage Site includesrepresents a vestige of the past that not just the two monuments, but thestands out as a powerful source of entire “cultural landscapes” in whichinspiration to people across the planet. they were situated, replete with Yet one aspect of our cultural evidence of Neolithic settlements,heritage – astronomy – is woefully farming practices and places of burial.under-represented on the World In the same way, astronomicalHeritage List. To those of us in the heritage sites we should also protectmodern, lit-up world, the first time that and preserve the crucial remaining partwe see a truly dark night sky can be of the visible environment – the dark ANDRZEJ KRAUSEbreathtaking. But until relatively night sky. This links the Astronomyrecently, most people experienced this and World Heritage Initiative withspectacle every clear night, wherever other efforts to protect the night skythey lived. If we want to appreciate the from light pollution, such as throughbeliefs and practices reflected in the manifested in inscriptions, alignments, the establishment of Starlight Reserves.architecture of ancient temples and and the existence of “zenith tubes” At Stonehenge, for example, we cantombs, we cannot ignore their down which the light of the sun shone “Every human hope that the proposed re-routing ofrelationship to the sky. at noon on the two days in the year culture has a nearby roads might not only restore The World Heritage List does when it passed vertically overhead. sky, and strives this monument to its landscape, butcontain a few ancient sites and Despite these examples, there have to interpret also to a darker, more starry, night.monuments with links to the sky, but never been any clear guidelines for Every human culture has a sky, andthese were selected because of their nominating World Heritage Sites based what people strives to interpret what peoplebroader archaeological and cultural on their relationship to astronomy, and perceive there” perceive there. The understanding theysignificance. They include the Neolithic this leaves many key sites vulnerable to develop forms a vital part of theirpassage tomb of Newgrange in Ireland, neglect and irreversible damage. To try knowledge concerning the cosmos andaligned so the sun shines in only for a and fix this, UNESCO is now their place within it. So astronomy isfew minutes after sunrise on the encouraging member states to put not just a modern science but ashortest days of the year. This shows forward astronomical nominations, reflection of how all peoples past andthat people 5000 years ago saw a link and the International Astronomical present, see themselves in relation tobetween ancestors and the sun. Union (IAU) will be working with the universe. With the globalisation of There’s also Stonehenge in UNESCO throughout 2009 to come up human culture proceeding at relentlessWiltshire, UK, with its well-known with clear criteria for judging the pace, safeguarding our astronomicalconnection to midsummer sunrise and merits of these sites. It is a fitting task heritage is a vital part of the race tomidwinter sunset; Chaco Canyon in for the International Year of Astronomy, save the more fragile aspects of ourNew Mexico, featuring the Fajada Butte which celebrates the 400th anniversary common cultural heritage before they“sun dagger” that splits a spiral carving of Galileo’s first use of a telescope to are lost forever. ●at noon on the summer solstice; and gain an unprecedented view of the sky.several pre-Columbian sites in Mexico, As well as prehistoric sites, this Clive Ruggles is emeritus professorincluding Chichen Itza, Monte Alban Astronomy and World Heritage of archaeoastronomy at the Universityand Palenque. The Mesoamerican Initiative will include sites related to of Leicester, UK, and chair of the IAU’spreoccupation with solar, lunar and the history of modern astronomy, such working group on astronomy andplanetary cycles and conjunctions is as observatories, instruments and world heritage14 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 13. Letters– heated by warm air going out cents per kilowatt-hour. The feed-Models need data through the heat exchanger, and in tariff for electricity generated Why menopause?From Ralph Rayner, vice versa when it is hot outside. by a small rooftop photovoltaic From Stephen CadneyInstitute of Marine Engineering, Counter-flow heat exchangers are array this year is just over Alison Motluk makes no mentionScience and Technology so effective that they are used 46 cents, and for arrays installed of the opportunity an earlyLenny Smith makes a number of industrially. Why they are not next year it will be 43 cents. menopause offers to pass onimportant points concerning the used domestically baffles me. The starting rate will drop culture, and the great advantageconsequences of overselling the Collinsvale, Tasmania, Australia by 8 to 10 per cent each year. this provides (13 December 2008,results from climate models, Rates for electricity from other p 41). It is obvious that we arebut he omits an important one From David Clarke renewables are lower. separated from other primates by(6 December 2008, p 42). Chris Knapton may be right to Sevenoaks, Kent, UK culture – and by being hugely Those who overstate the put some of the blame on the more successful in evolutionarypresent capability of climate utilities and government for terms than they.models risk creating the the slow growth of small-scale Pregnancy is a life-threateningperception that models can generation (20/27 December condition which, in societies thatsubstitute for measurement 2008, p 18), but we should not have no access to modernand so undermine the case for underestimate the potential medicine, sees off many aadequate observation problems with this technology. grandmother before she hasand monitoring. As the amount of small-scale the leisure time to educate her It is only through these generation grows, with each little grandchildren. Rachel Caspari,measurements and observations generator doing its own thing, it now at Central Michiganthat we can reduce the models’ will become difficult to maintain University, and Sang-Hee Lee ofuncertainties, by improving our system stability – something that the University of California,understanding of the processes the big utilities and the operators Riverside, make a convincing casedriving both natural and controlling the electricity grid that with grandparents cameanthropogenic climate change. at present do pretty well. civilisation (10 July 2004, p 14).Excessive reliance on models can Maintaining local voltage stability Assuming that male grandparentsalso result in reduced support for may be a particular problem. From Vivienne Mugford tended towards the autistic end ofcritical long-term observations We need technology to I have just had eight solar panels the personality spectrum andagainst which the models’ climate automatically control the output installed on my roof, occupying preferred power struggles andprojections are validated and of small-scale generation in 10.2 square metres. sitting around to being educatorstheir accuracy determined. response to system conditions. I now realise, too late, that of the younger generations, a As Smith says, climate models With luck the “smart grid” the average output is dramatically genetic variation that allowed anprovide useful information about initiatives will deal with this less than the peak output. My early menopause looks as if itplausible risks. Only carefully problem, but I do not think system, with a grant, cost me conferred a huge evolutionaryplanned systematic observation we’re there yet. £7200 – and will take 37 years advantage.and monitoring will permit us to Royston, Hertfordshire, UK to break even, under the current Manchester, UKproperly understand what is arrangements with electricityhappening to our climate and the From Steve Plater suppliers. From Marco Overdaleelucidation of the processes at Gaia Vince should have used the Though the return on my You report Michael Cant sayingwork in determining any future estimator of solar energy yields money is better than I would now that the lack of overlap in thelong-term change. published by the Renewable get from a savings account, I feel fertility of mothers and daughtersLondon, UK Energy Unit at the European misled by the supplier, who is striking, and that this can Union’s Joint Research Centre gave me only peak values at explain why human women ( point of sale. experience the physical switchGoing off-grid it would have told her that in the Ottershaw, Surrey, UK of menopause, rather than a slow UK 8 square metres of panel are decline in fertility.From Tim Douglas required to gain 1 kilowatt peak From Rolfe Bridson What is equally striking isOne important item was missing output and 800 or so kilowatt- Reading of the generous price the commonality in the age offrom your power-saving hours per year (“For the record”, premium offered in Germany menopause across severalsuggestions (6 December 2008, 3 January, p 17). for selling surplus electricity species of primates with differentp 30) in the article “Life Vince also tells us that in generated to the power average lifespans.unplugged”. Home heating takes Germany “homeowners selling companies (6 December 2008, One factor that would, ina lot of power, especially when back renewably generated power p 30), I was struck by the evolutionary terms, result in theit comes to getting fresh air into are guaranteed to get four times possibility of people fraudulently physical cessation of fertility at athe house. the market rate charged to buying in power from the grid at particular age is a decline in the Could we not virtually consumers for electricity”. the lower cost and then selling it viability of offspring conceivedeliminate energy use for heating The German feed-in tariff is back at the higher rate. after that age. In a longer-lived(or cooling) incoming air by using indeed admirable, but it is not Has anyone thought about species this could initially tend toa counter-flow heat exchanger? that generous. The market rate to how to plug this loophole? terminate fertility at a set ageCold incoming air would be consumers is at present 20 to 21 Alton, Hampshire, UK independent of lifespan.16 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 14. See for letters on: ● Going off-grid ● Stirling service As a mother’s age increases, little faster than a 1980s model in the west was the narrowthe likelihood her offspring will running pre-Windows software. interpretation of religious texts.survive or be healthy decreases. The assumption that Moore’s Only when Greek texts rescuedShe is also likely to be less able to law will compensate for and translated by the Arabs fromcare for more young children. inefficiently designed systems the moribund Byzantine empire The reproductive viability of leads to Prior’s conjecture: sloppy found their way to the west, andlater offspring is thus likely to software losses will negate the shackles on learning weredecrease. If this fall-off with Moore’s law gains. eased, did advances becomemother’s age at conception is Malvern, Worcestershire, UK possible again.sufficiently steep, those who Lincoln, UKcontinue to conceive successfullyas age increases will be selected Greeks’ gifts From Stuart Leslieagainst because their later Jo Marchant asks why the Greeksoffspring will not reproduce. From Nicholas Dore did not use their science to create Other factors would also need You speculate on what the Greeks useful technology (13 December enemies’ sizes (29 Novemberto operate to push reproduction might have achieved had the 2008, p 36). Could it be because 2008, p 44). My dog can computeinto a younger age group, so that Romans not supplanted their Greek civilisation was based on the trajectory and velocity ofa greater proportion of a women’s culture (13 December 2008, p 5). slavery? Plato and Aristotle both an object far better than I can.offspring will end up reproducing. This rather misunderstands the wrote that civilisation was Does this mean that she is betterThose identified by Cant would be role of the Romans, who were impossible without slaves. at mathematics than I am? Insuch a possible driving force. great admirers of the Greeks and This implies the answer to contrast, small yappy dogs seemWellington, New Zealand eagerly adopted much of Greek her second question: to what not to realise how small they are. thought and culture. The Romans better use could technology be Are they therefore both verticallyFrom Carole Karan might not have been particularly put than understanding and and mathematically challenged?As a woman of happily post- original thinkers or inventors, demonstrating the nature of Nanaimo, British Columbia,menopausal age, I can think of but adapted and used whatever the universe? I suggest that Canadaseveral additional things that they found in the societies improving the lot and lesseningencourage menopause. Anything they conquered. the suffering of human beingsa new birth does that increases The failure of the Greeks to takes first place every time. Gunner Copernicusthe likelihood of one or more take their technology further Dorrigo, New South Wales,previous children dying would was more likely due to the chaotic Australia From Andrew Brookerencourage a cut-off of late rivalry between their city-states. Copernicus may have expelled usfertility. For example, the higher This effectively crippled them, in principle from the centre of therate of defects in births from both in their resistance to Rome Dangerous sex in a pill universe (15 November 2008,older women would mean and in adapting technology to p 32), but I am reminded of anwasting resources on some everyday life. From Tessa Kendall incident in Spike Milligan’spregnancies that will never lead Even so, much knowledge Bernd Brunner is “terrified” memoirs of the British army:to another adult at the expense might still have survived to allow by Clare Wilson saying an Officer (shouting): “You there,of older offspring. further advances had the rise of “intelligent and well-informed” what are you doing over there?” Older women are also much gay man “sometimes” has Milligan: “Uh, everybody gottamore likely to be widowed, and unsafe sex. He sees this as a be somewhere, sir.”the food that mates supply should contradiction, and believes this Bristol, UKnot be underestimated. kind of behaviour to be unusualMebane, North Carolina, US (20/27 December 2008, p 18). If his reasoning were correct, then intelligent, informed people For the recordLess is Moore would never smoke, take drugs, ● Scud missiles are not intercontinental drink to excess or be overweight. ballistic missiles: they have a range ofFrom Andy Prior Smart people do dumb things, only 1000 kilometres and are classed asScientists and engineers have especially for sex. Human nature intermediate-range ballistic missilesindeed done an impressive job often contradicts common sense. (13 December 2008, p 26).in realising Moore’s law over the London, UKyears (6 December 2008, p 35). Letters should be sent to:What a pity that the average PC Letters to the Editor, New Scientist,user has not seen the equivalent Christianity not got in the way. Canine calculus 84 Theobald’s Road, London WC1X 8NSleap in “user experience”. From the outset, Christianity Fax: +44 (0) 20 7611 1280 A combination of operating regarded learning, in particular From Mike Legge Email: letters@newscientist.comsystem bloat, poorly configured inquiry into the nature of the Marcus du Sautoy opines that we Include your full postal address and telephone number,and maintained networks, and physical world, as positively have the innate mathematics and a reference (issue, page number, title) to articles. We reserve the right to edit letters. Reed Business Informationoverzealous virus checkers means dangerous. All that passed for skills needed to survive things reserves the right to use any submissions sent to the lettersthat for many, PCs today seem learning for over 1000 years being thrown at us and gauge column of New Scientist magazine, in any other 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 17
  • 15. Technology KELLY HARRIGER/CORBISHOT-AIR BALLOONS POWER UPFor those who dislike the sight of and a frequency of one revolutionwind turbines on the horizon, would per hour,” says Edmonds.a spectacular hot-air balloon farm be For roughly the same cost as windmore acceptable? power, Edmonds has calculated that a Ian Edmonds, an environmental large 44-metre-diameter recreationalconsultant with Solartran in Brisbane, balloon could generate 50 kilowatts,Australia, has designed a giant engine enough to supply energy to aboutwith a balloon as its “piston”. 10 homes. Doubling the diameter ofA greenhouse traps solar energy, the balloon would increase powerproviding hot air to fill the balloon. As production tenfold, substantiallythe balloon rises, it pulls a tether, which reducing costs, he says.turns a generator on the ground. Once Using air heated by the sun tothe balloon has reached 3 kilometres, generate power has been attemptedair is released through its vent and it before: solar towers use the rising airloses buoyancy. This means less energy to turn turbines. But a prototype solaris needed to pull the balloon back down tower in Manzanares in Spain provedagain, resulting in a net power gain too short even at 200 metres, limiting(Renewable Energy, DOI: 10.1016/ the amount of energy that could bej.renene.2008.06.022). “It is like a huge captured from the rising air. Buildingtwo-stroke engine, with a capacity of towers of 500 metres or more has so far45 million litres, a stroke of 3 kilometres, proved too expensive. 10 –An alternative energy source–Flying eye maps Meet your virtual with a virtual version of their parent. Officials hope it couldrainforest’s health mum and dad provide reassurance and general chat when phone or internetAN IMAGING device is being used IT IS a poor substitute for the contact is not assess the plant diversity within real thing, but the US government The DoD believes that “thea rainforest without setting foot is hoping a “virtual parent” stresses of deployment might bethere. Greg Asner, an ecologist at could provide emotional support softened if spouses and especiallythe Carnegie Institution in million iTunes tracks are for the children of servicemen children could conduct simpleWashington DC, is developing it as to be made copiable. and women while they are away conversations with their loveda way of measuring deforestation, on active duty. ones in immediate times of stressand the damage done by logging. Apple is dropping copy The Department of Defense or prolonged absence”. Asner uses a laser scanner protection in response to is soliciting proposals for a More than 155,000 kids have atlinked to a spectrometer on board pressure from consumers computer program that would least one parent deployed in Iraqan aircraft to fire visible light enable young children to interact or Afghanistan on military duty.towards the ground and analysethe wavelengths that are reflected RACISM ON THE NET GIZMOfrom the leaves. This generates a Most American teenagers say they havethree-dimensional map of the encountered racial abuse while online Future gadgets will not only be transparent – they will also be bendy. Researcherschemical composition of the 80 at Sungkyunkwan University in Suwon, South Korea, have deposited carbon atomstrees, from the canopy to the 70 African-American on a nickel base, then etched away the nickel to leave transparent sheets of graphene. Whiteforest floor, and hence the 60 Other/mixed race The material’s high conductivity is not affected by bending and stretching, makingbiodiversity of the forest. 50 it ideal for electrodes in wearable computers (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature07719). Per cent SOURCE: JOURNAL OF ADOLESCENT HEALTH The system is being upgraded 40to detect infrared wavelengths, 30 Time was when the Palm Pilot was the trendy hand-held gadget of choice, but it hastoo. Asner says this will allow it 20 long since been overtaken in the fashion stakes by the BlackBerry and Apple spot more chemicals and so 10 Now Palm hopes to strike back with its forthcoming “Pre” phone, which it promises 0detect more subtle differences Witnessed racism Subjected to will feature similar touch-screen technology to the iPhone, plus a pull-out keyboard.among tree species. directed at others racist comments It will also offer instant messaging, and will be charged up wirelessly. “I didn’t go near it. I was worried it might explode and kill me” Kamal Prasad Sharma, a 12-year-old student at Saraswati Secondary School near Kathmandu in Nepal, on his first sight of a computer. The school is taking part in the E-library project, initiated by the Help Nepal Network to improve literacy and computer awareness (BBC online, 5 January) 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 19
  • 16. Technology Eyes wide open, please, let’s look into your brainA laser version of ultrasound identifies brain tumoursand neurodegenerative diseases from your eyes onlyDUNCAN GRAHAM-ROWE a type of laser-camera technique called Heidelberg retinaTHE eyes may be the windows to tomography (HRT), and a laserthe soul, but they also make pretty device called GDx, both of whichgood peepholes into the brain. can be used to scan the shape andThanks to an optical version of thickness of optical nerve fibresultrasound, it is becoming possible at the back of the locate and monitor the growth Both tools are now widelyof brain tumours, and to track used to manage glaucoma, butneurodegenerative conditions in 2006 Danesh-Meyer becamelike multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s one of the first researchers to useand Parkinson’s disease – all by them to study neurodegenerativepeering into the eye. diseases by looking at the The brain is connected to each region of the retina whereeye by an optic nerve, so any ganglion cells meet to form the it became commercially available combined beam brighter thandegeneration of the brain caused optic nerve – a region known as in 2006 and is fast becoming a if the distances are different. Soby such diseases can also damage the optic nerve disc (OND). In a standard tool for the management by reflecting one beam off ofcells along the nerve and in the trial involving 40 Alzheimer’s of glaucoma and diabetic different layers of tissue, andretina, says Helen Danesh-Meyer, patients and 50 healthy retinopathy. When applied to the moving the reference mirroran eye surgeon and neuro- volunteers, she was able to show OND, it produces highly detailed until the combined reflectedophthalmologist at the University that people with Alzheimer’s had two and three-dimensional beam is brightest, the techniqueof Auckland Medical School in a distinctive enlargement to a images of the subsurface retinal can measure the depths of eachNew Zealand. Indeed, a loss of cup-shaped part of their OND and tissue, says Denise Valenti at section of tissue and build up avisual function is one of the first detailed image of its structure.symptoms in many people witha neurodegenerative condition. “People with Alzheimer’s have a distinctive It has proved particularly useful in ophthalmology because the Although evidence of a link shape to the disc of their optic nerve” semi-transparent nature of retinalbetween degeneration of the tissue makes it possible for OCToptic nerve and diseases such a progressive thinning of the Boston University, who has been to penetrate to greater depths –as Alzheimer’s has been around retinal nerve fibres within the disc. using OCT to study Parkinson’s up to several millimetres. Whensince the late 1980s, without Following this discovery, and Alzheimer’s. applied to the OND it can giveinstruments capable of researchers have been using even The technique works very information about both the shapemeasuring the retinal changes more accurate instruments to much like ultrasound, but and thickness of retinal nerveaccurately it is only recently that track degenerative changes in the bounces light off the tissue fibres, allowing even subtlethis knowledge could be put to OND to monitor the progression instead of sound waves. One changes to be tracked.use, says Danesh-Meyer. of diseases like Alzheimer’s, beam of light is fired at the tissue Such changes can be used The accuracy of Parkinson’s and MS. But it has and another at a reference mirror. to monitor the progressionophthalmological tools has been the emergence of optical When the reflected beams have of diseases non-invasively andgreatly improved in the last coherence tomography (OCT) travelled an identical distance, relatively cheaply. Unlike MRI,few years. Developments include that appears most promising: interference will make their which is expensive and can require20 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 17. with MS whose eye function is Virtual double Users carry out exercises, such JONATHAN NOUROK/STONE normal, there are marked as running on a treadmill, while differences in OND shape and fibre thickness compared with healthy flexes your wearing a suit with 47 reflective markers placed in the positions of people. “MS researchers are very excited about OCT,” she says. muscles specific muscles. While the person runs, infrared strobe lights, flashing The technology is also proving several hundred times a second, its value as a tool for monitoring help eight cameras to track the brain tumours, which can affect markers. Sensors on the floor of the vision by pressing on the optic treadmill can also be used to nerve. Such pressure will cause measure the force applied to the damage to different parts of the ground by the user’s feet to give OND, depending on where in the more information on their muscle brain the tumour is located, says A SYSTEM that creates a virtual body output and the load on their joints. Danesh-Meyer. What’s more, the double of a person’s skeleton and The final stage is to feed this extent of the thinning of the muscles could help fitness fanatics information into computer models, nerve-disc fibre can also reveal or people trying to regain movement which help create the detailed on- whether vision will be restored after an illness by showing them how screen display of the user. upon removal of the tumour. well they are exercising. The software used to help create In the case of one patient who The Human Body Model, the double was trained by directly was 24 weeks pregnant following developed by Motek Medical in measuring the force generated by several IVF attempts, OCT Amsterdam, the Netherlands, uses a people’s muscles while recording monitoring allowed surgeons to virtual double to show which muscles their motion and the electrical hold off on removing her brain a person is using by highlighting activity of their muscles. This could tumour until well into the third them in green (see image). The force only be done for some movements trimester, when the fetus had a being generated is shown by the and forces, though, such as pushing better chance of survival. The intensity of the colour. “It allows you against weights. “There is no tool in usual treatment would have been to see the muscle groups you are medical science that allows you to to operate immediately to prevent using in real time, and even the measure all the muscle forces in permanent vision loss, but this forces they are creating, which are motion,” says Even-Zohar. would have risked inducing usually invisible,” says Motek’s The system is being tested at premature labour. By monitoring founder Oshri Even-Zohar. The user’s Sheba Hospital in Tel Aviv, Israel, the compression on the optic nerve on-screen output is not a direct where it is helping people regain –Look into my eyes, doctor– to ensure it did not reach the point measure of their muscle activity, but movement after a stroke. Researchers at which permanent damage was is based on existing models of the at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio arepatients to remain still for an inevitable, Danesh-Meyer was anatomy and physics of the human also using the system to study gaithour or more, OCT is increasingly able to keep tabs on the tumour’s body and is intended as a tool to and locomotion in healthy, activeavailable in clinics and can be growth and delay the surgery. As help the patient. people. Tom Simonite ●carried out in a few minutes. “It’s a result, the baby was born safelyextremely inexpensive compared and the patient kept her vision. MOTEK MEDICALto other tests,” says Valenti. The ultimate aim for many One possibility is to use OCT using OCT is to diagnose diseasesto monitor the effectiveness of before symptoms arise. Thetreatments for neurodegenerative difficulty with this is that thediseases, says Danesh-Meyer: thickness of retinal nerve fibres“These drugs can have a lot of side can vary from person to person,effects, so if they are not having a says Danesh-Meyer, so there isbenefit then you won’t want to not always a clear baseline fromcontinue with them.” which to compare patient scans. Laura Balcer, a neurologist at Eventually though, the low costthe University of Pennsylvania and simplicity of the technologySchool of Medicine in Philadelphia, may make it feasible for people tohas been using OCT on patients be given an OCT scan of each eyetaking part in MS drug trials to try at a young age, to give doctors ato establish if the system can record of their healthy retinalaccurately gauge drug efficacy. nerve, says Danesh-Meyer.Such an objective tool would allow With regular screening, somesymptoms to be picked up that neurological conditions could bemight otherwise go unreported, spotted incredibly early. “We’reshe says. For example, OCT has really just at the cusp of knowingalready shown that even in people where this is all going.” ● –The future of exercise?– 17 Janaury 2009 | NewScientist | 21
  • 18. Technology Nanospirals – Now Aizenberg and her team have found a way to make chosen carefully, and adhesion between the bristles has to be just ways. This has already been seen, says Aizenberg: “The colour a new twist on nanospirals self-assemble. They start with an array of epoxy-resin right. “If it is too weak they will spring back when they dry out, of our substrate actually changes during assembly.” smart materials bristles, each 300 nanometres thick and 4 to 9 micrometres long. if it is too strong they will never slide and turn around each other,” The hope is to develop tunable optical devices that These are immersed in a mixture says Aizenberg. This makes the change colour as the spirals curl of ethanol and water and then choice of materials crucial. and uncurl, but Aizenberg is taken out and left to dry. In early experiments, the reluctant to say more. “I don’t As the liquid evaporates, its structures spiralled clockwise want to go into details before our surface tension draws the bristles or anticlockwise at random. To studies are complete.” together in an effect related to control the direction of twist, Further experiments have capillary action. At first, the shown that as the bristles twist,CLUMPS of wet hair could be the tension pulls groups of four “One idea is for surfaces they can grasp tiny spheres.latest thing in nanotechnology, bristles together to form what This could lead to a new kindcreating microscopic spiral look like miniature Eiffel Towers. that change colour as the of adhesive which, in principle,structures that may form drug Then, as the liquid evaporates spirals curl and uncurl” could be switched off by re-delivery systems and surfaces further, the four bristles slide wetting the bristles to makewhose colour can be tuned. past one another and intertwine, the assembly can be tilted or the them untwist. While nature makes use making the towers twist. Finally, bristles given an elliptical cross This grasping propertyof spiral structures of all sizes, groups of twisted bristles are section, says Aizenberg (Science, could also be used to target drugengineers have found it hard to pulled together into larger swirls DOI: 10.1126/science.1165607). delivery to a specific locationcreate small spirals. “We can make (see a gallery of nanospiral images A uniform direction of twist inside the body, says Aizenberg.helical structures on the molecular at would be vital for some of the A set of bristles twisted aroundscale and on macroscales, but at article/dn16372). applications Aizenberg has in a particular drug might be madethe level of nanometres and For this to work, a range of mind. As the size of these spirals to untwist and release theirmicrometres it has never been parameters must be optimised. is comparable to the wavelength cargo in the right spot by theachieved,” says Joanna Aizenberg Bristle stiffness and the surface of visible light, an array of them presence of a particularof Harvard University. tension of the liquid have to be would affect light in interesting chemical. Stephen Battersby ● MENISCUS PROPULSION Mini boat Applying a voltage causes the Teflon at the back of the boat to attract water instead of repelling it, generating an overall force that pushes the boat forward electrode more attractive to water – a process called travels by HYDROPHOBIC TEFLON SWITCH electrowetting. This extra attraction changes the shape of the water’s bending water v meniscus so that it curves upwards rather than downwards at the back BATTERY FORCE ELECTRODE FORCE of the boat, changing the balance of forces and pushing the boat Water’s meniscus forward (see diagram). curves downwards In tests to be presented later WATER this month at the MEMS 2009 conference in Sorrento, Italy, the DIRECTION OF team propelled a 2-centimetre-long v MOVEMENTWATCHING Sung Kwon Cho’s FORCE prototype at roughly 4 millimetres BATTERYmodel boat glide silently across per second. “By streamlining thethe still water with no propellers or Water’s meniscus boat and optimising the electrodes,sails, you’d be forgiven for thinking curves upwards we could achieve speeds ofa phantom hand was drawing the FORCE 10 centimetres per second,” saysvessel forward. The boat is actually Cho (a video of the boat in action isbeing driven by water surface at, the same force that allows hundredth of the power. This a forward thrust, Cho’s team Ramin Golestanian from thesome insects to skate across the could be ideal for extending the attached an electrode to the back University of Sheffield in thesurface of a pond. working life of cheap, environment- of the boat that alters the curve of UK is impressed with the work. The design is inspired by sensing robots that roam the world’s the water’s meniscus. “It’s a very clever trick that putsPyrrhalta beetle larvae, which also oceans, says Cho, who is at the The electrode is coated in an fundamental physics into practice,”use surface tension to propel University of Pittsburgh in insulating polymer and Teflon, he says. He thinks it should bethemselves. Since it requires no Pennsylvania. Normally, the surface which is normally hydrophobic. simple to manufacture robots withmoving parts, the method should be tension of the water surrounding Applying a potential to the electrode a series of these electrodes alongmore robust than those involving a floating object is equal on every changes the insulating layer’s their side to provide very precisepropellers and may use just a side. To upset this balance and create charge distribution and makes the motion control. David Robson ●22 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 19. ● DRIVING through the countryside extension of our best understanding of south of Hanover, it would be easy black holes, and something with a pretty to miss the GEO600 experiment. firm theoretical footing. It has also beenFrom the outside, it doesn’t look much: in the surprisingly helpful for physicists wrestlingcorner of a field stands an assortment of boxy with theories of how the universe works attemporary buildings, from which two long its most fundamental level.trenches emerge, at a right angle to each other, The holograms you find on credit cardscovered with corrugated iron. Underneath the and banknotes are etched on two-dimensionalmetal sheets, however, lies a detector that plastic films. When light bounces off them, itstretches for 600 metres. recreates the appearance of a 3D image. In the For the past seven years, this German set- 1990s physicists Leonard Susskind and Nobelup has been looking for gravitational waves – prizewinner Gerard ’t Hooft suggested that theripples in space-time thrown off by super- same principle might apply to the universe as adense astronomical objects such as neutron whole. Our everyday experience might itself bestars and black holes. GEO600 has not detected a holographic projection of physical processesany gravitational waves so far, but it might that take place on a distant, 2D surface.inadvertently have made the most important The “holographic principle” challenges ourdiscovery in physics for half a century. sensibilities. It seems hard to believe that you For many months, the GEO600 team- woke up, brushed your teeth and are readingmembers had been scratching their heads this article because of something happeningover inexplicable noise that is plaguing their on the boundary of the universe. No onegiant detector. Then, out of the blue, knows what it would mean for us if we reallyAll the world’sa hologramCould our three dimensions be the ultimate cosmicillusion? A German detector is picking up a hint thatwe are all mere projections, says Marcus Chowna researcher approached them with an do live in a hologram, yet theorists have goodexplanation. In fact, he had even predicted reasons to believe that many aspects of thethe noise before he knew they were detecting holographic principle are According to Craig Hogan, a physicist at Susskind and ’t Hooft’s remarkable ideathe Fermilab particle physics lab in Batavia, was motivated by ground-breaking workIllinois, GEO600 has stumbled upon the on black holes by Jacob Bekenstein of thefundamental limit of space-time – the point Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israelwhere space-time stops behaving like the and Stephen Hawking at the Universitysmooth continuum Einstein described and of Cambridge. In the mid-1970s, Hawkinginstead dissolves into “grains”, just as a showed that black holes are in fact not entirelynewspaper photograph dissolves into dots as “black” but instead slowly emit radiation,you zoom in. “It looks like GEO600 is being which causes them to evaporate and © 2009 MAGIC EYE INC.buffeted by the microscopic quantum eventually disappear. This poses a puzzle,convulsions of space-time,” says Hogan. because Hawking radiation does not convey If this doesn’t blow your socks off, then any information about the interior of a blackHogan, who has just been appointed director hole. When the black hole has gone, all theof Fermilab’s Center for Particle Astrophysics, information about the star that collapsedhas an even bigger shock in store: “If the to form the black hole has vanished, whichGEO600 result is what I suspect it is, then contradicts the widely affirmed principlewe are all living in a giant cosmic hologram.” that information cannot be destroyed. This is The idea that we live in a hologram known as the black hole information paradox.probably sounds absurd, but it is a natural Bekenstein’s work provided an24 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 20. Cover story | Can you see a 3D world in this 2D image? If not, turn to page 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 25
  • 21. important clue in resolving the paradox. He discovered that a black hole’s entropy – which is synonymous with its information content – is proportional to the surface area of its event horizon. This is the theoretical surface that cloaks the black hole and marks the point of no return for infalling matter or light. Theorists have since shown that microscopic quantum ripples at the event horizon can encode the information inside the black hole, so there is no mysterious information loss as the black hole evaporates. Crucially, this provides a deep physical insight: the 3D information about a precursor star can be completely encoded in the 2D horizon of the subsequent black hole – not unlike the 3D image of an object being encoded in a 2D hologram. Susskind and WOLFGANG FILSER/MAX PLANCK SOCIETY ’t Hooft extended the insight to the universe as a whole on the basis that the cosmos has a horizon too – the boundary from beyond Has GEO600’s laser which light has not had time to reach us in probed the fundamental the 13.7-billion-year lifespan of the universe. fuzziness of space-time? What’s more, work by several string theorists, most notably Juan Maldacena at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has confirmed that the idea is on the right contained inside the volume of the universe. another. To measure this, the GEO600 team track. He showed that the physics inside a Since the volume of the spherical universe fires a single laser through a half-silvered hypothetical universe with five dimensions is much bigger than its outer surface, how mirror called a beam splitter. This divides and shaped like a Pringle is the same as could this be true? Hogan realised that in the light into two beams, which pass down the the physics taking place on the four- order to have the same number of bits inside instrument’s 600-metre perpendicular arms dimensional boundary. the universe as on the boundary, the world and bounce back again. The returning light According to Hogan, the holographic inside must be made up of grains bigger than beams merge together at the beam splitter principle radically changes our picture of the Planck length. “Or, to put it another way, a and create an interference pattern of light space-time. Theoretical physicists have long holographic universe is blurry,” says Hogan. and dark regions where the light waves either believed that quantum effects will cause This is good news for anyone trying cancel out or reinforce each other. Any shift in space-time to convulse wildly on the tiniest to probe the smallest unit of space-time. the position of those regions tells you that the scales. At this magnification, the fabric of “Contrary to all expectations, it brings its relative lengths of the arms has changed. space-time becomes grainy and is ultimately microscopic quantum structure within reach “The key thing is that such experiments made of tiny units rather like pixels, but a of current experiments,” says Hogan. So while are sensitive to changes in the length of the rulers that are far smaller than the diameter of a proton,” says Hogan.“Incredibly, the experiment was picking up So would they be able to detect aunexpected noise – as if quantum convulsions holographic projection of grainy space- time? Of the five gravitational wave detectorswere causing an extra sideways jitter” around the world, Hogan realised that the Anglo-German GEO600 experiment ought to be the most sensitive to what he had in hundred billion billion times smaller than the Planck length is too small for experiments mind. He predicted that if the experiment’s a proton. This distance is known as the Planck to detect, the holographic “projection” of that beam splitter is buffeted by the quantum length, a mere 10-35 metres. The Planck length graininess could be much, much larger, at convulsions of space-time, this will show is far beyond the reach of any conceivable around 10-16 metres. “If you lived inside a up in its measurements (Physical Review D, experiment, so nobody dared dream that the hologram, you could tell by measuring the vol 77, p 104031). “This random jitter would graininess of space-time might be discernable. blurring,” he says. cause noise in the laser light signal,” That is, not until Hogan realised that the When Hogan first realised this, he says Hogan. holographic principle changes everything. If wondered if any experiment might be In June he sent his prediction to the space-time is a grainy hologram, then you can able to detect the holographic blurriness of GEO600 team. “Incredibly, I discovered that think of the universe as a sphere whose outer space-time. That’s where GEO600 comes in. the experiment was picking up unexpected surface is papered in Planck length-sized Gravitational wave detectors like GEO600 noise,” says Hogan. GEO600’s principal squares, each containing one bit of are essentially fantastically sensitive rulers. investigator Karsten Danzmann of the Max information. The holographic principle says The idea is that if a gravitational wave passes Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in that the amount of information papering the through GEO600, it will alternately stretch Potsdam, Germany, and also the University outside must match the number of bits space in one direction and squeeze it in of Hanover, admits that the excess noise, with 26 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 22. frequencies of between 300 and 1500 hertz, Such a situation would not be says. “It seems clear that much better had been bothering the team for a long time. unprecedented in physics. Giant detectors experimental investigations could be He replied to Hogan and sent him a plot of built to look for a hypothetical form of mounted if they were focused specifically the noise. “It looked exactly the same as my radioactivity in which protons decay never on the measurement and characterisation of prediction,” says Hogan. “It was as if the beam found such a thing. Instead, they discovered holographic noise and related phenomena.” splitter had an extra sideways jitter.” that neutrinos can change from one type into One possibility, according to Hogan, No one – including Hogan – is yet claiming another – arguably more important because would be to use a device called an atom that GEO600 has found evidence that we live it could tell us how the universe came to be interferometer. These operate using the same in a holographic universe. It is far too soon to filled with matter and not antimatter (New principle as laser-based detectors but use say. “There could still be a mundane source of Scientist, 12 April 2008, p 26). beams made of ultracold atoms rather than the noise,” Hogan admits. It would be ironic if an instrument built laser light. Because atoms can behave as Gravitational-wave detectors are extremely to detect something as vast as astrophysical waves with a much smaller wavelength sensitive, so those who operate them have to sources of gravitational waves inadvertently than light, atom interferometers are work harder than most to rule out noise. They detected the minuscule graininess of space- significantly smaller and therefore cheaper have to take into account passing clouds, time. “Speaking as a fundamental physicist, to build than their gravitational-wave- distant traffic, seismological rumbles and I see discovering holographic noise as far detector counterparts. many, many other sources that could mask a more interesting,” says Hogan. So what would it mean it if holographic real signal. “The daily business of improving noise has been found? Cramer likens it to the the sensitivity of these experiments always discovery of unexpected noise by an antenna throws up some excess noise,” says Small price to pay at Bell Labs in New Jersey in 1964. That noise Danzmann. “We work to identify its cause, get Despite the fact that if Hogan is right, and turned out to be the cosmic microwave rid of it and tackle the next source of excess holographic noise will spoil GEO600’s ability background, the afterglow of the big bang noise.” At present there are no clear candidate to detect gravitational waves, Danzmann is fireball. “Not only did it earn Arno Penzias and sources for the noise GEO600 is experiencing. upbeat. “Even if it limits GEO600’s sensitivity Robert Wilson a Nobel prize, but it confirmed “In this respect I would consider the present in some frequency range, it would be a price the big bang and opened up a whole field of situation unpleasant, but not really worrying.” we would be happy to pay in return for the cosmology,” says Cramer. For a while, the GEO600 team thought the first detection of the graininess of space- Hogan is more specific. “Forget Quantum noise Hogan was interested in was caused by time.” he says. “You bet we would be pleased. of Solace, we would have directly observed fluctuations in temperature across the beam It would be one of the most remarkable the quantum of time,” says Hogan. “It’s the splitter. However, the team worked out that discoveries in a long time.” smallest possible interval of time – the Planck this could account for only one-third of the However Danzmann is cautious about length divided by the speed of light.” noise at most. Hogan’s proposal and believes more theoretical More importantly, confirming the Danzmann says several planned upgrades work needs to be done. “It’s intriguing,” he holographic principle would be a big help to should improve the sensitivity of GEO600 says. “But it’s not really a theory yet, more just researchers trying to unite quantum and eliminate some possible experimental an idea.” Like many others, Danzmann agrees mechanics and Einstein’s theory of gravity. sources of excess noise. “If the noise remains it is too early to make any definitive claims. Today the most popular approach to quantum where it is now after these measures, then “Let’s wait and see,” he says. “We think it’s at gravity is string theory, which researchers we have to think again,” he says. least a year too early to get excited.” hope could describe happenings in the universe If GEO600 really has discovered holographic The longer the puzzle remains, however, at the most fundamental level. But it is not the noise from quantum convulsions of space- the stronger the motivation becomes to build only show in town. “Holographic space-time is time, then it presents a double-edged sword for a dedicated instrument to probe holographic used in certain approaches to quantising gravitational wave researchers. One on hand, noise. John Cramer of the University of gravity that have a strong connection to string the noise will handicap their attempts to detect Washington in Seattle agrees. It was a “lucky theory,” says Cramer. “Consequently, some gravitational waves. On the other, it could accident” that Hogan’s predictions could be quantum gravity theories might be falsified represent an even more fundamental discovery. connected to the GEO600 experiment, he and others reinforced.” Hogan agrees that if the holographic principle is confirmed, it rules out all approaches to quantum gravity that do not incorporate the holographic principle. MAGIC EYE ® 3D INSTRUCTIONS Conversely, it would be a boost for those that Hold the centre of the Magic do – including some derived from string Eye Image right up to your theory and something called matrix theory. nose – it should be blurry. “Ultimately, we may have our first indication Stare as though you are of how space-time emerges out of quantum looking through the image. theory.” As serendipitous discoveries go, its Very slowly move the image hard to get more ground-breaking than that. ● away from your face until you begin to perceive depth. Now hold the image still, try Marcus Chown is the author of Quantum Theory not to blink, and the hidden Cannot Hurt You (Faber, 2008) image will magically appear.© 2009 MAGIC EYE INC. The longer you look, the Read previous issues of New Scientist at clearer the image becomes. 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 27
  • 23. The acid testWhere and how did life begin?Douglas Fox visits a man playingGod in a volcanic mud poolDavid Deamer thinks hotsprings like those in BumpassHell, California, hold the keyto the emergence of life28 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 24. ● JETS of sulphurous steam roar out of holes in the ground and an eggy stench hangs in the air. This is Bumpass Hell, a valley of bubbling mud pools in the heart of the Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California. The valley is ringed with beautiful pine and fir trees climbing up the surrounding slopes, but life seems to have stayed away from the lower reaches. Billions of years ago, though, the opposite might have been true. I’ve come to Bumpass Hell with David Deamer, a biochemist from the University of California, Santa Cruz, to watch him run an experiment recreating one of the most important episodes in the history of life: when carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus came together in the primordial soup to form amino acids, DNA and the rest of life’s building blocks. If Deamer is right, then the sort of extreme conditions found here were key to that momentous event. It may be an unattractive and rather dangerous place to work, but to Deamer this is one of the most precious places on Earth – the closest thing he can get to the cauldron of chemicals from which life might have emerged over 4 billion years ago. Researchers have spent decades trying to recreate this magical moment in their labs, and they have made some impressive discoveries along the way. In 1953, Stanley Miller, then at the University of Chicago, was the first to synthesise amino acids by passing high voltages through a cocktail of ammonia, methane, hydrogen and water vapour. In the decades that followed, researchers found other ways to synthesise amino acids and nucleotides – the building blocks of DNA and RNA – at temperatures ranging from 80 °C to -80 °C. They also discovered many different ways in which these molecules could assemble into larger structures similar to life’s first proteins and genetic molecules. Test-tube life forms Deamer is a veteran of such experiments himself. Along with Jack Szostak, a biochemist at Harvard University, he has created test-tube environments in which fatty acids and similar molecules self-assemble into cell-like JONATHAN SPRAGUE/REDUX structures – one of the key steps in the emergence of life. These artificial proto-cells are able to survive boiling (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 105, 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 29
  • 25. p 13351) and can absorb nucleotides from :?:;L7FEH7J?ED9H;7J;B?;5the environment as they grow chains of RNA MWj[hcWoX[j^[a[ojeb_[Wim[adem_jXkjj^[_hijceb[Ykb[ieb_[ikY^WiHD7c_]^j^Wl[[c[h][ZXoh[`[Yj_d]_jwithin (Nature, vol 454, p 122). I_d]b[dkYb[ej_Z[ ;lWfehWj_edh[ZkY[ij^[WcekdjemWj[hWdZ J^[`e_d[ZdkYb[ej_Z[i Still, huge gaps remain in our knowledge ceb[Ykb[ifefkbWj[ ie[dYekhW][idkYb[ej_Z[ije`e_dje][j^[h [l[djkWbbo]hem_djeWof how life began. The first genetic material j^[fh_cehZ_Wbiekf h[b[Wi_d]mWj[hceb[Ykb[i ijhWdZeHD7might have been RNA, but equally it might M7J;H E E (Ehave been some other, unknown molecule. L7FEKH EAnd which of early Earth’s varied E E Eenvironments was the one that first spawned E E Elife – did it happen in a deep-sea hydrothermal E E Event, on frigid polar sea ice or in boiling Ecauldrons of clay and water like the ones at E E E EBumpass Hell? We just don’t know. E Deamer and a few other like-mindedresearchers have concluded that lab work alone ;7J Ecan get them no further. They have decided tofind out which of the experiments that workso well in a squeaky-clean laboratory can bereproduced in the messy real world. “Theprebiotic world was much more complexthan a laboratory situation,” says Deamer. He “The acid was so strong it atethinks that doing experiments in places likeBumpass Hell will help narrow down theenvironments that are realistic candidates for out the knees of my jeans”the origin of life. Forget the theory, he says: hewants to see which candidates actually work. It’s all too easy to make a false discovery,however. Even in a thoroughly controlledenvironment, just a few bacteria creeping intothe apparatus undetected can ruin theexperiment. You could mistakenly concludethat your chemical soup was generating DNAwhich had in fact come from these trespassingmicrobes. To prevent such contamination,Miller baked his glassware near its meltingpoint for up to 24 hours.Swamping contaminantsOf course, Deamer can’t do that in hismud pools. But unlike Miller, he has a way ofdistinguishing between synthesised andbacterial nucleotides and RNA. Deamer addsenough bio-material to swamp any belongingto bacteria by a factor of around 100, whichmeans that any synthesised biomolecules willalso swamp any signal of bacterial origin.There is no better way to test if a candidateenvironment could have led to life on earlyEarth, he says. Other researchers have tried experimentsin cold environments. In 1999, Hauke Trinks,then at the Hamburg University ofTechnology in Germany, travelled to theArctic to study the properties of sea ice as anincubator for life. He measured the ice’sability to trap and concentrate RNA moleculesinside microscopic pockets of unfrozen brine(New Scientist, 12 August 2006, p 34). Deamer, JONATHAN SPRAGUE/REDUXon the other hand, thinks life emerged in avery different environment. Bumpass Hell lies near a volcano that lasterupted in 1915. The cauldrons that belch30 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 26. JONATHAN SPRAGUE/REDUX Extract a sample of clay, add nucleotides (far left) and wait for life to emerge boiling mud are a potent reminder that the And when two nucleotides split apart they volcano is merely dormant, not extinct. Water absorb a molecule of water (see diagram). from rain and nearby streams continually One way to manufacture long molecules drains through fissures in the valley to a spot like RNA is to get rid of the water that the chain 4 kilometres below the surface, where it meets releases as it grows, so that it’s not around to molten lava and flashes into steam. In the break the bonds after they form. Removing geological equivalent of an espresso machine, water actually drives the growth of chains by the steam hisses back up through cracks – shifting the chemical equilibrium toward carrying sulphuric acid, smelly hydrogen forming bonds instead of breaking them. sulphide, iron and other substances to the As Deamer puts it, life is basically made by surface. The pools are a mess of chemicals, removing water molecules from between including a lot of sulphuric acid, and the edges nucleotides. A hot place like Bumpass Hell, of the vents undergo regular cycles of wetting where water is constantly evaporating, would and drying, heating and cooling. Industrial provide the perfect environment for this. chemists have long known that cycles of But does Bumpass Hell really reflect drying can help kick-start chemical reactions conditions on the early Earth? There may be that don’t work in moist conditions. Deamer no trees or grass on this infernal ground, but thinks these cycles could also drive important plenty of bacteria live here. Oxygen represents biochemical reactions, like RNA synthesis, another wild card: 4 billion years ago the outside of a cell. atmosphere contained very little of it. RNA, believed to be a precursor to DNA, Furthermore, the composition of the clay consists of a chain of small molecules called at Bumpass Hell is probably radically different nucleotides linked together like the carriages from the mud on early Earth. Robert Hazen, of a train. Inside cells, enzymes catalyse the a geochemist at the Carnegie Institution in linking process, but RNA chains are difficult to Washington DC, has constructed a history grow under most natural conditions in the of what he calls Earth’s mineral evolution absence of enzymes because the chemical (New Scientist, 22 November 2008, p 14). Of the bonds between the nucleotides break as easily 4400 minerals known today, he estimates that as they form (it’s the same for other biological fewer than 1000 existed 4 billion years ago polymers, like DNA and proteins). Every time (American Mineralogist, vol 93, p 1693). Volcanic two RNA nucleotides bind together they clays like those at Bumpass probably did exist, release a molecule of water as a by-product. but their composition was likely very different from what is found today. “The chemistry of [modern] life will affect these experiments, A bubbling valley of mud there’s just no way around that,” says Hazen. may seem inhospitable, but “It will not be mimicking early Earth.” Despite some argue this is the kind this, Hazen still sees value in Deamer’s of place where life began experiments as a filter to identify which of 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 31
  • 27. Cycles of wetting and dryingJONATHAN SPRAGUE/REDUX on the edges of boiling mud pools might kick-start key chemical reactions in the hospital, and life started in the gutter.” A few weeks after the field trip, Deamer’s preliminary findings are already challenging lab-based results. He now thinks the first chains of RNA may have grown wrapped in blankets of concentrated sulphuric acid. “You remember me kneeling in the clay? The acid was so strong it ate out the knees of my jeans. On the way home both knees fell out.” And yet it seems that, despite the acid and the heat, the nucleotides and RNA Deamer was experimenting with have survived. What’s more, in the lumps of clay to which he added single nucleotides, he now sees what look like chains of RNA. Other clay samples to which he added nothing show no RNA – suggesting the new RNA strands are not the result of contamination. He thinks he can explain how this happened: a film of sulphuric acid must cover the surface of the clay. If concentrated enough, the acid will act as a drying agent, sucking water molecules out of any source that it can – including a growing chain of RNA – just as evaporation would. “It literally pulls water out“As if in a geological espresso machine, of the compounds,” says Deamer. In fact, chemists have used sulphuric acid in this way to synthesise organic chemicals in the lab. steam hisses up through the cracks” The idea of sulphuric acid providing a womb for growing fragile molecules of RNA is controversial, since most people would the environments that work in the test tube mud pot a few metres away. Now he wants to expect the acid to break the RNA chain are robust enough to succeed in the more see if those experiments work in the real world. apart – a process that chemists call hydrolysis. variable conditions that exist outdoors. He tests the acidity level of various lumps But sulphuric acid is an effective drying So what exactly has Deamer found? of clay that he has collected: “That’s almost agent. Some scientists have even suggested Suppose that the chemical soup in which life stomach acid,” he mutters, setting down one that sulphuric acid rather than water could is thought to have arisen on early Earth of the yellow-white lumps. He then squirts be a medium for life on other planets (New contained RNA nucleotides or similar each one with a few drops of liquid, adding Scientist, 9 June 2007, p 34). molecules. Water that splashed from a boiling nucleotides to some, nothing to others acting Deamer needs to re-analyse his samples to pool could deposit these molecules onto dry as controls, and to yet others he adds RNA – confirm that he really did grow RNA inside the land, where the water would evaporate. to see whether it can survive the 80 °C clay. But already he is ploughing ahead with Deamer thinks this would cause the temperatures and the concentrated sulphuric lab experiments to grow RNA in sulphuric nucleotides to link into short chains of RNA. acid present in the clay. He then sets them in acid, the way he thinks happened at Bumpass New splashes of water would deliver a fresh the opening of a vent to cook. Hell. He also hopes to sample other types of supply of nucleotides, which would grow the hot springs. Top of his list is the silicon-rich chains as they dried. The process might repeat environment around the volcanoes of Hawaii. over and over. “Complexity as we know it in Life in the gutter Many more independent trials and lab life is longer and longer molecules,” says This real-world approach is slowly gaining experiments will be needed to determine if Deamer. So how do you drive that? The most supporters. “These experiments bring his conclusions are correct, but if his idea likely way is an environment that cycles something that is sometimes missing in the about the role of sulphuric acid proves true, between wet and dry, he says. lab,” says Pierre-Alain Monnard, a biochemist it will provide a completely new view of the Deamer and others have grown RNA in such at the University of Southern Denmark in origin of life on Earth. “That’s the kind of thing an environment in the lab. “That boiling pool Odense. “I think it could lead to a discovery that only happens if you actually go out in the over there with wetting and drying around that no one thought about because we are field and try these things,” he says. ● the edges is what we try to simulate in the working in clean environments compared to laboratory,” he says, nodding at a milky yellow what life evolved in. We are almost working Douglas Fox is a writer living in northern California 32 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 28. ● GERHARD HUMMER was pondering proteins, but they are also enabling scientists a serious plumbing problem. He was to devise a host of nanoscale plumbing parts – trying to unravel the inner workings such as molecular pumps, gates and valves – of tiny proteins called aquaporins, which capable of moving and filtering everything are found in the walls of living cells. Each from salty water and hydrocarbon fuels to aquaporin is threaded by a narrow pore that gases such as carbon dioxide. It seems that helps control the flow of water into the cell. these humble tubes could hold the key to The pore is a complex thing, narrow in parts cheap desalinated water, better fuel cells and wide in others, lined with a variety of and new strategies to tackle global warming. chemical groups that mostly repel water. Hummer’s study of fluid flow in nanotubes But it is basically a pipe. kicked off around a decade ago when along And that realisation made Hummer, with two colleagues he created a detailed working at the US National Institutes of computer simulation of the way water moves Health in Bethesda, Maryland, turn his inside a carbon nanotube just 0.8 nanometres attention to carbon nanotubes. Consisting wide. When they dunked the tube into a tiny of curled-up sheets of carbon and just tank of virtual water, the researchers found nanometres wide, they are essentially smooth that a thin thread of water molecules rushed pipes of water-repelling graphite. Hummer into the interior of the tube. This was hoped that their simple structure might offer surprising, given the narrowness of the new insights into the way that water travels nanotube’s pore and the water-repelling through aquaporins. It proved a smart move. nature of its carbon surface. Then when they Nanotubes have not only helped researchers tweaked the simulation, slightly increasing like Hummer understand water flow in the repulsion between the water molecules Build nanotubes in the right way and they’ll work tirelessly to filter our water and clean up our air – and much more besides. Philip Ball reports Cunning plumbing MARTIN KLINNAS/FANCY/ 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 33
  • 29. Nanotubes could make desalination plants far more efficient, cutting the cost of fresh water JOSE LUIS ROCA/AFP/GETTYand the carbon atoms of the nanotube, they forming a continuous, organised chain. For an ions can start to sneak through, says Hummer.were surprised to see that the tube emptied ion to enter a nanotube, its hydration shell must “Keeping the pore diameter below this value isalmost instantaneously. When they decreased be stripped away. Hummer’s results suggest important for efficient salt exclusion,” he says.the strength of the repulsion, the tube filled this costs too much energy, so the ions stay put. According to a recent paper in the Journalagain. The ease with which they could fill or This, in effect, is what occurs in a of Physical Chemistry B (vol 112, p 1427) by Benempty the tube was unexpected, and their conventional desalination process called Corry at the University of Western Australia inresults – published in Nature in 2001 (vol 414, reverse osmosis in which brine is filtered by Perth, nanotubes measuring 0.93 nanometresp 156) – implied that just small changes in a fine membrane so that pure water passes across block out 95 per cent of ions. This ischarge or even tube geometry might be used through and the ions are left behind. However, good enough to make drinking water, andto move water through real nanotubes. this process requires large amounts of energy such a membrane should perform around Hummer and his colleagues then to pump the water through the membrane, five times as efficiently as current designs,simulated an array of short carbon nanotubes, which is one reason why desalinated water is purifying tens of thousands of litres peragain each one just 0.8 nanometres across, expensive. The high flow-rates measured by square metre per day, Corry says.packed side by side in a membrane. When Hummer suggested that desalination would Corry is now collaborating with chemistspure water was added to one side of the be more efficient if it could harness the ion- to construct nanotube arrays in an altogethermembrane and brine to the other, water blocking properties of nanotube membranes. different membrane structure. He reckonsimmediately flowed down the nanotubes that silicon nitride is too brittle to be useful,into the brine, driven by the difference in salt so he is trying to embed the nanotubes inconcentration. What surprised the researchers Super-fast flow flexible polymers like the polycarbonates usedwas the speed of the flow: it seemed that the Constructing membranes from parallel in conventional desalination membranes.chain of water molecules passing through nanotubes is a huge technical challenge. Hummer is hopeful that such efforts will payeach nanotube experiences virtually no But it can be done: in 2006, Olgica Bakajin off. “This is a rapidly evolving field,” he says.friction, moving nearly ten thousand times of the Lawrence Livermore National “I am quite optimistic that densely packed,faster than theory predicts. What’s more, Laboratory in California and her co-workers narrow nanotube membranes can be made,Hummer’s team found that ions could not grew nanotubes with inner diameters of and will be made soon.”get through the pores in either direction. In about 1.6 nanometres, organised in a parallel In some water-purification applications,principle, the nanotubes were wide enough arrangement, like the pile in a carpet. Then it would also be useful to have control over theto let the ions through, but it seems they they embedded the nanotubes in a thin but flow through the narrow channels: to be ablecould not make it when the water was strong film of the ceramic silicon nitride to turn it on and off as required, for example.confined by the tube. (Science, vol 312, p 1034). In experiments, these For tricks like this, researchers are again The reason for this behaviour is actually membranes permitted much the same super- turning to nature for inspiration. Take thestraightforward (see diagram). Charged ions, fast water flow as Hummer had observed – the membrane protein MscS, which controls thelike those in brine, are surrounded by a network water rushed through the nanotubes up to transport of ions in bacteria. MscS containsof water molecules in a so-called “hydration 100 times as fast as through conventional a water channel about 1 nanometre wide thatshell”. But there is no space to accommodate porous membranes with far wider pores. can be closed by stretching the cell membranethis network inside a nanotube. Instead, each Yet the nanotubes must be even narrower in which the protein sits. This distorts thewater molecule is hydrogen-bonded to just if they are to be effective for desalination. protein, and constricts the pore just enoughtwo others, one in front and one behind, With a diameter of more than 1 nanometre, to keep water out.34 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 30. 7D7JECOE7D7DEFKCFDWdej[Y^debe]oYWdYh[Wj[c[cXhWd[iYWfWXb[eWkjecWj_YWbbofkcf_d]WdZ_bj[h_d]]Wi[ik[bieh_dj^_iYWi[mWj[h 97H8EDD7DEJK8;I [WY^2dcZ_Wc[j[h?edi_diWbjmWj[hWh[ikhhekdZ[ZXoWi^[bbemWj[hceb[Ykb[i$J^[i[^oZhWj[Z_ediWh[jeebWh][jefWiij^hek]^j^[dWdejkX[iie 97H=;I7HH7D=;:7BED=_ediWh[a[fjekjWdZedbofkh[ D7DEJK8;IÇFKBBÈM7J;HmWj[hfWii[ij^hek]^ CEB;9KB;IJHEK= (E (E ! (E (E DW (E (E M7J;HCEB;9KB;IFKCF;: (E (E (E JHEK=D7DEJK8; (E (E (E (E (E (E (E (E (E (E (E (E 9b# (E (E DW! (E (E (E (E “It might be possible to pump fluid using an ATP-powered molecular (E (E (E (E (E (E I7BJM7J;H D7DEJK8;:;I7B?D7J?EDC;C8H7D; FKH;M7J;H motor at each nanotube’s entrance” Engineers are starting to wonder if they possible to use ATP or other energy sources to try to drag them out of position as they pass.can mimic this behaviour in water-filtration power a molecular motor at each nanotube’s The precise positioning and control of themembranes by adding chemical groups to entrance to pump fluid through. This would charges will be difficult, Fang admits, butcarbon nanotubes to create valves and filters. be an important step towards a nanoscale he hopes to find experimentalists who are“Clearly, biology provides an amazing array of desalination system, says Hinds. up for the challenge.nanoscale solutions, including those for gated Haiping Fang and his colleagues at the If they succeed, these gates and pumpsflow,” says Hummer. He admits that it is hard Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics in could be useful in all kinds of ways. Hummer,to tamper with the rather inaccessible surface China are already moving towards this for example, envisages using nanotubesinside a nanotube. “But a lot of interesting goal. In simulations published in Nature as channels, gates, valves and pumps inchemistry has already been done at the rims.” Nanotechnology (vol 2, p 709) in November nanofluidic circuits. These could move tiny Bruce Hinds and his colleagues at the 2007, they showed that three positive charges quantities of chemical solutions aroundUniversity of Kentucky in Lexington have placed outside a carbon nanotube at specific on chip-sized devices for medical andbegun to explore the idea of controllable points along its length can pull water environmental diagnostics. They might also benanotube membranes. They have taken molecules through the tube in one direction. useful for extracting or transporting hydrogenadvantage of the reactivity of carbon atoms These could be provided by charged groups ions, perhaps to increase the efficiency withat the ends of the nanotube to tether a small attached to the outside of the nanotube – which fuel cells generate energy. Modificationsorganic molecule called a biotin. Biotin, also which is much easier to modify than the of the nanotubes at the insides or ends will beknown as vitamin B7, selectively binds to a inside – or even by small electrodes . The the best way to produce controllable gatingprotein called streptavidin, and when the asymmetry of the charge distribution is what and filtration, says Bakajin. “We’ll eventuallynanotubes in the membrane are exposed to causes a preference for flow in one direction. use the nanotubes as the highways, and wea solution of streptavidin, the protein sticks The design mimics the way charged amino will use some kind of gate at the end thatto the openings, reducing the flow to just acid groups are arranged in the water channel blocks whatever it is that we want to exclude.”one-fifteenth of its former rate. of aquaporins, Fang points out. Bakajin has also discovered that her Hind’s team is now exploring more nanotube membranes can transport gases assophisticated ways of adding gates. For instance, well as liquids, and will selectively admitthey have grafted an electrically charged Electric nanopump smaller molecules like hydrogen and nitrogenmolecule onto the mouth of a tube. Applying Though still purely theoretical, this rather than carbon dioxide. “By modifying thean electric field to the nanotube moves the nanopump works thanks to the charge chemistry of the pore it may be possible tomolecule into the entrance, obstructing fluid distribution on water molecules as they make this differentiation much greater andflow. They have even created a gate made from line up inside the narrow channel. The pump to target it so that the membranes can be useda synthetic peptide that can be closed by a would not require any external pressure to for molecular separation or molecularmolecule of ATP, the energy-carrier in human drive the water through, and combined with sensors,” Corry says. Eventually, it might becells. The ATP triggers a reaction in which a the salt-excluding properties of nanotubes, possible to build nanotube membranes thatlarge antibody binds to the peptide, blocking it would offer a simple nanoscale desalinator. can separate mixtures of hydrocarbon gases,the pore. This gating method was inspired by Yet it will require a source of energy to run, filter CO2 from a power plant chimney, say, orthe kinds of chemical switches used to control because energy is needed to hold the charges even extract the gas directly from the air. ●ion flow and other processes in cells, says in place: water molecules moving throughHinds. He suggests that it might also be the channel will exert a force on them, and Philip Ball is a consultant at 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 35
  • 31. Is sadness an essential human emotion or is it time to banish it for good, asks Jessica Marshall Woes be gone ● WHY be miserable? OK, so it’s January Perhaps, then, it is time to embrace our and you’re feeling fat and broke after miserable side. Yet many psychiatrists insist the excesses of the holiday season, but not. Sadness has a nasty habit of turning into there’s really no need. Misery is inconvenient, depression, they warn. Even when people are unpleasant, and in a society where personal sad for good reason, they should be allowed happiness is prized above all else, there is little to take drugs to make themselves feel better tolerance for wallowing in despair. Especially if that’s what they want. now we’ve got drugs for it. So who is right? Is sadness something we Antidepressants can help banish sad can live without or is it a crucial part of the feelings – not just the life-sapping black dog human condition? of clinical depression, but the rough patches Hard evidence for the importance of that most people go through sometimes, sadness in humans is difficult to come by, whether it’s after losing a job, the break-up of but there are lots of ideas about why our a relationship or the death of a loved one. So propensity to feel sad might have evolved. it’s no surprise that more and more people are It may be a self-protection strategy, as it seems taking them (see graph, page 39). to be among other primates that show signs But is this really such a good idea? A growing of sadness. An ape that doesn’t obviously number of cautionary voices from the world slink off after it loses status may be seen as of mental health research are saying it isn’t. continuing to challenge the dominant ape – They fear that the increasing tendency to treat and that could be fatal. normal sadness as if it were a disease is playing Wakefield believes that in humans sadness fast and loose with a crucial part of our biology. has a further function: it helps us learn Sadness, they argue, serves an evolutionary from our mistakes. “I think that one of the purpose – and if we lose it, we lose out. functions of intense negative emotions is to “When you find something this deeply stop our normal functioning, to make us focus in us biologically, you presume that it was on something else for a while,” he says. It selected because it had some advantage, might act as a psychological deterrent to otherwise we wouldn’t have been burdened prevent us from making those mistakes in the with it,” says Jerome Wakefield, a clinical social first place. The risk of sadness may deter us worker at New York University and co-author from being too cavalier in relationships or of The Loss of Sadness: How psychiatry with other things we value, for example. transformed normal sorrow into depressive What’s more, says Paul Keedwell, a disorder (with Allan Horwitz, Oxford psychiatrist at Cardiff University in the UK, University Press, 2007). “We’re fooling around even full-blown depression may save us from with part of our biological make-up.” the effects of long-term stress. Without taking36 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 32. time out to reflect, he says, “you might stay in a state of chronic stress until you’re exhausted or dead”. He also thinks that we may have evolved to display sadness as a form of communication. By acting sad, we tell other community members that we need support. Then there is the notion that creativity is connected to dark moods. There is no shortage of great artists, writers and musicians who have suffered from depression or bipolar disorder. It would be difficult to find enough recognised geniuses to test the idea in a large, controlled study, but more run-of-the-mill creativity does seem to be associated with mood disorders. Modupe Akinola and Wendy Berry Mendes of Harvard University found that people with signs of depression performed better at a creative task, especially after receiving feedback that was designed to reinforce their low mood. The researchers suggest that such negative feedback makes people ruminate on the unhappy experience, which allows subconscious creative processes to come to the fore, or that it pushes depression-prone people to work harder to avoid feeling bad in the future (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 34, p 1677). Don’t be happy, worry There is also evidence that too much happiness can be bad for your career. Ed Diener, a psychologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and his colleagues found that people who scored 8 out of 10 on a happiness scale were more successful in terms of income and education than 9s or 10s – although the 9s and 10s seemed to have more successful close relationships (Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol 2, p 346). This could simply demonstrate that the happiest people are those who cherish close relationships over power and success, but it could also signal that people who are “too happy” lose their willingness to make changes to their lives that may benefit them. Medicating sadness, Keedwell suggests, could do the same – blunting the consequences of unfortunate situations and removing people’s motivation to improve their lives. Giving antidepressants to people whose real problem is something else – a bad relationship, for instance – may allow the person to continue in an unhealthy situation instead of addressing the underlying problem. Whether or not a little sadness is useful, everyone agrees that clinical depression is not. Unfortunately it’s not clear exactly where to draw the line between the two (see “Sad or depressed?”, page 39). So which is more dangerous: to over-medicate normal sadness, a feeling which may lead us to re-evaluate our lives after the loss of 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 37
  • 33. “Should we use pills job or the end of a relationship, or under- medicate clinical depression? to speed up our Ian Hickie of the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney, emotional journey Australia, insists that depression is not overdiagnosed but would rather it were than back to happiness? ” see seriously depressed people left out in the cold. He points out that there is evidence to suggest that the number of suicides has declined as more cases of depression have been diagnosed. It’s important to take borderline diagnoses of depression seriously, he says, because “most of the suicides do not occur in the most severely depressed”. Wakefield, however is uneasy about prescribing pills where there is no certainty that they are needed. After all, he points out, antidepressants have side effects, some of them serious. The need for sad So where does this leave the notion of human sadness? Should we accept that major life events may make us so sad that we are temporarily disabled? Or should we run to the doctor in the hope that pills will speed up our emotional journey back to happiness? Ken Kendler, a psychiatrist at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, points out that for some people, sadness is definitely something they are better off without. He recalls a mother in her late 20s A pill for every ill who came to him because she had an inoperable defect in her aorta that would rupture at some undeterminable time in the When the first antidepressant came to not request medication, whether or future, killing her instantly. This knowledge market in the 1950s, the company that not they had symptoms of depression had made her depressed – certainly with marketed it did not think there were (The Journal of the American Medical reasonable cause – but she did not want enough depressed people for the drugs Association, vol 293, p 1995). to live the rest of her days that way, unable to make a profit. By 2000, though, Gordon Parker of the Black Dog to function for her family. antidepressants were a $7 billion Institute in Sydney, Australia, also “That seemed to me to be an business in the US alone. Outpatient points out that the drug industry has irreproachable logic on her part,” Kendler treatment for depression increased benefited from the somewhat broad says. “I started her on antidepressants. She threefold between 1987 and 1998. definition of depression. “Having a Many people blame the lack of precision has made it absolutely came back much brighter. The idea that I was pharmaceutical industry for huge appropriate for the pharmaceutical depriving this woman of the proper grieving increases in the number of depression industry to say, ‘We’re just treating this experience and preventing her from diagnoses, especially in countries like broad, generic condition,’” he says. experiencing deeply the meaning of this rang the US where drug companies can Others are not so convinced that very hollow in this particular case.” advertise their products directly to patients are being led towards a For those of us not faced with such an consumers on television, radio and in decision. “One view is that this is being extreme problem, Terence Ketter, a magazines. One recent study by Richard marketed by the doctors and the psychiatrist at Stanford University in Kravitz at the University of California, pharmaceutical industry. I think that California, is more cautious. “The cost of Davis, aimed to test this idea. misses the argument that people happiness is complacency,” he says. Sadness is Kravitz sent actors into doctors’ themselves are much more interested in still something useful: “Discontent can drive offices. Half presented symptoms of having a better life,” says Ian Hickie of change. Certainly, you don’t want to stifle or depression, half did not. Each actor the Brain and Mind Research Institute blunt emotion – emotion is information.” either asked for the antidepressant at the University of Sydney. “People are Paxil specifically, asked for help from always looking to enhance themselves. Keedwell agrees. “Clearly, if we didn’t feel a drug without specifying which one I don’t think clinical depression is a sad when we were unsuccessful at achieving they wanted, or made no request. lifestyle issue. It’s just like surgery certain goals, we would not stand back from Those who asked for a drug were more being a serious thing, but that doesn’t that goal and introspect and perhaps try to likely to get one than those who did stop the cosmetic surgery industry.” change our strategies,” he says, echoing Wakefield and the Harvard creativity study.38 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 34. Sad or depressed? If you have experienced five of the According to the DSM criteria, if you 25 per cent of people who would be treatment-responsive,” he writes – symptoms below for two weeks or have these symptoms after the death diagnosed in the community as being not just something that everyone goes more, including at least one of the first of a loved one you are not considered depressed are probably actually suffering through (The American Journal of two, you meet the diagnostic criteria to be depressed, but suffering a normal from normal reactions,” Wakefield says. Psychiatry, vol 165, p 1449). for major depressive disorder. reaction to bereavement. Moreover, the symptoms of those who With the next edition of DSM due in Some, however, say that were grieving for reasons other than 2012, the debate is likely to hot up over ● Depressed mood bereavement isn’t the only type of grief bereavement were indistinguishable the next couple of years. For some, ● Reduced interest or enjoyment in that should be left out of a diagnosis of from those of the bereaved (Archives however, the problem isn’t just about normal activities depression. Jerome Wakefield of New of General Psychiatry, vol 64, p 433). exemptions, it is also about setting the ● Loss or gain of weight or appetite York University is one of them. He says Wakefield says this means that other bar too low. For Gordon Parker, a ● Insomnia or excessive sleep that other losses, like divorce, illness or forms of normal sadness should be psychiatrist and executive director ● Fatigue or loss of energy loss of a job, should also exempt people exempted from the DSM criteria. Other of the Black Dog Institute in Sydney, ● Feelings of worthlessness, or excessive from a diagnosis of depression because researchers, though, feel the opposite Australia, making a diagnosis of or inappropriate guilt these unhappy but commonplace is true: that far from being excluded, depression easier to reach isn’t helpful. ● Indecisiveness or reduced ability events can trigger similar symptoms. anything that creates depressive “[It] has taken psychiatry into the to concentrate “It does make one worry that any symptoms – grief included – should be dark ages,” he says. In his view, there’s ● Agitated motion like pacing or hand- negative emotion [except the grief of diagnosed as clinical depression and no use in having a definition of wringing, or physical slowing down bereavement] that disrupts your ability treated accordingly. depression that is broad and devoid ● Thoughts of death or suicide to function in a happy manner could be Ken Kendler at the Virginia of context. “Say you go along to your classified as a disorder,” he says. Commonwealth University in Richmond, general practitioner and he says, This definition, introduced in the third In a study published in 2007, for example, carried out a similar study ‘I know what you’ve got. You’ve got edition of the American Psychiatric Wakefield’s team reported on more to Wakefield’s but drew the opposite major breathlessness.’ You’re not Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical than a thousand people who met the conclusion. He compared individuals going to be very impressed. You want Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) criteria for major depressive disorder, with bereavement-related depression to know whether you’ve got pneumonia in 1980, changed the definition of some of whose episodes were triggered with those depressed because of other or asthma, or a pulmonary embolus, depression from something that by “standard” bereavement and others stressful events. He found that there because you then know that the depended on the context of an whose depression was triggered by were few differences in symptoms treatment will be rational. If you go individual’s life circumstances to another loss. They found that the between the groups. “Bereavement- with a generic diagnosis, how can you a more objective list of symptoms. depression they suffered was very related depression often is recurrent, possibly work out what is the key, There is one notable caveat. similar. “That suggested that about genetically influenced, impairing, and underlying pathology?”C;:?97J?D=C?I;HO “Being enthusiastic and jubilant we would:_if[di[ZWdj_Z[fh[iiWdjfh[iYh_fj_edi_dj^[KI probably go blindly on.” I[hejed_d#deh[f_d[f^h_d[h[kfjWa[_d^_X_jehIDH? So is there some middle ground? Both Deh[f_d[f^h_d[WdZZefWc_d[h[kfjWa[_d^_X_jehiD:H?i sides agree that there are ways to lift the I[b[Yj_l[i[hejed_dh[kfjWa[_d^_X_jehIIH? gloom without pills. “An alternative would be F[hY[djW][e7c[h_YWdWZkbjim^e^Wl[ik[h[Zed[cW`ehZ[fh[ii_l[[f_ieZ[ thinking about what is making you unhappy,” says Wakefield. “Another possibility is (+ watchful waiting. A more nuanced view of the situation will help people think about their .$ -$) -$( -$+ options better.” IEKH9;0?CI;7BJ97H;%IK8IJ7D9;78KI;7D:C;DJ7B;7BJI;HL?9;I7:C?D?IJH7J?EDI7CI7 Diener also suggests we stop obsessing ( about being happy all the time (see “A pill for every ill”, page 38). “One of the things we want to do is disabuse people of the notion that Fh[iYh_fj_ediZ_if[di[Zj^ekiWdZi they’re not happy enough,” he says. He cites a + study that used emotion-recognition software to work out the Mona Lisa’s inner feelings (New Scientist, 17 December 2005, p 25). It concluded that she is 83 per cent happy. The rest is a mix of negative emotions like fear and anger. That, it seems, is just about right. ● Jessica Marshall is a freelance science writer based + in St Paul, Minnesota Read previous issues of New Scientist at (* (+ (, ( 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 39
  • 35. PerspectivesA proper studyof mankind...Humans have become a force of nature. Whether thisturns out to be truly terrifying depends on finding out howsuch a force might be harnessed, says Niels Röling■ Ever since hunter-gatherers decimated mammoth populations and used fire tocreate favourable landscapes, people have (IAASTD), which set out to assess how agriculture might help to feed the world without destroying it. It brought togetherchanged the face of the Earth. Now there is a scientists, farmers, industry, government,new twist. Reports from the Intergovernmental NGOs and others in an unprecedentedPanel on Climate Change (IPCC) leave no dialogue. Unsurprisingly, the parties foundwriggle room: humans are a force of nature, it hard to listen to each other.capable of altering, probably irreversibly, the One of the things this exercise broughtsurface of the Earth, its flimsy troposphere home to me was how poorly we understandand its ozone layer – the conditions in which humans as agents of planetary change, howwe have evolved and on which our further little of what we do know is widely shared,existence is predicated. Crop pollination, food, and that this knowledge is scattered acrossdrinking water, stable climate and everything disciplines that appear distant to governance.else that sustains the web of life on which we I began to ask if we needed a new discipline,and other life forms depend are vulnerable to one that could go beyond the work of ZONE 5/REX FEATUREScollapse through these anthropogenic changes. thousands of ecologists, climatologists, For those from an Enlightenment tradition economists, anthropologists, psychologists,who believe in the human ability to develop political scientists, neuroscientists and theknowledge to make the world a better place, like. I decided to appropriate the namethis raises big questions. Can we adapt tools “anthropogenics” for my dream discipline, Network in the Netherlands is a good exampleforged to create wealth and use them for although I gave the word a broader remit than of how such involvement can work. Here, citysustainable development? Is ever-increasing the adjectival dictionary entry I found, which engineers, spatial planners, water authorities,wealth the only viable measure of progress? relates to “environmental pollution and local governments, city and business groups,Is it possible to have global governance that pollutants originating in human activity”. and individuals, who usedprotects our future? Can individuals really be My anthropogenics would be an “adaptive” to operate on their own, have recognisedrational and modify behaviours accordingly? science, in that it would focus on a more that they need to work closely together to I was brought face to face with these issues effective and less destructive coupling of understand and mitigate the vulnerability ofover 18 months spent as one of many authors humans and their environment, while its the low-lying Netherlands to climate change.working on the report of the International study of behavioural and social dynamics At the heart of anthropogenics, then,Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, would be concerned with drivers such as an would be a synthesis of what we know aboutScience and Technology for Development awareness of interdependence in resource our ability to sacrifice private for public good, use, rather than individual greed. to take less and give more, and of research intoProfile Anthropogenics would also be a praxiology – a science that informs decisions and action. game theory, social psychology, anthropology and evolutionary economics. It will challengeNiels Röling is an emeritus professor of communication Crucially, it would only work well as a truly the key western assumption that humanand innovation studies at Wageningen University in the democratic science, shaped not only by behaviour is necessarily selfish.Netherlands. Among his interests are policies and strategies academics but by all who have to live by it. A close understanding of how institutionsfor fostering innovation in subsistence farming. From where we are now this may sound determine individual behaviour might even idealistic, but the Climate Change Knowledge curb the enthusiasm for “methodological40 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 36. showed that human societies can create institutions to manage collectively competing claims on common resources. Underlying such institutions is an acute awareness that individuals can only reach their particular goals if others can reach theirs. The centrality of interdependence is a good example of why anthropogenics would be an adaptive science: ecological imperatives inform the behavioural outcomes and vice versa. The question is whether agreements like these can also be made in more complex societies, and in a world in which a handful of countries are disproportionately responsible for climate change. We also need to learn how to manage common resources sustainably. Perhaps the contours of anthropogenics become clearer if we compare our response to climate change with the way we tackle dangers to our health. Understanding chronic diseases, “The basis is still self- interest, but collective not individual” such as lung cancer, where risk factors are affected by behaviour, is the task of biology. Epidemiology establishes the prevalence of behaviours such as smoking, while social science studies the cultural, behavioural and social dynamics that lead to risky behaviours so we can intervene through laws, education and so on. Epidemiologists and clinicians then assess the impact of our interventions. Climate change has successfully put anthropogenic change on the global agenda, resulting in demands to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But this is like calling for bans on smoking, or issuing warnings about overeatingindividualism”, the tendency to explain Beautiful but environmentally deadly objects or having unprotected sex, without takingcollective things such as the marketplace of desire are going to be hard to give up into account the human or social a necessary outcome of individual choices. How can we ask the world to, say, give up The explanations generated by my new prisoner’s dilemma scenario appears to show flashy gas guzzlers if we don’t understand thebaby would inevitably differ markedly from we often opt for short-term, individual gain, complex interplay between the psychology/those of existing research because they would even if everyone would be better off long-term physiology of car ownership and driving or thenot be based solely on innate behavioural and by cooperating. But much research challenges economic, social and psychological effects ofsocial variables but on human behaviour in such a simplistic reading. Take the famous stopping a region from making gas guzzlers?context. Norms of behaviour, organisations, 1981 paper The Evolution of Cooperation by Global society is structured to supportlaws and the extent to which we unwittingly political scientist Robert Axelrod and unsustainable exponential growth rathersubscribe to a competitive society are all evolutionary biologist William Hamilton, in than the adaptive, cyclic management ofexamples of institutional choice and design. which they showed there was plenty of scope ecological processes. The transformation ofYet the current institutions we appear to have for cooperation under a variety of conditions. the resulting edifice and of the livelihoods ofsuch difficulty giving up clearly do not serve The assumption that “rational choice” millions dependent on it may be too much forthe long-term goals of human survival. always leads to self-interested actions also the deliberative process that anthropogenics The underlying basis of anthropogenics underlies the “tragedy of the commons”, assumes will occur. But we don’t still self-interest – but of a collective rather the prediction that common resources such The IPCC has done its job. Now we have tothan individual kind. Serving a collective self- as planet Earth will inevitably be degraded find out whether we can do something aboutinterest is not as outlandish as our self-image and destroyed. Elinor Ostrom at Indiana its conclusions by understanding our humanmakes us believe. Admittedly, game theory’s University, Bloomington, and others reach – and whether we can curb it. ● 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 41
  • 37. ReviewWHERE IN THE WORLDIS THE MIND?Most scientists subscribe to the idea that the mind is the brain. Now two books arguethat the mind is something bigger, extending to the body and leaking out into the world.It is a controversial but convincing idea, says Owen Flanagan■ THE mind-body problem is about where the mindis located. Is it bound by the sounding surnames like Smart (Jack) and Place (Ullin) had articulated an alternative to this theory Clark calls Extended says that the mind is in space, as all sensible naturalists claim, butconfines of our skull or does unstable view: the mind is the is smeared over more than brainit lurk nearby, non-physically? brain. The mind isn’t in the brain space. “Certain forms of human The latter idea, that the mind in the metaphorical way that my cognizing include inextricableis not literally in space but is beloved has a “place” in my heart. tangles of feedback, feed-forwardlocated “near to”, or even “right The mind is literally, physically in and feed-around loops: loops thatnext to” the body – a halo-like the brain because, well, that’s promiscuously criss-cross themaster of ceremonies where it is and that’s where it was boundaries of brain, body andcircumnavigating the head – all along. When I try to remember world,” he metaphysically weird but where the MoMA is, my brain’s Think about it: when you walkpopular. As recently as 1949, the prefrontal cortex initiates a to the MoMA, the you-walking-philosopher Gilbert Ryle insisted “fetch” request to my memory, to-the-MoMA is cognitive,that this notion of the “ghost in which passes the information intentional and mindful. Butthe machine” was the official back to the prefrontal cortex, the walking is not in your head –view among most laypersons, which in turn slides the retrieved it extends into the world. Walking,scientists and intellectuals. info over to the motor cortex, talking and seeing are all things How a mind lacking mass, and I am on my way. the enactive, embodied, extendedlongitude and latitude could be In his brilliant new book, (code words for this hip new HUGH KRETSCHMER/STONE+“in” or “near” the particular body Supersizing the Mind, Andy Clark view) mind does in the world.whose experiences it is supposed calls this view, which holds sway Ironically, dualists, the advocatesto have, and whose actions it is among the neurocognoscenti, of Nearby, got the smeariness ofsupposed to initiate, remains Brainbound. Even though Nearby mind right. Their mistake wasmysterious. Still, despite a certain thinking that the smeariness andoccult je ne sais quoi feel, thisview seems intuitive in a plebeian, “Minds are smeared neariness of mind meant that mind was in no space at all, down in his notebook. Owen is in Times Square on his way, again,man-on-the-Clapham-omnibus over more space than metaphysically out of this world. to the MoMA. When he forgets itsway. When I try to remember howto get to New York’s Museum of neuroscience would According to Extended, the mind is in space and explained entirely address, he consults his notebook in just the way others wouldModern Art from the corner of have us believe” by physical processes, but is not activate a “fetch” request toBroadway and 42nd Street, it confined to the brain. memory. Extended says that theseems as if my mind asks my still has the mother lode of fans The thesis of the extended notebook – or the Owen-notebookbrain, which is nearby, and my among the hoi polloi, the problem mind, according to philosopher coupling – counts as part of thebrain, which stores addresses, of the mind’s location has, at least Dave Chalmers who offers a cognitive process that reliablyfetches the address and passes it among the experts, been solved. terrific introduction to Clark’s results in Owen’s getting toto “me” (“I” live where my mind Mind is Brainbound. book, is that “when parts of the where he wants to go. The Owen-lives, not where my brain is Or so it seemed. Now a few environment are coupled with notebook coupling is functionallyhoused). Let’s call this picture of edgy cognitive scientists and the brain in the right way, they equivalent to the Owen-internalthe mind’s whereabouts Nearby: philosophers, including Clark and become parts of the mind”. memory coupling that Owenthe mind is not in the brain or in Alva Noë, claim that both Nearby Suppose Owen is reliably might have used, once did use,the body, but it is close. and Brainbound get the location challenged when it comes to and so on. The idea ramifies. By the mid-1950s, though, wrong. There is a third place remembering addresses, so he Is Extended true? Noë isphilosophers with apocryphal- where the mind might roam. The always writes important ones convinced. His little book Out42 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 38. Bookends only on bodies that house biofuelled nervous systems. Front-line climate But cognition already roams more Forecast widely. In our age of cognizing by Stephan Faris, Henry Holt, machines, the reach of cognition, $25, ISBN 9780805087796 outside small circles of homo- or Reviewed by Gaia Vince animal-chauvinists, is known: cognition extends beyond human Forecast’s great and animal minds. strength is in Once we entertain the recognising that Extended thesis, likely suspects while climate of extended cognition begin to change is a abound. Take the fascinating serious stressor, research on gesturing, for instance, it is just one more which suggests that gesturing is factor in the not only causally relevant to complex interplay of social, thoughts, but constitutive of the economic and political thinking process itself. influences on a community. Supersizing the Mind provides Stephan Faris’s engaging, the best argument I’ve seen for thoroughly researched the idea that minds are smeared reportage takes first-hand over more space than neuroscience examples from Mexico to might have us believe, and that Bengal, Canada to Russia. He mind will continue spreading to elegantly negotiates the tricky other nooks and crannies of the line between the personal and universe as cognitive prostheses political, and in doing so provides proliferate. a more accurate and powerful The pay-off for thinking in warning about the perils of accordance with Extended is a climate change than many better understanding of mind other books in the genre. and a roomier division of intellectual labour among cognitive scientists. “To unravel Mysterious trinity the workings of these embodied, Is God a Mathematician? embedded, sometimes extended by Mario Livio, Simon Schuster, minds, requires an unusual mix $26, ISBN 9780743294058 of neuroscience, computational, Reviewed by Sam Kean dynamical, and informational- theoretic understandings, ‘brute’ THEOLOGIANS physiology, ecological sensitivity, have God, and attention to the stacked philosophers designer cocoons in which we grow, existence, andof Our Heads is a desultory happen in the brain”. But he never work, think, and act,” Clark writes. scientistshodgepodge of occasionally even tries to show such a thing, The lesson is that despite a mathematics.interesting but perfectly familiar nor could he if he had tried. consensus that the mind is in the Mario Livio makesideas: that the mind is an active The thesis that consciousness world, we don’t yet know exactly the case for howrather than passive spectator, that “does not happen in the brain” where in the world it is. Still these three ideas might bewe are fully embodied, and that is a much stronger and less roaming after all these years. ● related. He doesn’t give definitivethe mind has all sorts of causes plausible thesis than Extended, answers, but lays out whatand effects outside of the body. which Clark is careful to say is a Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Archimedes, Newton, Gödel and Armed with these plausible thesis about cognition, thought action and cognitive extension others discovered about maths,ideas, Noë takes aim at and mind – not about experience. by Andy Clark, Oxford University Press, nature and the design (if any) ofBrainbound. He writes: “The Clark is careful in a way Noë is not $35, ISBN 9780195333213 the cosmos. He is interested toofundamental assumption of with the consciousness-cognition Out of Our Heads: Why you are not your in the old debate about whethermuch work on the neuroscience distinction. Cognition is about brain, and other lessons from the biology humans discover mathematicalof consciousness is that thought processes; consciousness of consciousness by Alva Noë, Farrar, Straus theorems that already exist, orconsciousness is, well, a is about experience. And and Giroux, $25, ISBN 9780809074655 merely construct a logical, self-neuroscientific phenomenon. experience, as far as we know, is consistent system. Livio’s richIt happens inside us, in the brain.” Brainbound or at least “organism- Owen Flanagan is a professor of history gives the discussionsNoë, instead, promises to show bound”. Experiences, at the philosophy and neurobiology at Duke human force and verve.that “consciousness does not moment anyway, supervene University in Durham, North 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 43
  • 39. Commentary pupils. There are serious Till to delight thou have paid thyMindfields A. C. Grayling disadvantages, such as the lack utmost blessing…” On another of one-on-one teacher-pupil web page cited by Google this engagement, but mixing online quotation is rendered as, “Look with traditional education can thy last on all things lovely. Every reduce that problem. The internet hour. Let no night. Seal thy sense will also be one major way of in deathly slumber. Till to delight. delivering “digital immersion Thou have paid thy utmost learning”. This is learning that blessing…” There is a solecism uses virtual reality technology in this last line: “thou have paid” to give students a sense of should read “thou hast paid”. But being realistically inside an the mistake was the poet’s, not environment, so that they the transcriber’s, and some of the can learn more directly by web pages silently correct it – thus participation. They can introducing an error about an “experience” historical events error. Transcription mistakes THEA BRINE and fly like a bird over continents, abound on other web pages: through planetary systems or “let not night” for “let no into cells and molecules. night”, “senses” for “sense”, and Before the internet can so on. These are minor mattersLessons from the be confidently used as an educational tool, however, some of its more serious problems here, but not if we were dealing with a mathematical or chemical’s wild web must be addressed, chief among The lesson is that to make them the unreliability of so much best use of the internet as an of the information it contains. educational resource, its content Here is a telling example. has to be audited for reliability, Suppose you wish to trace the and a system of classificationSPEECH, drawing, writing, email, Google and Skype. All of author and context of a quotation introduced. Given that themathematics, printing, one’s work, entertainment and you have encountered, “Look thy internet is already the mainphotography, telegraphy, film, communications can already last on all things lovely.” On my resource for students, the needradio, television, internet: each of be concentrated in one portable search, the first web page cited is urgent. I suggest that anthese represents a seminal stage device. Although for good reasons by Google attributes it to the poet international consortium ofin the history of information many people still congregate in Austin Dobson. This mistake is universities should set up panelstransfer and a quantum leap workplaces and educational soon corrected: it comes from a to audit the worth of websites,in power and range. The gaps centres, how long will this last? Walter de la Mare poem, and all endorsing those that are reliable.between stages have shortened Travelling to one’s computer of the following references say so. They should not censor, norfrom millennia to decades to terminal in an office miles away, The last stanza of this poem comment on matters of opinion –years as the curve depicting instead of working on it at home, begins, “Look thy last on all things the price we pay for the internet’sthe speed of development rises will become comparatively rare lovely / Every hour. Let no night open democracy is the rubbish itever more steeply. as people are put off by transport seal thy sense in deathly slumber / contains. But they should The extent to which the difficulties and concerns over authoritatively identifyinternet will change human environmental impacts. worthwhile sites, and warn ofsociety and experience is still One of the greatest promises of “To use the internet as factual error when it occurs.unclear, although many of the the internet relates to education. an educational tool, Without such expert monitoring,changes it has already produced In times of teacher shortages, the the internet will increasingly be aare now commonplaces – even benefits are obvious: one teacher its content must be problem rather than a boon, andnecessities – of daily life, such as online can instruct millions of audited for reliability” limited in educational value. ●Enigma Alternatively, I can use all eight of 18 February. The Editor’s decision is final. Answer to 1522 Real in the leadAd hoctagon them to make the sides of an octagon, Please send entries to Enigma 1528, New Twente beat Sporting; Sporting has aNo. 1528 Susan Denham all of whose angles are the same, and Scientist, Lacon House, 84 Theobald’s Road, final total of 9 points and Twente has all of whose vertices lie on a circle. London WC1X 8NS, or to enigma@ a total of 5 pointsI HAVE eight rods. I can use three of them What is the area of that octagon? (please include yourto make the sides of a right-angled triangle £15 will be awarded to the sender of the postal address). The winner of Enigma Visit area 10 square centimetres. first correct answer opened on Wednesday 1522 is Richard Kennaway of Norwich, UK. for recent puzzles and worked solutions44 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  • 40. Feedback– a flower’s unique vibrational healing debate over sex education in schools – signature onto a carrier solution of it would make sex seem so dull that pupils brandy”. So they may be effective would lose all interest in it. against sobriety, we’ll grant. “Perhaps,” John muses, “I need to IS THIS the world’s most expensive take some Bauhinia, which is for chemistry book? Its description on ‘embracing new concepts and ideas. Amazon is: “Chemical Shifts and There may be some hesitation or Coupling Constants for Silicon-29 reluctance, initially, in coming to terms (Landolt-Bornstein: Numerical Data and with these’.” Feedback plans to douse Functional Relationships in Science and an expenses claim – for a $385 Technology – New Series) (Hardcover)” by correspondence course on flower R. R. Gupta, M. D. Lechner, H. Marsmann, VITT PAUL MCDE essences – in this belief-inducing B. Mikhova and F. Uhlig. It costs $8539 – substance. Shhh, don’t tell the Editor. a mere $18.44 for each of its 463 pages, as one Amazon customer-reviewer “ANY discussion of oral sex has clear links calculated. Another noted that while with the last two USA administrations,” the 463-page tome “starts off a littleGRADE A gobbledegook is available for write Marian Pitts and Anthony Smith in an slow, once you get into the third chapter,the reading pleasure of connoisseurs, editorial in the Australian journal Sexual ‘Silicon Molecules: We Hardly Knew Ye’,thanks to the alertness of John Meyer, Health (vol 5, p 315). It’s the sort of opening you just can’t put this book down”.at sentence that definitely grabs one’s If you want a piece of this actionasp – home of Australian Bush Flower attention. The reference to Bill Clinton was but you’re feeling the pinch, don’tEssences. Curiously, the company is obvious, but what about George W. Bush? worry, Amazon has kindly made thebased in British Columbia, Canada. A curious Feedback read on, wondering if shipping free.Presumably, exotic Australian things they had discovered Bush in one of thoseare doubly exotic there. interesting moments that lead to sudden SPOTTED on the internal jobs bulletin board We have space only for a small resignations “to spend more time with the at the BBC by a reader whose anonymity wesample of the wondrousness: “When family”. Alas, they only linked him to the have carefully protected by losing theiran Essence is ingested or absorbed issue of sexual abstinence, which he was in message for months: “Job title: Marketingthrough the skin, it is assimilated into favour of, and through that to the Manager, Earth”.the blood stream. Then it settles discussion of “technical virgins” – those Marketing to whom? At between the circulatory and who, like Clinton, don’t consider oral sex to you can see that the postnervous systems. There, an be intercourse. is “no longer being advertised”. Has the planetelectromagnetic current is created by “The issues of what counts as sex and been sold, then? Why were we not told?the polarity of the two systems. The what one actually can do while remainingEssence then moves directly to the sexually abstinent are importantmeridians, which are vital mechanisms questions,” the authors continue. They citeof interface between the subtle bodies some fascinating statistics, such as a surveyand the physical body.” of 925 Californian teenagers aged 14 to 19, There are more revolutionary reporting that 44.2 per cent thoughtfindings that should excite “genital touching was consistent withphysiologists everywhere: “The quartz- being abstinent”, 33.4 per cent consideredlike crystalline silica structures in the oral sex OK, and 14.3 per cent thought analphysical body, such as those in the sex fell within the boundaries ofbloodstream, the hair and nails, abstinence. They don’t mention if any ofamplify and transmit the healing the Californians thought they could remainenergies of the Flower Essences to their abstinent while having vaginal sex but,appropriate sights [sic]…” And at that, given the above, Feedback suspects someFeedback’s heart turned to stone. would have responded in the affirmative. We did go back to discover that the The authors go on to cite a host of other FINALLY, our thanks to Dennis Kaye,Essences are prepared “by imprinting surveys of other groups, but eventually the who has sent us a photograph of two details and the sentences grow tortuously payment machines standing side by convoluted and academic. “Most oral sex,” side in a car park in Redbridge, London, they write, “is happening concurrently UK. Both have a notice on them saying: On a reader’s tube of Colgate with vaginal or anal sex and so must be “Please use other machine.” toothpaste it is written: “Clinically understood within the context of a more proven everyday protection against complex and multifactorial sexual encounter, yet these other activities seem You can send stories to Feedback by email time.” So if you smear it on your somehow less worthy of consideration or at Please head it will stop hair loss? our attention.” It makes Feedback recall a include your home address. This week’s and cynical response to the long-running past Feedbacks can be seen on our website.76 | NewScientist | 17 January 2008
  • 41. The last word– survived and become entrenched manganese, which is common in CAN’T FACE IT FOOLED IN BLACKPOOL is that such behaviour has evolved groundwater. When water emerges into a warning to offspring and from a spring, any manganese it Why do we grimace when we eat associates: “Bad stuff! Beware!” contains will be in the form of soluble From the top of Blackpool Tower sour or bitter food? These less vigorous communication ions. Part of the treatment process (approximately 150 metres) on signals evolved more recently than the is to oxygenate the water with an air the UK’s west coast, can you see the ● The body has stereotyped primitive reactions, and accordingly cascade, and in some areas chlorine is curvature of Earth along the Irish Sea sequences of action for avoiding and vary more widely between species, added to the water to oxidise both horizon? I thought I could, but my responding to noxious stimuli such as but they serve the same functions: iron and manganese. The insoluble friend disagreed. If I’m wrong, how pungency and acidity. Some resemble warning of danger or nastiness and manganese oxides created in this high would we have needed to be? involuntary defences against physical indicating good feeding. process are filtered out before water (Continued) attack and are similar through most Jon Richfield enters the distribution system. of the animal kingdom, so they are Somerset West, South Africa An alternative to this chemical ● Every time I read yet another almost certainly primitive in origin. oxidation is to allow a biofilm of theoretical contribution to your In humans, a faceful of ammonia manganese-oxidising bacteria such debate over whether the curvature or acetic acid fumes causes retreat, BLACK HEADS as Leptothrix species to form within a of the Earth is apparent from the top closed eyes and arms thrown across sand filter as the water passes through of Blackpool Tower, I turn to the front the face, among other responses. After a while I find the shower heads the filter. This film can build up into a cover of the magazine just to check A noxious mouthful of a salty, bitter, in my bathrooms become clogged by that the word “scientist” is really acidic or otherwise vile chemical that black flecks of what is obviously some “The ribbon-like nature of the still there. our species instinctively avoids, such kind of organic material. A similar I would have thought that by as one’s own ordure, causes another material accumulates in my cold- slime shows that the biofilm now someone would have followed range of reactions, related to spitting water taps if they have not been used has formed under conditions the scientific method: just do the for some time, but in this case it is of fluid shear in which the film experiment and report the result.“In humans, a faceful of in the form of a black ribbon. I recall is stretched by the water flow” I would certainly have had a look from visits made to water-treatment if I lived a little closer. ammonia or acetic acid fumes plants in my student days that the sheath that, in the case of Leptothrix John Twin causes retreat, closed eyes and passage of water through a filter discophora, can be up to 20 times the Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, UK arms thrown across the face, leads to the build-up of a zoogloea – diameter of the bacterial cells. among other responses” a translucent jelly-like layer of The ribbon-like nature of the slime THIS WEEK’S QUESTION organic matter. But if something shows that the biofilm has formed or vomiting. Typical responses include: similar to this process is taking place under conditions of fluid shear. drawing down the corners of the in the shower, why is the material In effect, the film is stretched out Studying form mouth or gagging in preparation to black and exactly what is it? by the flow of water. These ribbons When closely matched athletes are vomit; salivating to clear the mouth are known to biofilm researchers as competing in events that involve and dilute harmful substances; ● I know this black jelly-like “streamers”. Your questioner is seeing running, swimming, throwing or puckering to avoid more intake; material well because it formed a biofilm of Leptothrix coloured black lifting, why does one of them win closing the eyes for protection; and an integral part of my PhD studies, by manganese oxide. The water is safe one day and another the next? Surely performing convulsions that would which were focused on the sort of to drink: manganese toxicity is not a whoever is the fastest or strongest will help free oneself from assault. water filters mentioned above. problem in municipal water systems, remain so, for a while at least. Often More trivial stimulation – for The material is a biofilm: a jelly but it can cause staining in laundry the original winner will return a few instance, from piquant foods like made up of a layer of bacteria and and plumbing. These biofilms are not days later and win again, so why did pickles or mustard – provoke milder their extracellular products. These at all dangerous, just messy. he or she lose the race between the incipient reactions such as grimaces commonly form at the interface Chris Hope two victories? and shuddering. Perhaps the reason between a solid and a flowing liquid. Lecturer in oral biology Magda Loncic these different levels of reaction have The black coloration comes from University of Liverpool, UK Kiev, Ukraine Questions and answers should be concise. We reserve the right to edit items for clarity New Scientist retains total editorial control over the content of The Last Word. Do Polar Bears and style. Include a daytime telephone number and email address if you have one. Send questions and answers to The Last Word, New Scientist, Lacon House, Get Lonely? Restrict questions to scientific enquiries 84 Theobald’s Road, London WC1X 8NS, UK, about everyday phenomena. The writers of by email to or A brand new collection – published answers will receive a cheque for visit (please include a serious enquiry, brilliant insight £25 (or US$ equivalent). Reed Business postal address in order to receive payment and the hilariously unexpected Information Ltd reserves all rights to reuse for answers). For a list of all unanswered question and answer material submitted by questions send an SAE to LWQlist at the Available from booksellers and at readers in any medium or format. above address. Last Words past and present, plus questions, at