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New Scientist 24 January 2009

New Scientist 24 January 2009



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“THERE is nothing new to be discovered inphysics.” So said Lord Kelvin in 1900, shortlybefore the intellectual firestorm ignited byrelativity and quantum mechanics provedhim comprehensively wrong.If anyone now thinks that biology is sorted,they are going to be proved wrong too. Themore that genomics, bioinformatics and manyother newer disciplines reveal about life, themore obvious it becomes that our presentunderstanding is not up to the job. We nowgaze on a biological world of mind-bogglingcomplexity that exposes the shortcomingsof familiar, tidy concepts such as species,gene and organism.A particularly pertinent example isprovided in this week’s cover story – theuprooting of the tree of life which Darwinused as an organising principle and whichhas been a central tenet of biology ever since(see page 34). Most biologists now accept thatthe tree is not a fact of nature – it is somethingwe impose on nature in an attempt to makethe task of understanding it more tractable.Other important bits of biology – notablydevelopment, ageing and sex – are similarlyturning out to be much more involved than weever imagined. As evolutionary biologist
The future oflife, but notas we know it
Michael Rose at the University of California,Irvine, told us: “The complexity of biology iscomparable to quantum mechanics.”Biology has been here before. AlthoughDarwin himself, with the help of Alfred RusselWallace, triggered a revolution in the mid-1800s, there was a second revolution in the1930s and 1940s when Ronald Fisher,J. B. S. Haldane, Sewall Wright and othersincorporated Mendelian genetics and placedevolution on a firm mathematical foundation.As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, we await a third revolution thatwill see biology changed and strengthened.None of this should give succour tocreationists, whose blinkered universe isdoubtless already buzzing with the news that
 New Scientist 
has announced Darwin waswrong”. Expect to find excerpts ripped outof context and presented as evidence thatbiologists are deserting the theory of evolution en masse. They are not.Nor will the new work do anything todiminish the standing of Darwin himself.When it came to gravitation and the laws of motion, Isaac Newton didn’t see the wholepicture either, but he remains one of science’sgiants. In the same way, Darwin’s ideas willprove influential for decades to come.So here’s to the impending revolution inbiology. Come Darwin’s 300th anniversarythere will be even more to celebrate.
Charles Darwin’s theory ofevolution is itself evolving
What’s hot on NewScientist.com
Intelligence tests forfuture machines
The Turingtest has been the benchmark forartificial intelligence for nearly sixdecades, but there are other waysto test how closely a machine canperform like a human, as our videoshows. We explore how a “neuralTuring test” changes a person’s brainactivity, and how jazz piano can helpspot smart computers.
Lottery win is noguarantee of long-term healthor wealth
You probably imaginedthat a life of financial comfort andgood health follows a jackpot payout.That’s not how it goes, say two studies.
Twin roverscelebrate five years on Mars
 NASA’s plucky rovers have passed amilestone on the Red Planet. Relivetheir biggest discoveries – and someof their mishaps – in our gallery.
Top 7 alternativeenergies listed
The US could replaceall its cars and trucks with electricvehicles powered by wind turbinesthat would take up surprisingly littleland. So says a detailed study ranking11 types of non-fossil fuels accordingto their ecological footprints and theirbenefits to human health.
Why we can’t stopbirds downing aircraft
Bird strikesput lives at risk and cost aviation$1.3 billion globally by damaging anddelaying planes. We explain why lastweek’s airliner splashdown in NewYork’s Hudson River is unlikely to bethe last of its kind. 
Advancedpainting in ancient Egypt
 Wall paintings commissioned by anEgyptian accountant for his tomb-chapel 3000 years ago reveal newinformation about archaic paintingtechniques and the “ancientMichelangelo” who created them.To read these articles and more, visit
DNA testing for paternity can change thecourse of a life. So to run a test on “stolen” DNAtaken from an everyday item, such as a coffeecup or a baby’s dummy, is a gross invasion of privacy – especially when that DNA is an
innocent child’s rather than the alleged father’s.
Either way, a child can be harmed if a coverttest tears their family apart.Even if other nations do not follow theUK’s lead in banning stealthy genetic tests(see our investigation, page 8), laws onpaternity testing merit review. One optionwould be to follow practice in France, whereDNA tests can only be ordered in the contextof a formal hearing to contest paternity. Thecourt can consider the child’s interests andhelp to cushion life-altering shocks when thetest results are disclosed.
Limit the falloutfrom DNA testsDoomy thinking
WHY on earth would anyone spend energyworrying about something that is really, reallyunlikely to happen? Better, surely, to save it formore probable events such as losing your job,home or partner. But follow the logic behindassessments of such remote risks and thingsmay look different – leading, for example, to a10,000-fold rise in the probability that anEarth-guzzling black hole will appear when theLHC restarts (see page 32). It might even takeyour mind off more mundane worries – untilyou recalculate the odds, that is.
“It is now accepted that the treeof life is something we impose onnature in an attempt to makethe task of understanding itmore tractable”
24 January 2009 | NewScientist |
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NEVER mind the downturn, agreen economic revolution mustbe launched within months, oneof the world’s top economists hastold
 New Scientist
.“You do hear voices saying nowis not the moment,” says NicholasStern, former chief economist of the World Bank and economicadviser to the UK government.“Now is precisely the momentto make the change.Stern believes that low-carbontechnologies have the potential tofuel economic growth in a muchmore sustainable manner thanprevious booms based on the dotcom and housing bubbles. Withpublic money and incentives forprivate investment, low-carbontechnologies could transform21st-century society in the waythat railways and informationtechnologies did in previouscenturies, he says.
Stern carbon call
There may be no better time. Toreverse the slowdown, politicianshave already been discussing someof the biggest cash injections indecades, Stern points out. What’smore, banks are dropping interestrates, which means investors canborrow at a lower cost.“It has got to be fast,” Sternwarns. “The fiscal expansion hasgot to be put in place, the policydecisions have got to be taken in
the next three to four months. They
 take time to kick in. The urgencyof decision-making should bevery clear to everybody.
(see also Opinion, page 26)
Science a gogo
“SCIENCE, science, science andscience.” That was the summaryoffered by Nancy Pelosi, Speakerof the US House of Representatives,when asked last week in a radiointerview about the priorities of anew plan to revive the US economy.The $825 billion stimuluspackage now being consideredby Congress – and championedby President Barack Obama –includes $10 billion for basicscientific research and to upgradeageing laboratories.Priorities also include $11 billionto modernise the electricity grid,$8 billion in loans for renewable-energy projects, and $6 billionto improve broadband internetaccess in rural and otherunderserved areas.Education will also get a boostif the stimulus bill passes, with$41 billion going to local schooldistricts and $6 billion foruniversity modernisation.Health information technologywill receive a $20 billion payout,to help prevent medical errorsand reduce the unnecessaryprocedures that make healthcarein the US so inefficient.
Frog in a hard place
PUT aside climate change andhabitat destruction for a moment.Frogs are facing a more mundanethreat: our insatiable appetitefor them. David Bickford of the NationalUniversity of Singapore and histeam are calling for greaterregulation of the global marketfor frog meat, in order to avoidspecies being “eaten to extinction”(
Conservation Biology
, DOI:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2008.01165.x).
Beware surprises in rice suppliesAppetite for destruction
Modified imports vex US
AFTER a decade of exporting itsgenetically modified crops all overthe world, the US is preparing toblock foreign GM foods from enteringthe country – if they are deemed tothreaten its agriculture, environmentor citizens’ health, that is.The warning was given to theUS Department of Agriculture, whichpolices agricultural imports, by itsown auditor, the Office of InspectorGeneral (OIG): “Unless internationaldevelopments in transgenic plantsand animals are closely monitored,USDA could be unaware of potentialthreats that particular new transgenicplants or animals might pose to thenation’s food supply.”The OIG expects the number ofGM crops and traits, and the number ofcountries producing them, to doubleby 2015, raising the risks of importsof GM crops unknown to the USDA.The report urges the USDA tostrengthen its links with countrieswhere research is exploding, suchas China, India and Brazil. China,for example, is ready to launch theworld’s first commercial GM rice,but it has yet to be approved by theUSDA. Problems will arise, says theOIG, when new GM products enterthe US undeclared – the USDA wouldbe unprepared to test or evenidentify them.The OIG cautions against blocks onimports that could be seen as tradebarriers, however. In 2006, the WorldTrade Organization ruled in favour ofthe US, arguing that the EuropeanUnion’s stringent regulations onGM crops were anti-free trade.
“Low-carbon technologiescould transform societyin the way that railwaysdid in the 19th century”
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 |NewScientist|24 January 2009

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