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NEUROBIOLOGY TECHNOLOGY ENVIRONMENT

The Maddening How to Connect a Replenishing


Sense of Itch Quantum Computer Africas Soil

Born
ScientificAmerican.com
MAY 2016

of
Chaos
How raging bouts
of interplanetary
destruction
built our
solar
system

2016 Scientific American


M ay 2 0 1 6

VO LU M E 3 1 4 , N U M B E R 5

58
AST RO N O MY TECHN OLOGY
28 Born of Chaos 50 Quantum Connections
The solar system did not arise How do you make a big computer
peacefully. Instead it came to be out of many atomic-scale ones?
through staggering displays of By ChristopherR. Monroe,
interplanetary destruction. RobertJ. Schoelkopf and
By Konstantin Batygin, MikhailD. Lukin
Gregory Laughlin and B IO MEC HA NICS
Alessandro Morbidelli 58 Swimmers under Pressure
36 Planet Nine from Outer Space The secret of jellyfish locomotion.
By Michael D. Lemonick By Josh Fischman
N EU RO B I O LO GY LINGU ISTICS
38 The Maddening 60 Language Wars
Sensation ofItch Who was responsible for spread-
Only now is it becoming clear ing the worlds most popular
how this familiar feeling arises. tongue: farmers or nomads?
By Stephani Sutherland Scientists cant agree.
ECO LO GY By Michael Balter
ON THE C OVE R
44 Saving Eden ENVIRONMENT
Jupiter has played a key role in the solar systems
Conservationists are looking 66 A Cure for Africas Soil evolution for more than 4.5 billion years. This
to preserve the remarkable By growing perennial plants artists rendition shows a young, glowing Jupiter
ALEXANDER SEMENOV

wilderness of Myanmar by encour- among food crops, African migrating through the suns planet-forming disk
of gas and dust. This migration may have
aging responsible ecotourism. farmers can raise yields.
destroyed a set of inner planets and cleared
The challenges are legion.  By JohnP. Reganold and the way for Earth and other rocky worlds.
By Rachel Nuwer JerryD. Glover Image by Kenn Brown, Mondolithic Studios.

May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com 1

2016 Scientific American


4 From the Editor
6 Letters
10 Science Agenda
Peddling drugs on TV is a lousy form of health
education. B
 y the Editors

11 Forum
Dont overlook Venus, the most Earth-like planet
in our solar system. By Alexander Rodin

12 Advances
Automakers take on responsibility for crashes involving
11 self-driving cars. A computer that knows when youre
bored. Can you trust an aha! moment?

24 The Science of Health


Can we fix sickle-cell disease with gene editing?
By Karen Weintraub

27 TechnoFiles
VR wont replace movies anytime soon. By David Pogue

70 Recommended
A biopic of mathematician Ramanujan. Mount St. Helens
revisited. Hitlers atomic bomb. By Clara Moskowitz

72 Skeptic
Malthus makes bad science policy. By Michael Shermer
12
73 Anti Gravity
Gorillas sing while they supper. By Steve Mirsky

74 50, 100 & 150 Years Ago


76 Graphic Science
The lightning hotspots of the world. By Mark Fischetti

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2 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


FROM
THE EDITOR Mariette DiChristinais editor in chief of Scientific American. 
Follow her on Twitter @mdichristina

Outer Worlds and nisms of soil degradation in sub-Saharan Africa. With some 220
million of the worlds 800 million undernourished people living

Our Inner Itch


in the region, restoring soils is a top priority to improve crop
yields. Just adding more fertilizer wont work and can even wors-
en the situation. Scientists now are looking to a solution called
perenniationin which perennial plants such as shrubs, trees or
Most of us g  rew up with a rather placid notion of the forma- grasses are grown alongside crops. They help to supply carbon
tion of our solar system: dust agglomerating into larger clumps, and nitrogen, and their roots hold the soil against erosion.
with an ice line forming the divide between the outer behe- Researchers who have a strong desire to study something like
moths like Jupiter that we see today against the smaller, rocki- agriculture might metaphorically say they want to scratch an
er bodies orbiting closer to our sun. Then astronomers began itch. But scientists have had only a piecemeal understanding of
to find exoplanets multiple times the size of Jupiterand gen- how the annoying feeling itself actually arises. In The Maddening
erally far too close to their stars to fit within our tidy classical Sensation of Itch, Stephani Sutherland describes new insights
theories. Time for a rewrite of the textbooks. into the causes of itchsome of the first since the molecule hista-
In this issues cover story, Born of mine was found to set off the sensation
Chaos, Konstantin Batygin, Gregory in the early years of the 20th century.
Laughlin and Alessandro Morbidelli These investigations could lead to
trace that still evolving, new history of new treatments for itch that does not
our stellar neighborhood: a tale of respond to antihistamines. The article,
wandering planets evicted from their which begins on page 38, discusses the
birthplaces, of lost worlds driven to fi- way nerve cells detect the presence of
ery destruction in the sun eons ago and itch-inducing substances and then send
of lonely giants hurled into the frigid off signals, relayed all the way to the
depths of near-interstellar space. The brain, that tell the body its time to
adventure begins on page28. scratch. Sutherland also mentions why
A different kind of materials con- itching is contagiousperhaps explain-
struction is the subject of A Cure for Af- ing why I began feeling those irritating
ricas Soil (page 66). John P. Reganold TEXTBOOK notions of solar system formation twitches along my arm about halfway
and Jerry D. Glover explain the mecha- (shown from 1860) as placid have proved wrong. through reading the article.

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President, Wenner-Gren Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer, President and CSO, Director, Program for Evolutionary Professor and Laboratory Head
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4 Scientific American, May 2016 Illustration by Nick Higgins

2016 Scientific American


LETTERS
editors@sciam.com

Micropayments tial to make new soil and remove huge


amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.
to remove ads are Daryll Meyer
on par with paying Eastend, Saskatchewan

a mob boss to avoid NAVIGATION NOTE


hurting you. As a retired U.S. naval officer who spent
much of his life navigating the worlds
greg smith v ia e-mail
skies and oceans, I very much enjoyed
Where Am I? Where Am I Going? by
May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser. But
oid 65803 Didymos. Are we ready to face a I must dispute the authors comparison of
space rock hurtling toward Earth? Not en- the biological processes they describe with
tirely. Fortunately, our present suite of the Global Positioning System (GPS).
surveys suggests that time is on our side- They state that path integration is a
no known asteroids pose a serious near- GPS-like mechanism in which neurons
term threat to our planet. calculate position based on constant mon-
itoring of the animals direction and speed
January 2016 AD-FREE FOR A FEE of movement relative to a starting point
In Click n Pay [TechnoFiles], David a task carried out without reference to ex-
Pogue suggests that micropayments could ternal cues such as physical landmarks.
ASTEROID THREAT make ubiquitous online ads unnecessary. This process very accurately describes
The search for near-Earth asteroids that Unfortunately, ads are with us forever. inertial navigation that is augmented by
could threaten our planet, as described in Micropayments sound nice for advertis- other cuessomething we called dead
Fear of the Unknown, by Lee Billings ers, but I predict they will be as effective reckoning in the navy. Inertial navigation,
[Advances], should be a worldwide un- as my paid print subscription to Scientific even when augmented by cues from other
dertaking, no less than the effort to tackle American. Despite a fairly sizable fee, I sensors, is conducted internally (for exam-
the human causes of global warming. still face several ads. ple, within an airplane, boat or animal). In
And unlike that program, it should not be In terms of desirability, micropayments it, acceleration is combined with elapsed
hampered by powerful commercial inter- to remove ads are on par with paying a time to calculate direction and speed,
ests. But at present, its apparently entire- mob boss to avoid hurting you. Ad blockers with an estimated position as the output.
ly dependent on nasa funding, where it restore the balance in favor of the con- In GPS navigation, actual position is
competes with various projects. Are other sumer. We need stronger and better ones. the input that is continually updated from
nations making any similar efforts? Greg Smith an external source (satellites); speed and
Tony Blake via e-mail direction are outputs. The nervous sys-
Glenalta, Australia tems of animals dont function remotely
CARBON CAPTURE like GPS, but they do function like an in-
BILLINGS REPLIES: B  ecause they are ev- The Carbon Capture Fallacy, by David ertial navigation system.
erybodys problem, Earth-threatening as- Biello, reports that all credible plans to re- Wallace Davis
teroids are all too often treated as nobodys duce global warming depend on carbon Snohomish, Wash.
problem. There is at present very little for- capture but that high costs make the wide-
mal international collaboration on plane- spread use of capture projects unlikely. MYSTERY REMAINS
tary defense, and most existing programs The best way to capture carbon biolog- Isnt Michael Shermer missing the point
are funded by the U.S. Indeed, nasa is the ically is by enhancing photosynthesis and about what is so unusual about the H  omo
largest and most prominent organization carbon sequestration in organic matter. A naledi discovery in Murder in the Cave
working on the problem. It is, however, not feasible and cost-effective approach to car- [Skeptic]? Regardless of whether the loca-
the only one. At present, the National Sci- bon sequestration is restoring the massive tion of the remains was the result of buri-
ence Foundation, U.S. Air Force, Federal carbon sink in degraded grassland soils. al, homicide or sacrifice, a creature with
Emergency Management Agency and non- The potential of grasslands to sequester the brain size of a chimp engaged in hu-
profit B612 Foundation are also contribut- carbon as organic matter in the soil has manlike behavior.
ing to planetary defense in various ways. probably been underestimated. Most of Henry Metzger
Meanwhile the European Space Agency the worlds grasslands have been degraded via e-mail
is taking a leading role in the proposed through cultivation and soil erosion or by
Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment poor livestock management and overgraz- SHERMER REPLIES: Indeed, the H.naledi
mission, which would attempt to alter the ing. Properly planned grazing on degrad- finds constitute one of the most unusual
course of the nonthreatening binary aster- ed grasslands worldwide has the poten- ever made. The number, location and espe-

6 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


LETTERS
editors@sciam.com

L E T T E R S TO T H E E D I TO R
cially the peculiar fact that the fossils ap-
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8 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


SCIENCE AGENDA
O PINI O N A N D A N A LYS I S FR OM
S C IENTIFIC A MERIC AN S B OA R D O F E D ITO R S

This Drug Ad Is
Not Right for You
Peddling pharmaceuticals on TV is
a lousy form of health education, and
it can also drive up medical costs
By the Editors

Television ads f or erectile dysfunction, stroke or toenail fungus


treatments have been called both a boon and a curse. Drug-
makers assert that promoting their products makes patients
aware of conditions they can then flag for their doctor.
Yet every developed country except the U.S. and New Zea-
land prohibits such direct-to-consumer prescription drug ads.
It is hard to see educational value in commercials on American
TV that show radiant models relaxing before a tryst, accompa-
nied by voice-overs that warn of possible side effects, including lofty drug billsand it would rid the airwaves of purported
difficulty breathing and an unsafe drop in blood pressure. health messages that baffle more than they inform. It is unclear,
An ad that conflates an aura of glowing health and the pros- though, whether any prohibition passed by Congress would
pect of an amorous liaison with a list of dire cardiovascular pass muster in the courts. Pharma would undoubtedly mount a
symptoms is a paradigm of confused messaging because it does legal challenge, claiming that the law violates First Amendment
not provide the viewer with a clear guide to weighing both ben- protections for commercial speech.
efits and costs entailed in using a prescription medicine. Absent Steps, however, can be taken short of outright prohibition.
further interpretation, the underlying message reduces to: Sex Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who has highlighted in-
or deathwhich will it be? Of course, the ads always end with flated drug prices as a campaign issue, wants to eliminate the
an admonition to ask your doctor .... industrys ad-based tax deduction. There are other options as
Now, finally, the doctors are giving an answer. In November well. Because drug companies contend that the ads are an edu-
2015 the American Medical Association asked for a ban on these cational tool, the Food and Drug Administration might hold
ads, saying that they are partially responsible for the skyrocket- them to their word. They could be required to focus consumer
ing costs of drugs. The World Health Organization and other ads on the benefits of a particular class of drugs rather than a
groups have previously endorsed such restrictions. specific product. The patient could then follow up with a physi-
In 2014 pharmaceutical companies spent $4.5 billion on cian who might recommend, say, the best diabetes medicine.
consumer ads, mostly for television, a 30 percent rise from two Another constructive move would be for Congress to pass
years before. The pitches can drum up sales on higher-priced the Responsibility in Drug Advertising Act, introduced in Feb-
medications that can drive up drug costs when less expensive ruary by Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. The bill
alternatives are sometimes available. would require a three-year moratorium on ads for new pre-
Many of the newest ads are for premium drugs for life-threat- scription drugs approved by the fda.
ening diseases or rare conditions that can cost tens of thou- The proposed legislation also could be flexible in its imple-
sands of dollars and require large, out-of-pocket patient co-pay- mentation. The bill recognizes that a new approval by the fda
ments. After seeing an ad, patients may press physicians for a can have substantial public health benefits, and so it provides
prescription without understanding the complex criteria need- for the waiving of the restriction case by case. And it would
ed to determine eligibility for treatment. permit extending the ban beyond the three years if concern
Despite industry rhetoric about educating the consumer, the over a side-effect profile persisted. A break from the up to 30
ads do what ads dopromote the advertisers product while hours of prescription drug ads that the average TV viewer is
failing to note these complexities or alternative options. Last exposed to every yearbe it temporary or permanentwould
October a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 28 per- be a refreshing relief.
cent of people who viewed a drug ad subsequently asked a phy-
sician about the medicine and that 12 percent walked out with
J O I N T H E C O N V E R S AT I O N O N L I N E
a prescription. Visit Scientific American on Facebook and Twitter
A ban would be a welcome step toward trimming the nations or send a letter to the editor: EDITORS@SCIAM.COM

10 Scientific American, May 2016 Illustration by Thomas Pullin

2016 Scientific American


Alexander Rodin is a planetary scientist and docent
FORUM
C OMM E N TA RY O N S C IE N C E IN
at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. T H E N E W S FR OM T H E E X PE R T S

Show Venus every other planet. But its clouds take just four days to circulate,
in a phenomenon known as superrotation, and this superrota-

Some Love
tion involves virtually the entire atmosphere, up to an altitude of
80 to 90 kilometers. The only exception is the poles, where spec-
tacular, continuously changing vortices develop. Venuss atmo-
Space agencies have paid too little spheric motion thus resembles a great, planetary-scale hurricane
attention to the most Earth-like planet with two eyes residing on both poles. Scientists hope that study-
ing Venuss atmospheric dynamics could help them understand
in our solar system how to predict terrestrial hurricanes and even control them.
By Alexander Rodin For the general public, the search for extraterrestrial life is
probably the most important reason to do planetary explora-
Both Mars and Venus h  ave been objects of scientific and popu- tion. Does Venuss hellish climate mean that any type of biology
lar speculation since at least the beginning of the 20th century, is strictly impossible there? Surprisingly, some experts say no.
and since the 1960s spacefaring nations have been sending They argue that the abundant aerosol particles in Venuss atmo-
robotic probes to explore both worlds. Mars has gotten far sphere could in principle host some form of life. All the neces-
more attention, however. Since 2002 no fewer than two Mars sary components are there: a moderate thermal regime at 50to
probes have been actively gathering data during any given 70 kilometers above the surface, liquid water and rich chemis-
year. Last year there were seven.
This is understandable. Mars is far more
hospitable than Venus, where surface tempera-
tures reach nearly 480 degrees Celsius, surface
pressure is 92 times that of Earth and the plan-
et is permanently shrouded by thick clouds
of sulfuric acid. We have direct evidence that
water once flowed and pooled on Mars. It can-
not be ruled out that life once existed there and
may conceivably exist still.
Venus is far more Earth-like than Mars in
its size (it is only 5 percent smaller than Earth),
composition and surface gravity, but its harsh
environment leaves little hope that the planet
could ever host life. Yet it is still worth study-
ing Venus to learn why it is the way it isand
how Earth could avoid a similar fate.
Venus could also help us understand newly
discovered extrasolar planets. A surprising
number of these planets lie very close to their
stars, with revolution periods as short as a few
days. So far most of these are massive hot Jupi-
ters or hot Neptunes, but improving instruments should one try. Only future studies will show if this hypothesis, which
day allow astronomers to find hot Venuses. If that happens, seems fantastic, is true or not.
our sister planet would serve as an invaluable reference point Yet despite all this scientific promise and Venuss proximity
for interpreting observations of distant worlds. to Earth, the planet has been relatively poorly studied. Indeed,
Venus is also an intriguing world in its own right. Although when the Venus Express mission was launched in 2005, it had
it is Earth-like in size and composition, there is no evidence of been 20 years since the previous Venus probe. Only a tiny hand-
the kind of plate tectonics that continuously recycles our plan- ful of probes have been launched since then. For all these rea-
ets crust. Nevertheless, Venuss surface is rich in volcanoes, sons, planetary scientists around the world believe that we need
lava flows and other geologic evidence of past tectonic activity. a new campaign to investigate Venus, complete with orbiters,
If tectonic activity is still going on, which might well be the landing probes and flying platforms. We hope that funding
case, studying it could give us important information about the agencies will agree.
planets inner structure and dynamics.
The dynamics of the Venusian atmosphere are equally fasci-
J O I N T H E C O N V E R S AT I O N O N L I N E
nating. The planet rotates on its axis once every 224 daysin a Visit Scientific American on Facebook and Twitter
direction opposite to Venuss motion around the sun, unlike or send a letter to the editor: EDITORS@SCIAM.COM

Illustration by Gloria Pizzilli May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com 11

2016 Scientific American


ADVANCES

T ECH N O LO GY
human drivers not paying atten- as the question of accountability

Whos Responsible tion at traffic lights). The episode


shines a light on an ever loom-
and liability goes, we might al-
ready be homing in on an an-

When a Car Controls


ing gray area in our robotic fu- swer, one that points to ashift in
ture: Who is responsibleand how the root cause of damage is

the Wheel?
pays for damageswhen an assessed: When acomputerized
autonomous vehicle crashes? driver replaces ahuman one, ex-
The sense of urgency to find perts say the companies behind
As self-driving cars come closer to reality, carmakers clear answers to this and other the software and hardware sit in
commit to their tech by accepting blame self-driving vehicle questions is the legal liability chainnot the
growing. Automakers and policy car owner or the persons insur-
Valentines Day w  as a bummer bus. According to the accident experts have worried that a lack ance company. Eventually, and
in Mountain View, Calif. For the report, the Lexuss test driver of consistent national regulation inevitably, the carmakers will
first time, one of Googles self- saw the bus but assumed the would make rolling out these have to take the blame.
driving cars, a modified Lexus bus driver would slow down to cars across all 50 states nearly Self-driving pioneers, in fact,
SUV, caused a crash. Detecting allow the SUV to continue. impossible. To spur progress, the are starting to make the switch.
a pile of sandbags surrounding It was not the projects first Obama administration asked Last October, Volvo declared that
a storm drain in its path, the car crash, but it was the first caused the Department of Transporta- it would pay for any injuries or
moved into the center lane to in part by nonhuman error tion to propose complete na- property damage caused by its
avoid the hazard. Three seconds (most incidents involve the driv- tional testing and safety stan- fully autonomous IntelliSafe
later it collided with the side of a erless cars getting rear-ended by dards by this summer. But as far Autopilot system, which is

12 Scientific American, May 2016 Illustration by Thomas Pitilli

2016 Scientific American


D I S PATC H E S FR OM T H E FR O N TIE R S O F S C IE N C E , T E C H N O LO GY A N D M E D I C IN E IN S ID E

When machines know


scheduled to debut in the com- first semiautonomous highway main alert and ready to take youre bored
panys cars by 2020. The thinking driving feature, called Pilot As- over steering if visibility dips or Clear-cut rain forests arent
behind the decision, explains Erik sist, on the 2017 S90 sedan. weather changes. With Pilot alost cause
Coelingh, Volvos senior technical The system uses a windshield- Assist, Volvo puts similar onus on Do aha! moments actually
leader for safety and driver-sup- mounted computer equipped the driver; touch sensors on the provide correct answers?
port technologies, is that Autopi- with a camera and radar to au- steering wheel ensure the per- A clever way to measure
lot will include so many redun- tomatically accelerate, deceler- son remains engaged. ablack holes spin
dant and backup systemsdu- ate, avoid obstacles and stay By the time fully autono- A blood test for TB
plicate cameras, radars, batteries, in a lane at speeds of up to mous driving becomes a reality,
brakes, computers, steering actu- 80miles per hour. however, carmakers such as
atorsthat a human driver will Features such as Pilot Assist Volvo, Mercedes and Google ers are likely safer than human
never need to intervene and thus exist in what tech policy expert are confident that they will have ones. Data from the Insurance
cannot be at fault. Whatever and University of South Carolina these technologiesand many Institute for Highway Safety, for
system fails, the car should still assistant professor Bryant Walk- moreso buttoned up that they instance, have found that crash-
have the ability to bring itself to a er Smith calls the mushy mid- will be able to take the driver avoidance braking can reduce
safe stop, he says. dle of automation, where car- out of the operation and liability total rear-end collisions by
The proliferation of vehicles makers still require human driv- picture almost entirely. What is 40percent. And Volvos Coe-
already on the road with partial ers to pay attention. Its not more, a 2014 Brookings Institu- lingh notes that a study of the
automation shows how quickly always clear where the line be tion study found that current European version of Pilot Assist
the scenario that Coelingh de tween the human and the ma product liability law already revealed that the computer
scribes is coming about. A grow- chine falls, he says. covers the shift, so the U.S. maintains safer follow distances
ing number of cars include For the time being, some au- might not need to rewrite any and has fewer harsh braking in-
crash-imminent braking sys- tomakers are aiming to keep hu- laws for automation to continue cidents than human drivers do.
tems, which rely on optics to de- man drivers clearly on the re- moving forward. In the long run, from the
tect potential front-end impacts sponsible side of that line. Gen- It is a relatively safe bet for manufacturers perspective,
and proactively apply brakes. eral Motors forthcoming Super driverless carmakers to say they Smith says, what they may be
Audi, BMW and others have de- Cruise, which will launch on a will foot the bill for everything looking at is a bigger slice of
veloped cars that can parallel Cadillac in 2017 and is similar to from fender benders to violent what we all hope will be a
park themselves. And later this Pilot Assist, comes with caveats crashes because semiautonomy much smaller [liability] pie.
year Volvo will roll out the U.S.s that the human driver must re- is showing that computer driv-  Corinne Iozzio

TA XON O MY
vature pointed the team toward lampreys,

Monster Comes Out ofHiding which also share that physiological quirk.
Victoria McCoy, a paleontologist at the
Researchers solve a long-standing phylogenetic mystery University of Leicester in England who led
the study while at Yale University, is not
In 1955 a mateur fossil hunter Francis Tully According to findings published in ready to declare the case closed, however.
discovered an exceedingly odd specimen  ature, t he organism traces its evolutionary
N We still know very little about how the
in Mazon Creek, a collecting hotspot near legacy to modern-day lampreys: jawless, Tully monster lived, she says. But we can
Chicago. Imprinted on Tullys rock were the bloodsucking fish. Researchers arrived at now use modern lampreys and other fishes
remains of a tubular creature with stalk eye- this conclusion after analyzing 1,200 Tully as analogues and, we hope, start to better
balls and a long mouth apparatus terminat- monster specimensmost about 15 to understand the mysterious lifestyle of this
ing in a feature that resembled an alligator 20 centimeters longand realizing that ancient monster.  Rachel Nuwer
clip. Dubbed the Tully monster, the 300-mil- what was previously assumed to be part
lion-year-old specimen later became Illi- of the creatures gut is actually a
COURTESY OF SEAN MCMAHON Yale University

noiss official state fossil. Despite its popular- notochord, a primitive back-
ity, though, researchers have made neither bone. The notochords
heads nor tails of ituntil now. downward cur-

J O I N T H E C O N V E R S AT I O N O N L I N E Visit Scientific American on Facebook and Twitter

2016 Scientific American


ADVANCES

GEOLOGY

Deserted Waters
No one ever says of the Sahara that a river runs through it. But somewhere between 11,700 and
5,000 years ago, one did. In full flow, it would rank 11th among the largest rivers on the earth
today.* Paleoclimatologist and geochemist Charlotte Skonieczny of the French Research Institute
for Exploration of the Sea and her colleagues report the evidence for the ancient channel in
a recent issue of N
 ature Communications. T he team discovered the so-called Tamanrasett River
when examining microwave data collected by a Japanese satellite that had been mapping
geologic features in the area. The hidden bedrock valley winds for more than 500 kilometers
from the Atlas Mountains in northern Africa to the Atlantic Ocean.  Shannon Hall

BYC. SKONIECZNY ET AL., IN NATURE COMMUNICATIONS, VOL. 6, ARTICLE NO. 8751; NOVEMBER 10, 2015 (illustration of Tamanrasett); GEOMORPHOMETRIC ATTRIBUTES OF THE GLOBAL SYSTEM OF RIVERS AT 30-MINUTE SPATIAL RESOLUTION, BY C. J. VRSMARTY ET AL.,
*CHARLOTTE SKONIECZNY AND HER COLLEAGUES HAD PLACED THE RIVER AS THE 12TH LARGEST, PER DIFFERENT ESTIMATES OF RIVER AREA SIZES; SOURCES: AFRICAN HUMID PERIODS TRIGGERED THE REACTIVATION OF A LARGE RIVER SYSTEM IN WESTERN SAHARA,
2

Co
ng
oR
iv e r
Largest Rivers in the
World (ranked by area)
1 Amazon (South America):
7 million square km; 6,992 km long
2 Congo (Africa):
3.457 million square km; 4,700 km long
er 3 Nile (Africa):

INJOURNAL OF HYDROLOGY, VOL. 237, NOS. 12; OCTOBER 25, 2000 (area and length of Tamanrasett); ENCYCLOPDIA BRITANNICA www.britannica.com (area and length of all other rivers)
iv 3.349 million square km; 6,650 km long
eR

4 Mississippi (North America):


Nil

3.1 million square km; 3,766 km long


5 Ob (Asia):
3

2.975 million square km; 3,650 km long


6 Paran (South America):
2.8 million square km; 4,880 km long
7 Yenisey (Asia):
2.58 million square km; 3,487 km long
8 Lena (Asia):
2.49 million square km; 4,400 km long
9 Niger (Africa)
1.9 million square km; 4,200 km long
10 Amur (Asia)
1.855 million square km; 2,824 km long
11 Tamanrasett (Africa):
1.819 million square km; 2,777 km long
9

N
ig
e
rR
ive
r

r
i ve
settR
11 Tamanra

14 Scientific American, May 2016 Illustration by Amanda Montaez

2016 Scientific American


T ECH N O LO GY

Plugged in or
Powered Down?
Computers can tell if youre bored
Boredom m  anifests itself in more than yawns
and glazed eyes. Subtle body cues called non
instrumental movementssquirming, scratch
ing, shiftingalso give away a persons mental
state. Like teachers and other public speakers,
machines can now also pick up on these telltale
signs of restlessness. A new study reveals that
when computer users tune in to on-screen
material, their fidgeting lessensand algo
rithms can use that information to discern
attentiveness in real time.
To measure engagement, psychobiologist
Harry Witchel of Brighton and Sussex Medical
School in England and his colleagues outfitted
27 participants with motion-tracking markers
that a computers visual system could follow.
The participants then read digital excerpts from
a novel by Mark Haddon, T  he Curious Incident
of the Dog in the Night-Time, a nd from the Euro
pean Banking Authoritys regulations. Based
on motion in the head, torso and legs, the com
puter could tell when a person had mentally
checked out. In fact, an analysis of the cumula
tive movements revealed that when people read
from the novel, they fidgeted nearly 50percent
less than when reading the banking guidelines.
The system, described in F rontiers in Psycholo-
gy, a dds to a growing body of research on affec
tive-aware technology, says Nadia Berthouze, a
computer scientist at University College London.
Once the program is perfected, Witchel thinks
educators could use it to create digital lessons
that recognize when a students attention is fad
ing and respond with strategies to reengage him
or her. The system could also help researchers
build robots that are more emotionally sensitive
companions for humans.  Rachel Nuwer

Illustrations by Thomas Fuchs May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com15

2016 Scientific American


ADVANCES
E N V I RO N M E N T
says. But with good protection

A Forests and time to regenerate, second-


ary forests could become very

Second valuable again. Robin Chazdon,


an ecology professor at the Uni-

Life versity of Connecticut, and her


colleagues agree, quipping in a
Given a chance to paper that regenerating forests
are like a good Bordeaux, in
regenerate, a razed
that their worth appreciates with
rain forest can host each passing year.
almost as much life For now cleared lands in the
as a virgin one tropics usually are converted
into palm oil plantations or oth-
Conservationists w  ho work to er agricultural sites without any
save rain forests typically focus attempt to assess the potential
on pristine standsthe dwin- for reforestation (western Ama-
dling number of patches where zon, at left). People are begin-
the buzz of chainsaws has yet ning to pay attention, however.
to echo. But even clear-cut At a 2014 United Nations cli-
land may warrant protection. mate summit in New York City,
Mounting evidence shows that, Success is more likely at Manu ary-growth forests also reduce several dozen ofthe worlds
under the right circumstances, because a longtime hunting carbon dioxide pollution: in Feb- largest governments, multina-
heavily logged tracts can re- and logging ban is in place, and ruary researchers reported that tional companies, nonprofits
grow to host nearly as much animals can easily wander in regenerating tropical forests pull and indigenous groups pledged

COURTESY OF ANDREW WHITWORTH University of Glasgow ( A mazon); SOURCE: HOW MUCH POTENTIAL BIODIVERSITY AND CONSERVATION VALUE CAN A REGENERATING RAINFOREST PROVIDE?
biodiversity as unspoiled Ama- from the extensive old-growth about 11 times more carbon from to restore 350 million hectares
zonian wilderness. zones nearby. the atmosphere than old-growth of degraded forest by 2030.
A study published in March Nevertheless, even lesser- swaths (which have already ap- We cant stop [at] protect-

A BEST-CASE SCENARIO APPROACH FROM THE PERUVIAN AMAZON, BY ANDREW WHITWORTH ET AL., IN TROPICAL CONSERVATION SCIENCE, VOL. 9, NO. 1; MARCH 2016 (chart)
in T ropical Conservation Science quality sites in the beginning proached the maximum amount ing old growth, says Chazdon,
offers the latest look at the bio- stages of renewal provide myri- of carbon they can sequester). who is advising Brazil on how to
logical value of so-called sec- ad environmental benefits, in- Were not saying at any revitalize its decimated Atlantic
ondary forests. An international cluding watershed preservation point that this is more important Forest. Thats not going to be
team of ecologists and volun- and wildlife corridors. Second- than primary forest, Whitworth enough. Jesse Greenspan
teers spent a year and a half
identifying every bird, amphibi-
an, reptile and medium-to-large Biodiversity: How Does Regenerated Rain Forest Stack Up?
mammal they could find on Each symbol outlined in blue represents a species from one study site,
some 800 recovering hectares Amphibians the primary forest of Cocha Cashu (78 amphibian species)
within Perus Manu Biosphere
Reserve, a UNESCO World Heri-
tage site. Their final count of 570
Birds Each symbol lled with blue represents a species recovered in a regenerated forest in Manu (60 amphibian species)
species amounted to 87percent
of those known to exist in neigh-
boring old-growth, or primary,
forests and included many im-
periled creatures, such as short-
eared dogs and giant armadillos.
The team even found what
could be new frog species.
The Manu study area repre-
sents a best-case scenario for
secondary forest biodiversity, Mammals*
says Andrew Whitworth of the
University of Glasgow in Scot- Reptiles
land, who conducted the study
in partnership with the Peruvian Two additional species in regenerated forest
nonprofit Crees Foundation. *Symbols outlined in blue represent species from both Cocha Cashu and another primary forest site.

16 Scientific American, May 2016 Graphic by Amanda Montaez

2016 Scientific American


H E A LT H

Heartburn
Meds Alter
the Gut
Acid blockers reduce the
diversity of bacteria in
the intestinesand that
could lead to trouble

In 2014 A  mericans filled more


than 170 million prescriptions for
acid blockers known as proton-
pump inhibitors (PPIs) to treat gas-
tric conditions, including indiges-
tion, peptic ulcers and acid reflux.
These medications are among the
top 10 prescribed in the country as
a class and are also available over
the counter. Surveys suggest that Heartburn has nothing to do with the heart.
they are widely overused, and in Instead the burning sensation occurs when
such cases, the drugs may do more acid from the stomach enters the esophagus.
harm than good. In fact, two new
studies found that PPIs alter gut bacteria designed study as well as a small interven-
in ways that could increase the risk for tional study in which individuals gut bac
dangerous intestinal infections, adding teria were analyzed before and after
to a body of research highlighting the patients took PPIs for four to eight weeks.
drugs adverse effects. PPIs may limit the guts diversity by
To figure out why people who take PPIs reducing its acidity and thus creating an
are more likely to get an intestinal infection, environment that is more or less amenable
researchers at the University of Groningen to certain microbes. And that imbalance
and Maastricht University Medical Center in could then lead to infection, says Rinse
the Netherlands, as well as the Broad Insti- Weersma, a gastroenterologist at the
tute of Harvard University and the Massa- University of Groningen. The drugs may
chusetts Institute of Technology, sequenced induce a change in the microbiome that
the bacterial DNA found in the fecal matter creates a niche where S almonella o rC
 .diffi-
of 1,815 people. Doing so gave them a snap- cile c an grow, he explains.
shot of the bacteria found in the subjects Because a persons microbiome can
intestines. A comparison of the profiles of also influence intestinal absorption of
subjects taking PPIs with those who were calcium and other vitamins and minerals,
not revealed that, among other things, PPI these drug-induced changes could explain
users had less gut bacterial diversity. why people who take PPIs are more likely
The researchers, who published their to fracture certain bones and have nutri-
results in the journal G
 ut, f ound that these tional deficiencies. Although no one yet
differences existed even when PPI users did knows how concerned long-term PPI users
not have gastrointestinal conditions, which should be, one thing is for sure: There
suggests that the differences were caused should be ongoing dialogue and manage-
by the drugs rather than simply an artifact ment between physicians and patients who
SEBASTIAN KAULITZKI Getty Images

of disease. (PPIs are also prescribed to hos- take these drugs, says Joel Heidelbaugh,
pital ICU patients to prevent stress ulcers, afamily physician at the University of
among other uses.) Michigan who studies PPI overuse. There
Researchers at Kings College London, are thousands of patients who are on these
Cornell University and Columbia University drugs indefinitely without needing to be.
obtained similar results from a comparably  Melinda Wenner Moyer

May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com17

2016 Scientific American


ADVANCES
PSYCH O LO GY

Is Eureka Right?
says. As a result, insights are
less likely to be incorrect. An-
alytical thinking, in contrast,
New research shows sudden insights happens consciously and is
are usually correct therefore more subject to
rushing and lapses in reasoning.
Aha! moments a re satisfying in pletion of a timed trial, subjects That is not to say that insight
part because they feel so right; were asked to report if they had is always the best strategy. The
all the pieces of a puzzle appear arrived at their answer by Salvi and Kounios experiments
to fall into place with little con- thinking the problem through accuracy for analytical solutions. involved puzzles with clear right
scious effort. But can you trust step by step (analytical problem This outcome may result and wrong answers. So the
such sudden solutions? Yes, ac- solving) or if the solution had from the way the brain generates results may not apply to real-
cording to new research pub- sprung to mind (insight). insights. Because such process- world situations, where prob-
lished in T hinking & Reasoning. In all four experiments, aha! ing occurs largely outside a per- lems are typically highly com-
The results support the conven- solutions were more often cor- sons awareness, it is all or noth- plex and may require daysif
tional wisdom that this type of rect than those achieved delib- inga fully formed answer ei- not months or yearsto solve.
insight can provide correct an- erately. For instance, in one ex- ther comes to mind or it doesnt. In fact, difficult questions
swers to challenging problems. periment, in which 38 partici- This hypothesis is supported by often necessitate several differ-
In four experiments, Carola pants had to think of a single EEG and functional MRI scans, ent strategies to arrive at a solu-
Salvi, a postdoctoral researcher word that could form a com- which revealed in previous stud- tion, says Janet Metcalfe, head
at Northwestern University, John pound phrase with three previ- ies that just before insight takes of the Metacognition and Mem-
Kounios, a psychologist at Drexel ously presented words (such as place, the occipital cortex, which ory laboratory at Columbia Uni-
University, and their colleagues apple for the trio crab, pine is responsible for visual process- versity, who was not involved
presented college students with and sauce), aha! solutions ing, momentarily shuts down, or in the study. She adds: There
mind teasers, such as anagrams were correct 94percent of the blinks, so that ideas can bub- may not be a perfect solution
and rebus puzzles. At the com- time compared with 78percent ble into consciousness, Kounios to a problem.  Roni Jacobson

18 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


(water main breaks); BURIED NO LONGER: CONFRONTING AMERICAS WATER INFRASTRUCTURE CHALLENGE. AMERICAN WATER WORKS ASSOCIATION, 2012 (replacement costs)
UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY, APRIL 2012 (miles of pipes); 2013 REPORT CARD FOR AMERICAS INFRASTRUCTURE. AMERICAN SOCIETY OF CIVIL ENGINEERS, MARCH 2013

Cracks, pits and holes in water mains, often


 ater main break); SOURCES: WATER MAIN BREAK RATES IN THE USA AND CANADA: A COMPREHENSIVE STUDY, BY STEVEN FOLKMAN.

caused by corrosive soil, can allow potentially


harmful microbes to enter pipes carrying
drinking water (Los Angeles in 2009, at left).

BY THE NUMBER S

1,180,000
Miles of water main
pipes in the U.S.

I NF R A ST RUC T U R E
240,000
Total number of water main

Mortal Mains breaks that occur annually


in the U.S.

$17
Flint, Mich., w  as in the midst of its leaded water crisis in February when its residents
suffered yet another hit to their water supply. A cracked pipe that delivered potable

billion
water to the town meant that for three days they had to boil their tap water to protect
against bacterial contamination. Such water main breaks nowadays are hardly unex-
pectedmuch of the nations waterworks requires upgrades and replacement. Solutions
Estimated increase o ver
include relining pipes or replacing them with corrosion-resistant polyvinyl chloride
ANN JOHANSSON Corbis ( w

the next 30 years in annual


(PVC). Some communities also have embraced reclamation of household wastewater, U.S. costs required to replace
along with the capture of storm water on roofs and streets. These approaches can re aging water mains
duce total volume and pressure spikes that overstrain pipes while lowering the energy
required to pump and treat all that water.  Robin Lloyd
2016 Scientific American

May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com19


ADVANCES
U.K. JAPAN
I N T H E N EWS A self-propelling underwater drone began patrolling the area Electronics firm Kyocera has kicked off

Quick around the Pitcairn Islands, the worlds largest continuous marine
reserve. The autonomous vehicle takes photographs of illegal
construction on the most massive floating
solar farm planned to date. The 13.7-mega

Hits fishing vessels and reports the boats locations to a monitoring


team in Oxfordshire, which can alert the proper authorities.
watt power plant will sit atop a reservoir near
Tokyo and is expected to supply power to
nearly 5,000 homes when completed in 2018.

U.S. AUSTRALIA
The American Academy of Fairy circles, bare patches of
Pediatrics now recommends earth arranged in a honeycomb
that doctors inquire about pattern, were found on a con
poverty-related stress during tinent other than Africa for
achilds regular checkups. the first time. Researchers are
Such stress is a strong risk divided as to whether such
factor for asthma, obesity and circles are caused by termites
other health problems. or plants competing for water.

INDIA
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO A local company released Freedom 251, the cheapest
The government plans to lift a ban on logging licenses in the Congo Basin smartphone on the market. Demand for the sub-$4
rain forest, second only to the Amazon rain forest in size. Conservationists Android device was so high that the order Web site
say the bans removal could unleash a wave of environmental destruction. crashed briefly. It comes with two cameras, Wi-Fi
For more details, visit www.ScientificAmerican.com/may2016/advances
connectivity and a handful of preinstalled apps.

20 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


A ST RO N O MY
OJ287, a binary supermas-

Spin Cycle sive black hole system, sits


about 3.5billion light-years from
Astronomers exploit Earth. The duos primary black
a black hole duo to hole weighs in at an estimated
18billion solar masses; the sec-
measure how fast
ond is a mere 150 million solar
one is spinning masses. Because of this dramat-
ic inequality in size, the smaller
Black holes m  ay be massive, hole follows an orbit that punch-
but they are also extraordinarily es through a disk of superheated
compact. That combination of matter swirling around the larg-
properties makes them chal- er hole. These outburst events
COURTESY OF NASA/JPL/CALTECH (artists conception of supermassive black hole)

lenging regions to evaluate always occur within a 12-year 2015. By precisely measuring shorter with time. That is
across vast cosmic distances. To orbit and are read by astrono- the variation in light radiation because the system is losing
learn more about these objects mers as changes in the systems from the system during those energy as it emits gravitational
physical properties, astronomers visible light, which is for the outbursts, the astronomers wavesripples in spacetime
must therefore come up with most part produced by the were able to indirectly measure that steal energy from the holes
measuring tricks. An internation- superheated material. the spin of the larger black orbits, causing them to contract.
al team of astronomers recently The predictability of this hole. They found that it is spin- In other words, in OJ287 astron-
invented a new one: in the A  stro- phenomenon and the associat- ning at 31percent of the maxi- omers are witnessing the gradu-
physical Journal Letters, t he mem- ed precession, or shifting, of the mum allowed according to gen- al merging of two supermassive
bers report how to determine a smaller holes elliptical orbit eral relativity. black holes. And as most couples
black holes spin using the inter- helped the astronomers to pre- These data, along with earli- know, outbursts and fast pivots
actions of two giant holes bound pare for two outbursts at OJ287 er observations, clearly indicate are likely to occur in the run-up
in mutual orbit. in November and December that the orbital period is getting to any merger.  Caleb Scharf
2016 Scientific American

May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com21


ADVANCES
GLO BAL H E ALT H

Drawing for
a Remedy
A new blood test for TB
could save millions of lives

As much as one third o  f the global popula-


tion is currently infected with the bacterium
that causes tuberculosis (TB), a disease typi-
cally concentrated in the lungs and charac-
terized by weakness, fever, coughing and
chest pain. About 9.6million new infections
occurred in 2014, the most recent year for
which numbers are available. Roughly Tuberculosis is especially a problem in developing countries. In 2014 in Bangladesh
1.5million people died of TB that same year. about 640,000 people carried the disease.
The ability to easily, inexpensively and accu-
rately diagnose TB is of utmost importance, tum. But some children struggle to produce tries. As a result of these constraints, a large
but the most commonly used method fails, a sample on request. The test also can miss percentage of TB cases are diagnosed
at least to some extent, on all three counts. TB in people simultaneously infected with late or not at all, leaving serious infections
Anew blood-based technique might con- HIV because the telltale bacteria may exist untreated and more liable to spread.
siderably rein in this epidemic. in numbers too low to detect or outside the Two years ago the World Health Organi-
The conventional TB test scans for bac- lungs. In addition, the test costs up to $10, zation put out a call for an improved TB
terial DNA in coughed-up mucus, or spu- a prohibitive fee in many developing coun- diagnostic. In response, Purvesh Khatri, a
Stanford University medical professor,
and his colleagues combed through the
human genome and found three genes
that distinguish active TB from other
diseases. The team then developed
away to detect these genes in blood.
According to their study, published
in the L ancet Respiratory Medicine, t he
test is equally sensitive among patients
with and without HIV coinfection and
correctly detected TB in 86percent of
pediatric cases. Additional points in favor
of ablood assay include that it can be
performed at a clinic and yield same-day
results, unlike the case for a sputum test.
That is especially advantageous in the
developing world, where showing up
for even a single appointment presents
atremendous burden. You want to be
able to initiate treatment immediately,
says Sheela Shinoi, a Yale University pro-
fessor of medicine focused on AIDS.
The technology has not been used
in the diagnosis of new patients and
may be difficult to scale up, but in the
meantime, Khatri has filed a patent for
the test. He thinks it could cost less
PROBAL RASHID Getty Images

than half as much as the current one.


If this three-gene signature could be
developed into a point-of-care test,
Shinoi says, it would revolutionize
TB diagnostics.  Jessica Wapner

22 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


PH YSICS

How to
Split Wood
When wind speed snaps
trees indiscriminately

After a particularly strong storm n  amed


Klaus hit southwestern France in 2009,
researchers made a curious observation
about the devastation: nearly all the trees
whipped by winds blowing at speeds of
94miles per hour or more had snapped,
regardless of their species, height or diame-
ter, whereas most trees hit by gusts below has width and stiffness going for it, but larg- wind, which in turn changes the relation
that threshold were left intact. Was this er internal flaws undermine its sturdiness. between force on the trunk and wind
wind-speed threshold really the arbiter The finding is notable for its simplicity: speed. In other words, the setup did not
of destruction? one equation to understand tree mechan- reflect the complex interactions of real-life
Physicist Christophe Clanet and his col- ics. Several outside experts have concerns biology, weather and physics. Regardless,
leagues at Frances cole Polytechnique and about this very quality, however. For exam- Clanet and his colleagues do think the
ESPCI ParisTech set to find out by fractur- ple, Lee Frelich, director of the University of results have utility and plan to study wheth-
ing beechwood rods of various lengths and Minnesota Center for Forest Ecology, says er wind gusts, as opposed to the steady
diameters under controlled conditions. To that modeling trees as branchless cylinders wind speeds assumed for this project,
do so, they inserted one end of a given rod neglects the streamlining of branches in the change the breaking point.  Tim Palucka
into a hole of the same diameter in a
block of steel and slowly added force to
the other end, causing the rod to bend.
They then measured the critical curva-
ture at which the rod cracked and ran
those values through mathematical
fracturing formulas to determine a cor-
responding wind speed. What they
found matched the real-world scenario
of 2009: the calculated wind speed to
break the rodsno matter the size
was about 94mph. The study was
recently published in P  hysical Review E.
Why such consistency? The results
come down to a combination of phys-
ics and evolution. Although mathemat-
ics alone would predict that the wind
speed required for tree fracture should
depend on trunk diameter and tree
height, nature does not make trees that
are both thin and tall. Instead short
trees are thin and tall ones thick. Even
more, thicker trees have larger defects,
such as knots, where stress concen-
trates when a tree bends.
Together those characteristics
flaws, length and diametercancel one
DAVID R. FRAZIER Science Source

another out, leaving wind speed as the


major determiner of a snap. So although
a short tree has smaller stress points for
cracks, it is thinner and could more easi-
ly split. On the other hand, a tall tree

May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com23

2016 Scientific American


THE SCIENCE Karen Weintraub is a freelance health and science journalist
OF HEALTH who writes regularly for the N
 ew York Times, STAT (www.statnews.
com) and U
 SA Today, a mong others.

And yet the bouncy fourth grader, who is fond of sparkly


shoes, is able to dance, participate in gymnastics and attend
school without a hint of any health troubles. The secret to Ceni-
yas good fortune lies in a second genetic mutation she inherit-
edone that limits the aberrant curving of red blood cells. This
unusual combination of genetic alterations means that she has
yet to suffer a sickle-cell crisis, and her doctors believe that she
will probably be protected from the effects of the defective he-
moglobin for the rest of her life.
For decades physicians have known that a few children like
Ceniya have unusual genetic mutations that counteract the ef-
fects of the sickle-cell flaw. Researchers would like to re-create
their uncommon physiology in everyone with sickle-cell anemia.
Though not technically a cure, the compensatory treatment
would spare many of the 300,000 infants around the world who
are born every year with sickle cell and who often do not live be-
yond childhood. It would also make life a lot easier for the more
than 70,000 individuals living with the disease in the U.S., who,
despite treatment that mitigates some of the most serious effects
of the condition, often die in their 40s.
Investigators are now beginning to test such approaches, which
depend on the precise alteration, or editing, of certain genes us-
ing new techniques in genetic engineering. (As will be addressed
shortly, providing the compensatory mechanism should be easi-
er to achieve than fixing the original sickle-cell genetic defect.)
Gene-editing approaches have the potential to be game
changing and really revolutionize the therapy, says Lloyd Klick-
stein of health care company Novartis, which is among the firms
and universities exploring new sickle-cell treatments.

A Surprising Fix W HAT DOESNT KILL YOU

for Sickle Cell


For a condition that causes life-threatening problems in child-
hood, sickle cell is surprisingly widespread. After all, if a muta-
tion tends to kill people in childhood, you would expect few of
the affected individuals to live long enough to mate and pass the
When it comes to finding a genetic cure trait to the next generation. The spread could be explained, how-
for this devastating blood disorder, ever, if inheritance of just one copy of the mutation somehow
protected people against a different threat to survival. In the late
sometimes two wrongs make a right 1940s British scientist J.B.S. Haldane noted that inherited hemo-
globin disorders are common in tropical areas where malaria is
By Karen Weintraub prevalent. He hypothesized that children born with a single mu-
tated hemoglobin gene (which does not cause major problems)
Ceniya Harris, age nine, of Boston should be a very sick little were somehow better able than their peers to fight off malaria
girl. Both her parents unknowingly passed her a copy of the ge- and would survive to deliver the gene to their future children.
netic mutation for sickle-cell disease, a debilitating and some- Subsequent studies supported Haldanes hypothesis, at least
times fatal blood disorder. With a double dose of the mutant in part. Although individuals who carry a single sickle-cell gene
gene, Ceniyas body produces a defective kind of hemoglobin actually can acquire malaria, they are less likely to die from the
the molecule in red blood cells that takes oxygen from the lungs parasitic infection than those who do not have the mutation.
and releases it into tissues throughout the body. The flawed he- How the altered hemoglobin confers this biological protection is
moglobin molecules can deform the normally round blood cells still not entirely understood.
into a crescent, or sickle, shape, leading the cells to clump to- In contrast, researchers understand pretty well why two cop-
gether and hinder oxygens passage into tissues. The subsequent ies of the sickle-cell mutation can prove lethal. A molecule of he-
physiological havoc, known as a sickle-cell crisis, is incredibly moglobin is made up of four subunits: most commonly two iden-
painful and frequently requires emergency treatment to pre- tical proteins called alpha-globins and another pair of proteins
vent life-threatening strokes and organ failure. known as beta-globins. Each of these subunits contains an iron-

24 Scientific American, May 2016 Illustration by Christian Dellavedova

2016 Scientific American


THE SCIENCE
OF HEALTH

bearing structure, which, under normal circumstances, can grab be more practical than repairing the mutation that causes their
on to or release a molecule of oxygen. Thus, each hemoglobin condition in the first place? Because, at the moment, turning
can carry up to four oxygen molecules. Individuals who inherit a genes off is a lot easier than replacing the single mistake in the
single sickle-cell mutation produce one defective and one nor- DNA molecule that causes the disease.
mal beta-globin; those who inherit sickle-cell genes from both After decades spent studying the genetic underpinnings of
parents produce only defective beta-globins. sickle cell, Stuart Orkin, another researcher at Dana-Farber/
When there is not enough oxygen around, these two defec- Boston Childrens, recently located the precise spot in the DNA
tive beta-globins attach to each other. The connection is so tight of long-lived blood-making cells (stem cells) where a tiny snip
that it causes the rest of the hemoglobin molecule to link up would allow for indefinite manufacture of fetal hemoglobin. By
with other similarly affected hemoglobin molecules. The mole- inducing this mutation, Orkin and his colleagues have found a
cules end up forming long strands that distort the red blood cells way to make two wrongs into a right. Sangamo BioSciences, in
into the sickle shape responsible for sickle-cell crises. Eventually collaboration with Biogen, is gearing up to test a gene-editing
the malformed molecules poke through the red blood cells in technology using so-called zinc-finger scissors to make the snip
which they are found, like nails inside a plastic bag, says Mat- that Orkin recommends. And Novartiss Klickstein says that,
thew Heeney of the Dana-Farber/Boston Childrens Cancer and among other approaches, his company hopes to do the same
Blood Disorders Center. The defective hemoglobin can puncture with a different technique, known as CRISPR/Cas9.
the cell, reducing its life span from the typical 120 days to fewer Other firms are exploring the possibility that protective genes
than 20 days. The body tries to replace these lost red blood cells, can be safely added after all. One such company, known as blue-
but if it cannot keep up, the resulting anemia causes its tissues to bird bio (based in Cambridge, Mass.), relies on a virus to deliver
become oxygen-starved. The resulting tissue damage also trig- an antisickling gene that triggers production of healthy hemoglo-
gers inflammation that can damage vessels and tissues. bin in blood-making stem cells. A year after a French 13-year-old
with severe disease received the treatment, he was faring well,
L ESSONS FROM NATURE with no sickling events and no need for painkillers, says bluebird
The only known cure f or sickle-cell disease is bone marrow trans- bios chief medical officer David Davidson. The group has begun a
plantation, which, in effect, provides a new circulatory system. 20-person study in the U.S. to explore the procedure further.
But transplantation is expensive and requires a level of medical Both these paths are fraught with dangers, however. Patients
expertise that is unavailable in all but the wealthiest countries. need to undergo chemotherapy to wipe out most of the existing
Even there it is an option only for people who have an unaffected stem cells that make the wrong kind of hemoglobin so that there
sibling with the right tissue match. As if that were not challeng- is room for new cells that make the right kind. Even though such
ing enough, the procedure itself carries about a 5 to 10 percent treatment would be available to more people than are candi-
risk of death, presenting parents with a terrible choice between dates for bone marrow transplants, it is so toxic in its own right
risking their childs life and relieving his or her pain. that it can cause cancers to develop years after treatment. And
There is another situation, however, in which everyone with virtually all patients will become infertile as a result. Again, a
sickle-cell disease gets a temporary reprieve from its life-threat- terrible decision for a parent to make on behalf of a child.
ening effects: during development in the womb. Global Blood Therapeutics in South San Francisco hopes to
A fetus has a distinct kind of hemoglobin that binds very develop a drug that achieves the same benefits as gene therapy
tightly to oxygen, allowing it to compete successfully with its but without the side effects. The goal is to keep mutated hemo-
mothers hemoglobin for oxygen in the placenta. Sometime early globins from glomming on to one anothersomething they can-
in an infants first year after birth, the production of this fetal he- not do if they are holding on to an oxygen molecule. So the com-
moglobin usually drops off, decreasing the amount of oxygen pany is developing a pill, currently called gbt440, that binds
found in red blood cells. In a child who inherits the sickle-cell oxygen to the alpha-globins longer than usual. Delaying their re
flaw from each parent, cells usually start to sickle several months lease of oxygen even just a bit prevents the beta-globins from
after birth. And the march of symptoms begins. getting close enough to connectespecially in the tiny capillar-
Intriguingly, no one ever shuts off production of fetal hemo- ies where sickling occurs most often. Global Blood Therapeutics
globin entirely. Most adultswhether they have sickle-cell dis- expects to begin a clinical trial later this year.
ease or notproduce about 1percent fetal hemoglobin. In Ceni- But as much as these therapies may make a difference for pa-
yas case, the gene that codes for fetal hemoglobin never received tients with sickle cell who live in wealthy countries, an entirely
the message that it was no longer needed. Her hemoglobin re- different solution is needed to help children elsewhere. Its the
mains 20 percent fetal, high enough to continue protecting her. undeveloped world that has the burden [of this disease], says
The abundant oxygen it supplies to her red blood cells keeps her David G. Nathan, president emeritus of the Dana-Farber Cancer
defective hemoglobin from behaving badly. Institute and a leading sickle-cell researcher. For patients in the
U.S., living with sickle cell is difficult, painful and terrifying; in
M AKING REPAIRS the developing world, Nathan says, its a disaster.
The new idea for therapy would reawaken the fetal hemoglobin
gene by disabling yet another genethe one that essentially tells
J O I N T H E C O N V E R S AT I O N O N L I N E
the fetal hemoglobin gene to stop working. How could giving Visit Scientific American on Facebook and Twitter
sickle-cell patients the equivalent of a second genetic mutation or send a letter to the editor: EDITORS@SCIAM.COM

26 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


David Pogueis the anchor columnist for Yahoo Tech
TECHNOFILES
and host of several NOVA miniseries on PBS.

In the Movies Okay then. VR movies, where you can look around, will re-
place flat movies, which are boring and bossy. Right?
Wrong.
Why virtual reality will not replace In the short term, its easy to see why. VR equipment is expen-
flator 3-Dfilms anytime soon sive ($600 for Oculus Rifts headset, plus $1,000 for a compatible
computer). And the headset is far too heavy to wear for a two-
By David Pogue
hour movie.
As any tech headline will tell you, 2016 is the Year of Virtual Then theres the technical challenge: VR movies are ridicu-
Reality. Every billion-dollar corporation and its brother are rush- lously difficult to shoot. Even when youre shooting a flatty, it
ing into the VR-headset market (Sony, Samsung, Google, Mi takes enormous effort to keep lights, crew and vehicles out of
crosoft, HTC). Ever since 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus, a the shot. Where will you hide your equipment, lights and crew
fledgling VR company, for $  2 billion, journalists and investors when the camera films 360 degrees around it?
have become part of the hype machine. But those are small potatoes next to the towering problem
With this technology, image-filled goggles immerse you in a that no VR filmmaker has yet cracked: audience attention.
world. When you turn your head in any direction, your camera Movie directors dont just direct the actors; they also direct
angle changesan obvious tool for games. Why just shoot your attention, using camera angle, lighting, selective focus, even
aliens in front of you when you can fire behind you, too? sound to create a desired effect. A movie is a story that everyone
But according to the techs advocates, the next step is VR experiences the same way because we all witness the same events.
movies. Fox, Disney and Lionsgate have already committed But in a spherical movie, how will we know where to look?
huge sums to producing 360-degree movies. How can a director be sure well see the unmasking of the vil-
According to the pundits, these immersive films will make lain off to the right if weve been inspecting the wreckage of the
traditional movies seem pathetic. Even the greatest cinematic car behind us?
achievements are inherently oppressive to the viewer, asserts Thats exactly the problem youll encounter in some of the first
Digital Trends. The camera tells you what to look at. Ewww. VR movies. In Backwater, a short 360-degree VR movie spon-
Whod want that? sored by Mini (the carmaker), the hero shoves a factory worker
And according to Gizmodo, the VR movies at this years Sun- into a pile of crates and then runs off camera. I was still looking
dance Film Festival could be the first nails in the flatties cof- at the worker, wondering if he was okay, when a crash off (my)
fin. (Flatties is the derogatory term for traditional movies.) screen told me that Id just missed the next major action point.
Sometimes graphic signals direct you where to turn your
head, like a firefly in Lost, a Pixar-like VR animation made by Oc-
ulus, or arrows in some of the N  ew York Timess experimental VR
scenes. Pretty clumsy.
In most VR movies, though, there i s no plot. Somebody has
plopped down the panoramic camera somewhere interestinga
marketplace, a ship, a sporting eventand you just look around.
Thats immersive and interesting. And some of the games are
exceptionally cool. But its not storytelling. Theyre not m ovies.
History tells us two things about new technologies that are
predicted to change life as we know it. First, they settle into nich-
es, but they rarely become household objects. (See also: 3-D
printers and the Segway scooter.) And second, new inventions
rarely replace older ones as theyre predicted to; they just add on.
So, yes, there are already very successful VR scenes, VR
games, VR concerts, VR real estate visits and VR city tours.
Someday there may be hybrid movie-games.
But VR will remain a novelty experience, something like
IMAX movies or those hydraulic 4-D rides at amusement
parks, malls and science museums. Until someone figures out a
way to tell the same story to every VR viewer, those oppressive,
linear flatties will remain our cinema.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ONLINE


THE FIRST VR MOVIES REVIEWED:
SCIENTIFICAMERICAN.COM/May2016/POGUE

Illustration by Chris B. Murray May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com 27

2016 Scientific American


Illustration by Kenn Brown, Mondolithic Studios

2016 Scientific American


BORN OF
A ST R O N O M Y

New evidence suggests


the solar systems early eras
were defined by wandering
worlds and staggering displays
of interplanetary destruction
By Konstantin Batygin,
Gregory Laughlin and
Alessandro Morbidelli

May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com29

2016 Scientific American


Konstantin Batygin is an assistant professor ofplanetary science
atthe California Institute of Technology. His primary research interests
include formation and dynamical evolution of planetary systems.
When not professor-ing, he enjoys making noises on the guitar.

Gregory Laughlin is a professor of astronomy and astrophysics


atthe University of California, Santa Cruz. His research focuses
onthe detection and characterization of exoplanets. He writes
apopular blog on planets (interpreted broadly) at www.oklo.org

T
Alessandro Morbidelli is a planetary scientist based
atthe Cte dAzur Observatory in Nice, France. A member
ofthe French and Belgian academies of science, he has
developed leading models for the various phases of the
solar systems evolution.

he story of the birth of our solar system has been worn smooth through years of re
telling. It starts billions of years ago with a black, slowly spinning cloud of gas and
dust. The cloud collapses, forming our sun at its heart. In time, the eight planets, along
with lesser worlds such as Pluto, emerge from leftover gas and debris swirling about our
star. This system of sun and planets has been whirling through space ever since, its
motions as accurate and predictable as clockwork.
In recent years astronomers have glimpsed subtle clues that our sun. Dense core regions within a cloud can collapse in on
belie this familiar tale. In comparison with the architectures of themselves, forming a central glowing protostar encircled by
thousands of newfound exoplanetary systems, our solar systems a sprawling, opaque ring of gas and dust called a protoplane
most salient featuresits inner rocky worlds, its outer gas giants tary disk.
and its lack of planets interior to Mercuryare actually quite For decades theorists have looked to our suns primordial
anomalous. Turning back the clock in computer simulations, we protoplanetary disk to explain one of the solar systems most
are learning that these quirks are the products of a troubled distinctive features: its bifurcated brood of rocky and gassy
youth. The emerging rewrite of the solar systems history includes planets. Four terrestrial worlds are confined between Mercurys
far more drama and chaos than most anyone had expected. 88-day and Marss 687-day orbital periods. In contrast, the
The new history is a tale of wandering planets evicted from known gas-rich giant planets reside on much more distant
their birthplaces, of lost worlds driven to fiery destruction in the orbits, have orbital periods ranging from 12 to 165 years and
sun eons ago and of lonely giants hurled into the frigid depths of contain more than 150 times the mass of the terrestrial bodies.
near-interstellar space. By studying these ancient events and the Both varieties of planet are thought to come from a universal
scars they may have leftsuch as the recently postulated Planet formation process, in which motes of dust swirling within the gas
Nine that could be lurking unseen beyond Plutoastronomers sy, turbulent disk collided and stuck together to make kilometer-
are gaining both a cohesive picture of the solar systems crucial scale objects called planetesimals, akin to the dust balls formed by
formative epochs and a new appreciation for its cosmic context. air currents and electrostatic forces on an unswept kitchen floor.
The largest planetesimals also had the greatest gravitational pull
THE CLASSICAL SOLAR SYSTEM and rapidly grew even larger as they swept up lingering debris in
Planets are a by-product o f star formation, which occurs in their orbits. Within perhaps a million years of its collapse from a
the hearts of giant molecular clouds 10,000 times the mass of cloud, our solar systems protoplanetary diskjust like any other

IN BRIEF

A wealth of new evidence from com- The solar systems configuration o f The best explanation for the solar sys- These tumultuous events c ould have
puter simulations as well as observa- small inner rocky worlds and large tems oddity is that the giant planets sent entire planets tumbling into the
tions of planets throughout the galaxy outer giants is anomalous in compari- went through an extended sequence sun or out to interstellar space and
is revealing new details of our solar son with most other planetary systems, of orbital migrations and dynamical in- may have been crucial for the origins
systems dynamic and violent history. which have different architectures. stabilities billions of years ago. and earliest evolution of life on Earth.

30 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


in the universeteemed with moon-sized planetary embryos. mutability of protoplanetary disks. It turns out that a newborn
The largest embryo resided past the present-day asteroid belt, planet, like a life raft in an ocean, can drift far from its point of
far enough from the newborn suns light and heat for ice to exist origin. Once a planet grows large enough, its gravitational influ
in the protoplanetary disk. Beyond this ice line, embryos could ence propagates through the surrounding disk, raising spiraling
feast on plentiful planet-building ices to grow to enormous sizes. waves that themselves exert gravitational forces of their own, gen
In a familiar example of the rich getting richer, the largest embryo erating powerful positive and negative feedbacks among planets
was also the fastest-growing, as its greater gravitational field rap and disks. Correspondingly, time-irreversible exchanges of mo
idly carved most of the available ice, gas and dust from the sur mentum and energy can occur, allowing young planets to set off
rounding disk. Within only a million years or so, the greedy on epic journeys through their natal disks.
embryo had grown to become the planet Jupiter. This, theorists When the process of planetary migration is accounted for,
believed, was the crucial moment where our solar systems bifur ice lines within disks no longer play a singular role in shaping
cated architecture emerged. Outpaced by Jupiter, our suns other the architectures of planetary systems. For instance, giant plan
giant planets formed into smaller bodies because they grew slow ets born beyond an ice line can become hot Jupiters by drifting
er, ramping up their gas-attracting gravitational pulls
only after Jupiter had diminished the amount avail
able. The inner worlds were far smaller still because
they were born inward of the ice line where the disk Based on thousands of
was relatively devoid of gas and ice.
Save for a few bothersome details, such as the ex exoplanets, astronomers are
now arriving at the uneasy
ceedingly small masses of Mars and Mercury, this
Jupiter-first narrative appeared satisfactory as an
explanation for our solar systems architecture. The
ex
pectations were clear for systems orbiting other
stars: giant planets would eventually be found in long-
conclusion that solar system
period orbits beyond the ice line, whereas rocky
worlds would abound with orbital periods on the or look-alikes are relatively rare.
der of a few years or less. These preconceptions, how
ever, proved to be deceptive.
in
ward, traveling along with gas and dust spiraling down
THE EXOPLANET REVOLUTION toward a star. The trouble is that this process works almost too
When astronomers began d iscovering exoplanets more than well and seems to be a ubiquitous property of all protoplanetary
20 years ago, they also put the theory of the solar systems for disks. So how could one account for Jupiters and Saturns dis
mation to the test on a galactic scale. Many of the first known exo tant orbits from the sun?
planets were hot Jupiters, gas giant planets whizzing around
their stars with orbital periods of just a few days. The existence THE GRAND TACK
of giant planets in such scorching proximity to a stellar surface, The first hint of a compelling explanation arrived in 2001 from
where ice is utterly absent, is entirely contradictory to the classi computer simulations by Frederic Masset and Mark Snellgrove,
cal picture of planet formation. To reconcile this discrepancy, both then at Queen Mary University of London. Masset and Snell
theorists concluded that these planets formed farther out before grove modeled the simultaneous evolution of Saturns and Jupi
somehow migrating inward. ters orbits within the suns protoplanetary disk. Because of Sat
Furthermore, based on thousands of exoplanets found by sur urns lower mass, its inward migration rate is more rapid than
veys such as nasas Kepler mission, astronomers are now arriving Jupiters, and as their migrations proceed, the two planets draw
at the uneasy conclusion that solar system look-alikes are rela closer. Eventually the orbits reach a specific configuration known
tively rare. The average planetary system contains one or more as a mean motion resonance, in which Jupiter makes three revo
super Earths (planets a few times bigger than Earth), with orbital lutions around the sun for every two orbital periods of Saturn.
periods shorter than about 100 days. Conversely, giant planets Two planets linked by a mean motion resonance can ex
Jupiter and Saturn analoguesare found around only about change momentum and energy back and forth between each
10 percent of stars, with even lower fractions occupying sedate, other like an interplanetary game of hot potato. Because of the
nearly circular orbits. coherent nature of resonant perturbations, both worlds essen
With their expectations in tatters, theorists realized that the tially exert an amplified common gravitational influence on
few bothersome details of the classical theory of our solar sys each other and their surroundings. In the case of Jupiter and
tems formation demanded better explanations. Why is the solar Saturn, this seesawing allowed the planets to collectively throw
systems inner region so depleted in mass compared with its exo their weight against the protoplanetary disk, carving a great
planetary counterparts, with relatively runty rocky worlds in gap within it, with Jupiter on the inner side and Saturn on the
stead of super Earths and no worlds at all inside Mercurys outer side. At this point, because of its larger mass, Jupiter ex
88-day orbit? And why are the orbits of the suns giant planets so erted a greater gravitational pull on the inner disk than Saturn
calm and spread out? did on the outer disk. Counterintuitively, this caused both plan
As it stands, answers to these questions can be drawn from the ets to reverse course and begin drifting away from the sun. This
failure of classical planet formation theory to account for the fluid inward-then-outward swoop is often referred to as the Grand

May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com31

2016 Scientific American


Tack, after its similarity to the motions of a sailboat tacking to namic drag. The net effect was that the swarms of eroded plane
change directions against a steady wind. tesimals pushed the planets into death spirals with ruthless effi
In 2011, a decade after the Grand Tacks initial conception, ciency, progressively lowering each worlds orbit so that one by
computer simulations by Kevin J. Walsh, then at the Cte dAzur one they all fell into the sun. Our simulations suggest none of
Observatory in Nice, France, and his colleagues showed that it can these hypothetical planets would have survived longer than hun
neatly explain not only the dynamical history of Jupiter and Sat dreds of thousands of years after the collisional cascade began.
urn but also the distribution of rocky and icy asteroids, as well as Thus, the Grand Tack of Jupiter and Saturn may have un
the diminutive mass of Mars. As Jupiter migrated inward, its grav leashed a bona fide Grand Attack on a population of primordial
itational influence captured and shepherded planetesimals in its close-in planets in our solar system. As these erstwhile super
path through the disk, scooping them up and pushing them ahead Earths decayed onto the sun, they would have left behind a deso
of it like a snowplow. If we suppose that Jupiter migrated as close late unpopulated cavity in the solar nebula, extending out to an
to the sun as the present orbit of Mars before turning back around, orbital period of perhaps 100 days. As a result, Jupiters glancing
it could have ferried icy building blocks totaling approximately 10 swoop through the early solar system produced a relatively nar
times the mass of Earth into the terrestrial region of
the solar system, seeding it with water and other vola
tiles. This process would have also created a clear outer
edge to the inner nebulas planet-forming material, The Grand Tack of Jupiter and
Saturn may have unleashed
truncating the growth of a nearby planetary embryo
that went on to become the world we know as Mars.

JUPITERS GRAND ATTACK


As compelling as t he Grand Tack scenario appeared to
abona fide Grand Attack on a
be in 2011, its relation to the other great remaining
mystery of our solar system, namely, the utter lack of population of primordial super
Earths in our solar system.
planets inward of Mercury, remained elusive. In com
parison with other systems packed with close-in super
Earths, ours seems almost hollowed out. Why? It
seems strange that our solar system did not partici
pate in the dominant mode of planet formation we see else row ring of rocky debris, from which the terrestrial planets neatly
where in the cosmos. In 2015 two of us (Batygin and Laughlin) coalesced hundreds of millions of years later. The concatenation
considered what the consequences of the Grand Tack would be of chance events required for this delicate choreography suggests
on a hypothetical retinue of close-in super Earths around the that small, Earth-like rocky planetsand perhaps life itself
sun. Our startling conclusion is that they would not have sur could be rare throughout the cosmos.
vived the Grand Tack. Remarkably, Jupiters inward-outward
migration can account for many properties of the planets that A NICE MODEL
we do have, as well as for the ones we do not. By the time Jupiter and Saturn plowed back outward from their
As Jupiter plunged into the inner solar system, its snowplow foray into the inner system, the suns surrounding disk of gas and
like influence on the planetesimals in its way should have stirred dust was on the wane. The resonant pair of Jupiter and Saturn
their neat, circular orbits into a disordered swarm of spiraling, eventually encountered newly formed Uranus and Neptune,
intersecting trajectories. Some of the planetesimals would col along with, perhaps, an additional, similarly sized body. Aided by
lide with great force, shattering into fragments that inevitably the gravitational effects of the dissipating gas, the dynamic duo
generated further fragmenting collisions. Jupiters inward mi locked these smaller giants into resonances as well. Thus, just as
gration thus most likely triggered a collisional cascade that erod most of the disks gas disappeared, the solar systems inner archi
ed the planetesimal population, essentially grinding them back tecture probably consisted of a ring of rocky debris in the neigh
down to boulders, pebbles and sand. borhood of Earths current orbit. In its outer reaches, a compact
Assaulted by collisional grinding and aerodynamic drag and resonant chain of at least four giant planets resided in nearly
within the gassy confines of the inner protoplanetary disk, the circular orbits between Jupiters current orbit and roughly the
fragmenting, eroding planetesimals bled off their energy and halfway point to the present orbit of Neptune. Beyond the outer
rapidly spiraled down closer to the sun in an avalanche of orbit most giant planets orbit, the frozen, icy planetesimals of the out
al decay. As they fell, they would have been easily captured in er disk stretched to the far edge of the solar system. Over hun
further resonances, ominously stacking up on the horizons of dreds of millions of years the terrestrial planets formed, and the
any primordial close-in super Earths. once wild outer worlds settled down into what could have been
This would have been very bad news for those planets, which enduring stability. But as chance would have it, this was not the
would suddenly be hectored by parasitic swarms of debris feed final phase of our solar systems evolution.
ing off their orbital energy. Continuously hindered by gas stream The Grand Tack and coeval Grand Attack had arranged one
ing through the disk, the swarms should have spiraled straight last gasp of interplanetary violence in the solar systems history,
into the sun. But thanks to their resonances with the super a finishing touch that brings our suns retinue of worlds close to
Earths, the swarms were held in place, siphoning off orbital the configurations we witness today. The last gasp is known as
energy from the planets and bleeding it off as heat from aerody continued on page 37

32 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


THE BIG PICTURE

Evolution of the Solar System


Once believed to be a cosmic standard, t he solar systems bifurcated layout of inner rocky planets
and outer gas giants actually makes it an oddball. Mid-sized worlds called super Earths appear to be
the galaxys most common planets, but none orbit our sun. And where our suns inmost companion
is Mercury, most stars have more planets much closer in. The orbits of our suns strange retinue of
planets tend to be more spread out and circular than those around other stars. Complex planetary
interactions from our solar systems youth can explain these divergences from the norm.

Milky Way galaxy

Giant molecular cloud

Proto-Jupiter

Neptune-
like core

Collapse of a core
Accreting
gas

Outer disk
(icy debris)
Infall
Super Earth
Protosun

Growing
planetesimals
BIRTH OF PLANETS
Inner disk Planets form much as stars do, from
(rocky debris) dense regions of giant molecular
Magnetic eld clouds that collapse into whirling
Disk of gas and dust disks of gas and dust. Our star began
Jet as a protosun at the center of such
a disk some 4.6billion years ago.
Rocky super Earths may have formed
from the dry, dusty material in the
Spinning Accretion onto star disks hot inner regions. Abundant
protosun
ices in the disks colder outer reaches
fed the formation oficy Neptune-
sized worlds. The largest ones
accreted most of the gas, swelling in
size to become Jupiter and Saturn,
and began drifting sunward on
infalling spirals ofgas (next page).

Illustration by Jen Christiansen May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com33

2016 Scientific American


Jupiter and Saturn
lock in resonance and
drift to outer solar system

Weak
gravitational
coupling

Strong
gravitational
coupling

Gap in disk Saturn Jupiter


carved out by planets

Primordial B
Jupiter super Earths

Jupiter migrates
inward, and Saturn
follows

Saturn

C
A

Leading spiral
(gas pushed in front)
THE GRAND TACK
Jupiter Across about 100,000 years, as
Jupiter drifted inward with Saturn
trailing behind, it acted as a gravi
Trailing tational snowplow, pushing several
spiral Earth masses of icy material down
of gas toward the inner system. The mutual
Saturn gravitational influence of both planets
began to carve a gap in the disk A .
Drifting in, Jupiter and Saturn became
Protosun
locked in orbital resonance, with Jupiter
orbiting the sun three times for every
Rocky debris (brown disk) two orbits of Saturn. The resonance
torqued the planets motion against
Icy debris
(outer blue zone) the disk, slamming the brakes on their
inward migration and boomeranging
them back to the outer solar system
in perhaps half a million years, scatter
ing debris as they went B . The
redistribution of material within the
disk by Jupiter and Saturns inward-
outward Grand Tack neatly explains
the diminutive size of Mars and the
composition of todays asteroid belt.

34 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


Sun

Rocky debris
Inner solar system
D

Jupiter

Four outer giant planets (tighter Earth and other


F
orbits than today) encircled rocky planets, as well as
by ring of icy debris Planets ing out into the asteroid belt, form from
wider orbits, scattering the debris left behind by
E
icy debris through the solar system the Grand Tack

Inner planets

FINISHING TOUCHES
At the Grand Tacks conclusion, the
stage was set for the formation of the
inner worlds, as well as a final burst of
G intense planetary interactions. Jupiter
and Saturn returned to the outer solar
THE GRAND ATTACK system, coupling in compact, reso
The Grand Tacks greatest effect, nant and nearly circular orbits with
however, may have been a Grand Neptune and Uranus E . Over
Attack that destroyed a primordial hundreds of millions of years orbital
population of super Earths to make perturbations from an outlying belt
way for our modern solar system. oficy debris accumulated until they
As Jupiter and Saturn hurled material shifted the giants out of resonance.
on wild, intersecting orbits toward Plutos Over a few million years a chaotic
the sun, the infalling rocks and ice orbit series of interactions between the
collided and shattered, forming now unstable giant planets pushed
swarms of smaller pieces C . Jupiter slightly inward to its present
These swarms would have locked location and thrust the others much
into resonance with any preexisting farther out F . The process may have
planets in their way, siphoning off ejected a giant planet into interstellar
energy from each world and bleeding space. Those worlds left behind
it away as frictional heat in the gassy gradually restabilized their orbits
disk. Within hundreds ofthousands through additional interactions with
Kuiper belt
of years the swarms would have the outlying icy debris (which
dragged any super Earths into the we now call the Kuiper belt). As
sun. Earth and the other familiar a side effect, they sent barrages of
terrestrial planets coalesced from impactors hurtling through the inner
the remaining sparse debris over the solar system. By about 3.8 billion
ensuing hundreds of millions ofyears, years ago, the giants had settled into
leaving behind a relatively empty their modern configuration, forming
inner system D . the solar system we know today G .

May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com35

2016 Scientific American


Planet
Nine
from
Outer
Space
Does the newly postulated
Planet Nine fit in with
the latest thinking about the
origin of the solar system?
By Michael D. Lemonick
The idea t hat the solar system was violently
reshuffled in the distant past may explain
the existence of the Kuiper belt and the Oort
cloud of icy bodies that surround us, the
ancient bombardment of the inner planets by
asteroids billions of years ago, and the seem-
ing absence of so-called super Earths, which
other solar systems have in abundance. But of the Institute for Advanced Study in Prince- planets dissipated. If the scattering of a super
now planetary scientists have something new ton, N.J., that it doesnt care whether its scat- Earth took place within that period, Bromley
to wrestle with: a putative planet, with per- tering a comet or a 10-Earth-mass planet. notes, The planet could interact with the gas
haps 10 times the mass of Earth, orbiting in Once it got the boot, however, a planet would and settle out in the boondocks.
the dark regions beyond Pluto. If it exists, the tend to keep going, eventually escaping into Or perhaps, says Nathan Kaib, a theorist at
gravity of the world provisionally known as interstellar space. The odds that it would the Carnegie Institution for Science in Wash-
Planet Nine might be the reason why a hand- instead settle into orbit around the sun are ington, D.C., Planet Nine, should it exist, did
ful of known Kuiper belt objects are following extremely low. Statistically, Levison says, you not come from our solar system. The sun
suspiciously similar paths around the sun. would need to start with 50 or 100 to end up formed not alone but in a cluster of perhaps
But it might also be yet another clue to the with onewhich he considers unlikely. thousands of stars, each (most likely) with its
wrenching changes the solar system went If astronomers actually spot Planet Nine own planetary system. At least some of those
through early in its history. With an estimated through a telescope, the question of likeliness systems would have undergone their own vio-
minimum distance from the sun of 30.5 billion becomes moot, of course. Still, the question of lent reshuffling, ejecting objects just as the sun
kilometersfive times farther than Plutos how something so improbable happened is presumably did. These, Kaib says, can be
average distanceit is unlikely that this mas- something theorists will have to wrestle with. captured by our own sun.
sive world could have formed where it is now. My guess, Tremaine says, is that the scatter- The best explanation will depend on what
There simply would not have been enough ing process is more efficient than the standard Planet Nines orbit turns out to be; its propo-
material to build it with. If its there, says Har- model would lead us to believethat is, a nents have calculated only a range of possibili-
oldF. Levison, a planetary formation theorist higher percentage of outward-flung objects ties. If it does exist, scientists should be able to
at the Southwest Research Institute, it most manages to stay within the solar system than figure out how it got to where it is. The
likely formed in the region of between about everyone thinks. answer to whether Planet Nine fits with cur-
five and 20 [Earth-sun distances] and was One way this might happen, according to rent thinking about the early solar system,
scattered outward by [a gravitational interac- Ben Bromley of the University of Utah, is if the Tremaine says, is a definite maybe.
tion with] Jupiter or Saturn. scattering of a super Earth took place very ear-
This point is uncontroversial. Jupiter, in ly in the life of the solar system, before the gas Michael D. Lemonick is opinion editor
particular, is so massive, says Scott Tremaine in the protoplanetary disk that formed into at Scientific American.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ONLINE Read more about Jupiters Grand Attack at S cientificAmerican.com/may2016/grand-attack Illustration by Ron Miller

2016 Scientific American


c ontinued from page 32 an exile ejected from closer in during the solar systems infancy
the Late Heavy Bombardment, a time between 4.1 billion and [see box on opposite page].
3.8 billion years ago when the solar system temporarily trans If confirmed, the existence of a ninth planet around the sun
formed into a shooting gallery filled with barrages of impacting would dramatically tighten the constraints on our understand
planetesimals. We see its scars today in huge craters pockmark ing of our weird, hollowed-out solar system, placing new limits
ing Earths moon. on the theories we could weave to explain all its anomalies.
Working with several colleagues at the Cte dAzur Observa Even now astronomers are marshaling some of Earths largest
tory in Nice in 2005, one of us (Morbidelli) produced the so- telescopes to ardently seek this putative world. Its discovery
called Nice model to explain how interactions between the giant could mark the penultimate chapter in the long, complex tale of
planets could produce the Late Heavy Bombardment. Where how we discovered our place in the universe, surmounted only
the Grand Tack ends, the Nice model begins. by the yet to be written conclusion, when we at last find living
The closely packed giant planets were still resonant with one worlds orbiting other stars.
another and still felt the slight gravitational tugs of the outlying Like strands of DNA, that on sequencing, reveal the story of
icy planetesimals. They were in fact poised on the
knife-edge of instability. Accumulating over millions of
orbits across hundreds of millions of years, each indi
vidually insignificant tug from the outer planetesimals The interactions among the
subtly shifted the motions of the giants, slowly chip
ping away at the delicate balance of resonances that giant planets were so violent
that one or more may have
bound them together. The tipping point came when
one of the giants fell out of resonance with another,
unraveling the balance and kicking off a chaotic series
of planet-planet perturbations that jolted Jupiter
slightly inward while scattering the other giants out
been ejected beyond the
ward. In a cosmically brief span of a few million years
the outer solar system experienced a jarring transition boundary of interstellar space.
from a closely packed, nearly circular state to an ex
pansive, disordered configuration characterized by
planets with wide, eccentric orbits. The interactions among the humankinds ancient migrations across the surface of our small
giant planets were so violent that one or more may have been planet, astronomical clues have permitted our computer simu
scattered away, ejected beyond the boundary of interstellar space. lations to reconstruct the planets majestic wanderlust during
Had dynamical evolution stopped here, the outer solar sys the solar systems multibillion-year lifetime. From its birth in
tems architecture would have fit nicely into the trends we wit roiling molecular clouds, to the formation of its first planets, to
ness in giant exoplanets, many of which occupy eccentric orbits the world-shattering growing pains of the Grand (At)Tack and
around their stars. Thankfully, however, the disk of icy planetesi the Nice model, to the emergence of life and sentience around at
mals that ignited the disorder also helped to eradicate it through least one sun in the vast Milky Way, the complete biography of
subsequent interactions with the eccentric orbits of the giant our solar system will be one of the most significant accomplish
planets. One by one, most close-passing planetesimals were ments in modern scienceand undoubtedly one of the greatest
flung out by Jupiter and the other giant planets, gradually draw stories that ever can be told.
ing orbital energy from the planets and circularizing their orbits
once again. Whereas most planetesimals were ejected beyond
the suns gravitational reach, a small fraction remained in bound M O R E TO E X P L O R E

orbits, forming a disk of icy debris we now call the Kuiper belt. Origin of the Orbital Architecture of the Giant Planets of the Solar System.
K.Tsiganis etal. in Nature, V  ol.435, pages 459461; May 26, 2005.
A NINTH PLANET, A FINAL THEORY A Low Mass for Mars from Jupiters Early Gas-Driven Migration. K evinJ. Walsh
etal. in N
 ature, V
 ol.475, pages 206209; July 14, 2011.
Patient observational work with the largest telescopes is gradu
Dynamical Evolution of Planetary Systems. A  lessandroMorbidelli in Planets, Stars and
ally revealing the full expanse of the Kuiper belt, slowly unveil Stellar Systems, V  ol.3: Solar and Stellar Planetary Systems. Edited by TerryD. Oswalt,
ing unexpected structure. In particular, astronomers have spied LindaM. French and Paul Kalas. Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht, 2013.
a peculiar pattern among the most far-flung objects of the Kuip Jupiters Decisive Role in the Inner Solar Systems Early Evolution. K onstantin
er belt that exist at the outer limits of detectability. Despite hav Batygin and Gregory Laughlin in P roceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
USA, V  ol.112, No.14, pages 42144217; April 7, 2015.
ing a range of distances from the sun, the orbits of these objects
Strong Evidence Suggests a Super Earth Lies beyond Pluto. M  ichaelD. Lemonick
are highly clustered, as if they are all subject to a common, very in ScientificAmerican.com. Published online January 2016.
large perturbation. Computer simulations performed by Baty Evidence for a Distant Giant Planet in the Solar System. K onstantin Batygin and
gin and MichaelE. Brown of the California Institute of Technol MichaelE. Brown in Astronomical Journal, Vol. 151, No. 2, Article No. 22; February 2016.
ogy have shown that this state of affairs is naturally produced by FROM OUR ARCHIVES
an as yet unobserved ninth planet, having a mass roughly 10
Migrating Planets. R enu Malhotra; September 1999.
times that of Earth and in a highly eccentric orbit around the
The Genesis of Planets. D ouglas N.C. Lin; May 2008.
sun of approximately 20,000 years. Such a planet is unlikely to
have formed so far out, but it can be quite readily understood as s c i e n t i f i c a m e r i c a n . c o m /m a g a z i n e /s a

May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com37

2016 Scientific American


i
38 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


N EU RO B I O LO GY

itch
 HE
T
MADDENING
SENSATION
OF

How it arises is only now becoming clear


By Stephani Sutherland

IN BRIEF

Acute itch plays a role in warning us Familiar causes of itch, such as an in- Major gains in recent years have re- Advances stem from the identification
to avoid insects and poisonous plants. sect bite or a similar insult to the skin, vealed more about molecular process- of a range of nonhistamine pruritogens
Chronic forms of the sensation, how- provoke immune cells to produce his- es that underlie itch, raising the possi- (itch-inducing substances) and a bet-
ever, may often appear mysteriously, tamine, a chemical that can spur a par- bility of developing new treatments for ter definition of the relation between
without any apparent cause. oxysm of scratching. both acute and chronic cases. itch and pain.

Illustration by Brian Stauffer May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com39

2016 Scientific American


it
Stephani Sutherland is a
neuroscientist and science writer
based in southern California.

started as a tiny rash on Nicole Burwells calf, appearing at the


end of a trip to Las Vegas with her fianc late in the summer of
2010. I had this super, super itchy spot on my leg, but not like a
mosquito bite. Not raised, not a bump. I couldnt get it to stop
itching, she says. So Burwell, then 40, took the over-the-coun-
ter antihistamine Benadryl and slept the entire four-hour car
ride home to Claremont, Calif. It knocked me out, she says,
but when she woke, the itch was still there. Over the next week the rash grew and with it the
itch, so Burwell saw her doctor. By then it had spread to both legs. For the next three years
Burwell would battle an angry, weeping red rash that moved around her body, covering her
arms and legs, hands, torso and back. But as ugly as the rash was, it did not bother Burwell
nearly as much as the itch.
I was consumed by it. I couldnt sit still; I couldnt pay atten- cently, researchers had little grasp of how the vexing sensation
tion to anything. It made me feel crazy, Burwell says. She devel- arises from irritants in the skin. Chronic forms of itch such as
oped a daily routine. After a day at work as a kitchen designer, she Burwells present a bigger mystery. But lately scientists have
would return to her air-conditioned apartment, undress, take two made major gains in understanding the malady, bringing them
Benadryls and mix herself a bourbon and Diet 7Up. I would come closer to developing treatments for chronic and acute itch. In
home and cry because it itched so bad. Burwell kept ice packs on particular, they have discovered new molecular receptors for
hand to help quiet the itch enough to fall asleep. pruritogensitch-inducing substanceson nerve endings in
Burwell is not alone: an estimated one in five adults will ex- the skin; these receptors detect the presence of the pruritogens.
perience itch lasting more than six weeks in their lifetime. The new findings also reveal that part of the nervous system is
Chronic itch can stem from any of a long list of maladies: skin specifically dedicated to itch, and it extends from the outer layer
diseases such as eczema or psoriasis, kidney failure, nerve dam- of the skin all the way to higher brain centers.
age caused by herpes or diabetes, mites burrowing in the skin,
an allergic reaction to medication, even pregnancy. At its worst, CLASSIC ITCH
itch can cause serious disability and drive people to suicidea The best-known form o  f itch erupts when the body reacts to a sim-
thought that certainly crossed Burwells mind. Yet doctors for ple mosquito bite. After the pest extracts its meal, it leaves behind
the most part still dismiss it as a mere nuisance. If you dont chemicals and proteins that our immune system recognizes as
have itch, its not a problem, and it can be hard to relate to. We foreign and so mounts a reaction at the bite site. Immune cells in
are just starting to understand that itch is really a huge problem the skin release cytokines, tiny chemical messengers that escalate
for so many people, says Ethan Lerner, a dermatologist and the response. The first inkling of itch is felt on the skinjust
itch researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital. enough to cause scratching. That, in turn, damages the protective
Not all itch is equal, says Gil Yosipovitch, a researcher at outer layer of the epidermis. Immune cells then release a surge of
Temple University. When acute, it serves an important purpose: histamine, a major itch-inducing chemical, along with other pru-
as a sentry that protects us from the hazards of creepy-crawlies ritogens. Histamine activates its receptors found on the fine end-
and poisonous plants [see box on opposite page]. But until re- ings of sensory nerves in the skin, triggering the familiar sensa-

40 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


PHYSIOLOGY

Under My Skin Itch Neurons


A Histamine-activated B Nonhistamine-activated
Itch serves as a sentinel that warns you of the pres-
ence of insects, poisonous plants, and the like. Hista-
Histamine Chloroquine TRPV1 receptors
mine, produced by an immune reaction after, say, may also be present
a bug bite, is a well-recognized itch molecule. It inter-
acts with a receptor in a nerve cell A , which, in turn,
activates another molecule (TRPV1), setting off the
firing of that cell and inducing the sensation of itch.
A recently discovered family of itch-related receptors
(Mrgprs) react, for instance, to the chemical chloro-
quine in malaria drugs B . Mrgprs can then switch TRPV1 TRPA1
on TRPA1 receptors. H1 (histamine) receptor Mrgpr receptor receptor
receptor opens opens
Nerve cell res Nerve cell res
External Triggers
Bug bites and chemicals from
plants and other substances set off
reactions that spark itching. Pain Neurons

Heat or capsaicin
Internal
Triggers
Mast and other
immune cells
respond to
external insults
by releasing itch-
causing chemicals TRPV1
receptor
(pruritogens). opens

Pruritogens Nerve cell res


Histamine-
activated
To brains
itch neuron
itch centers
Mast cell Pain neuron
To brains
pain centers
Nonhistamine-
activated
itch neuron

Itch and Pain


The TRPV1 receptor does
double duty. It studs the surface of cells
that sense painful stimuli such as heat or
capsaicin (above). It also works in conjunction
with the histamine receptor on itch-detecting
neurons to trigger the bothersome sensation.

tion of itch. Or does it? Histamine is turning out to be less impor- chronic itches, Lerner says. Doctors will escalate the dose, and
tant to itch than researchers have long believed. it works only because it makes the person drowsy. Such was
Until just a decade ago, histamine receptors remained the Burwells experience: physician after physician prescribed ste-
only known itch detectors, and so antihistamine medicines to- roids, which caused her to rapidly gain 20 poundsand there
day are still the go-to treatment for itch, along with steroids to was also a list of antihistamines that did nothing for the itch.
quell inflammation. But researchers have long suspected that Only Benadryl helpedand only because it would calm me
chemicals other than histamine must trigger other kinds of down enough to sleep, Burwell says. To find new itch receptors,
itchmainly because antihistamines do not aid many patients. scientists followed the trail of obscure substances known to trig-
Antihistamines help with some allergic reactions but not most ger itch without involving histamine.

Illustration by Emily Cooper May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com41

2016 Scientific American


The first discovery was cowhage, a plant used as an ingredi- ry of David Anderson at the California Institute of Technology.
ent in itching powders sold in novelty shops. When you put his- In 2001 Dong discovered a family of receptors, activated by un-
tamine in the skin, it causes a pure sensation of itch, Lerner known chemicals, called Mrgprs (Ma s-re lated G  -protein-cou-
says. But if you talk to patients with eczema, they describe a pled re ceptors). Some of the Mrgprs were found only in sensory
pricking or burning sensation. Thats the sensation that cowhage neurons, suggesting they detected external stimuli, but what
evokes. Back in the 1950s, the late Walter Shelley, a pioneer in kind remained a mystery.
itch research, speculated that cowhages itch factor was a pro- Dong applied chloroquine to cells containing Mrgprs to test
tein-cutting enzyme, a protease he named mucunain. In 2008 whether the Mrgprs might qualify as undiscovered itch recep-
that hunch was finally confirmed when Lerner found that mucu- tors. In research reported in 2009, Dongnow at Johns
nain activates a receptor found in skin and nerve cells: protease- Hopkins Universityand Anderson created transgenic mice
activated receptor 2 (PAR2). Certain proteasesincluding mucu- that lacked one of the Mrgprs found in sensory cells, a receptor
naincan snip off a tiny piece of the PAR2 protein, which acti- designated MrgprA3. Normal mice showed a robust scratch-
vates the receptor. That discovery led to a new appreciation that ing response to chloroquine treatment, Dong says, but the
proteases and the peptide fragments they produce are key medi- transgenic mice lacking MrgprA3 did not. Without MrgprA3,
ators of itch, at PAR2 and other receptors. Proteases are ubiqui- the animals just dont feel the itch. That was our breakthrough
tous, including in insect saliva and bacterial secretions, perhaps point, Dong says. Two other proteins in the Mrgpr family were
explaining why bug bites and infections can be so itchy. also found to respond to pruritogens.
The second clue to finding new itch receptors came from Thanks to the two quirky chemicals, researchers discovered
chloroquine, a medicine meant to protect people from malaria. some of the first new itch sensors since the histamine receptors
In an ironic twist, the drug prevents the disease but causes itch- were described in the latter half of the 20th century. But the
ing. The side effect, which is not alleviated by antihistamines, point was not to find the receptor for chloroquine or cowhage;
causes many at-risk Africans to refuse chloroquine, although it the point really is to find out what activates these nonhistamine
has made the drug a valuable tool for investigators to study itch. itch neurons in chronic itch conditions, says Diana Bautista, an
One of them was Xinzhong Dong, then working in the laborato- itch researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. Re-
searchers now want to identify those sub-
stances. There are probably a small
MECHANISMS number of molecules in the skin that turn
on Mrgprs, and finding them will lead to
Why Scratch? very good drug targets and therapies,
Lerner says.
You feel an itch, a  nd there is no other option: you have to scratch. Ah, sweet relief. The
itch subsidesat least momentarily. Why does scratching make us feel better? Relief A LINK TO PAIN?
comes from activity in the central nervous system. Scratching spurs nerve endings in Another way investigators a re trying to
the spinal cord to release the bodys own painkilling moleculesendogenous opioids gain a fuller understanding of itch is by
which are now understood to dampen itch as well. From the spinal cord, neurons send looking at the way the nervous system is
signals to inhibit a brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is strongly wired to respond to itand that inevita-
activated by itch; when this region quiets down, so does the feeling. Itch and scratch bly leads to an examination of what
are uniquely intertwined, says Gil Yosipovitch, a researcher at Temple University. causes pain. Since as early as the 1960s,
The sensation of scratching is not particularly pleasant, and yet when it relieves an scientists have understood that diverse
itch, it feels intensely rewarding. Yosipovitch uncovered the reason in a 2013 study that pain-sensing neurons, which detect po-
imaged the brains of subjects while they scratched an acute itch and found that it acti- tentially harmful stimuli, are distinct
vated the brains reward system, which also lights up when, among other things, ingest- from other sensory neurons. Some are
ing drugs of abuse. specialized to detect heat, others cold, and
In particular, regions linked to pleasure, craving and motivation switched on, includ- still others mechanical pressure. But what
ing the striatum and the prefrontal cortex. Scratching activated the reward system more about itch? Do pain-sensing neurons also
strongly in people who suffered from chronic itch than in healthy subjects, indicating sense itch, or are there specialized itch-
that over time the reward of scratching can become amplified. That finding hinted at sensing neuronsand if so, are there
the addictive nature of scratching and why we are so powerless to resist when itch aris- more than one kind?
es. Chronic itch sets up a vicious cycle of itching and scratching, with no off switch, There is an intimate relation be-
Yosipovitch says. The bottom line for doctors: Dont tell patients not to scratch. Its so tween itch and pain, Bautista says. As
powerful, and they cant stop it. the pain of a healing wound subsides, it
Why does an itch compel us so strongly to rake the affected area? Consider the evolu- leaves an itch in its wake, as do some
tionary purpose of scratching: itch sends a warning signal, and scratching dislodges in pain-relieving medications. And the pain
terlopers and alerts the immune system. Our ancestors lived in a very pruritogenic world, of scratching can dissolve itch. That over-
Yosipovitch says, one full of itchy plants and bugs that posed a real threat. That threat ex lap in the senses led some researchers
plains the contagious nature of itching. When we see the signal of someone scratching, to lump pain and itch together. There
we start scratching, too, as a kind of preemptive strike, Yosipovitch says. S.S. was an idea that a lesser stimuluslike
an itchy wool sweaterwould activate
the same receptors and the same cells

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2016 Scientific American


that transmit pain, Bautista says. The idea was that mild acti- cells could somehow transmit both types of stimuli. Dong tack-
vation evoked itch, whereas stronger stimuli produced pain. led that mystery in a 2013 study. His team created transgenic
And yet histamineor cowhage or chloroquineapplied to mice in which they selectively killed off the putative itch-specif-
the skin does not cause pain. Conversely, for the most part, pain- ic neurons: the ones containing the newly described itch recep-
ful stimuli produce only gradations of pain but not itch. And tor, MrgprA3. With the loss of those cells, mice lost the ability to
pain-sensing neurons go much deeper than the skinthe only sense itch, whereas pain sensation remained intact.
place where itch is felt. In recent years the intensity theory faded But Dong still had to prove that the itch sensors were truly
away, and most researchers were of the mind that itch was trans- reserved for itch and did not sense pain. With an elegant use of
mitted by nerves and receptors dedicated to the sensation. More- mouse genetics, Dong created mice lacking TRPV1 from all neu-
over, they postulated that there were multiple types of itch-sens- rons except the proposed itch neurons. When the researchers
ing neurons, each detecting different itchy stimuli. The real activated TRPV1 with capsaicina normally painful stimulus
question that cowhage addressed was, Is there more than one the mice displayed only itch, not pain. That cemented the case
kind of itch, like there is more than one kind of pain? Lerner for itch-specific neurons and showed that those cells use some
says. And the answer is yes.
In 2003, however, German and Swedish
researchers cast doubt on the existence of
specialized itch-sensing nerves when they The link between itch and pain
found that individual human nerve cells that
fired in response to histamine were also acti- turns out to be far more complex
vated by painful heat and capsaicin, the in-
gredient that gives chili peppers their spice.
The dual responsiveness suggested that nerve
than it was once thought to be.
cells supposedly devoted to sensing itch con-
tained the receptor for capsaicin, a hallmark of pain-sensing of the same sensors as pain-sensing nerves. Why? Nature just
neurons called transient receptor potential vanilloid type 1 reused the molecules for both sensations, Dong says.
(TRPV1). If itch neurons contained the pain-sensing TRPV1, how All these advances have come from studies of sensory neu-
could they be specific for itch? rons that innervate the skin. In fact, the latest research indicates
Allan Basbaum, a pain researcher at the University of Califor- that skin cells themselves also participate in generating itch by
nia, San Francisco, found that despite TRPV1s reputation as a releasing pruritogens that activate itch-sensing nerves. The
pain receptor, it was also required for histamine-evoked itch, complex circuitry of itch also extends to the spinal cord, where
demonstrating that TRP receptors were not limited to detecting researchers have recently found neurons and signaling mole-
painful stimuli. The histamine receptor appears to work in con- cules dedicated solely to itch. And scientists are using brain im-
junction with TRPV1 to help neurons transmit an electrical aging to better understand how neural activity produces the
nerve impulse known as an action potential. But other, nonhista- uniqueand oh so irritatingsensation of itch.
mine itch agents complicated the picture because they did not As for Burwell, she was finally freed of her chronic itch in
work through TRPV1. late 2013, when she saw a 10th doctora prominent dermatolo-
Meanwhile Bautista, who has spent her career studying TRP gist who sees patients with intractable, unexplained itch. He
receptors, was looking for the molecules that transmit nonhista- performed an extensive allergy patch test on her back, which
mine itch signals. Basbaums finding that TRPV1 was involved in showed that Burwell was allergic to a preservative found in
triggering histamines itch gave Bautista a clue: perhaps other body care and cleaning products. It was in everything I used,
related TRP receptors were involved in other types of itch. She she says. Once she got rid of them and started using products
focused on another pain-sensing receptor, TRPA1, which detects from an approved list, the rashand the itchdisappeared.
inflammatory chemicals and mustard oil, and found it was re- Burwells case illustrates how misunderstood itch is by med-
quired for chloroquine-mediated itch. Within an hour after pre- ical professionals: a straightforward test revealed an easy solu-
senting that finding at a meeting in 2009, Bautista received a call tion but only after three years of agony. It also underscores the
from Dong, and the two immediately decided to collaborate. importance of finding underlying causesand reveals why the
Dong and Bautista went on to show that TRPA1 and MrgprA3 molecular complexities of this simple sensation continue to
worked together to make neurons fire in response to chloro- yield new puzzles.
quine. That finding strengthened the case for separate popula-
tions of neurons that mediate different types of itch, Bautista M O R E TO E X P L O R E
says. And it opened a new avenue for potential anti-itch treat-
Living with Itch: A Patients Guide. G
 il Yosipovitch and ShawnG. Kwatra.
ments. TRPA1 is such an attractive target because it is impor- Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.
tant for so many types of inflammatory conditions, including Why We Scratch an Itch: The Molecules, Cells and Circuits of Itch. D  ianaM.
itch. If we could somehow inhibit TRPA1 [in people], that could Bautista, SarahR. Wilson and MarkA. Hoon in Nature Neuroscience, V
 ol.17, No. 2,
be very useful therapeutically. pages 175182; February 2014.
At this point, the myriad studies sufficed to demonstrate that FROM OUR ARCHIVES
pain-sensing receptors also participated in detecting itch. But
Pain That Wont Quit. Stephani Sutherland; December 2014.
the nagging question persisted of whether individual sensory
cells specialized in transmitting itch or whether pain-sensing s c i e n t i f i c a m e r i c a n . c o m /m a g a z i n e /s a

May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com43

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CONSERVATIONISTS ARE LOOKING TO ECOTOURISM

HOT-AIR BALLOONS r ise over


the temples of Bagan in Myanmar.

44 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


ECO LO GY

SAV I N G E D E N
TO PRESERVE MYANMARS WILDERNESS, BUT CHALLENGES ABOUND
By Rachel Nuwer

May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com45

2016 Scientific American


O N A C LO U D L E S S
JA N UA RY Rachel Nuwer is a freelance science writer

AF TERNOON,
based in New York City. Her reporting for
this story was paid for with a grant from
the Society of Environmental Journalists.

two tourists climb into bright-yellow kayaks and set out to ing business prospects for one of the poorest nations on earth.
explore Myanmars Indawgyi Lake, one of the largest and most In the face of these forces, the continued survival of Myan
pristine bodies of freshwater in Southeast Asia. The lakes clear, mars extraordinary wildlife is by no means guaranteed. Ensur
still surface perfectly reflects the grassy wetlands fringing its ing that some of it withstands the countrys transition into mo
shores and the forested mountains towering just beyond. The dernity requires convincing both policy makers and local com
golden outline of Shwe Myitzu Pagodaa pilgrimage site for munities that keeping it around is worthwhile, especially from an
local Buddhists, accessible only by boat during most of the economic point of view. Evidence supports this case: a recent re
yearshimmers on the horizon like a mirage. As in a holy port commissioned by the European Union estimated that Myan
place, speaking seems taboo here. Only the rhythmic slap- mars terrestrial and aquatic forest ecosystems provide $7.3 bil
swoosh-drip of paddles breaks the lion in benefits to the country every
kayakers awestruck silence. year, including vital habitat for fishes
Such awe comes easily in Myan and agriculturally important insects.
mar, the biggest country in mainland Yet financial support for existing
Southeast Asia. Decades of rule under India national parks makes up a mere
a brutal military junta left vast swaths Indawgyi Lake China 0.2 percent of the budget of My an
of its wilderness unexplored and unde Bangladesh marboiling down to just $26,600 al
veloped. Although smaller than the MYANMAR located for patrolling, research, com
(BURMA)
state of Texas, Myanmar contains eight Mandalay munity outreach and other operation
distinct ecosystems, from mangrove- Inle Lake al expenditures for all the protected
Laos
choked deltas to snow-peaked moun Nay Pyi Taw areas there, according to environmen
tains. Much of its natural heritage is tal economist Lucy Emerton of the En
Bay of Yangon
still spectacularly intact, especially (Rangoon)
vironment Management Group, a sus
Bengal
compared with nearby Thailand, Ma Thailand tainability consultancy based in Sri
laysia, India and China. It has the most Meinmahla Lanka. But even if Myanmar did want
Island
bird species of any nation in mainland to invest more in protecting its biodi
Southeast Asiamore than 1,000as versity, she adds, the reality is that the
well as 250 mammal species, seven of government simply does not have the
which live nowhere else in the world. funds to do so.
Each mission into a fresh patch of jun Now conservationists think they
gle or coral reef there seems to yield POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC might have a partial solution both for
species new to science, including 14 isolation left Myanmars wildlife both motivating Myanmar to safe
reptiles and amphibians, many fresh well preserved compared with that guard its wildlife and for providing
water fish, a bat, a primate and the of neighboring countries. the money to do so: ecotourism. When
worlds smallest deer in the past few executed correctly, this nature-focused
years alone. form of tourism operates in an envi
Myanmar is changing quickly, however. In Yangon, new build ronmentally sustainable and responsible way and educates lo
ings pop up seemingly overnight, and tendrils of highway extend cals and visitors about the importance of preserving wildlife.
toward impossibly remote regions. As the military loosens its Although Myanmar already admits up to three million tourists
grip, foreign prospectors have taken note of Myanmars ample a year, it has yet to take advantage of everything its many wild
timber, mineral and petroleum resources, which raise tantaliz areas have to offer.
PRECEDING PAGES: PETER STUCKINGS Getty Images

IN BRIEF

Having been long cut off from the rest Now that the military is relaxing its Conservationists are hoping to per But a successful ecotourism program
of the world both politically and eco hold, the country is beginning to tran suade locals and the government to is tough to develop even under the
nomically, Myanmar has an abundance sition to modernity, raising questions preserve that biodiversity by developing best of circumstances, and Myanmar
of pristine wilderness.  about the fate of its wild places. ecotourism around it. has many complicating factors.

46 Scientific American, May 2016 Map by Mapping Specialists

2016 Scientific American


FISHER PADDLES a  cross Indawgyi Lake
in northern Myanmar. Plans to develop
the site as an ecotourism destination
are under way.

conflicts and international sanctions.


Once there Momberg encountered a
place that was like a frozen historical
picture, complete with ox-drawn carts
and small organic farming communi
ties. But most important, he found
wildlifelots of it.
That exceptional preservation is an
outgrowth of Myanmars long record
of human-rights violations and repres
sion. After gaining independence from
the U.K. in 1948, Burma, as the coun
try was then called, struggled as vari
ous factions jostled for power. In 1962
the Revolutionary Council of the
Union of Burma seized control; crip
pling impoverishment followed, and
the nation was cut off from much of
the outside world.
Despite those grim social and po
litical realities, Momberg, who was
then based in Indonesia, increasingly
found his thoughts returning to
Myanmar after his initial visit. He be
gan spending every vacation there
and finding more wildlife on each
trip, including amphibians, insects,
plants and fishes, all newly recorded
for Myanmar. The crowning discov
ery came during an expedition to the
countrys northwestern corner, when
Momberg and several other conserva
tionists discovered a new primate, the
In theory, the promise of foreign visitors could help convince Myanmar snub-nosed monkey. He proposed that Fauna & Flora
both locals and the government to protect valuable environments open an office in Yangon. But his employers balked. They were
by putting a tangible price tag on the natural places they flock to excited to hear the stories from Myanmar, he recalls, but they
see. But developing an effective ecotourism operation is a notori were not quite ready to engage.
ously difficult task even under the best of circumstances, let alone In 2010 things began to change. The government shifted to a
in a politically unstable, severely impoverished and logistically quasi-democratic model, releasing many political prisoners and
challenged place like Myanmar. Will tourists make the trek? Will loosening its grip on the economy and the press. Although some
communities choose them over timber? Will the government areas remain under rebel control today, significant cease-fires
pass up natural gas and petroleum drilling in favor of mangrove have been established. As a result, Momberg finally got his office
conservation? No one knows the answers to these questions, but in Yangon. Several other international conservation organizations
one thing is certain: if measures are not taken to preserve Myan followed suit. Likewise more foreign tourists began to arrive.
mars wildernessand fastthis Eden will soon be spoiled. With Myanmars political situation stabilizing and tourism
on the rise, Momberg thinks the time is ripe to develop ecotour
A UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY ism therebefore other, competing interests gain a foothold.
Frank Momberg is leading the charge on developing ecotourism Burma is at an absolute historical, exciting moment, he says.
 etty Images

in Myanmar. Momberg, a conservationist at the Cambridge, Eng Its important to act quickly during this transition period be
landbased nonprofit Fauna & Flora International, first ven cause in the future there will be too much vested interest to save
ALEX TREADWAY G

tured into the countrya sort of last blank space on the map in these places. Indeed, as ecologist William McShea of the Smith
terms of biological explorationin 2006. Almost all other con sonian Conservation Biology Institute observes, Right now the
servationists had long since pulled out because of ongoing armed only people paying for natural resources are those who are tak

May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com47

2016 Scientific American


ing them away. The hope is that getting in on the
ground floor will allow conservationists to carefully
plan from the beginning, in terms of both preserving
as much nature as possible and laying foundations
for best-practices ecotourism.
In 2012 Momberg and his colleagues took a leap of
faith and began searching for a site to serve as their
first tentative venture into community-based ecotour
ism. In addition to the three tenets of such efforts
nature, sustainability and educationthe communi
ty-based variety places special emphasis on empower
ing and benefiting local people, who typically manage
the tourism themselves and form a cooperative to dis
tribute the benefits. The conveniently located man
groves of Meinmahla Island, just southwest of Yan
gon, proved too crocodile-infested for the govern
ments liking, whereas any thought of developing
tourism around the newly discovered snub-nosed
monkey was shelved indefinitely after insurgents
seized control of roads leading to the forest. Indawgyi,
however, seemed perfect. The lake hosts nearly 450
species of birds and is already listed as a wildlife sanc
tuary, meaning the habitat and species there enjoy HIKERS trek between Kalaw and Inle Lake in central Myanmar.
some formal protection. That protection extends to
the surrounding forests, home to elephants, endan
gered hog deer and vulnerable eastern hoolock gib
bons. More important, local residents seemed receptive to the ing plagues the industry, with many operations that claim to pro
idea of opening up their communities to foreigners, as did the tect the environment actually doing more harm than good. James
park staff. If local people can benefit from tourism, then theyll Sano of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (referred to as the
protect what the tourists came to see: nature and the lake, says WWF) recollects a resort in Malaysia that, when it first opened,
Htay Win, park warden at Indawgyi Lake Wildlife Sanctuary. called itself an ecotourism destination on the basis of the thin
In 2014 an independent ecotourism consultant whom Mom strip of rain forest left in between its hotel and golf course; several
berg hired helped 35 local volunteers create Lovers of Indawgyi, ecolodges in Ambergris Caye in Belize were discovered dumping
the first community-based ecotourism group in Myanmar. Fauna raw sewage into the environment. Around the world, genuine
& Flora donated kayaks and mountain bikes, which the group ecotourism products are in the minority, for sure, says Ross Dowl
rents out to visitors for a few dollars a day. The kayaks are good ing, a tourism expert at Edith Cowan University in Joondalup,
because theyre quiet, unlike motor boats, observes Su Hla Phya, Australia. A lot of conventional tourism operators simply slap
a Lovers of Indawgyi volunteer. Two small guesthouses and a few eco in front of their name because its sexy and marketable.
restaurants round out the tourist offerings. The facilities stand Greed-fueled marketing schemes aside, even if operators in
in stark contrast to those at Inle Lake, one of Myanmars most tentions are pure, aspirations often fall short of the mark for oth
visited attractions, where motorboat traffic, hotel crowding, de er reasons. For example, in 1990 the WWF began an ecotourism
forestation and pollution have sent bird and fish populations program at Dzanga Sangha, a stunning rain-forest reserve in the
into a tailspin. Central African Republic that is home to elephants and gorillas,
In the near future, conservationists and the government hope among other creatures. But reaching the lodge required a 16-
to establish programs similar to Indawgyis all over Myanmar, fol hour drive or else an expensive chartered flight. Its not enough
lowing the lead of flourishing ecotourism ventures in places such to have a really interesting place for people to visit, even if you
as Costa Rica, Namibia and Rwanda. The government recently is develop adequate on-site facilities, says Alex Moad, assistant di
sued a nationwide sustainable tourism development and regula rector for technical cooperation at the U.S. Forest Service Inter
tion plan and an ecotourism strategy for 21 of the countrys 45 national Programs. Successful ecotourism also depends on a
protected areas. And whereas 6 percent of the land is currently number of off-site factors, such as reliable transportation.
protected, officials aim to increase that figure to 10 percent by At Dzanga Sangha, transportation did gradually improve
2030. Myanmar is promising because they understand that their over the years, and from 2007 to 2011 the park regularly re
natural and cultural resources can be turned into assets to help ceived up to 600 tourists each year, putting it on track to be
improve economic activity, says Hannah Messerli, a senior pri come self-sustaining by 2016. But when civil war erupted in
vate-sector development specialist in tourism at the World Bank. 2013, the staff was forced to suspend all tourist activities. Now
JOEL CARILLET Getty Images

They want to share their culture and nature, but at the same that peace has returned to the Central African Republic, the
time, they want to protect and take care of it in the long term. WWF is hopeful that Dzanga Sangha can rebuild its numbers.
Still, if history is any guide, the odds of success are long. For ev That regrowth will take time, though. In 2014 the park re
ery ecotourism triumph, there are multiple failures. Greenwash opened but welcomed just 37 tourists.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ONLINE See more images of Myanmar at S cientificAmerican.com/may2016/myanmar

2016 Scientific American


A LONG WAY TO GO dles in time to save its wildlife. For Rwanda, whose mountain go
It is too early t o tell how things will play out at Indawgyi, but rilla ecotourism counts as one of the most successful examples of
thus far Mombergs vision has been partly realized. For starters, such programs today, that process took two decades. The Inter
tourists do seem to want to visit the lake. Before Fauna & Flora national Gorilla Conservation Program, founded by a coalition of
got involved in 2013, Indawgyi saw just 20 or so foreign visitors nongovernmental organizations, began developing ecotourism
a year. Now that advertisements appear online and in Lonely in 1979. But the 1994 genocide and ongoing political tumult
Planet guidebooks, numbers have risen to more than 300. Tour largely derailed those efforts until 1999, when stability returned.
ists spend an average of $45 during their stay at the lake, total Getting the program up and running required an initial invest
ing around $19,000 pumped into the local economy in 2014 ment of around $2 million for training, infrastructure and mar
alonea significant infusion for the community of about 300 keting, but those funds have repaid themselves many times over,
households in the village of Lonton, the epicenter of the lakes with gorillas generating close to $16 million in park entrance
ecotourism, where families earn an average of $1,080 a year. fees alone in 2014. Profits are shared across the country for de
Profits from the rentals have paid for hospital treatments and velopment projects, and the government has created additional
school fees for the villages poorer members. And throughout national parks to give tourists an incentive to spend even more
this gradual process of developing and promoting Indawgyi as time in Rwanda. Were not conserving for the sake of gorillas
an ecotourism destination, local people have remained sup only but also for economic benefits, says Michel Masozera,
portive of the efforts, even if most of them are not making mon country director for the Wildlife Conservation Societys Rwanda
ey directly from the touristsa crucial win. program. Politicians and local communities get that message.
Yet there is considerable room for improvement. For starters, In Myanmar, the basic challenges of getting a successful eco
Indawgyis eco-offerings are hardly impeccable. The only options tourism operation up and running are complicated by deeper
for disposing of inorganic waste are burning or burying it on-site societal issues, including corruption and ongoing democratic
instead of recycling it or sending it to a landfill. And sewage- freedom constraints, according to Adam Simpson, director of
treatment systems are nonexistent. Thus, instead of purely con the Center for Peace and Security at the University of South Aus
serving the environment, ecotourists are also inadvertently de tralia. Bureaucracy there is constrained by a decades-old politi
grading itat least when it comes to producing waste. The forest cal culture of authoritarian decision making by military leaders,
ed hills surrounding the lakea trekkers paradiseare also Simpson says, and the political system is further burdened by
sporadically off-limits because of the presence of the insurgent crony capitalism. The key issues that will limit the effective
Kachin Independence Army, a military group based in the north. ness of an ecotourism industry are also those that impinge on
And Lovers of Indawgyi members have not acquired expertise in effective governance in Myanmar as a whole, he asserts. Until
nature guiding. If you want to go bird-watching, whos going to these issues are addressed across the board, its difficult to see
ID those birds for you? McShea says by way of example. Many ecotourismalthough welcome in itselfhaving more than a
countries have worked on training up a group of core ornitholo marginal impact on environmental conservation.
gists, but [Myanmar] hasnt really done that yet. Bathed in the rosy glow of an Indawgyi sunset, however, it is
Infrastructure poses another problem. The lakes closest air easy to be optimistic. As tourists read and sip tea on the porch,
port is six hours away, along a brain-rattling road accessible Ngwe Lwin, Fauna & Floras northern Myanmar forest conser
only by expensive private vehicle. Most travelers instead choose vation program director, sits down after a long day of communi
the shoestring option, making the 24-hour trip overland from ty meetings. At the moment, we cannot say that tourism is ben
Mandalay by train and in the back of a pickup truck. Once they efiting conservation here, because [tourists are] bringing in
reach Indawgyi, Internet and cell service are nonexistent, and only a little extra income, he admits. But in 10 years I imagine
electricity in the two small guesthousesthe only places where that this area will be more peaceful, open and accessible. Per
tourists may legally stayis available for just a couple of hours haps each village will have a small community guesthouse, and
a day. Some tourists count these no-frills conditions as a plus, a tourists can travel the whole lake. The security that a flourish
welcome respite from the bustle of the plugged-in world. But ing ecotourism operation could bring might come at the ex
for many others, they are probably a deal breaker. At this stage pense of some of Myanmars magical wildness. But that is a
in the game, [Myanmar] is a place for ecotourists who are har trade-off conservationists may be willing to make. As Lwin says:
dy and dont mind toughing it out to reap the rewards of the Good and bad things always come together.
countrys natural history, says Chris Wemmer, an honorary fel
low at the California Academy of Sciences and a scientist emer
M O R E TO E X P L O R E
itus at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. The little old
ladies in tennis shoes who like to watch birds are not going to A New Species of Snub-Nosed Monkey, Genus Rhinopithecus Milne-Edwards,
put up with that. 1872 (Primates, Colobinae), from Northern Kachin State, Northeastern
Myanmar. T homas Geissman etal. in American Journal of Primatology, V
 ol.73,
Kyi Kyi Aye, who is a senior tourism adviser at the Myanmar No.1, pages 96107; January 2011.
Tourism Federation and co-author of the ecotourism strategy, The Economic Value of Forest Ecosystem Services in Myanmar and Options for
insists that the problems stymieing development in Indawgyi Sustainable Financing. L ucy Emerton and Yan Min Aung. International Manage
and beyond will all be ironed out eventually. She points out that ment Group, September 2013.
these things take time: We want to make Myanmar a better FROM OUR ARCHIVES
place to live and to visit. But the country has just opened up. Its
Galpagos Stampede. Paul Tullis; April 2016.
a gradual process.
The question is whether Myanmar can overcome those hur s c i e n t i f i c a m e r i c a n . c o m /m a g a z i n e /s a

May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com49

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TECHNOLOGY

QUANTUM CONNECTIONS

Scientists are trying to make quantum


computers a reality by connecting many small
networks together into one large whole
By Christopher R. Monroe, Robert J. Schoelkopf
and Mikhail D. Lukin

50 Scientific American, May 2016 Illustration by Kyle Bean

2016 Scientific American


May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com51

2016 Scientific American


Christopher R. Monroe is a professor of physics at the
University of Maryland and a fellow of the Joint Quantum
Institute. He has been at the forefront of quantum
information technology for more than 20 years.

Robert J. Schoelkopf is a professor of physics at Yale University


and director of the Yale Quantum Institute. He and his collaborators
at Yale are leaders in the development ofsolid-state quantum bits
(qubits) for quantum computing.

F
Mikhail D. Lukin is a professor of physics
at Harvard University and a co-director of
the M.I.T.-Harvard Center for Ultracold Atoms.
He has made pioneering contributions
to several areas of quantum computing,
communication and metrology.

or the past two decades scientists have been attempting to harness the
peculiarities of the microscopic quantum world to achieve leaps in informa-
tion processing and communication ability. By exploiting several features of
physics at the universes smallest scalesthat electrons are both particles
and waves, that an object can be in many places at once and that two parti-
cles can maintain an eerie instantaneous connection even when separated
by vast distancesquantum machines could make previously unthinkable
computing, communication and measurement tasks trivial. To cite just one example, a quan-
tum computer should be able to break unbreakable codes.

At the same time, quantum machines can be used for storing a large-scale quantum machine that realizes this promise. The
and communicating information such that privacy is guaranteed challenge is that such a computer must, by definition, operate in
by the laws of physics. They can also be used to simulate process- the quantum realm, and yet when we try to build one large
es in complex chemical and materials systems that would other- enough to be useful, its natural tendency is to start obeying the
wise be intractable. And quantum systems could boost the preci- classical rules of the macroscopic realm.
sion of the worlds most accurate timekeepersatomic clocks Building a system that maintains quantum rules on a large
and serve as miniature precision sensors that measure the scale and exercises the full power of quantum information pro-
properties of chemical and biological systems at the atomic or cessing will likely require a modular approach, where smaller,
molecular scale, with applications ranging from biology and ma- demonstrably quantum units are connected in a way that does
terials science to medicine. not kill their quantum nature. Recent work has taken this so-
This potential is why technology behemoths such as Google called modular approach beyond the theoretical realm to suc-
and Intel, several start-up companies, and defense and other cessful tests on small scales and is paving the way for realizing
government agencies are betting big on the field. The academic the unique potential of quantum machines.
community is also inspired: in 2015 alone, three major journals
published more than 3,000 scientific papers mentioning quan- PROBABLY ZEROES AND POSSIBLY ONES
tum computing or quantum information. The first suggestion t hat the quantum world could be exploited
The problem is that scientists have not yet been able to build to build advanced computers came in the early 1980s from phys-

IN BRIEF

Scientists struggle to build quantum cally and start obeying classical laws. minimal connections that do not disturb different types of quantum bits, or qu-
computers big enough to be useful be- The solution, r esearchers are realizing, is their quantum propertiesan approach bits, have recently proved successful in
cause large collections of particles typi- to construct many small quantum com- called modular quantum computing. small tests and could soon be scaled up
cally stop behaving quantum mechani- puters and link them together through Several modular methods relying on into larger systems.

52 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


icists and mathematicians such as Richard Feynman of the Cali- quantum mechanicallyafter all, we do not expect to find a base-
fornia Institute of Technology and David Deutsch of the Univer- ball, or even a biological cell, in two places at the same time.
sity of Oxford. The idea remained speculative for many years
until 1994, when Peter Shor, then at AT&T Bell Laboratories, MODULAR QUANTUM SYSTEMS
showed how a quantum computer could be used to quickly fac- the challenge becomes scaling up without losing the necessary
tor large numbers, igniting interest in the field. The first basic quantumness. A brute-force approach to creating a large quan-
quantum computers arrived in the late 1990s and early 2000s, tum system by simply adding and wiring together qubits in one
when researchers built simple systems consisting of several network will likely fail. This prediction is buttressed by the fate
bits made of atoms, molecules or photons. of machines developed by Canada-based company D-Wave Sys-
It is the special nature of quantum particles that can give quan- tems that have hundreds or thousands of individual qubits
tum computing an advantage over its classical counterpart. Unlike wired together. Although company officials maintain that these
classical computing, where the basic unit of information (the bit) devices beat the calculation speeds of classical algorithms, we
takes a definite value of 1 or 0, the quantum unit of informa have found no published data that show evidence of large-scale
tion, the qubit, can exist in two states at once, meaning it can rep- entanglement or any speed advantage in these systems.
resent 0 and 1 simultaneously. Or it The modular technique, howev-
can be probably 0 but possibly 1. Or er, offers another path forward. This
equally likely to be 0 or 1. Or any solution is akin to the strategy that
other weighted combination of the commercial airlines exploit to man-
two binary states. The qubit has this age complexity. Next time you fly,
power because quantum particles check the back of your in-flight
can exist in two locations or physi- magazine. The carriers route map
cal states at oncea phenomenon gives a rough sense of what a full-
known as superposition. scale quantum computer might
Beyond existing in two states look like. Airlines do not directly
simultaneously, qubits can be con- connect every city with every other
nected through a quantum proper- one, because the logistics and over-
ty called entanglement: the ability head would be prohibitive. Instead
of particles separated in space to they use central hubs to create net-
retain a connection so that an ac- works of indirect connections. Sac-
tion performed on one reverber- rificing direct connectivity allows
ates on the other. This property them to grow and manage a much
gives quantum computers a mas- QUANTUM DEVICE:A circuit for measuring larger network of destinations.
sive parallel processing ability. superconducting qubits is housed in a gold-plated Similarly, a modular quantum
When a set of qubits is entangled, box. These measurements can entangle qubits in computer would not connect every
a simple operation on one can af- separate clusters, or modules, allowing modules qubit to every other one. Instead it
fect all the other qubit states. Even to connect to form a unified quantum computer. would use a few qubits as hubs that
with just a few qubits, all those would connect separate modules,
mutually dependent 0s, 1s and oth- akin to the way Atlanta serves as a
er superposition states create a hugely complex range of possi- hub connecting the southeastern U.S. to other regions.
ble outcomes. W  hereas a classical computer can handle only Modular networks help to keep the number of interactions
one possibility at a time, a quantum computer can effectively among qubits manageable while allowing each module to re-
test all possible solutions to a problem simultaneously. Just a main shielded from external interference. They compensate for
few hundred qubits can calculate a tableau of outcomes that ex- sacrifices in direct connectivity by allowing thousands or even
ceeds the number of particles in the universe. millions of qubits to collaborate indirectly. But unlike conven-
So far scientists have created small quantum-computing sys- tional modular systems such as multicore computer proces-
tems in many laboratories that use up to 10 qubits. But as we add sors, which use the same type of wires between cores as those
qubits, it becomes ever more difficult to shield the system from the within cores, modular quantum systems may require two or
outside worldand any such interference dooms the very proper- more different types of linkage to achieve the necessary entan-
ties that make a quantum computer special. A quantum superpo- glement while maintaining isolation between the modules.
sition of multiple states can exist only in isolation. Any attempt to Three leading modular quantum strategies, using different
prematurely observe or measure it will force a particle to collapse types of qubits, have emerged over the past decade. The three
COURTESY OF MICHEL H. DEVORET Yale University

into a single stateto choose one possibility. At this point, quan- of us are independently developing these platforms, and we be-
tum mechanics is out, and the qubits revert to the conventional lieve they will usher in larger quantum computers that will en-
bits of classical computers. In other words, the special abilities of able new kinds of information processing.
quantum objects are typically seen only in very small systems and
break down when those objects become fully connected to a larger ATOMIC QUBITS
wholesimilar to the way an indie musical group might appeal The most natural type of qubit is a single atom whose electronic
most strongly to its fans when few people know of it. Large sys- or nuclear energy levels (sometimes called spin states) store
tems are usually too complex and insufficiently isolated to behave quantum information. Atomic qubits are fundamentally scalable

May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com53

2016 Scientific American


because multiple atoms of the same species are virtually identical confine neutral atomic qubits, we use focused laser beams or a
and do not need to be engineered to match. Laser beams can cool crisscrossed pattern of laser beams called an optical lattice; dozens
the atoms until they are nearly at rest, chilling them by transfer- of research groups throughout the world are pursuing such meth-
ring momentum from the atom to scattered laser light. We do all ods. Although it is difficult to control and couple neutral atoms at
this while suspending the atoms in free space in a vacuum cham- the single-qubit level, there are many promising paths forward.
ber to prevent them from interacting with anything else. As an alternative, many groups use positively charged ions
Either neutral or charged atoms (ions) can serve as qubits. To atoms with an electron removed. Ions interact strongly with one

S T R AT E G I E S

Three Ways to Build Atomic Ion Qubits

a Quantum Computer The simplest way to build a modular quantum computer is to use single atoms
as qubits. Each atom can represent the binary code values of 0 or 1 (or a super
position of the two) via different electronic orbits (top). At the bottom is a
Computers that capitalize on the bizarre laws of quantum mechanics schematic of three modulesmini quantum computers made of five atomic
could theoretically perform calculations that are impossible for classical ions eachconnected in away that preserves each modules quantum prop
erties. Within each module, all five ions are entangled with one another.
computers. Yet the larger a quantum computer gets, the more difficult
The two end ions (in white) are special and can emit photons to communicate
it becomes to preserve its quantum properties (below). Scientists think with other modules.
the solution is to build many small quantum computers and link them
together into a larger wholeastrategy called modular quantum
computing. The boxes at the right show three potential modular setups 0 1
using three different types of quantum bits, or qubits.

OR
Quantum Property 1: Superposition
Atoms and subatomic particles can exist in multiple states
and even multiple locations simultaneouslya state
called superposition. Whereas a classical object, such as
a marble, can spin in only one direction at a time, particles
can be in two spin statesboth spin up and spin down, Qubit: electron orbit (or spin) of atom
for exampleat once. By exploiting this property, quan
tum computers could test many possible solutions to a
problem simultaneously. Module A

Quantum Property 2: Entanglement


Albert Einstein called it spooky action at a distance: entanglement Intramodule
allows two particles to forge an instantaneous connection such that an connection: Intermodule
action performed on one of them affects the other, even when they are entanglement connection:
separated in space. In the picture below, the entangled particles start among atoms photons
out in a superposition of both up and down spin states. When an
Module B
outside measurement forces the particles to pick a single state, the
two will always pick coordinated states. Depending on the type of
entanglement, if the first particle is in the spin-up state, the second
will always be in the spin-down state. When multiple qubits are
entangled, an operation performed on one will affect all the others
instantaneously, allowing for unprecedented parallel processing.

Module C

54 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


another through their electrical repulsion and can be confined Ignacio Cirac and Peter Zoller, both then at the University of
with electromagnetic fields generated by nearby electrodes. We Innsbruck in Austria. In the past couple of decades researchers
can laser-cool hundreds of trapped ions to form a stationary have made astounding progress in the control and entangle-
crystal of individual atoms that act like identical pendulums ment of individual trapped-ion qubits in this way. Lately groups
connected by springs. Additional control lasers can push the led by one of us (Monroe), David J. Wineland of the National In-
ions around in a way that can entangle their spin states through stitute of Standards and Technology, and Rainer Blatt of the Uni-
the vibrations of the ions, in a scheme first proposed in 1995 by versity of Innsbruck have demonstrated high-quality entangle-

Superconducting Qubits Solid-State Spin Qubits


Another modular quantum-computing strategy uses artificial atoms A third option is to make qubits out of defects in a solid-state material, such
made of superconducting circuits as qubits. These qubits are electrical cir- as a diamond lattice of carbon atoms. If one of the carbon atoms in the lattice
cuits that can take on a value of 0 or 1 through the absence or presence of is replaced by a nitrogen atom and a neighboring site is empty, the impurity
a microwave photon or an oscillating electric current running through the isknown as a nitrogen-vacancy (NV) center. The NV center and the sur
circuit. (When the qubit is in a state of superposition, the photon may be rounding carbon atom neighbors all become qubits, and their spin states
both there and not there.) Within each module, qubits can be entangled represent 0s and 1s. Each cluster of impurities in the diamond lattice is an
directly with one another via trapped photons. These photons can also be independent module, and modules can connect to other modules via entangled
sent through cables to link each module to the others. optical photons.

0 1 0 1

OR OR

Absence of photon Microwave photon


Qubits: NV center and NV center spin state
Qubit: superconducting circuit neighboring carbon atoms
Module A

Carbon

Module A
Intermodule connection:
photons traveling through cable
Module B
Nitrogen (orange)

Module B

Intermodule
connection: photons

Module C Module C

Illustration by Jen Christiansen May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com55

2016 Scientific American


ment operations among up to 20 trapped-ion qubits.
Researchers have explored two ways to connect
modules made of such entangled ion crystals. One is
to physically move a few of the ion qubits through
space, from one module to another, by passing them
through a complex maze of electrodes (a method
proposed in 2000 by Monroe, along with Wineland
and David Kielpinski, then at nist). The ions can be
made to surf through space on an electrical field
wave without disturbing their qubit state. When the
ions touch down at the second module, laser pulses
can induce them to form new entanglements. The
two modules, each containing, say, 50 qubits, be-
come part of a single set for computation, meaning
that now 100 qubits are working together, albeit
with a weak link. There is no theoretical limit to the
number of modules that we can connect via this
technique, which is called ion shuttling.
A difficulty with this method is controlling the
LAB WORK:Author ChristopherR. Monroe manipulates atomic ion qubits
complex ion traps, which consist of hundreds or thou-
with lasers and confines them in a trap made of electromagnetic fields
sands of precisely positioned electrodes that accom-
generated by electrodes.
plish the shuttling. We must be able to manipulate all
of the required electrode voltages to induce the ions
to surf through the maze of electrodes. Notable efforts to fabri- quantum circuits have distinct advantages. We can tailor their
cate ion-trap electrodes from silicon or other semiconductor ma- properties by design and mass-produce them with the fabrica-
terials in a scalable fashion are now coming from Sandia Nation- tion techniques of conventional integrated circuits. And remark-
al Laboratories and Honeywell International. ably, when they operate at temperatures near absolute zero, they
The second method of connecting ion qubit modules togeth- can persist in a superposition state for long enough to serve as a
er leaves the atoms in place. It relies on lasers to prompt ions to robust qubit. During the past 15 years the lifetimes of these sys-
emit photons (particles of light) that are entangled with the ions. tems have improved more than a millionfold.
These photons can then transfer the entanglement between In the past decade work on these superconducting quantum
modules. This type of photonic quantum interface stems from circuits has made rapid progress, demonstrating the various nec-
ideas pioneered almost 20 years ago by researchers at the Uni- essary features for a quantum computer. Researchers at many ac-
versity of Innsbruck, Caltech and Harvard University and dem- ademic labs as well as industrial players such as Google and IBM
onstrated 10 years ago by Monroe. can now manipulate and entangle several superconducting qu-
The photonic connection technique has the great advantage bits. With techniques called circuit quantum electrodynamics,
of allowing us to link qubit memories that may be far apart, pioneered by one of us (Schoelkopf), together with his colleagues
and it can also be applied to other types of qubits, such as neu- Michel H. Devoret and Steve Girvin, both at Yale University, we
tral atoms and superconducting and semiconductor qubits, as can also entangle multiple qubits over long ranges by using su-
we will discuss. Moreover, we can scale up the photonic con- perconducting transmission lines.
nection between modules through fiber-optic networks and Superconducting devices lend themselves naturally to a mod-
switches that can allow us to reconfigure which qubits get en- ular architecture. We can make connections among modules
tangled. The central hurdle for this strategy is that the qubit- within a large cryogenic device via superconducting wires and
photon link is typically inefficient because it requires capturing measurement devices while reducing the cross talk and interfer-
and guiding these photons. Many trials may be necessary to es- ence among modules by shielding them from one another. To
tablish a successful connection. The best attempts so far have generate the entanglement among modules, researchers at Yale,
operated only at a rate of up to about 10 entangled links a sec- JILA at the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Cal-
ond. Extensions of current technology, however, should be able ifornia, Berkeley, and elsewhere have developed special super-
to push this rate up by many orders of magnitude. conducting devices for quantum measurement.
The modular approach with superconducting qubits has a
SUPERCONDUCTING QUBITS number of appealing features. Instead of building and testing
Although atoms m  ay be natures qubits, controlling and scaling one gigantic circuit, we need only mass-produce and calibrate
them to more complex systems poses several engineering prob- the more modest modules and then build complexity module by
COURTESY OF KATHERINE MONROE

lems. An alternative strategy is to devise artificial atoms using module. We can eliminate or skip over defective modules and re-
circuits made of superconducting material. These devices con- wire the connections among modules to create different archi-
tain many atoms but can behave as simple, controllable qubits, tectures. Work is also under way to develop microwave-to-opti-
where the presence or absence of a single microwave photon or cal quantum transducers and then connect distant modules via
the clockwise/counterclockwise direction of a circulating cur- optical fiber to create long-range quantum networks or a distrib-
rent inside the circuit corresponds to the 0 or 1 states. Such uted quantum computer.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ONLINE Watch a video on how quantum computers work at ScientificAmerican.com/may2016/quantum

2016 Scientific American


SOLID-STATE SPIN QUBITS ture allows us to test and validate individual modules and the
Finally, a third type o f qubit encodes information in spin states various connections among them independently, without dis-
within solid-state materials. There are different models for this turbing the entire system. Scientists have recently taken impor-
type of qubit, but a promising method, pursued by one of us tant steps toward this goal.
(Lukin), as well as numerous other groups, uses defects in crys- And even modular quantum computers of relatively modest
tals to generate qubits. One such system is a diamond lattice of scale may enable unique applications. They naturally provide
carbon atoms in which a single atom is replaced by nitrogen and the backbone for a quantum Internet composed of small quan-
a neighboring site is emptyan impurity known as a nitrogen- tum processors that are connected via entangled optical pho-
vacancy (NV) center. Electromagnetic pulses can control the tons. These can serve as repeater stations that extend the reach
electronic spin of this atomlike impurity. In a method pioneered of secure quantum communicationcurrently limited to about
by Lukin and his colleagues, the NV center reacts to the nuclear 100 kilometers because of the photon loss in conventional tele-
spins of its closest carbon neighbors, creating a cluster of neigh- com fibersto continental distances.
boring qubits formed from the magnetic interactions among the Elements of modular quantum machines are already being in-
particles. A nitrogen-vacancy impurity, though, has only so many corporated into some of the worlds most accurate timekeepers,
close carbon neighbors, limiting the total number of qubits per and their role is expected to grow in a new generation of optical
module to fewer than a dozen. atomic clocks based on neutral atoms and atomic ions. Scientists
Scaling up requires connecting multiple NV modules. If the have proposed a global quantum network of such clocks to create
qubits are in separate crystal lattices, we can link them by forcing a real-time, single international timescale, or world clock, that
each qubit to emit a photon and then measuring the photons. would operate with unprecedented stability and accuracy.
But if multiple NV impurities reside within a single diamond lat- A miniature quantum network could also serve as a precision
tice, we can also try to connect them using quantum vibrations sensor of electromagnetic fields and temperatures in complex
called phonons, which can transport quantum information be- chemical and biological systems at the nanometer scale. For ex-
tween impurities. ample, researchers have exploited electronic and nuclear spins
Remarkably, although manipulating information encoded in associated with solid-state impurities to achieve magnetic reso-
these NV center qubits is challenging, we can often do it under nance imaging with the resolution of a single atom. This tech-
ambient conditions at room temperature. Techniques to observe nique could be used to directly image individual molecules, which
single NV centers, pioneered in the past decade by Jrg Wrach would inform fundamental biological and materials science and
trup of the University of Stuttgart in Germany and Fedor Jelezko, deliver new tools for medical diagnostics and drug discovery.
now at the University of Ulm in Germany, have allowed scientists The time has come to stop asking whether quantum comput-
to work with individual electronic spin qubits. A team led by Da- ing is possible and to start focusing on its large-scale architec-
vid Awschalom of the University of Chicago has been able to ma- ture and on what it will be able to do. The truth is that we do not
nipulate these qubits on nanosecond timescales, comparable to know how quantum computers will change the world. But with
the speed of modern classical processors. the advent of modular quantum-computing networks, we should
Recently Ronald Hanson and his colleagues at Delft Universi- soon begin to find out.
ty of Technology in the Netherlands have entangled single-NV-
impurity qubits separated by more than one kilometer using en- Disclosure of commercial ties: Christopher R. Monroe is a co-founder and co-
tangled photons, similar to the photonic method of connecting inventor of intellectual property that is licensed to ionQ, a start-up company fo-
ions discussed earlier. Currently this process is not very efficient cused on the development of atomic quantum computers using the methods de-
(in the Delft experiments, the entanglement links are established scribed in this article. Robert J. Schoelkopf is a co-founder, an equity holder and
an inventor of intellectual property that is licensed to Quantum Circuits, a start-
at a rate of only a few times per hour), but new techniques to
up that is developing superconducting circuits for quantum computation based
greatly improve it using nanoscale optical devices have recently
on techniques discussed here. Mikhail D. Lukin is a co-founder, advisory board
emerged at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technol-
member and a co-inventor of intellectual property that is licensed to Quantum
ogy. And because we already have the means to create several qu-
Diamond Technologies, a start-up focused on applications of quantum sensors
bits around a single diamond-lattice defect and store them for for medical diagnostics using research described in this article.
longer than a second in ultrapure crystals such as those grown
by scientists at Element Six, NV centers show great potential for
a scalable modular quantum-computing architecture. M O R E TO E X P L O R E

Scaling the Ion Trap Quantum Processor. C .Monroe and J.Kim in Science, Vol.339,
QUANTUM FUTURE pages 11641169; March 8, 2013.
As a result o f more than 20 years of research and development in Superconducting Circuits for Quantum Information: An Outlook. M  .H. Devoret
and R.J. Schoelkopf in S cience, Vol.339, pages 11691174; March 8, 2013.
this field, scientists have experimentally tested all these modular
Atom-like Crystal Defects: From Quantum Computers to Biological Sensors.
quantum-computing approaches on small scales. The task await- Lilian Childress etal. in P hysics Today, V
 ol.67, No.10, pages 3843; October 2014.
ing us is to expand these techniques to larger conglomerations of
FROM OUR ARCHIVES
qubits and modules and to start using them for interesting appli-
cations. We believe this goal is now within sight. The Diamond Age of Spintronics. D
 avid D. Awschalom, Ryan Epstein and Ronald
The quantum future is both challenging and exciting. As Hanson; October 2007.
quantum machines grow larger, it will become increasingly diffi- Quantum Computing with Ions. ChristopherR. Monroe and DavidJ. Wineland;
August 2008.
cult to both control and verify that the overall system is indeed
behaving quantum mechanically. Luckily, the modular architec- s c i e n t i f i c a m e r i c a n . c o m /m a g a z i n e /s a

May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com57

2016 Scientific American


BIOMECHANICS

SWIMMERS
UNDER PRESSURE
Jellyfish manipulate physics to become
the most efficient animals moving in the sea
By Josh Fischman
Jellyfish never stop. T wenty-four hours a day,
seven days a week, they move through the water in
search of food such as shrimp and fish larvae, on journeys
that can cover several kilometers a day. They are more
efficient than any other swimmer, using less energy for
their size than do graceful dolphins or cruising sharks.
Their cost of transportthe oxygen they use to move
is 48percent lower than any other swimming animal,
says BradfordJ. Gemmell, a marine biologist at the Uni-
versity of South Florida. By studying moon jellies, the
species A  urelia aurita, Gemmell and other researchers
have recently found that jellyfish pull off this feat by cre-
ating zones of high and low pressure around their body
that alternately suck and push them forward.
Scientists once believed that jellies traveled so easily
because they were light, mostly water. But water has
mass, and mass still has to be moved. So Gemmell, with
engineer John Dabiri of Stanford University and their col-
leagues, took a close-up look. They put a jellyfish in a tank
and dropped tiny glass beads into the water. By illuminat-
ing the beads with lasers, they could track their move-
ments with a high-speed camera, essentially making the
water velocity and pressure visible around the animal.
When the animal contracted its bellthe dome that
forms much of the jellyfish bodyit created lower pres-
sure outside the bell and higher pressure within. Because
objects move from high to low pressure, the moon jelly
got pulled forward, the scientists noted in November
2015 in N ature Communications.
Then the researchers got a surprise. When the jelly
relaxed the bell margin, letting it flare out, the high-pres-
sure water below the animal rose up into the bell. It gave
the moon jelly a secondary bump forward, even while it
relaxed, Gemmell says. To make these moves, the jelly
needs to flex the bell margin up and down. Jellyfish have
muscles, but most go around the bell like a stack of rub-
ber bands. That arrangement is good mainly for squeez-
ing. Recently, though, Richard Satterlie, a biologist at
the University of North Carolina Wilmington, discovered
other muscles at the margin that stick out at angles.
ALEXANDER SEMENOV

Those fibers let the jelly bend its edge, moving water
around it, and make for a very effective swimmer.

Josh Fischman is a senior editor at Scientific American.

SCIENTIFIC
58 AMERICAN
Scientific ONLINE  Watch engineer John Dabiri explain how jellyfish inspire submarine design at S cientificAmerican.com/may2016/jellyfish-physics
American,

2016 Scientific American


Muscle fibers generally circle
the bell, but at the margin, they
form a mesh, helping it bend.

Jellyfish bell
1 starts to contract

High pressure (purple)


Low-pressure vortex (blue)

Bell margin bends down,


2 and jellyfish is drawn up

Low pressure rolls down,


The Jellyfish 3 under bell

Swim Stroke
Jellyfish create zones of high and
low pressure around themselves,
then move from one to the other.
By dropping tiny glass beads in
a water tank with a jellyfish, a team
ofscientists was able to see that
avortexa relatively low-pressure
spinning doughnut of waterrolls
down the jelly. Seen here as a cross-
sectional slice, the vortex (blue) Bell relaxes completely
appears as two wheels of water 1 . 4
As the jelly contracts, it creates higher
pressure within its bell, and the
animal is pulled ahead to lower
pressure 2 . By flexing the edge
ofits bell, the jelly moves the vortex
down and underneath 3 . There the
vortex pushes water up as it spins,
giving the jelly an extra shove 4 .
Vortices push water into bell
from behind
Illustrations by Eleanor Lutz , ScientificAmerican.com59

2016 Scientific American


60 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


L I N G U I ST I C S

W RS LANGU GE
A
A
Where did the most
successful family
oflanguages in
history originate?
New evidence
from DNA and
evolutionary biology
has only heightened
the scientific
disagreements
By Michael Balter

IN BRIEF

Nearly half the worlds population speaks one of the An alternative hypothesis posits that PIE spread some
languages derived from a single ancient tongue, dubbed 8,000 years ago from what is now Turkey, after the intro-
Proto-Indo-European, or PIE. duction of agriculture into those regions.
Linguists have long argued that PIE first spread from The latest evidence from evolutionary biology and an-
the vast steppes of Central Asia to Europe some 6,000 cient DNA samples, rather than settling the issue, is add-
to 5,000 years ago. ing to the controversy.

Illustration by Mark Allen Miller May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com61

2016 Scientific American


Michael Balter is a freelance journalist, whose articles
have appeared in A udubon, National Geographic and Science,
among other publications. His book T he Goddess and
the Bull (Free Press, 2005) explores the excavation of one
of the worlds earliest and largest villages, atalhyk in Turkey.

W
W hat s in a name? asked Juliet of Romeo. That which we call a
rose by any other name would smell as sweet. A real-life Juliet
probably would have spoken to Romeo in an obscure medi-
eval Italian dialect rather than Shakespeares English. Never-
theless, her word for the sweet-smelling flower would have
shared the same linguistic root (rosa, in modern Italian) as
the English version does and indeed as many other languages
spoken throughout Europe doRose, capitalized in German fashion, or the lowercase French
rose. C
 roatian? An aromatic rua. T
 o the nearly 60,000 Scots who still speak the ancient Scot-
tish Gaelic, this symbol of passionate love is a rs.

Why do such geographically diverse languages use similar Researchers have fallen into two warring camps. One camp,
words for the same flower? All these tongues, along with more which includes the majority of traditional linguists, argues that
than 400 others, belong to the same family of languagesthe in- Central Asian nomads, who invented the wheel and domesticat-
credibly far-flung Indo-European language familyand have a ed the horse, spread the mother tongue throughout Europe and
common origin. Indo-European languages, which include Greek, Asia beginning about 6,000 years ago. The other camp, led by
Latin, English, Sanskrit, and many languages spoken in Iran and British archaeologist Colin Renfrew, credits early farmers from
on the Indian subcontinent, are the most dominant linguistic more than 500 miles to the south in what is now Turkey with dis-
group in the history of humanity. They account for about 7 per- seminating the language at some point after they began spread-
cent of the worlds estimated 6,500 languages but are nonethe- ing their agricultural know-how 8,500 years ago.
less spoken by three billion peoplenearly half the worlds popu- Over the years first one idea then another has had the upper
lation. Understanding how, why and when they spread so readily hand. Evolutionary biologists published a series of studies in
is key to understanding the social, cultural and demographic 2003 that concluded that the Indo-European family tree origi-
changes that created todays diverse populations in Europe and nated in the Middle East at least 8,000 years ago, based on the
much of Asia. As Paul Heggarty, a linguist at the Max Planck In- idea that the evolution of words can mimic the evolution of liv-
stitute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, puts ing organisms; their results are consistent with the farmer hy-
it: We have to explain why Indo-European was so outrageously, pothesis. In the past year or two some linguists, archaeologists
overpoweringly successful. and geneticists struck back, using rival computational analyses
Because words and languages do not fossilize, the task of and samples of DNA from ancient skeletons to support the no-
tracking their movements across time and space was left for mad hypothesis. And so the pendulum continues to swing.
more than a century to traditional linguists and a small number
of archaeologists. Recently, however, the search for Indo-Europe- THE HORSE, OF COURSE
an origins has gone high tech, as biologists and experts in an- Scholars did not have to wait for high-speed computers to recog-
cient DNA have gotten into the act. Armed with new theoretical nize connections among the Indo-European languages. That re-
and statistical approaches, these investigators have begun to alization dawned as early as the 1700s, after Europeans had be-
transform linguistics from a paper-and-pencil exercise into a gun to travel far afield. Some of the parallels among widely dis-
field that uses powerful computers and methods borrowed from tributed tongues are now seen as dead giveaways. Thus, the
evolutionary biology to trace language origins. Sanskrit and Latin words for fire, agn- a nd ignis, c learly indi-
You might think that this attempt to modernize linguistics cate their Indo-European family ties.
would bring researchers closer to an understanding of where By the 19th century, linguists were sure there must be a com-
and when the Indo-European languages arose. But in many mon ancestor for all Indo-European languages. There was a
ways, the opposite has happened, and the question is in even sense of shock that the classical languages of European civiliza-
greater dispute. Everyone agrees on one key point: the Indo- tion sprang from the same source as Sanskrit, an exotic language
European languages descend from a common ancestor, a mother spoken in India, on the other side of the world, says David An-
tongue called Proto-Indo-European, or PIE. But as to why this thony, an archaeologist at Hartwick College and a fierce advocate
particular language produced so many linguistic offspring or of PIEs nomadic origin.
where it originated, there is no accord. So linguists set about reconstructing this ancestral tongue.

62 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


ORIGIN OF AN ANCIENT TONGUE

Two Homeland Possibilities


Nearly half the worlds population speaks at least one of more than 400 languages, which descend from a mother tongue known as
Proto-Indo-European, or PIE. Scholars have reconstructed many of PIEs words, but they are still fighting over where
the ancient language, whose influence reaches as far west as Ireland and as far east as China, originated. Kurgan
Hypothesis
Long favored by traditional
linguists, the kurgan hypothesis
places the original speakers of PIE
in the steppes north of the Black Sea.
Russia Named for the kurgans, or burial mounds,
Ireland characteristic of steppe culture, this idea
Germany suggests nomads began spreading
Ukraine Kurgan PIE east and west on horseback
Homeland as long as 6,000 years ago.
Kazakhstan

Italy Bl ack S ea

Tarim
Anatolia Turkey Basin
Greece
China
r t i l e C res
Fe Afghanistan
Iran
ce
nt
Anatolian
Hypothesis India
Starting in the 1980s, some
scholars argued that farmers
could have spread PIE from
the Anatolian peninsula around
8,000 years ago. Some archaeological
evidence and calculations based on Hittite and other
the rate at which languages evolve Anatolian languages (Extinct)
support the idea but are
Tocharian (Extinct)
not conclusive. PIE
Armenian
Greek
Albanian
Proto-Indo-Europeans Family Tree Indo-Iranian
Although the timing and point of origin of PIE are up for debate, linguists Balto-Slavic
generally agree on the broad outline of how various groups of Indo-
Germanic
European languages descended from the mother tongue. The diagram
at the right is highly stylized and is meant to show only general relations Italic
among language groups, not actual dates of divergence. Celtic
SOURCE: MAPPING THE ORIGINS AND EXPANSION OF THE INDO-EUROPEAN LANGUAGE
FAMILY, BY REMCO BOUCKAERT ETAL., IN S CIENCE, VOL.337; AUGUST 24, 2012

Sometimes this was not too difficult, especially if the original the language, things became trickier. These scholars began link-
word had not changed unrecognizably. For example, linguists ing certain cultures with PIE, an approach called linguistic pale-
could take the English word  birch, the German Birke, the San- ontology. They noticed that PIE contained many terms for do-
-
skrit bh urj a nd other Indo-European words for this slender tree mesticated animals, such as horses, sheep and cattle, and began
and, by applying basic linguistic rules of language change, ex- postulating a pastoral Indo-European homeland.
trapolate backward to figure out that the PIE root was something That approach eventually led to trouble. In the early 20th
like * bherh1g- ( the asterisk indicates that this is a reconstructed century German prehistorian Gustaf Kossinna proposed that a
word for which there is no direct evidence). Other reconstruc- group of Central European settlers, who created intricately en-
tions are not as obvious. Thus, the PIE word for horsesva- in graved pottery called Corded Ware starting 5,000 years ago,
Sanskrit, hppos in Greek, equus in Latin and ech in Old Irish were in fact the first Indo-Europeans. Kossinna argued that
was determined to be * h1kwo (the subscript 1 refers to a sound they later spread out of what is today Germany, carrying their
made in the back of the mouth). language with them. That idea was music to the ears of the Na-
But when some linguists tried to identify the peoples behind zis, who resurrected the term Aryan (a 19th-century term for

Map by Mapping Specialists, Graphic by Tiffany Farrant-Gonzalez May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com63

2016 Scientific American


Indo-Europeans), along with its connotations of racial superiority. ers know that PIE-derived languages were spoken as far west as
The Nazi endorsement gave Indo-European studies a bad Ireland and as far east as the Tarim Basin, in what is now north-
name for many years. Many researchers give credit to Marija western China, and down into India. A key question is how PIE
Gimbutas, an archaeologist who died in 1994, for making the would have gotten from the steppes to East Asia if the kurgan hy-
subject respectable again, starting in the 1950s. Gimbutas situ- pothesis were right. Did it spread to the north around the Black
ated the origins of PIE in the so-called Pontic steppes north of and Caspian seas, as in the steppe hypothesis? Renfrew sees no
the Black Sea. For her, the prime mover of PIE was the Copper archaeological evidence for this route. Or did PIE take a souther-
Age Kurgan culture, which can first be identified in the archaeo- ly and earlier path to the east from Anatolia? He thinks it more
logical record about 6,000 years ago. After a millennium of likely that PIE spread south around the Black Sea from Turkey
roaming the barren steppesin which the nomads learned how and then along early trade routes through Iran and Afghanistan.
to domesticate the horseGimbutas argued, they charged forth Thus, Renfrew believes, only an Anatolian origin can account
into Eastern and Central Europe, imposing their patriarchal for PIEs simultaneous spread to the east and west because the
culture as well as the strongly enunciated vowels and conso- peninsula offers the best historical evidence of movement be-
nants of their native Indo-European language. More specifically, tween the European and Asian continents. And the only socio-
Gimbutas identified the Yamnaya people, who lived in the Pon- technological driver powerful enough to propel the language so
tic steppes between about 5,600 and 4,300 years ago, as the far in opposite directions, he adds, was the advent of agriculture,
original PIE speakers. which appeared in the Fertile Crescentjust south and east of
Other researchers also found evidence to support such a view. modern Turkeyroughly 11,000 years ago. This transition of hu
In 1989 David Anthony began working in Russia, Ukraine and man society from hunter-gatherers into settled farming communi-
Kazakhstan, focusing on horse teeth that had been earlier exca- ties marked the so-called Neolithic Revolution and was the only
vated by Soviet archaeologists. Anthony and his colleagues con- big thing that happened on a Europe-wide basis, Renfrew says.
firmed previous suggestions that there was bit wear on teeth dat- If you wanted a simple theory for the coming of the Indo-Euro-
ed as early as 6,000 years ago, pushing back the earliest evidence pean languages, the Neolithic was the best thing to hang it on.
for horse domesticationand horse ridingby about 2,000 Emblematic of the linguists objections to Renfrews Anato-
years. Their studies also provided evidence to link several tech- lian hypothesis is the origins of the word wheel. The recon-
nological developmentsincluding the use of wheeled vehicles structed PIE root is *kwkwlo-, which became cakr- in San-
such as chariotsto the Yamnaya people. These finds supported skrit, kklos in Greek and kukl in Tocharian A, an extinct
the idea that the steppe pastoralists had the necessary transpor- Indo-European language of the Tarim Basin. The earliest evi-
tation and technology to fan out rapidly from their homeland dence for wheeled vehiclesdepictions on tablets from ancient
and spread their language in all directions. Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq)dates to about 5,500 years
ago. The actual remains of wagons and carts show up in kur-
REVOLUTIONARY FARMERS gans beginning about 5,000 years ago.
The steppe hypothesis, a lso known as the kurgan hypothesis, af- Many linguists have argued that the PIE root for wheel could
ter the kurgans, or burial mounds, in which the pastoralists bur- not have arisen until the object was invented, and so PIE cannot
ied their chiefs, was rarely questioned until the 1980s. Then be much earlier than 5,500 yearsor about 5,000 years after the
Renfrew put forth a radically different idea, called the Anatolian invention of agriculture. That doesnt mean the PIE speakers in-
hypothesis. (Anatolia, f rom the Greek for sunrise, refers to pres- vented wheels, Anthony says, but it does mean that they adopted
ent-day Turkey.) Renfrew, the dean of British prehistorians, who their own words for the various parts of wheeled vehicles.
now sits in the House of Lords, had spent years digging in Greece But Renfrew and others counter that the word *kwkwlo- derives
and was struck by how much the artifacts he unearthed, espe- from a much earlier root meaning to turn or to roll and only lat-
cially the carved female figurines, resembled those from earlier er was adapted as a name for the wheel. There was a whole lan-
archaeological sites in Turkey and the Middle East. guage about rotation before the wheel was invented, Renfrew says.
Archaeologists already knew that farming spread from the Andrew Garrett, a linguist at the University of California,
Middle East to Greece first. Renfrew wondered if there might be Berkeley, and proponent of the steppe hypothesis, agrees that the
a continuity of language in addition to culture. Thus, the first PIE word for wheel has an earlier derivation, the root *kwel(h)-,
PIE speakers, he posited in lectures and a book, might be the which probably meant turn or roll. He says that the word
farmers who moved from Anatolia to Europe 8,500 years ago, *kwkwlo- was formed by duplicating that root, putting the *kwe-
bringing their words along with their agricultural practices. part into the word twice. It would be as if I saw a wheel for the
Traditional linguists, who had spent decades working pains- first time, adds Garretts graduate student, Will Chang, and I
takingly with paper and pencil to reconstruct PIE by tracing called it a ro-roller. That might seem a point for Renfrews posi-
modern Indo-European words back to their original roots, were tion, but Garrett argues that while such duplications were com-
outraged. Most dismissed the Anatolian hypothesis, sometimes mon in PIE when forming verbs, they were extremely rare
with bitter invective. One University of Oxford professor called when forming nouns, which suggests to him and other linguists
the idea rubbish, and another skeptic declared that a naive that *kwkwlo- m ust have developed as a word close to the time
reader would be grossly misled by the simplistic solutions that wheels were invented.
the author offers.
Renfrew and his supporters fought back, arguing that the CONTESTED EVIDENCE
steppe hypothesis cannot explain the broad expansion of PIE Renfrew s Anatolian hypothesis w
 as facing an uphill battle when,
from wherever it began across both Europe and Asia. Research- in 2003, a bombshell landed in the middle of the debate from an

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ONLINE Watch a video about the ancient peoples of northwestern China at ScientificAmerican.com/may2016/tarim-basin

2016 Scientific American


entirely unexpected directionthe field of evolutionary biology. tory of the languages, he says. Best understood are Greek and
Russell D. Gray, a biologist who had made his early reputation Latin. It isnt likely that there are other varieties of Greek and
studying bird cognition, and Quentin D. Atkinson, then his Latin floating around that we dont know about.
graduate student at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, Gray, for his part, calls the L
 anguage paper that used his own
used state-of-the-art methods from computational biology to methods against the Anatolian hypothesis a lovely piece of work
date the origins of PIE. Gray and Atkinson adapted an earlier that really engages with the methods rather than just saying
linguistic technique called glottochronology, which compared [that Atkinson and I] are wrong. Yet since turnabout is fair play,
the proportion of cognateswords with shared rootsin differ- Grays team has now started recrunching Garretts data, but let-
ent languages to determine how long ago they diverged. Glot- ting the data decide whether some languages are ancestral to oth-
tochronology had long been out of favor because it required lin- ers rather than assuming it. Although this work is preliminary
guists to assume that words change their form steadily over and still unpublished, Gray and his colleagues are finding that the
timesomething they knew was not true. Gray and Atkinson numbers again come up trumps for the Anatolian hypothesis.
employed a new and improved version of glottochronology,
along with other statistical techniques used to determine the NEW CLUES FROM DNA
evolutionary trees of living organisms. Their database included If the words themselves cannot tell us who is right, perhaps
cognates from 87 Indo-European languages, including Hittite, more evidence from outside the field of linguistics could help tip
an extinct language that had been spoken in Anatolia. the balance. The latest genetic studies, at least, seem to favor the
The results were a slam-dunk for the Anatolian hypothesis. steppe hypothesis. Anthony and an international team of an-
No matter how the pair crunched the numbers, the divergence cient DNA experts sequenced samples of genetic material from
of Indo-European languages from PIE came out no later than 69 Europeans who lived between 8,000 and 3,000 years ago, in-
about 8,000 years agoor nearly 3,000 years before the appar- cluding nine skeletons from Yamnaya sites in todays Russia, and
ent invention of the wheel. Despite howls of objection from compared the DNA samples with those from four skeletons of
some linguists that words do not change the way that living or- the later Corded Ware culture of Central Europe.
ganisms and genes do, the paper was highly influential and gave Amazingly, the Corded Ware people, whose culture spread
a big boost to the Anatolian hypothesis. Gray, who is now co- across Europe as far as Scandinavia, could trace three quarters
director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human of their ancestry to the Yamnaya people, and this Yamnaya ge-
History (where Heggarty works), says that he and Atkinson netic signature is still found in most Europeans today. So the
were simply bringing linguistics into the 21st century. Yamnaya, along with their genes and possibly their language,
Moreover, although Gray and Atkinson found that the initial did indeed sweep out of the steppes in massive numbers, proba-
spread of PIE tracked the spread of farming, they also detected bly about 4,500 years ago. These results are a smoking gun
a second divergence 6,500 years ago, which led to the Romance, that such massive migrations did take place out of the steppe-
Celtic and Balto-Slavic languages. The Anatolian and steppe hy- lands, says Pontus Skoglund, an ancient DNA expert at Harvard
potheses need not be mutually exclusive, they concluded. Medical School who was not involved in the paper but works in
Indeed, subsequent analyses favored the Anatolian hypothe- the laboratory of one of its authors. They level the playing
sis so strongly that some younger linguists began to call for old- field between the two hypotheses, he adds.
er linguists to drop their objections. Traditional linguistic ob- Unless, of course, this migration was a secondary wave
jections to the Anatolian hypothesis are now wearing a little that carried later Indo-European languages with it but not the
thin, Heggarty wrote in a June 2014 commentary in Antiquity. original mother tongue, Proto-Indo-European. Such an inter-
Calls for advocates of the steppe hypothesis to surrender, pretation, the pro-Anatolian researchers counter, would fit with
however, may have been premature. Beginning in 2013, Garrett the conclusions of Grays 2003 study that pointed to the possi-
and Chang launched their own analysis, using Grays methodol- bility of a later migration out of the steppes.
ogy. But the Berkeley researchers made an assumption that Will we ever know who is right? New evidence from ancient
Grays team did not: They constrained certain languages to be DNA for the spread of steppe peoples eastward into Siberia
ancestral to their descendants, based on what they insist is solid around 4,700 years ago could potentially overcome one of Ren-
historical evidence. Thus, they assumed, for example, that Clas- frews key objections to the steppe hypothesis, but it offers no
sical Latin was directly ancestral to Romance languages such as proof about which languages went with them. One thing is sure:
Spanish, French and Italian. Gray and Atkinson, in contrast, al- researchers will continue to debate the issue in whatever lan-
lowed for the possibility that some as yet unidentified form of guage their ancestors bequeathed them.
popular Latin spoken in the streets of Roman cities was the true
ancestor of the Romance languages. M O R E TO E X P L O R E
Garrett and Changs results, published last year in Language,
Language-Tree Divergence Times Support the Anatolian Theory of Indo-
were also a slam-dunkbut for the steppe hypothesis, not the European Origin. R ussellD. Gray and QuentinD. Atkinson in N
 ature, V
 ol. 426,
Anatolian hypothesis. Despite this apparent new life for the pages 435439; November 27, 2003.
steppe hypothesis, Heggarty argues that Garretts team is wrong Indo-EuropeanLanguages Tied to Herders. Michael Balter and Ann Gibbons in
to assume that some ancient languages are directly ancestral to Science, Vol.347, pages 814815; February 20, 2015.
others. Even small differences in Classical versus Vulgar Latin FROM OUR ARCHIVES
could throw off Garretts estimates, Heggarty argues.
World Linguistic Diversity. C olin Renfrew; January 1994.
Garrett remains unconvinced. For many of these languages
we know quite a bit about the speech communities and the his- s c i e n t i f i c a m e r i c a n . c o m /m a g a z i n e /s a

May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com65

2016 Scientific American


FARMER R  hoda Mangyana has
vastly increased the yield of maize
crops on her land in Malawi by
planting trees whose fallen leaves
and roots rebuild the soil.

66 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


ENVIRONMENT

A CURE FOR
AFRICAS

SOIL
By growing trees, shrubs and other perennial plants
among crops in the field, African farmers can revitalize
some badly depleted soils while raising food yields
By John P. Reganold and Jerry D. Glover

Mariko Majoni in Malawi h as dramatically changed how he farms.


Like many small-scale African farmers, he could not afford fertilizers, and over the years his
maize yields plummeted. When he learned about fertilizer trees that capture nitrogen from
the atmosphere, he planted seedlings between his rows of maize. Six years later he was har-
vesting 10 times as much food, enough for his family and a surplus to sell. At first his neigh-
bors thought he had gone mad. Now many of them have adopted the same practice.
Across much of sub-Saharan Africa, temperatures are warm, and days are long and sunny.
Crops should grow well there, but as with Majoni, farmers are struggling mightily, even when
they use chemical fertilizers. Yields of maize, a staple cereal, average around one metric ton
per hectarebarely one tenth of maize yields that farmers in the U.S. Midwest enjoy. The rea-
son is simple: A large proportion of soil in the lands south of the Sahara Desert is depleted. It

May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com67

2016 Scientific American


John P. Reganold is a professor of soil science and
lacks the organic matter and nutrients needed by plants. Apply- agroecology at Washington State University. He
ing extra chemical fertilizer alone is not always enough to raise serves on Scientific Americans board of advisers.
yields significantly and in some cases can actually harm the soil
further. Soil degradation continues at alarming rates, causing al
ready low yields in some regions to stagnate or fall still lower. Jerry D. Glover is the senior sustainable agricultural
The situation is troubling because about 220 million of the systems adviser at the U.S. Agency for International
Development in Washington, D.C. The views expressed
worlds 800 million undernourished people live in the sub-Saha- in this article are not necessarily those of usaid.
ran region. And recent studies indicate that the population of
roughly one billion people will double by 2050 and will be hard
hit by climate change. Without a significant upgrade of the soil,
hunger is sure to increase. Restoring soils, scientists agree, is
the number-one priority to raising agricultural productivity.
In principle, the solution is straightforward. The soils need to
be rebuilt with decomposed plant and animal material. This
organic matter adds nitrogen and carbon, helps to retain water
and nourishes microbes that keep the earth productive. In prac-
tice, though, challenges abound. A majority of African farmers
cannot create or afford to buy enough crop residue, compost or
animal manure to rebuild their land. And restoration has to
occur while the land continues to be farmed; families cannot stop
planting while croplands are repaired. Farmers also face the
daunting task of increasing yields while avoiding overuse of
water and chemicals and earning enough money to maintain the
financial and social stability of their families and communities.
The approach Majoni adopted belongs to a set of strategies
known as perenniation, which could make a huge difference in
Africa. The methods rely on raising trees, shrubs or perennial
grasses right among or alongside food crops to renew soils, there-
by boosting crop yields and improving the long-term sustainabil- PLANT BREEDER A  lbert Chamango shows how peanuts and taller
ity of food production. The perennial plants supply carbon and pigeon peas can flourish together while also enriching the soil.
nitrogen to the ground, help to retain water, reduce erosion, fight
off pests and raise crops uptake of chemical fertilizers. The tech- face, and the activity of their deep roots adds nitrogen and car-
niques work well with modern management practices, including bon to the soil. Often farmers use Faidherbia albida, an acacia-
no-till agriculture and organic farming, and with modern crop like species native to the continent. It grows primarily in the
cultivars that have been bred for better drought tolerance and months between the harvest and planting of crops, so it does not
disease and pest resistance. The perennials can also provide compete with them for water, nutrients or sunlight. In regions
farmers with feed for livestock and wood for fuel. where crops are harvested by hand, farmers may plant the trees
Three perenniation methods illustrate how farmers can sus- randomly, but they can also space the trees evenly and far
tainably increase the yields of important staples such as maize enough apart that tractors and combines can navigate through.
and sorghum and so enrich soils. Although other approaches In recent decades more than 100,000 farmers in Zambia have
exist, these three have succeeded in sub-Saharan Africa and have integrated these leguminous fertilizer trees into their maize
great potential to be more widely adopted there. They can help fields. In Niger and Mali, farmers have protected naturally grow-
increase cereal grain yields from one to three metric tons per ing tree seedlings on more than five million hectares of millet
hectare over several years. And lessons learned could benefit and sorghum fields, creating seminatural parklands. Several oth-
other areas of the world with nutrient-poor tropical and subtrop- er tree species are working well, too.
ical soils, including countries in South Asia and South America. The trees, some reaching 30 meters high, also draw up other
nutrients such as phosphorus and potassium because their
TREES AND PEAS roots mine much deeper soil layers than those used by the crops.
The perenniation strategy most widely employed by African As with nitrogen, these nutrients are made available to the
farmers, including Majoni, is known as evergreen agriculture. crops through decomposing leaf litter and root activity. In addi-
Farmers establish certain kinds of trees in the fields of annual tion, the trees protect the crops from hot, dry winds and thereby
crops. Their nitrogen-rich leaves drop and fertilize the soil sur- reduce the amount of water evaporating from the ground. These
PAGE 66 AND THIS PAGE: JIM RICHARDSON

IN BRIEF

Soils in many regions a cross sub-Sa- them and may even make them worse. can rebuild soils and reduce pests while used the three leading perenniation
haran Africa are so depleted that sim- Growing perennial plants s uch as trees, the crops grow, ultimately raising yields. techniques, but millions more need tech-
ply adding fertilizer will not improve shrubs and legumes among food crops More than a million African farmers h ave nical or financial help to exploit them.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ONLINE To learn how perennial crops could replace those that are planted annually, go to ScientificAmerican.com/may2016/reganold

2016 Scientific American


benefits can double grain yields and help to triple them when farmers do not own the land they work or lack firm leases, which
combined with modern crop varieties and fertilizers. can dissuade them from investing in longer-term solutions.
More than 30,000 farmers in East Africa have adopted a sec- To help, the international community should expand its in
ond type of perenniation called the push-pull system. They vestments in perenniation development, supporting efforts to
plant specific perennial plants among the maize fields, as well scale up the successful techniques and backing research into
as around the edges. The plants suppress insect pests and weeds others that farmers and scientists have not tested widely. Some
but can also mitigate erosion, produce animal feed and lessen efforts are well under way. The World Agroforestry Center, an
the need for fertilizers. For example, farmers in East Africa use international research institute that has led the development of
push-pull systems to manage both stem-borer larvae that chew evergreen agriculture, is in the final year of a four-year project
into maize stems and African witchweed, which steals nutrients called Trees for Food Security, in partnership with the govern-
from maize roots. Farmers plant desmodium (Desmodium unci- ments of Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. The Program
natum), a perennial legume usually cultivated to feed livestock, for Sustainable Intensification, run by the U.S. Agency for Inter-
in between rows of maize. It produces a smell that repels, or national Development, is supporting all three of the techniques
pushes out, the stem-borer moths that want to lay their eggs. we have described in regions of sub-Saharan Africa.
And a chemical from its roots suppresses witchweed. Scientists at the International Crops Research Institute for
To further reduce pest damage, farmers may grow perennial the Semi-Arid Tropics, the University of Malawi and Michigan
Napier grass (Pennisetum purpureum), also a valuable livestock State University are helping farmers in East Africa further
feed, around the edges of the maize field to pull in the stem improve doubled-up legume systems. They are developing more
borers. The grass provides an attractive place for the stem bor- types of pigeon peas suitable for different climate conditions
ers that are repelled by the desmodium to lay their eggs, yet it and farmer needs. Other experts have managed to create peren-
produces a sticky resin that traps the hatched larvae. nial versions of traditional annual crops such as sorghum,
Push-pull systems can more than double maize yields when wheat and rice, and they are now trying to raise the yields and
both stem borers and witchweed are problems and increase other desirable characteristics of these novel plants. Washing-
yields by 25to 30percent when only stem borers are an issue. The ton State University, Michigan State and the Land Institute in
livestock feed and increased soil nitrogen are added benefits. Salina, Kan., are breeding perennial grains that could thrive in
Malawian and U.S. scientists developed the third approach diverse farmlands.
the doubled-up legume systemadopted on more than 8,000 These efforts are good starts. But researchers are not yet cer-
farms in Malawi. In its simplest form, a farmer plants a low, tain which perenniation techniques would work best in various
fast-growing legume such as peanut or soybean and adds pigeon environments, in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. An in-depth
pea, another legume that grows taller but much slower and is analysis is needed. To do that, scientists at Rutgers University and
deeper-rooted. The peanuts or soybeans mature in a few a Chinese companys department of agriculture and bioenergy
months, just when the pigeon pea is surpassing them in height have proposed a global network of 27 to 45 research stations,
and would block the sun. After the peanuts or soybeans are har- including in Africa. The stations would study the suitability of a
vested, their leaves fall and enrich the soil. The pigeon pea range of trees, shrubs and other perennials for local climate, envi-
matures in another month or two and is harvested, and its ronmental and cultural conditions. The scientists estimate that
leaves drop, continuing the enrichment. Because the two crops $540 million to $1.8 billion could endow the network with sus-
grow at different rates and tap different depths of the soil, they tainable programs. The losses of nitrogen, phosphorus and potas-
generally do not compete for nutrients or water. This system sium from cultivated fields in sub-Saharan Africa alone have been
boosts the amount of protein-rich plants a farmer can harvest in estimated at $4 billion annually. Considering that perenniation
a year and enhances soils while requiring less labor than two can significantly stem those losses, tap into new sources deeper in
separate crops would. And it broadens the farm familys diet. the soil and, when legumes are involved, reduce nitrogen fertiliz-
Pigeon peas regrow after being harvested. Thus, in the sec- er use, the investment seems worthwhile.
ond season farmers can plant maize among the regrowing Africas farmers face a host of difficulties, yet many have suc-
pigeon peas and subsequently harvest the maize and a second cessfully used perenniation in challenging environments. Ex
crop of the peas. Across two seasons this system produces three panding perenniation will help more of them feed their families
harvests of legumes and one harvest of maize, providing 50per- and neighbors and create incomes for themselves and workers,
cent more protein than the traditional maize-legume rotations. raising their communities standards of living.

OPTIMIZING CROPS TO LOCAL CONDITIONS M O R E TO E X P L O R E


For more than a million African farmers who have integrated
Tripling Crop Yields in Tropical Africa. P edroA. Snchez in Nature Geoscience, V  ol.3,
perennials into their routines, the rewards have been great. They
No.5, pages 299300; May 2010.
have rebuilt soils while sustainably increasing food production Evergreen Agriculture: A Robust Approach to Sustainable Food Security in Africa.
and dramatically improving their livelihoods. But millions more DennisPhilip Garrity etal. in Food Security, V
 ol.2, No.3, pages 197214; September 2010.
farmers in sub-Saharan Africa do not even know the techniques Plant Perennials to Save Africas Soils. J erryD. Glover, JohnP. Reganold and CindyM.
exist, or they need technical or financial help to exploit them. Cox in Nature, V
 ol.489, pages 359361; September 20, 2012.
Good practices, however, are less straightforward than applying FROM OUR ARCHIVES
fertilizer or pesticide. Farmers must learn how to grow perennial
No-Till: The Quiet Revolution. D
 avidR. Huggins and JohnP. Reganold; July 2008.
and annual crops together, manage longer crop rotations and
devise marketing strategies for a diversified harvest. Also, many s c i e n t i f i c a m e r i c a n . c o m /m a g a z i n e /s a

May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com69

2016 Scientific American


RECOMMENDED M O R E TO E X P L O R E
TO READ AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR NEAL BASCOMB, VISIT
By Clara Moskowitz SCIENTIFICAMERICAN.COM/May2016/RECOMMENDED

The Man Who Knew Infinity


IFC Films, 2015. In theaters April 29
For the brilliant mathematician S  rinivasa Ramanujan,
every positive integer was apersonal friend, according to
his colleague John Edensor Littlewood. Starring Dev Patel
as Ramanujan, this biopic portrays the brief life of the
visionary mathematician, who achieved incredible break-
throughs in such fields as number theory, infinite series
and mathematical analysisincluding devising a land-
mark formula to calculate how many different ways one
could sum up each positive integer. The film follows
Ramanujan from his origins as an autodidact and shipping
clerk in what was then Madras, India, to England, where
he traveled to study and work with University ofCam-
bridge mathematician Godfrey Harold (G. H.) Hardy
(played by Jeremy Irons). Despite their differences in back-
ground, culture and education, the two men formed a pro-
found bond grounded in their love for numbers, some-
times to the exclusion ofother people. The movie offers
DEV PATEL (right) and Jeremy Irons
a touching look at their relationship and the revolutionary
in The Man Who Knew Infinity.
discoveries they achieved in their short collaboration.

Rise of the Rocket Girls: Eruption: T


 he Untold Story The Winter Fortress: 
The Women Who of Mount St. Helens The Epic Mission to Sabotage
Propelled Us, from Missiles by Steve Olson. Hitlers Atomic Bomb
to the Moon to Mars W.W. Norton, 2016 ($27.95) by Neal Bascomb.
by Nathalia Holt. Little, Brown, 2016 ($27) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016 ($28)
The death map g  rabs
Before Apple, b  efore your attention. Spread During World War II,
IBM, and before our over two pages in this the German effort to
modern definition of a chronicle of modern develop a nuclear bomb
central processing unit Americas most infamous hinged on arare sub-
partnered with memory, volcano, it lists the names and locations stance called heavy
a computer referred simply to a person of 57 people killed by the eruption of water. Like the A-bomb the U.S. was pur-
who computes, writes scientist and Mount St. Helens in 1980. Hikers, a geolo- suing at the same time, the Nazi design
author Holt in this chronicle of the gist and the most well-known victim, a relied on nuclear fission: as an atomic
human computers who helped to stubborn man named Harry Truman, who nucleus breaks apart, it releases neutrons
launch Americas space program. Most refused to leave his lodge despite the two that shatter other nuclei, resulting in the
computers were women, and the story months of earthquakes that led up to the liberation of more neutrons in achain
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF RICHARD BLANSHARD, AN IFC FILMS RELEASE

starts with a team at the fledgling Jet Pro- explosion, are pinned to their last known reaction that ultimately runs out of con-
pulsion Laboratory in the 1940s, before spots. To explain what people were doing trol and detonates. Whereas the U.S.
it became a nasa center. Using pencils, in the danger zone, journalist Olson used graphite to slow neutrons enough
paper and slide rules, they performed the reconstructs what Earth scientists knew to allow the chain reaction to proceed,
mathematical calculations necessary to and underestimatedabout the volcano. the Nazi bomb needed heavy water.
develop jet planes and rockets. Many of The bulk of Olsons book, though, is about To thwart the plan, the Allies launched
the computers kept working through the the land and people in this part of Wash- a high-stakes commando raid to destroy
1960s and later; some became engineers. ington State, a place of change during the a Norwegian power plant that was
Holt investigates the fascinating lives and preceding century, where roads and Germanys sole source of heavy water.
important contributions of these women, towns and the timber business, and even Writer Bascomb brings this overlooked
who defied the sexist stereotypes of their a zeal for conservation, brought people tale of wartime nuclear sabotage to life
times to play pivotal roles in sending the ever closer to the mountain, lured into while taking care to explain the science
first rockets beyond Earth. harms way. Josh Fischman behind the story.  Jennifer Hackett

70 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


SKEPTIC
V IE W IN G T H E WO R L D Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine
W IT H A R ATI O N A L E Y E (www.skeptic.com). His new book is The Moral Arc 
(Henry Holt, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @michaelshermer

Doomsday Catch Irish potato famine of the 1840s, Ridley notes, reasoning that
famine, in the words of Assistant Secretary to the Treasury
Charles Trevelyan, was an effective mechanism for reducing
Why Malthus makes surplus population. A few decades later Francis Galton advocat-
for bad science policy ed marriage between the fittest individuals (What nature does
By Michael Shermer blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly man may do providently, quickly
and kindly), followed by a number of prominent socialists such
If by fiat I had to identify t he most consequential ideas in the as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Havelock
history of science, good and bad, in the top 10 would be the 1798 Ellis and H.G. Wells, who openly championed eugenics as a tool
treatise A n Essay on the Principle of Population, b  y English of social engineering.
political economist Thomas Robert Malthus. On the positive We think of eugenics and forced sterilization as a right-wing
side of the ledger, it inspired Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Nazi program implemented in 1930s Germany. Yet as Princeton
Wallace to work out the mechanics of natural selection based University economist Thomas Leonard documents in his book
on Malthuss observation that populations tend to increase geo- Illiberal Reformers (Princeton University Press, 2016) and for-
metrically (2, 4, 8, 16...), whereas food reserves grow arithmeti- mer New York Times e ditor Adam Cohen reminds us in his book
cally (2, 3, 4, 5 ...), leading to competition for scarce resources Imbeciles (Penguin, 2016), eugenics fever swept America in the
and differential reproductive success, the driver of evolution. early 20th century, culminating in the 1927 Supreme Court case
On the negative side of the ledger are the policies derived from Buckv. Bell, in which the justices legalized sterilization of unde-
the belief in the inevitability of a Malthusian collapse. The power sirable citizens. The court included prominent progressives
of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the latter of
whom famously ruled, Three generations of imbe-
ciles are enough. The result: sterilization of some
70,000 Americans.
Science writer Ronald Bailey tracks neo-Malthu-
sians in his book The End of Doom (St. Martins Press,
2015), starting with Paul Ehrlichs 1968 best seller The
Population Bomb, which proclaimed that the battle
to feed all of humanity is over. Many doomsayers fol-
lowed. Worldwatch Institute founder Lester Brown,
for example, declared in 1995, Humanitys greatest
challenge may soon be just making it to the next har-
vest. In a 2009 S cientific American a rticle he affirmed
his rhetorical question, Could food shortages bring
down civilization? In a 2013 conference at the Uni-
versity of Vermont, Ehrlich assessed our chances of
avoiding civilizational collapse at only 10percent.
The problem with Malthusians, Bailey writes, is
that they cannot let go of the simple but clearly
subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape wrong idea that human beings are no different than a herd of
or other visit the human race, Malthus gloomily predicted. His deer when it comes to reproduction. Humans are thinking ani-
scenario influenced policy makers to embrace social Darwinism mals. We find solutionsthink Norman Borlaug and the green
and eugenics, resulting in draconian measures to restrict partic- revolution. The result is the opposite of what Malthus predicted:
ular populations family size, including forced sterilizations. the wealthiest nations with the greatest food security have the
In his book T
 he Evolution of Everything (Harper, 2015), evolu- lowest fertility rates, whereas the most food-insecure countries
tionary biologist and journalist Matt Ridley sums up the policy have the highest fertility rates.
succinctly: Better to be cruel to be kind. The belief that those The solution to overpopulation is not to force people to have
in power knew best what was good for the vulnerable and weak fewer children. Chinas one-child policy showed the futility of
led directly to legal actions based on questionable Malthusian that experiment. It is to raise the poorest nations out of poverty
science. For example, the English Poor Law implemented by through democratic governance, free trade, access to birth control,
Queen ElizabethI in 1601 to provide food to the poor was severe- and the education and economic empowerment of women.
ly curtailed by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, based on
Malthusian reasoning that helping the poor only encourages
J O I N T H E C O N V E R S AT I O N O N L I N E
them to have more children and thereby exacerbate poverty. The Visit Scientific American on Facebook and Twitter
British government had a similar Malthusian attitude during the or send a letter to the editor: EDITORS@SCIAM.COM

72 Scientific American, May 2016 Illustration by Izhar Cohen

2016 Scientific American


ANTI GRAVITY
Steve Mirskyhas been writing the Anti Gravity column since a T H E O N G O IN G S E A R C H F O R
typical tectonic plate was about 35 inches from its current location. FU N DA M E N TA L FA R C E S
He also hosts the S cientific American podcast Science Talk.

Big Hummer
Our gorilla cousins sing as they supper
By Steve Mirsky

Where, an old joke asks, d  oes a 400-pound gorilla sleep? Any-


where it wants to, the superannuated gag answers. In keeping
with that line of reasoning, a 400-pound gorilla should similar-
ly hum anytime it wants to. The scientifically verified answer,
however, is that the gorilla in question actually hums when hes
eatingif the gorilla in question is a socially prominent male,
anyway, according to a study recently published in the journal
PLOS ONE. The humming sounds more like rumbling Dolby
Audio in a theater showing a Fast & Furious m  ovie than what
you and I might come up with when were doing the dishes.
But its definitely a hum coming out of that huge, hairy head.
The same study found that some gorillas may even sing
when theyre chewing on a favorite piece of vegetation. (And
you thought it was impolite to even talk with your mouth full.) elicited
Gorilla singing doesnt approach the mellifluous stylings of, a lot of food
say, the Monkees, but its vaguely musical, and the logical thing calls. And ... they
to call this sound that clearly isnt humming would be singing. never called when
Just as humans who perform Aba Daba Honeymoon, with they were eating insects
the immortal line Baba daba daba daba daba daba dab, said like termites or ants. Because feasting on F  ormicidae o r in-
the monkey to the chimp, are certainly singing, even if the gesting Isoptera i s nothing to sing about. Even among gorillas.
work is the nadir of all American expression, according to So whats with all the Sturm und Sang? We believe that the
Thomas Pynchon. food calls have a social function in gorillas, Luef said. They
That gorillas produce such noises was not a total shock. We may signal to [other gorilla] listeners that an individual is
know from studies on chimpanzees and bonobos that great busy eating at the moment. Silverback males have a special
apes produce certain vocalizations while theyre feeding, so- role in gorilla society . . . . They are most often the ones making
called food associated calls, said one of the authors of the new group decisions. So when the silverback sits and eats, the
study, Eva Luef of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in others eat as well. And [when] he gets up and starts to . . .
Germany, in an interview for Scientific Americans Science Talk travel in the forest . . . , the others follow him. So it makes sense
podcast. And our study wanted to investigate whether gorillas for the silverback to signal to his group mates that hes still
do the same. eating and then signal that he has finished eating when he
So Luef and her colleagues trooped off to the Republic of stops calling. In other words, humming and singing may be
the Congo to spend some time with two different populations the dominant males Do Not Disturb sign. And his eventual
of western lowlands gorillas, which have the easy-to-remember silence could be gorilla for Ladies and almostmen, may I have
Linnaean subspecies designation of G  orilla g. gorilla. (See if your attention?
you can guess what the g stands for.) In fact, Luef and her colleagues plan to do more in-depth
Primatologist Dian Fossey, who died in Rwanda in 1985, analysis of gorilla vocalizations to see if they can learn any-
noted that gorillas hum and sang. She categorized such sounds thing about how we came to yap. They want to study how the
as belch vocalizations, which often seemed to signal content- gorillas compose their food songs, she said, and whether they
mentcan you believe some people still dont accept that goril- possess a certain repertoire of song notes, which they combine
las and humans have a common ancestor? into their little food songs. That would be more similar to hu-
The current research, however, is the first to really track the man language because [we have] a certain repertoire of sounds
vocalizations and connect them to specific behaviors. And we we can make, and we combine them into words and different
found that it was [malesblackback adolescents and silver- languages. So if gorillas could do the same with their songs,
back adultsthat] were the most frequent callers, Luef re- that would just be amazing. Aba daba indeed.
vealed. This is not surprising as adult males are usually the
most frequent callers, concerning any gorilla vocalization. And
J O I N T H E C O N V E R S AT I O N O N L I N E
then we found that the food calls were produced when they Visit Scientific American on Facebook and Twitter
were feeding on certain foods. So aquatic vegetation or seeds or send a letter to the editor: EDITORS@SCIAM.COM

Illustration by Matt Collins May 2016, ScientificAmerican.com 73

2016 Scientific American


50, 100 & 150 YEARS AGO S cienti f ic A m erican O N L I N E
FIND ORIGINAL ARTICLES AND IMAGES IN
IN N OVATI O N A N D D I S C OV E RY A S C H R O NI C L E D IN S c ientific A meric an THE Scientific American ARCHIVES AT
Compiled by Daniel C. Schlenoff SCIENTIFICAMERICAN.COM/MAGAZINE/SA

M AY

1966 Josephson
Effect
Four years ago Brian D. Josephson,
facture, supported by continuous
research. David Hawkins 1866 Technology
for Farming
A regular and steady demand
a young graduate student in phys
ics at the University of Cambridge,
made a startling prediction. On the
1916 News from
theWar
After almost five months of
exists for good agricultural imple
ments. Farmers are always look
ing out for those which are really
basis of a purely theoretical analy siege the British forces under durable and advantageous to
sis ofthe phenomenon of supercon 1966 General Townshend at Kut el them, and they seem willing,
ductivity (the abrupt disappearance Amara, in Mesopotamia, have tojudge from the quantities of all
of electrical resistance in certain been compelled to surrender. varieties sold, to give them a fair
substances at temperatures near This force, which originally trial. In this engraving [see illus-
absolute zero), Josephson came to constituted the flying column tration] we have shown anew fod
the conclusion that in principle which attempted to take Baghdad, der cutter (for cutting up animal
a supercurrent consisting of cor was reduced at the time of sur feed) recently introduced in the
related pairs of electrons could render to something less than West [in this case, Richmond,
bemade to flow across an insulat 10,000 men. Shrinking to this Ind.]. It is substantially made and
ing gap between two superconduct 1916 almost negligible number capable ofbeing repaired by any
ing bodies, provided that the gap of men was brought about ordinary mechanic or blacksmith,
was small enough. He further sug by losses incurred during the should an accident happen to it.
gested that this tunneling of elec advance on Baghdad, the re A slide show of more great ideas from
tron pairs through an insulator tirement from the battle of 1866 is at w
 ww.ScientificAmerican.
could take two forms, which have Ctesiphon and the subsequent com/may2016/inventions
come to be known as the Josephson investment of Kut. General
effects. Both forms have been ob Townshends surrender was Bad Air
served in recent experiments. primarily caused by lack of The steamship V  irginia arrived
Josephson shared the 1973 Nobel Prize 1866 food, ammunition, and the at this port recently with a large
inPhysics for his work. dearth ofequipment to meet number ofpassengers on the sick
sanitary needs. list. She was immediately put in
Indicting Detroit The defenders lost Kut despite being quarantine, the sick cared for and
Book review: U  nsafe at Any the first in the history of warfare to be isolated from the city until cured.
Speed: The Designed-In Dangers resupplied by aircraft. Investigations made by the proper
of the American Automobile, officers show that none of the pas
by Ralph Nader. Grossman sengers came from ports infected
Publishers ($5.95). For decades with cholera, and that it was not
we have followed the policy that until some eight days after the
greater automobile safety was to departure ofthe Virginia from
be achieved primarily by campaigns Liverpool, that disease broke out
ofdriving legislation, law enforce on board. It appears that the
ment, technical education and ventilation was so defective that
moral exhortation. This view the passengers suffered greatly,
has had, and for many it still has, and being enfeebled by bad air
the force of an ideological com and insufficient food, were es
mitment. Naders book can be pecially liable to attack. It seems
described as an analysis and passing strange that with all the
acritique of this ideology. Itis modern appliances for obtaining
an adversary work that points fresh air and creating athorough
an accusing finger at the auto circulation in apartments, that
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, VOL. XIV, NO. 19; MAY 5, 1866

mobile manufacturers, charging so little attention is paid to it.


them with indifference, callous- The loss to the owners by the
ness and arrogance in the face of detention of their vessel amounts
genuine possibilities ofsafer auto to alarge sum, and if not for
mobile design. In his conclusion humanity then for the pockets
Nader advocates publicly defined sake, alittle more interest in the
and Federally enforced standards MACHINE FOR FARMERS: A fodder cutter. The proud inven- welfare of the steerage passengers
of safety in design and manu tor probably donned his Sunday best for this 1866 engraving. would pay.

74 Scientific American, May 2016

2016 Scientific American


GRAPHIC S c i e n t i f i c A m e r i c a n O N L INE

SCIENCE TO LEARN HOW LIGHTNING CAN PRODUCE X-RAYS, GO TO


SCIENTIFICAMERICAN.COM/MAY2016/GRAPHIC-SCIENCE

White dots show flashes per year, which define the Flashes per square kilometer per year: 0 233
land and ocean features visible; no other map data were
used.Lightning diminishes toward higher latitudes. Top 500 strike locations: #500 (51 ashes) #1 (233 ashes)

Lightning Hotspots
Central Africa is the epicenter, but a South American lake ranks number one
Lightning flashes above Lake Maracaibo in Venezue- lies nearby (insets below). Ironically, the leading U.S.
la more than anywhere else on earth and does so for spot is not rugged, but a flat corner of the Everglades
a stunning 297 days of the year. Second place goes to near Orangetree, Fla. Africa is home to the most hot
Kahuzi-Biga National Park in the Democratic Re- spots283 of the top 500followed by Asia (with 87),
public of the Congo. A new study of satellite data South America, North America and Australia (col-
spanning 16 years shows that cloud-to-ground light- ored dots on main map). Above land, thunderstorms
ning and intracloud lightning occur most frequently are most prevalent during the afternoon; fewer form
over complex terrainnotably the foothills of rug- over the oceans, but they tend to flare up at night.
ged mountain regions, especially if a big, warm lake  Mark Fischetti

Hindu Kush mountain range

A B C
Lake Victoria
Lake Maracaibo (Venezuela)
SOURCE: WHERE ARE THE LIGHTNING HOTSPOTS ON EARTH? BY RACHELI. ALBRECHT
ET AL., IN BULLETIN OF THE AMERICAN METEOROLOGICAL SOCIETY (IN PRESS)

Kahuzi-Biga National Park


(Democratic Republic of the Congo)

Americas Central Africa Indian Subcontinent


Lake Maracaibo (above) ranks first worldwide for Eight of Africas 10 most active locations are in the Dem In monsoon regions, lightning peaks in spring,
lightning. Hot, humid air rises from the warm lake and ocratic Republic of the Congo, in part because heavy before the drenching rains hit, and returns for
Gulf of Venezuela there, mixing with ocean breezes, moisture from rain forests there mixes with strong vertical a second peak from August to October, as the rains
as well as winds channeled in by the converging Andes air currents, creating an explosive convection scenario, fade. Flashes occur most frequently along the
Mountains. The cauldron often erupts into thunder according to researchers. Lake Victoria, which is adjacent western hills of the Himalayas, where moist, rising
storms very late at night. Six of the other top 10spots to the Mitumba Mountains and is divided among three winds from the sea meet dry air descending from
in South America lie in Andes valleys or foothills. countries, is one hotbed for nighttime storms. the Afghan and Tibetan plateaus.

76 Scientific American, May 2016 Graphic by Pitch Interactive

2016 Scientific American