You are on page 1of 60

THE ANSWER IS 42

And finally we know


what the question is
VAPING SCARE
Alarm spreads as
hundreds fall sick in US
WE’RE STILL EVOLVING
But not necessarily
in a good way
WEEKLY 14 September 2019

THE
HIDDEN
TRUTH ABOUT
SPACE-TIME
A new way to think about
the fabric of reality
By Sean Carroll

No3247
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3 7

WINDING BACK THE CLOCK


9 770262 407312

Biological age reversed in human trial


PLUS COLD-BLOODED GEESE / WHAT COUNTS AS ADDICTION? /
ANOTHER MOON LANDING GOES WRONG / WHALES HAVE ACCENTS
This week’s issue

News 39 What are the limits Features


to Earth’s  stability?
6 Climate summit preview 34 The hidden truth
What to expect from this about space-time
month’s major conference Sean Carroll reveals the
quantum origins of reality
15 Near miss in Earth orbit
We need better ways to 39 Earth’s life-support
avoid pile-ups in space system is broken
But there’s still room
20 Anti-encryption law for cautious optimism
Australia’s regulations raise
JASON EDWARDS/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC IMAGE COLLECTION

widespread concern 42 What counts


as addiction?
The science behind a rapidly
On the cover spreading diagnosis

14 The answer is 42 And finally


we know what the question is The back pages
7 Vaping scare Alarm spreads 51 Maker
as hundreds fall sick in US Create a pest-proof bird feeder

9 We’re still evolving But not 52 Puzzles


necessarily in a good way Quick crossword, a number
Views puzzle and the quick quiz
34 The hidden truth about
space-time A new way to think 22 Comment 28 Aperture 53 Feedback
about the fabric of reality Facebook should hand over data An epic model that could A whale of a saving and crocodile
on elections, says Timothy Revell save the Mississippi delta fears: the week in weird
12 Winding back the clock
Biological age reversed in 23 The columnist 30 Culture 54 Almost the last word
human trial Graham Lawton on when to Can capitalism be transformed Food fatigue and human fossils:
stand up for sacred values into a force for good? our readers respond
14 Cold-blooded geese 42 What
counts as addiction? 5 Another 26 Letters 32 Culture columnist 56 The Q&A
moon landing goes wrong Health apps need to be Chelsea Whyte enjoys Dean Burnett on why teenagers
16 Whales have accents a regulated public good crowdsourced medicine on TV saved the human race

Come and join us at New Scientist Live


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150 interactive experiences. There walk on the moon, glimpse into
will be something for you whether the operating theatre of the future,
you are interested in the multiverse see an Iron Man-esque jet suit in
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Cover image: Mario De Meyer or the deep future. We had 40,000 line-up on the Friday night. newscientistlive.com

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The leader

Einstein’s web
Wanted: original ideas to unpick a tangled legacy

FUNDAMENTAL physics is in a funk. Its Fathoming out what’s what. Physics works by the
guiding programme, to explain things the true nature minimisation of mysteries, and their
by inventing ever more particles, has of the universe current multiplication suggests that
stalled, leaving 95.4 per cent of the stuff hasn't turned out whatever we’ve got wrong, it is
in the universe – the provinces of dark to be easy something pretty fundamental.
matter and dark energy – unexplained. Carroll is far from alone in scratching
What is more, the underlying theory of around this ball park. Recently in these
microscopic reality that physics serves pages, theorist Lee Smolin detailed his
up, quantum theory, presents reality in work that comes to similar conclusions,
a form no one can get their heads round. relativity. With delicious irony, Carroll’s albeit from the very different starting
Oh, and quantum theory doesn’t play new ideas invoke a brainchild of Einstein, point of trying to explain quantum
ball with the other big theory of modern but one he invented to be disowned: theory’s ineffability (24 August, page 34).
physics, Einstein’s general relativity. quantum entanglement, derided by Zoom further out from the realms of
Ah yes, Einstein: one way or another, Einstein as “spooky action at a distance”. physics, and cognitive scientist Donald
you can’t dodge the web he created. In Einstein was both general relativity’s Hoffman’s ideas suggest that space and
seeking new answers to the age-old progenitor and quantum theory’s time are just powerful evolutionary
question of what space and time are greatest critic. History may show illusions (3 August, page 34).
(page 34), theoretical physicist Sean whether neither, one or both of his sets Whether any of these ideas are right
OXYGEN/GETTY

Carroll has to confront Einstein’s legacy of ideas were right. In the meantime, the or indeed necessary remains to be seen.
of an interwoven, highly malleable nature of space and time seems as good But remember, similar concerns swirled
space-time that underlies general a place to start as any to begin sorting around Einstein’s ideas at the time. ❚

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News
Turtle vs dinosaur Ancient footprints Pesticide with bite Puzzle cracked at last Flashbang bot
Surprising fossil may Extraordinary site An insecticide made How to describe the Robots could be used
have been flattened reveals Neanderthals from spider venom number 42 as the sum by police to distract
by a sauropod p7 were as tall as us p8 could help bees p12 of three cubes p14 suspects p15

Medical tech

Moonshot goes wrong Prosthesis helps


you feel each step
India lost contact with its lunar lander as it neared the surface
AN ARTIFICIAL leg with
and is trying to establish what happened, reports Leah Crane built-in sensors is helping
people walk better.
The first two users of
the prosthesis also had
less phantom limb pain,
the condition in which
amputees get sensations
that seem to come from
their missing limb (Nature
Medicine, doi.org/dbbh).
Stanisa Raspopovic at the
Swiss Federal Institute of
Technology in Zurich and his
team made the prosthesis
using a commercially
available artificial leg. They
added sensors on the sole of
the foot and inside the knee
that could be connected by
wires to nerves in a user’s
thigh. ❚ Clare Wilson
MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/GETTY

Surgery

Supercooled livers
may aid transplants
ONCE again, an attempt to land the planned trajectory. Shortly The press await news DONOR livers can be kept
on the moon hasn’t gone to plan. afterwards, the lander lost contact of Vikram’s landing at a outside the body for much
On 6 September, the Indian Space with Earth and may not have been tracking facility in India longer thanks to a new
Research Organisation (ISRO) lost able to slow itself enough to touch supercooling method.
contact with the Vikram lander down safely. Ice is important for human The technique lowers
during its attempt to set down on On 8 September, ISRO said that space flight because it can be used the organ’s temperature
the surface. It initially appeared a thermal image had been taken of to make rocket fuel and support below 0˚C without forming
that the craft had crashed, just five the lander by the orbiter. As New astronauts. That is why NASA’s damaging ice crystals inside
months after Israel’s Beresheet Scientist went to press, there were plan to put humans on the lunar it (Nature Biotechnology,
lunar lander faced a similar fate. reports that the lander was intact surface again in 2024 also involves doi.org/dbbj). This means
Vikram is a part of the and lying on its side – but these landing near the south pole. livers can be kept for up
Chandrayaan 2 mission, which hadn’t been confirmed by ISRO. Chandrayaan 2’s orbiter to a day and a half, which
launched from the Satish Dhawan The agency hasn’t re-established remains in position around the could boost the number
Space Centre in India on 22 July. communication with Vikram. moon, where it was intended to of transplants carried out.
The mission also includes an The spacecraft was intended relay data from the lander and The method could also be
orbiter that is circling the moon to touch down near the moon’s rover back to Earth as well as used on other organs, says
and a rover called Pragyan carried unexplored south pole, where no taking measurements of its own. Reinier de Vries at Harvard
inside the lander. lander or rover has been before. The orbiter itself is carrying Medical School.
Most of the descent went This region is interesting because eight scientific instruments, Currently, livers can only
smoothly. But when Vikram was its craters contain areas that are in which will still be used to map be stored for 12 hours,
just 2 kilometres above the permanent shadow, where water the moon’s surface and to study limiting the distance they
surface, it started to diverge from ice can remain frozen. its atmosphere. ❚ can be transported. ❚ CW

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 5


News
UN climate summit

Crunch time for climate change


Heads of state will meet to discuss how to ramp up efforts to tackle global
warming, but few are expecting much progress, reports Adam Vaughan
HOPES of a breakthrough in new coal power beyond 2020. China, but such guidance has Paris deal’s tougher and minimum
international climate change Three days before the meeting, been absent under Donald Trump, targets, says Niklas Hagelberg of
ambitions are being downplayed Swedish campaigner Greta who has started the process of the UN Environment Programme.
for a meeting in New York in two Thunberg will be among the withdrawing the US from the Most countries are expected to
weeks’ time. The United Nations thousands expected on New York’s Paris agreement in 2020. The EU’s submit a new NDC in the first half
Climate Action summit looks streets for a “global climate strike”, failure this summer to adopt a of next year, ahead of a key UN
likely to disappoint the thousands with potentially millions more goal of net zero emissions for climate conference in November
of campaigners set to take to the joining worldwide. Two days after 2050 also hurt momentum. 2020 that is likely to be co-hosted
city’s streets just days before. the summit, scientists will issue Despite the gloom, anywhere by the UK and Italy.
The summit is arguably the between 60 and 100 countries If current pledges are delivered,
most important moment for “Greta Thunberg will be are expected to arrive with a the world will warm by around 3°C
action on climate change since the among the thousands plan on 23 September. No major by 2100, says Niklas Höhne of
Paris climate deal was agreed in expected in New York for economies are expected to Climate Action Tracker (CAT).
2015. A key part of that agreement a global climate strike” announce stronger nationally Those pledges, including China’s
was that by 2020, countries would determined contributions (NDCs),
“ratchet up” the carbon-curbing a report on how global warming UN jargon for carbon-curbing Between
plans they put forward in Paris, will affect the planet’s oceans plans, but some smaller ones 60 and 100

MICHAEL GOTTSCHALK/GETTY
which were insufficient to meet and frozen regions. may. Many will come with a countries
the agreement’s goals. Although these events will “commitment to commit” later. will attend
UN secretary general António shine a spotlight on the summit, “For me, it’s a really important the UN
Guterres has called on leaders to expectations are relatively low. staging post, an inflection point summit in
form concrete, realistic plans, “I don’t think we should expect where, at leader level, we get a New York
rather than “beautiful speeches”. some huge breakthrough,” says sense of how transformational
He has set the bar high for heads Nicholas Stern at the London this can be for economies,”
of state, who are expected to School of Economics. says Nick Bridge, the UK’s top emissions peaking by around
include Narendra Modi of India, “It is not quite where climate envoy. He believes 2030, will see emissions continue
Emmanuel Macron of France, everybody hoped it would be at Guterres is right to make bold to rise for the next 10 years. For a
Angela Merkel of Germany and this point,” says a source close to demands. “A lot of this is getting 2°C limit, they must fall by 30 per
the UK’s Boris Johnson. US the UK government, who doesn’t back to the evidence and the cent over that period and by
president Donald Trump is want to be named. science. Are we meeting what 50 per cent for a 1.5°C limit.
expected to snub the event. This is partly due to the EU we need to do? No,” he says. “We are not a little bit off, we are
Guterres has made four specific and the US. The leadership role The ambition of existing NDCs really far off,” says Höhne. At best,
requests: carbon neutrality plans that the latter played ahead of needs to increase five times for the the new NDCs in aggregate might
for 2050, ways to tackle fossil fuel the Paris summit was crucial to world to limit temperature rises to shave something in the order of
subsidies, taxing carbon and no securing commitments from 1.5°C and three times for 2°C, the 0.1°C off future warming, rather
than a dramatic change like 0.5°C,
he says. However, he sees reasons
The current carbon-cutting for optimism beyond national
plans of most countries are governments. An analysis by CAT
insufficient to meet the UN’s
found that if cities, regions and
Paris agreement to limit
global warming to 2°C, with business deliver all the emissions
many predicted to cause cuts they have promised by 2030,
higher temperature rises the world could still stay under the
2°C limit, albeit not under 1.5°C.
“That is encouraging,” he says.
Critically insufficient (4°C+) Stern doesn’t think this month’s
Highly insufficient (<4°C) summit will be when promises
Insufficient (<3°C) materialise that close the gap
Compatible (<2°C) between 3°C and “well below”
Compatible (1.5°C) 2°C, as Paris demands. “The most
No data important thing is the shared
recognition of the magnitude
SOURCE: CLIMATE ACTION TRACKER, JUNE 2019 of the task ahead,” he says.  ❚

6 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


Palaeontology Briefing E-cigarettes

Jurassic turtle may


have been trodden Concern over vaping deaths
on by giant dinosaur Three people have died and hundreds have become
Michael Marshall seriously ill after vaping. Chelsea Whyte reports
A JURASSIC turtle seems to have STATE governments in the
been squashed flat before it US are cracking down on
was fossilised, possibly because e-cigarettes, after three deaths
a giant dinosaur trod on it. were attributed to vaping-
The marine turtle fossil was related lung conditions.
found in 2007 in Switzerland Here’s what you need to know.
and dates from about 155 million
years ago. This was the late How did these deaths occur?
Jurassic period, when huge, In July, an Illinois resident
long-necked sauropod dinosaurs developed a lung infection
dominated the land. and died after using a vaping
Most turtles from the time are device that contained
found in marine sediments, but marijuana oil. Then, on 5 and
this one was on land. “It’s like a 6 September, two deaths were CHRISTIAN HORZ/EYEEM/GETTY

tidal flat, where we mostly found confirmed in Oregon and


dinosaur prints and tracks,” says Indiana involving vaping and
palaeontologist Christian Püntener, respiratory problems.
who was employed by the It isn’t clear how these
Republic and Canton of the Jura problems led to the deaths.
in Switzerland to study local It could be that something
fossils. Finding the turtle there either in the e-cigarette or of these cases, people reported E-cigarettes can help
is significant, he says, because the substances smoked using e-cigarettes. But no single people quit smoking, but
previously there was no hard through them caused product or substance has been their risks are uncertain
evidence that Jurassic marine inflammation of the lungs. associated with all the illnesses.
turtles ventured onto land. Ann Thomas, a public health for which we have little
The turtle was on its back, which Has anyone else been ill? physician in Oregon, said in information about related
suggests it had become stuck on The US Centers for Disease a statement that we don’t yet harms – including flavourings,
the tidal flat and died there, says Control and Prevention (CDC) know the exact cause of these nicotine, cannabinoids, and
Püntener. It isn’t known what it says that as of 6 September, 450 illnesses, or whether they solvents,” said CDC director
was doing there. One possibility possible cases of vaping-related are due to ingredients in the Robert Redfield in a statement.
is that it came ashore to lay eggs, severe lung disease have been vaping liquid, contaminants
as marine turtles do today, but it is reported by 33 states. In addition or the devices themselves. What is happening now?
unclear whether the animal was One potential cause has Public health departments
male or female. If the tidal flat “We don’t know if the been identified by the US Food in some US states are
was a nursery, there ought to be illnesses are due to and Drug Administration. urging people to stop using
more turtle fossils. ingredients, contaminants An oil derived from vitamin E any kind of vaping device
However, the most striking thing or the vaping devices” was found in nearly all vaped immediately. On 4 September, 
about the turtle is the state of the cannabis samples from people Michigan became the first
fossil. Most of it is unusually flat. to three deaths, this multistate who fell ill in New York. But that US state to ban flavoured
Seen from the side, a big chunk outbreak includes people who oil wasn’t found in tests of the e-cigarettes.
of it is visibly lower than the rest have reported coughs, shortness nicotine products that had
in the rocks. This suggests a heavy of breath, chest pain, fever, been used by others who also Are these illnesses a concern
weight crushed much of the shell. fatigue, nausea, vomiting and had lung problems after vaping. in the UK?
The rock layers in which it was diarrhoea. Some people turn up The UK regulates e-cigarettes
found also contain many dinosaur to hospital with symptoms that So are e-cigarettes dangerous? that contain nicotine more
footprints. The lowered part of look like pneumonia, and have We simply don’t know. tightly than the US. “Advice
the turtle fossil is 7.5 centimetres been put on ventilators or Some research has shown to discourage people from
below the rest, which is about treated in intensive care units. that vaping is less harmful vaping legal, regulated e-liquids
the depth of the dinosaur tracks, than smoking traditional appears to be unwarranted
meaning a huge, long-necked Do we know whether these cigarettes, but using and risks pushing people back
sauropod may have trodden on symptoms are caused by vaping? e-cigarettes still carries risk. to smoking,” said Sarah Jackson
the turtle’s corpse after its death We aren’t certain, but there “Vaping exposes users at University College London
(PaleorXiv, doi.org/c99s). ❚ could be a connection. In each to many different substances in a statement. ❚

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 7


News
Astrophysics

Have we seen gravitational


waves? Some still doubt it
Michael Brooks

THE Nobel prizewinning LIGO To minimise the risk of noise LIGO’s detectors must
collaboration has published a creating false alarms, LIGO screen out noise from tiny
paper describing in more detail initially used two detectors seismic tremors
than ever before how it analyses situated 3000 kilometres apart.
gravitational wave signals, partly The noise experienced by each are known to distort phases,” says
in response to an investigation should be entirely different. Andrew Jackson, spokesperson for
by New Scientist. But some However, the Danish group the Danish group.
physicists still say LIGO’s work claimed to have found similarities Jackson and his colleagues also
contains errors. in the noise seen by both detectors object to LIGO’s use of “whitened”
Almost no one doubts that when they observed that first data. This practice involves
gravitational waves exist. They are gravitational wave. This suggested reducing the level of prominent
a prediction of general relativity, LIGO’s signal processing hadn’t frequencies in the signal, which
a highly successful physics theory. been done properly, the team said. CALTECH/MIT/LIGO LAB arise because of the vibration
When the Laser Interferometer A New Scientist investigation of wires that suspend the laser-
Gravitational-Wave Observatory reported on all this and exposed guiding mirrors in the detector.
(LIGO) first announced it had more irregularities in the The Danish group believes this
detected one in 2016 it was cause presentation of LIGO’s data also creates distortions.
for celebration but not surprise. (3 November 2018, p 28). unexpected correlations to be It can’t prove this, the group
But a team of researchers based This prompted the LIGO seen”. It also suggests that the says, because LIGO hasn’t released
at the Niels Bohr Institute in collaboration to promise a full Danish analysis is flawed. enough raw data. However,
Copenhagen, Denmark, has since justification of its techniques, “The Danish group neglected LIGO’s new paper points out that
questioned whether LIGO’s signal to implement basic steps in the four independent groups have
analysis is reliable. “‘The data windowing analysis,” says Patrick Brady at performed analyses of the
LIGO’s detectors aim to spot techniques LIGO has the University of Wisconsin- available data, and their outcomes
space itself being rhythmically adopted are known Milwaukee, a LIGO spokesperson. support LIGO’s conclusions.
squeezed and compressed. They to distort signals“ That includes “windowing” Among those external scientists
do this by firing lasers along tubes the data, which isolates particular are John Moffatt and Martin Green
roughly 4 kilometres long and which has now been published wave frequencies for analysis. at the Perimeter Institute for
checking how the distance they (arxiv.org/abs/1908.11170). However, the Danish researchers Theoretical Physics in Canada.
travel changes. However, these The LIGO collaboration, which still insist that windowing is a They disagree with the Danish
changes are minuscule and the has been augmented by a third mistake as it skews the signal group’s analysis. “I remain
detectors pick up random noise, detector in Italy, is confident in its and renders further analysis convinced that their analysis
such as weak seismic tremors, methods, the paper says. It says unreliable. “The data windowing and conclusions are not correct,”
as well as gravitational waves. that “there are no anomalous or techniques that LIGO has adopted says Green. ❚

Ancient humans

Neanderthals may “The discovery of so many A Neanderthal made by children and adolescents,
Neanderthal footprints at one footprint with the youngest being around
have been taller site is extraordinary,” says Isabelle discovered 2 years old (PNAS, doi.org/dbbg). 
than we thought De Groote at Liverpool John Moores at Le Rozel in Evidence from skeletons has
DOMINIQUE CLIQUET

University, UK, who wasn’t involved northern France previously suggested that adult
THE biggest collection of with the study. Neanderthals were smaller than
Neanderthal footprints yet found Before this discovery, only adult modern humans, usually
hints we may have underestimated nine Neanderthal footprints were reaching between 150 centimetres
our ancient cousins’ height.  known, from four different sites, and 160 centimetres tall. But some
More than 250 fossil footprints says Jérémy Duveau of the French only known hominins in Europe at of the Le Rozel footprints seem
were found in the bed of a coastal National Museum of Natural that time – Homo sapiens arrived to have been made by someone
creek in Le Rozel, northern History in Paris. 35,000 years later. with a height of 175 centimetres.
France. They were made around Although Duveau and his team Based on the size of the This is the average height of a
80,000 years ago and preserved can’t be certain who made the footprints, the team estimated that man in the US today. ❚
in sandy mud.  footprints, Neanderthals were the more than 90 per cent of them were Alison George

8 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


Why did humans become so smart?
Mark Maslin explains our evolution
newscientistlive.com
Human evolution

Hidden mutations revealed


Europeans have been accumulating harmful DNA mutations for thousands of years
Michael Marshall

THE number of mildly harmful person to person. Many of these


mutations among people of genetic variants have previously
European ancestry has been been found to be associated
gradually increasing ever since with diseases like asthma and
modern humans first moved diabetes, although their effects
into the continent. Although are often small: having a single
many of these mutations are harmful variant would only
linked to diseases, their individual slightly increase a person’s
effects are minor, and it is unlikely chances of developing a disorder.
that they are causing the people Aris-Brosou found that the
who have them significant harm. number of mildly harmful
Our species evolved in Africa variants in the European
and made significant strides population has steadily increased
into Europe only 45,000 years ago. over time (Molecular Biology and
MAXIPHOTO/GETTY

The groups that made this move Evolution, doi.org/c99g). This is


were relatively small. probably because mutations were
To find out if the small size harder to shake off in Europe’s
of Europe’s founding populations small initial populations, and
may have affected the DNA of more able to spread.
their descendants, Stéphane The findings are in line European or African descent. Harmful gene variants
Aris-Brosou at the University with existing studies, says It may seem odd that harmful have become more
of Ottawa in Canada examined Laura Botigué at the Centre for mutations have become more common in Europe
the genomes of 2062 people Research in Agricultural Genomics common, because natural
of European ancestry, including in Barcelona, Spain. “What is selection is supposed to winnow populations. “There could have
1179 ancient genomes dating back significant and new is the fact they out disease-causing genes. been some mutations that were
to up to 45,000 years ago. include ancient specimens,” she However, in small populations, terribly deleterious, but that have
For each genome, he looked says. Previous studies used only the power of natural selection been driven to extinction, so the
at 1.2 million sites where a single modern people, for example is reduced, especially when it mutations disappeared,” he says.
“letter” on the DNA varies from comparing living people of mainly comes to slightly negative genetic There is no way to identify such
changes. Previous studies have harmful mutations in the ancient
found that mildly harmful DNA, if they aren’t present today.
Smoking may change your children’s gene activity mutations seem to be more Aris-Brosou and Botigué agree
common in populations that that the lingering mutations in
It isn’t just DNA that can change The pups whose fathers had have gone through bottlenecks. In European populations are nothing
(see story above). The epigenetic been exposed to smoke had 2016, Botigué helped to show that to worry about. “I think it’s
markers that affect the activity altered epigenetic patterns, populations outside Africa carry obvious that it’s fine, because we
of our genes can alter too. Now and different gene activity more mildly harmful mutations are fine,” says Botigué. “Humans
it seems that lifestyle choices in the prefrontal cortex, a than populations in Africa. are still around,” says Aris-Brosou.
such as smoking can lead to region of the brain involved in However, natural selection can There is also little we could do
epigenetic changes that may personality and social behaviour still keep very bad mutations in about the mutations. Although
affect your future children. (bioRxiv, doi.org/c99h). check in small groups. “I think the European population as a
Kenneth Aston at the This suggests that epigenetic everyone would agree now whole carries more mildly
University of Utah and his changes in sperm can go on to that highly deleterious mutations harmful mutations than African
colleagues have found that the affect future children. do not increase with human populations, if you compared
sperm of men who smoke have Men need to be aware of this, expansions,” says Botigué. This individuals from the two
different epigenetic patterns says Aston. “I don’t think many is because people carrying such continents you wouldn’t see
from the sperm of men who don’t. men think about the impacts mutations are unlikely to live a difference, says Botigué.
To see if such epigenetic that their behaviour prior to long enough to have children, no This is because we all carry so
changes may affect children, conception has on their offspring. matter what size the population is. few of the mutations. As a result,
the team exposed male mice to That’s something I didn’t think Aris-Brosou points out that his it isn’t possible to identify
cigarette smoke and examined about when I was having kids.” study has a big limitation: he individuals or groups in Europe
offspring they subsequently had. Michael Le Page could look only at genetic variants who have greater or smaller
known to be harmful in modern shares of the mutations. ❚

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 9


News
Interview Shep Doeleman

Supermassive honour
The astronomers who took the first ever photo of a black hole have won
a $3 million Breakthrough Prize. Leah Crane spoke to the team’s leader
AFTER decades of dodgy special gathered in 2017, and we just saw
effects and artist’s impressions, the raw data in graphs. But even
the world got its first look at a real there, we could see signs of what
black hole in April. The image might have been a silhouette of a
(right) quickly spread around the black hole. We split up into four
globe, hitting the front pages of different groups and each
many newspapers. It shows an analysed the data separately.
ethereal ring of orange light When we came together and saw
around the supermassive black that all four teams had seen this
hole at the heart of the M87 galaxy, ring, that’s when we began to
55 million light years from Earth. exhale. We knew that we had it.
It was taken using the combined
power of eight radio observatories What do you think is the importance

EHT COLLABORATION
around the world by the Event of the image?
Horizon Telescope (EHT) team. It is destined to be iconic,
The international group of I think, just because it was the
387 scientists who took the image first time that we’ve seen a black
hole, and seeing is believing.
Shep We were focused on the science, they eat timidly, how do they send crucial to understanding these
Doeleman, but it was the resonance of the out their jets? We’ve started to monsters and how galaxies
STEPHANIE MITCHELL/HARVARD

head of image across the globe with a understand these things. interact with them.
the Event curious public that rocked us So we are focusing on building
Horizon a little bit on our heels. What’s next for the EHT? new dishes and maybe even
Telescope Scientifically, the first thing that Scientists are never satisfied and launching telescopes into space.
we have done with it is to confirm the EHT is no exception. What In 20 years, I think that we will
that Einstein’s theory of gravity we’re focusing on now is building have space-based platforms, so
holds, to the precision of our out the telescope array so we can that the EHT will not be limited
has now been awarded the measurements, right up to the try to make videos that show us by the size of Earth, which will
$3 million Special Breakthrough very edge of a supermassive black dynamically how matter orbits sharpen our images. I think
Prize in Fundamental Physics hole. We have also started to the black hole. We think that we’re entering an era of precision
in recognition of its work. New understand black hole accretion. understanding how these black imaging of black holes.
Scientist spoke with the leader of Do black holes eat voraciously, do holes eat, live, exist over time is
the collaboration, Shep Doeleman Why is that so important?
at Harvard University. There are no deeper questions in
And the other winners are… the universe than how black holes
First things first: how does the work. That is because we know
EHT work? Researchers from around the Also rewarded was David Julius that, at their heart, they contain
It basically turns Earth into a world have been awarded a total at the University of California, San a mystery – of how gravity and
telescope. We do that by using of more than $20 million in this Francisco, who found mechanisms quantum mechanics work
radio dishes across the globe that year’s Breakthrough Prizes. The through which we experience together. This is the deepest
all look at the same black hole at physics winner was the team pain, and Virginia Man-Yee Lee at question there is right now.
the same time. Then, we take the behind the Event Horizon the University of Pennsylvania, for
hard drives from those telescopes Telescope (see main interview). identifying important proteins in How do you feel about the prize?
and fly them to one place and use There were four winners in dementia and Alzheimer’s. I know the whole team feels this
a supercomputer to line up all the the life sciences, each picking The Breakthrough Prize in sense of accomplishment. To have
data. When you do that, it’s like up $3 million. They include Mathematics went to Alex Eskin our peers recognise our work, to
having a telescope as big as Earth. Jeffrey Friedman at Rockefeller at the University of Chicago. He have a prize like the Breakthrough
University in New York, who worked with the late Maryam Prize recognise it, means that it’s
How did it feel to see that image discovered how we regulate body Mirzakhani on the dynamics not just that we think we did
of a black hole for the first time? fat genetically and hormonally in and geometry of a complicated something important – the whole
It was jaw-dropping. It came in 1994. This has led to a greater mathematical construct called world feels it. I couldn’t be more
waves for us. We first started understanding of obesity. moduli space. proud of the team. I just couldn’t
looking at the data that we had be more proud. ❚

10 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


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News
Biochemistry Ageing

Spider venom used to Drug cocktail


lowers biological
kill pests but not bees age in men
Leo Benedictus Helen Thomson

IS THIS the world’s first age- drug therapy (Aging Cell,


reversal medicine? A group of doi.org/c985).
nine men have followed a year- Without also testing the
long drug regime that appeared effect of a placebo, it is difficult
to reverse the ageing process, to prove that the intervention
leaving them biologically a caused the anti-ageing effect.
year and half younger than However, the team says that
when they started. despite the small number of
The clinical trial was the first participants, the results
ROBERT VALENTIC/NATUREPL.COM

to investigate the possibility wouldn’t be expected by


that a drug might be able to chance, and it is unlikely that
reverse some of the biological lifestyle changes would have
signs of ageing, increasing contributed significantly.
lifespan. However, the results Fahy and his colleagues
are only tentative because this acknowledge that a placebo
was a feasibility study and effect could have influenced
there was no control group. the results, which they
A BITE from a funnel-web spider The highly toxic venom of Greg Fahy, at 21st Century will study in a future trial
delivers neurotoxins that can kill funnel-web spiders could Medicine in Fontana, involving 100 participants.
an adult human in hours, or a child help protect bees California, and his colleagues Spontaneous ageing reversal
in minutes. Yet they might be our gave the nine men, aged is unlikely, says Fahy. “If
friends in the fight against the Spider venom contains a cocktail between 51 and 65, a placebo by itself caused such
small hive beetle, a dangerous of ingredients, and one of the drug cocktail including
new threat to bees. funnel-web’s toxins – Hv1a – is recombinant human growth Early signs
In southern Africa, where it fatal to most insects, including hormone three to four times for a drug

MICHAEL HEIM/EYEEM/GETTY
originates, the small hive beetle small hive beetles, but seems to a week for a year. At the that can roll
(Aethina tumida) is a minor pest. have no effect on bees or humans. beginning and the end of the back the
African honeybees defend their The trouble is that Hv1a needs trial, the team measured the years look
nests so aggressively that the to be injected. If beetles swallow participants’ biological age. encouraging
invader rarely gets a foothold. the toxin, it degrades in their gut We all have a chronological
Outside Africa, however, nests and has little effect. age – the number of candles
of European honeybees (Apis So Fitches and her team have on our birthday cake – and an
mellifera) are often devastated by bound Hv1a to a molecule found epigenetic, or biological age, a strong effect, it would be
the beetle and its larvae, which in the spring-flowering common which is a measure of how expected that many prior
devour the honey, pollen and brood, snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis), quickly the cells in our body interventions would have
destroy the combs and sometimes which effectively carries it are deteriorating compared reported similar effects.”
through the gut barrier. In the with the average seen in the The drug cocktail used in
“The nests of European lab, the team fed this “fusion general population. These the trial was designed to repair
honeybees are often protein” in a sugar solution two figures can differ, and the thymus, a small organ that
devastated by the small to beetles and their larvae. our epigenetic age is often a plays a key role in the immune
hive beetle and its larvae” After two days, the larvae started better predictor of lifespan. system, and which shrinks
“writhing”. Within a week, all the Fahy’s team used four tests with age. This shrinking is
introduce diseases. Some pesticides larvae and adults were dead. The of epigenetic age. On average, linked to poor immune
can kill the beetles, but they would team also placed beetle eggs on a across the tests, the volunteers’ function and early death.
harm the bees as well. piece of honeycomb containing bee epigenetic age was 1.5 years Fahy’s team gave
Now Elaine Fitches and her brood, which was then sprayed younger after the treatment. recombinant human growth
colleagues at the University of with the engineered compound. The most advanced test, hormone to the participants
Durham, UK, and Fera Science, The honeycomb and bees survived “GrimAge” – named after the because studies suggest it can
a firm co-owned by the UK virtually untouched, but most of Grim Reaper – showed a two- regenerate the thymus. Too
Department for Environment, Food the new beetle larvae died (Journal year decrease in epigenetic much of it can trigger diabetes,
and Rural Affairs, think funnel-web of Pest Science, doi.org/c96x). versus chronological age that however, so the participants
spiders may provide the weapon “I was absolutely chuffed to bits persisted six months after took additional drugs to
we need to stop the beetles. with these results,” Fitches says. ❚ the men stopped taking the prevent this. ❚

12 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


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News
Animal physiology

Goose blood runs cold


Some birds have unusual ways to cope with high-altitude flying
Chelsea Whyte

BAR-HEADED geese migrate across


the Himalayas, reaching altitudes of
up to 7270 metres where the thin
air contains just 30 to 50 per cent of
the oxygen that air at sea level has.
To understand this feat,
Jessica Meir at NASA’s Johnson
Space Center in Texas and her
colleagues raised bar-headed geese
from eggs so that the birds would
imprint on them, seeing them as
their parents. Then, they trained the
birds to fly in a wind tunnel wearing
a breathing mask that simulated the
limited oxygen at high altitudes.
They discovered that the geese
lowered their metabolism during
these taxing flights and their heart
rates didn’t increase. The team also
found that the blood in the birds’
veins cooled as they flew in the
wind tunnel (eLife, doi.org/c96s).
OHN DOWNER/GETTY

Cold blood can carry more


oxygen than warm blood, which
may help the geese fuel the muscles
that help them fly.  ❚

Maths

Elusive mystery of the number 42 solved


IT MIGHT not tell us the meaning but fiendishly difficult to solve. numbers requires vast strings of which was previously the lowest
of life, the universe and everything, Andrew Booker at the digits and computing power. unsolved example.
but mathematicians have cracked University of Bristol, UK, The solution for 42, which We know for certain that
a tricky problem involving the and Andrew Sutherland at Booker and Sutherland found some whole numbers, such as
number 42. the Massachusetts Institute of using an algorithm, is: 4, 5 and 13, can’t be expressed as
The origins of this puzzle Technology have now solved 42 = (-80538738812075974)3 + the sum of three cubes. However,
go back a long way. In 1825, a the problem for 42, the only 804357581458175153 + the problem is still unsolved for
mathematician known as S. Ryley 126021232973356313. 10 numbers under 1000, the
proved that any fraction could be “It is an example of a They worked with software smallest of which is 114.
represented as the sum of three maths riddle that is easy firm Charity Engine to run the The team will next search for
cubes of fractions. Then, in the to state but fiendishly program across more than another solution to the number 3.
1950s, a mathematician named difficult to solve” 400,000 volunteers’ idle “It’s possible we’ll find it in the
Louis Mordell asked whether the computers, using processing next few months; it’s possible
same could be done for integers, number under 100 for which a power that would otherwise be it won’t be for another 100 years,”
or whole numbers. solution hadn’t been found. wasted. It is equivalent to a single says Booker.
In other words, are there Some numbers have simple computer processor running Those interested in aiding the
whole numbers k, x, y and z such solutions. The number 3, for continuously for more than search can volunteer computing
that k = x3 + y3 + z3 for each possible example, can be expressed as 50 years, says Sutherland. power through Charity Engine,
value of k? It is an example of a 13 + 13 + 13 and 43 + 43 + (-5)3. But Earlier this year, Booker found says Sutherland.  ❚
maths riddle that is easy to state solving the problem for other a sum of cubes for the number 33, Donna Lu

14 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


Learn about the threat
from space junk
newscientistlive.com
Technology Analysis Earth orbit

Police could throw


robot into buildings
We need better ways of
to help end sieges stopping space pile-ups
David Hambling Jonathan O’Callaghan

ROBOTS fitted with devices to A SATELLITE owned by the when the risk of collision was also working to create mega
distract suspects could be hurled European Space Agency (ESA) still low. SpaceX blamed this constellations for the same
through broken windows before has had to dodge one owned by on a “bug in our on-call paging purpose, with more than
police storm buildings. US entrepreneur Elon Musk. The system”. As a result, ESA was 20,000 satellites planned in
The idea is to take small robots incident raises critical questions forced to fire Aeolus’s thrusters all. There are only 2000 active
called Throwbots that many US about whether we need clearer to move it. satellites orbiting Earth today.
police departments already use rules on navigation as the Situations like this arise quite It is all too apparent that our
and add a device that disorientates number of objects in orbit soars. often – ESA says it executed archaic rules, based largely on
people by producing a loud bang The near miss happened avoidance manoeuvres 28 times 1967’s Outer Space Treaty, can’t
and brilliant flash of light. on 2 September, as the ESA’s in 2018 – and there are no laws cope with this increase. Space
Weighing about half a kilogram, Aeolus satellite, which monitors on how each operator should consultant Rand Simberg,
Throwbots can be tossed through wind patterns, was orbiting act. Safe resolution relies on however, says he is working
windows or over walls. Then they 320 kilometres above Earth. In with the US government to
can be driven around to explore
rooms with video cameras and
infrared sensors.
May, Musk’s company SpaceX
launched 60 communications
satellites, and one of these,
12,000
Number of satellites planned for
update the rules. “The goal is to
try right now to develop some
customary laws and norms,”
The robots are made by Starlink 44, veered dangerously SpaceX’s Starlink constellation he says. “I’m hoping that within
Minnesota-based Recon close to Aeolus. According to the next few months we’ll have
Robotics and, unlike robots for ESA, the chance of a collision goodwill communication to some draft language.”
bomb disposal, they can be was one in 1000 – 10 times clarify who will move. It may be a challenge to
higher than the level of risk “It highlights that the current, reach agreement though.
“The robot can unleash that necessitates an avoidance mostly ad-hoc, system probably “I wouldn’t want government
a loud bang and brilliant manoeuvre. SpaceX put the is not suitable for where we’re to impose rules of the road
flash to distract suspects risk even higher, at one in 591. going to be in the next few regulation,” says Tim Maclay,
before police storm in” While ESA says it wasn’t years,” says Brian Weeden at director of mission systems
perturbed by the incident, a lack the Secure World Foundation, engineering at OneWeb.
operated with minimal training. of response from SpaceX caused an organisation which “It could be that we get to a
The firm says around 6000 unnecessary uncertainty. The promotes cooperation in space. point where that kind of a
Throwbots have been sold. firm failed to correspond with Incidents like this are structure is necessary, but
The plan is to offer an upgraded the agency during the five days probably going to become more I don’t think we’re there yet.”
version fitted with the Enhanced in the run-up to the incident, common. SpaceX has plans to Others say we need proper
Diversionary Device, a modern apart from one email early on put 12,000 Starlink satellites in rules soon. “We’ve never seen
version of a stun grenade, often orbit to provide global internet constellations this large before,”
called a flashbang. This variant Aeolus, a European connections. Other companies, says Weeden. At the most basic
of the grenade, made by another satellite, had to move including Amazon, OneWeb and level, deciding who has right
firm called Liberty Dynamic, to avoid a SpaceX craft Kepler Communications, are of way could be crucial. ❚
doesn’t explode but ejects a cloud
of material that reacts to produce
a flash and a bang in mid-air.
There is no shrapnel, so the
firm says it has a much lower risk
of starting a fire or causing injury,
and results in less smoke than
earlier devices. “Flashbang
devices are a lot more problematic
than acknowledged by law
enforcement,“ says Peter Kraska at
Eastern Kentucky University. They
are explosives, which can and have
ESA/ATG MEDIALAB

led to serious mishaps, he says.


The robot and diversionary
device is intended for hostage
rescue and police SWAT teams. ❚

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 15


News In brief
Animal behaviour

Song of the wandering


whale betrays its origins
YOU can often tell where a central Pacific, including the Cook
person comes from when they Islands and French Polynesia. Song
speak. The same thing seems to type 2 was most common in the
apply to humpback whales: their west, including New Caledonia,
songs can reveal their origin. Tonga and Niue. And song type 3
Ellen Garland at the University of was only recorded in the waters
St Andrews in the UK and her team near eastern Australia.
made the discovery by recording the Then the researchers compared
songs of humpback whales passing these songs with those of the
near the Kermadec Islands in the whales near the Kermadec Islands,
South Pacific. They also recorded a migratory stopover. Based on the
whale songs at spots where they percentage of similarity between
gather to feed and breed across the recordings, the team could pinpoint
western and central South Pacific, where the whales at the Kermadec
and off east and west Australia. Islands originated.
The team broke down each song These findings were confirmed
into units, like notes, that build with genetic and photographic
together to make a phrase, and identification of the singing whales.
TONY WU/NATUREPL.COM

several phrases that repeat to form The team concluded most of the
a theme. A few themes are sung in a Kermadec whales came from New
set order to form a song. They found Caledonia, Niue and the Cook
three song types from 52 whales. Islands (Royal Society Open Science,
Song type 1 was dominant in the doi.org/c96d). Chelsea Whyte

Neuroscience Physics

30 minutes. Many later developed Now Eric Hessels at York


Single head injury problems with thinking, memory Closing in on true University in Canada and his
can spark decline and motivation. The scans showed size of protons team have developed a way to
that 15 of them have unusually measure the proton’s radius by
ONE major blow to the head is high levels of tau in their brains, WE AREN’T sure what the radius sending hydrogen atoms through
enough to trigger progressive particularly in the outer layers. of the proton is but a new way of two sets of radio waves with
brain deterioration and long-term That may be because these layers measuring it is helping. slightly different frequencies. This
cognitive decline in some people. are most vulnerable to external Until 2010, we were fairly sure excited some of the atoms into a
We already know that repeated impacts (Science Translational about the proton’s size. We had higher energy state. By measuring
knocks to the head – like those Medicine, doi.org/c96b). measured it using hydrogen how many atoms remained in the
sustained in boxing and American High levels of tau have also atoms made of one proton and an lower energy state, the researchers
football – can lead to personality been found in the outer brain electron. Then, a measurement could calculate the proton’s radius.
changes, cognitive problems and layers of former athletes with using muonic hydrogen – in which The result matched that from
depression years later. This CTE, particularly in those who the electron is replaced by another the muonic hydrogen, supporting
condition, known as chronic have had the most head blows. particle called a muon – found a the idea that the proton is smaller
traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), This is consistent with the idea value 4 per cent lower. than we thought before 2010, at
is associated with gradual build-up that brain deterioration can come around 0.83 femtometres, or
of a protein called tau in the brain. from either several relatively slightly less than one million-
David Sharp at Imperial College minor brain injuries or from a billionth of a metre (Science,
London and his team wondered if single severe one, says the team. doi.org/c96c).
similar changes can occur after Both types of head injury “More and more measurements
LAGUNA DESIGN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

just one bad head injury. probably damage brain structures seem to pile up at the smaller
To find out, they scanned the called microtubules that are radius now, so maybe this puzzle
brains of 21 men and women who stabilised by tau proteins, say the will diffuse away,” says Thomas
had a single major head injury researchers. This, in turn, could Udem at the Max Planck Institute
18 to 51 years ago in a car accident, make the tau proteins turn rogue of Quantum Optics in Germany.
assault or fall. They all experienced and start forming large tangled Other experiments are under way
severe initial symptoms like loss clumps that gradually harm the to provide further evidence.
of consciousness for more than rest of the brain. Alice Klein Leah Crane

16 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


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Linguistics
Really brief
The team worked out the Vietnamese was spoken at
All languages get info information density of each 5 syllables per second, making
over at the same rate language, in terms of bits of the rate at which information is
information per syllable. This conveyed similar for both (Science
SPEECH conveys information at varies from 5 bits per syllable for Advances, doi.org/gf7jw3).
the same optimal rate, no matter Basque to 8 bits for Vietnamese. “There’s this pretty strong push
what language we use. Next, the team asked 10 native to go for an optimal information
François Pellegrino and his speakers of each language to read rate,” says team member Dan
TOM SHLESINGER

team at the University of Lyon 15 equivalent texts. What they Dediu. “We all have similar brains
in France analysed 17 languages, found was that while the speech and similar articulatory organs, so
from English to Japanese, that rate – in terms of syllables per there are universal constraints.”
vary greatly in terms of the second – varied, those speaking What is behind the constraints
Timing goes awry number of basic sounds, number more information-dense tongues isn’t clear. It might be to do with
on coral reefs of syllables, use of tones and so speak more slowly, on average. the effort of speaking or of
on. For instance, there are 7000 For instance, Basque was spoken understanding speech, or be
Climate change seems distinct syllables in English and at a faster rate of 8 syllables per related to brainwave frequency,
to be prompting corals just a few hundred in Japanese. second, on average, while says Dediu. Michael Le Page
to spawn days or even
months out of sync with Primatology Palaeontology
each other. Releasing
their tiny eggs and sperm
bundles at different times Ancient worm had a
may be one reason why bit of get up and go
coral reproduction has
been declining (Science, AN EXTINCT creature that looked
doi.org/c983). like a cross between a millipede
and an earthworm was one of
KYOTO UNIVERSITY, PRIMATE RESEARCH INSTITUTE

Vegetarians have the first animals that could move


healthier hearts under its own power.
Yilingia spiciformis was up to
Eating a vegetarian diet 27 centimetres long and 2.6 cm
has been linked with a wide. It had body segments, each
22 per cent lower risk with two spiky appendages, so
of heart disease, but a looked a bit like an ear of wheat.
20 per cent increased risk The fossilised remains, found in
of stroke. Over a 10-year China, are up to 551 million years
period, vegetarians had old. This puts it in the Ediacaran
10 fewer cases of heart period, when the first confirmed
disease per 1000 people AI that tracks chimps will multicellular animals appear in
than meat eaters, but the fossil record.
three more cases of stroke help reveal their wild lives As well as fossils of Y. spiciformis,
(The BMJ, doi.org/c984). the rocks also yielded 13 trace
AN ARTIFICIAL intelligence that images and when the chimps fossils: tracks that were left by
Explosions made detects, tracks and recognises weren’t looking at the camera. the animals as they moved along
the lakes of Titan chimpanzees could help us fathom Overall identity recognition seabed sediment. One body fossil
their complex behaviour in the wild. accuracy was 92 per cent. was actually found right next to
Saturn’s largest moon Arsha Nagrani at the University When faced with 100 random its tracks, offering hard evidence
Titan is dotted with lakes of Oxford and her colleagues have still images, the AI had an accuracy that Y. spiciformis was able to
brimming with liquid developed a facial recognition AI of 84 per cent, taking 30 seconds move (Nature, doi.org/c959).
methane. We assumed that can detect and identify chimps to complete the task. Researchers “It is the first segmented animal
these formed by rocks in video recorded in the wild. Using experienced in recognising the that has been shown to be capable
dissolving, but it turns it reduces the time and resources chimps took 55 minutes and had of directional movement,” says
out the irregular shapes of needed to track animals. an average accuracy of 42 per cent Shuhai Xiao at Virginia Tech.
the lake basins are better The team trained the AI on (Science Advances, doi.org/c958). Xiao says that Y. spiciformis isn’t
explained if they were 50 hours of footage of 23 chimps in The system will allow researchers quite the oldest animal that could
formed by explosions Bossou in Guinea, West Africa. This to more efficiently examine how move from A to B. “The first
(Nature Geosciences, yielded 10 million facial images. The behaviour and social interactions mobile animal is probably about
DOI: 10.1038/s41561- AI learned to continuously track and vary over years and generations 565 million years old,” he says.
019-0429-0). recognise animals, says Nagrani. to track changes in community One such creature was the slug-
It worked even on low-quality structure over time. Donna Lu like Kimberella. Michael Marshall

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 17


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The battery of
the future – today
As the world becomes more aware of CO2 emissions,
new lithium ion batteries are needed to extend the range
of electric vehicles. Now Johnson Matthey has developed
the special cathode material that will make them work

T
HE future is electric – at least for cars. performance is the design of the cathode
The only real question is when that electrode, which contains lithium ions.
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But the numbers will depend on the processes occur in the opposite direction.
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This is no easy task. Battery chemistry is many times over.
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challenge of safely storing so much energy in accept lithium ions and electrons is a key
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And yet scientists at one of the world’s performance. “The amount of lithium you’re
leading chemicals and sustainable able to shuttle back and forth is the battery’s
technologies companies say they’re creating capacity,” says Joanna Clark, Head of
Product Development for battery materials at Better batteries are an enabling
“Lithium ions are like Jenga Johnson Matthey. “The more lithium the technology for electric cars
cathode is able to release without the
bricks; take out too many structure becoming unstable, the more important turning point for the industry.
and the structure collapses” capacity and energy you have, and the more To keep the arrangement stable, cathode
miles in your tank.” How quickly you can electrodes are typically layered structures
the most advanced battery materials yet. move lithium in and out of the structure is with lithium interspersed with other metal
The company in question is Johnson also important – this is the power oxides. “Think about the cathode structure as
Matthey, a global leader in science that performance, and in electric vehicles it a big pile of Jenga bricks,” explains Clark.
makes the world cleaner and healthier. relates to acceleration and how long it takes “Every time you take a lithium ion out, it’s like
It produces the catalytic converters found in to recharge the battery. taking one brick out of the tower. You can only
a third of all cars worldwide, it manufactures Johnson Matthey has been developing take so many out before the structure
the components at the heart of fuel cells and and testing better battery materials. collapses.”
it has increased the sustainability of many Recently, its researchers came up with a To reach the energies required to combat
industrial processes, such as the refining of novel combination of cathode materials that range anxiety and encourage the mass-
precious metals, as well as using its science should significantly improve the range and adoption of electric vehicles, battery
to enable life-enhancing pharmaceuticals. acceleration of electric cars, while also manufacturers are moving to high-nickel
Now the task of applying its science to build making them quicker to recharge. The chemistries. Nickel provides energy, but it
better batteries is one of its most significant breakthrough could help bring electric cars comes at the cost of stability – so it gives you
areas of development. into the mainstream, by lessoning the need the miles in your tank but limits the useful life
One of the keys to a battery’s capacity and for car driver behaviour changes, marking an of the battery.
The key to harnessing this energy is loss of capacity). In engineering terms,
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is cobalt. However, cobalt is expensive, efficiency and economics of large-scale
which makes its use in large electric car battery manufacturing.
batteries uneconomic. Finding the right combination is only one
Furthermore, ethical sources are in part of the challenge. “You can only get so far
short supply. So to keep everything stable, looking at materials composition alone,” says
it’s necessary to add small amounts of Clark. “You also have to process it into an
cheaper metals, such as manganese or electrode and get the best out of it in that way.
aluminium – but these do not bring some We have an understanding of that. You
benefits afforded by cobalt, so there are cannot design the best material unless you
trade-offs. understand how it performs as an electrode
The trick that Johnson Matthey’s scientists and in a battery cell.”
have perfected is to find just the right The trick, she adds, was to find a way to
combination and arrangement of metals. use the smallest possible amount of cobalt
Their work involves experimenting with and to stabilise the highest possible amount of
simulating the physical and chemical nickel, essentially by putting all the
properties of various formulations. component metals in the right places in the
The result is a portfolio of new ultra high cathode structure. “This was engineering at
energy cathode materials, known as eLNO, the atomic level.”
which have high levels of nickel but low levels
of cobalt. The nickel-rich mix ensures a high-
energy product but the other metals ensure Atomic engineering
the stability and safety of the design. All this is possible because of Johnson
This combination maximises two Matthey’s decades-long expertise in
crucial aspects of a battery’s design–its catalysis and materials science. The
energy density (the amount you get in a company has a team with diverse scientific
certain volume or mass) and its cycle life and engineering backgrounds who played
(how many times you can discharge and a major part in the achievement.
recharge the battery without significant Andy Walker, Technical Marketing
Director at Johnson Matthey, adds: “The
class-leading energy density of our eLNO
Charge technology enables a significant increase in
e– e– the distance that electric vehicles can drive
e– e– before needing to recharge, which will
Discharge
increase customer pull for these vehicles,
accelerating the electrification of the
CATHODE ELECTROLYTE ANODE
automobile market.”
The future of the electric car market, and
+ the speed with which consumers switch from
+ + + +
+ + + + petrol and diesel vehicles in favour of the
+
+ + + + + + + cleaner alternative, will depend on several
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+ + + + + +
+ + performance, the time it takes to ‘refuel’ and
+ + + + + how far you can travel on a full tank.
+ + +
+ Most batteries currently on the market tick
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+ + + eLNO technology, Johnson Matthey says it
+ + +
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Much more needs to happen: electric
eLNO metals Lithium ion Graphite layers vehicle infrastructure such as charging points
SOURCE: DOI: 10.1016/j.ssi.2017.12.023 is still woefully inadequate, for example. But
as Clark points out, with the right batteries,
“the potential is limitless”.
As the battery discharges, the lithium ions move across the electrolyte and into the cathode.
During charging, the ions move back into the electrolyte. The trick is to do this quickly and
efficiently while ensuring the integrity of the cathode lattice over many charging cycles Find out more at: matthey.com/elno
eLNO is a trademark of Johnson Matthey
News Insight
Privacy

Hidden surveillance
Australia’s anti-encryption measures have led to widespread concerns
over civil liberties, reports Ruby Prosser Scully
POLITICIANS around the world
are calling for so-called back
doors to let them read messages
on encrypted chat apps. But
the surprising fall-out from
Australia’s sweeping new
encryption regulations reveals
that such breaches of privacy can
have unexpected consequences.
During her time as UK prime
minister, Theresa May repeatedly
called for tech companies to
provide her government with
ways to access encrypted
messages, believing that terrorists
were using them to communicate.
This sentiment hasn’t gone
away. In late July, the UK’s new
home secretary Priti Patel said
messaging apps shouldn’t
“empower criminals” by
providing a sealed-off means

JASON REED/REUTERS
of communication. Meanwhile,
the Trump administration in
the US reportedly met recently
to debate whether to ban
methods of encryption that law
enforcement can’t break. A form of this technology called Tech firms in Australia say
But in Australia, a law approved end-to-end encryption has gained Sneaky peeks their products could be
by parliament in late 2018 has popularity in the past few years. seen as less secure
raised strong privacy concerns, Offered by apps like WhatsApp In 2013, Edward Snowden,
without much evidence that the and Telegram, it means that then working for the US to help them access a user’s
introduced measures have helped messages are never stored in a National Security Agency, communications. If the
thwart any crime. Leaders of other decrypted form by the service revealed the details of an company doesn’t want to, the
provider, so they can’t ever read agreement between the NSA agency can compel them to by
Telegram them. That is a strong draw for and several tech companies. issuing a technical assistance
gives users the some privacy-minded individuals. The firms gave the agency notice. If a company says it can’t
option of using “These services are covert access to their users’ comply because its technology
REUTERS/THOMAS WHITE

end-to-end designed from the beginning messages – a secret back door. doesn’t allow it, then the
encryption so that the service provider After these revelations, government can force it to
doesn’t know what is being many firms began offering make changes to its service that
communicated,” says Vanessa end-to-end encryption, would allow compliance.
Teague at the University meaning they never store How that works is a matter of
of Melbourne, Australia. decrypted messages. It is debate. One reading of the law is
nations looking to manage Nevertheless, governments almost impossible to break that companies can be forced to
encryption would do well to study want a back door into such modern encryption, so these hack their own users, for example
the country’s cautionary tale. systems. This was the impetus firms can’t provide a back door. by installing what is effectively
Encryption is a mainstay for the most controversial part But there is a loophole: malware to read their messages
of digital services like online of Australia’s new law, the if someone can access your before they are encrypted (see
shopping, email and messaging Assistance and Access Act. It gives smartphone, they might be able “Sneaky peeks”, left).
apps. It means that information law enforcement and intelligence to sneak a look at messages In comments submitted to the
is scrambled unless your device agencies three main powers. before they are encrypted. Australian parliament, Apple said
has the cryptographic key. First off, they can ask tech firms such measures could, for example,

20 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


What you need to know about data privacy Working
Hear Jason Nurse reveal why your data is so valuable hypothesis
newscientistlive.com Sorting the week’s
supernovae from the
absolute zeros

“allow the government to order What tech firms have There are worries that this
the makers of smart home said about Australia’s will have a chilling effect on
speakers to install persistent encryption law: whistle-blowers and journalism.
eavesdropping capabilities into Riana Pfefferkorn, at the Center
a person’s home”. “This bill could allow the for Internet and Society at
The government has said government to order Stanford Law School in California, ▲ Badminton
it won’t force companies to the makers of smart wrote to the Australian parliament Complex exercise like
introduce a “systemic weakness”. home speakers to to make this point in June. racket sports that involve
That phrasing is contentious. It is install persistent Have the new regulations tactics gives you a bigger
possible for even subtle changes to eavesdropping capabilities helped investigate and prevent cognitive boost than
computer code to introduce into a person’s home” terrorism? Australia’s home affairs simpler workouts like
vulnerabilities that hackers can Apple minister Peter Dutton has said jogging. Smashing.
exploit, sometimes without being that the law has played a “very
detected for many years. This positive role, in a number of ▲ Giant magnet
means that almost any change “The underlying assumption investigations”. A whopping magnet
that the government forces firms of the Act, that a security Yet if people want to get around weighing 9 tonnes has
to make could have the potential vulnerability can be the law, they may be able to, says been delivered to St Jude
to endanger people’s privacy. created for a targeted David Tuffley at Griffith University Children’s Research
Unsurprisingly, this law has technology without in Queensland. For example, Hospital in Memphis,
made tech companies concerned creating a systematic they could use services from Tennessee. It will be
over the future of their sector weakness or vulnerability, companies based outside part of an instrument
in Australia. Microsoft has said is technically flawed” Australia that aren’t inclined to for studying proteins.
companies it works with are Amazon comply with the country’s rulings.
no longer comfortable about What can politicians in other ▼ Dave the snake
storing their data there. And a countries take from all this? A two-headed rattlesnake
survey of people working in the “The law has created Australia’s experience seems to found in New Jersey has
country’s cybersecurity industry uncertainty for our staff underline that it is extremely been named Double Dave.
found that the third-highest and our customers. It difficult to enable a back door He will be looked after
concern was consumers places the tech industry into encrypted messages in captivity, but probably
perceiving their products as less in a chokehold” without threatening civil won’t live long.
secure thanks to the new law. Scott Farquhar, co-founder of liberties and tech businesses.
Although framed as targeting software firm Atlassian Many campaigners in Australia ▼ Boris balloon
terrorism, the law’s scope includes want the law scrapped. “Civil With helium prices
a range of relatively minor crimes, society organisations have been soaring, protesters in
from white collar offences like Previously, police would have calling for a wholesale repeal of London opted to fill an
copyright infringement to required a special warrant to the act,” says O’Shea. Failing that, inflatable UK prime
growing and selling marijuana. search through a journalist’s one way to ameliorate the effects minister with air instead.
An unexpected impact of this digital notes. The new would be to require judicial
has been high-profile searches encryption law has granted oversight of the powers, she says. ▼ Nessie
of journalists’ property. For them the power to “add, copy, There is some possibility that Scientists have confirmed
example, in 2018, reporter delete or alter” material that this could happen. Two reviews that Loch Ness contains
Annika Smethurst exposed secret they find on any of a journalist’s of the law are due to report DNA from 3000 species,
emails between Australian public devices without necessarily early next year and they may but none from monsters.
servants discussing a plan to allow having a warrant. recommend such changes.
the country’s cybersecurity Lizzie O’Shea, a legal expert at Things might play out
agency to covertly monitor Digital Rights Watch, says the new differently in other countries,
citizens. On 4 June, the federal law also gives the police power to because Australia is one of the few
MATT84/GETTY; KZENON/GETTY

police raided her home and install malware on a journalist’s liberal democracies without a bill
searched her electronic devices phone and get information that of human rights. If politicians in
to find the source of her story. way, without anyone knowing. the UK or US introduced an
Police have also raided Australian “Who knows what kinds of encryption law, citizens would
Broadcasting Corporation offices things are happening under have human rights legislation
in Sydney using the same powers. the cover of secrecy,” she says. as a protective counterpoint. ❚

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 21


Views
The columnist Letters Aperture Culture Culture columnist
Graham Lawton on Health apps need An epic model Can capitalism be Chelsea Whyte
when to stand up for to be a regulated that could save the transformed into enjoys crowdsourced
sacred values p23 public good p26 Mississippi delta p28 a force for good? p30 medicine on TV p32

Comment

Facebook, hand it over


We are still waiting for promised data to help us determine
how social media influences elections, says Timothy Revell

Timothy Revell is New Scientist’s


assistant news editor. Follow
him on Twitter @timothyrevell

Nobody said this was going


to be easy. There are privacy laws
to navigate – Facebook cites the
recent EU data protection
regulations, GDPR, as one such
problem. Issues around how
anonymous anonymised
information actually is means that
if Facebook gives away too much
data, it could easily be linked to
individuals, but if it doesn’t give
enough the data won’t be useful.
The company has had its fingers
burned before, too. It used to be
easy for researchers to get their
hands on Facebook data. Privacy
breaches and the Cambridge
Analytica affair were the result.
Those stumbling blocks
shouldn’t derail the project.

C
OME on Facebook, give us using anonymised user data. “The announced the first research More than 2 billion people use
the evidence. Months after last two years have taught us that projects. They included one Facebook each month and the
the company said it would the same Facebook tools that looking at the impact of people alleged influence on elections
hand over data to help determine help politicians connect with their sharing fake news, another cuts to the heart of democratic
if the social media site really can constituents… can also be misused measuring the extent of values. Facebook has just over
affect election results, we are still to manipulate and deceive,” disinformation campaigns a month to put its best brains on
waiting. Now it looks as if the the firm wrote in a blog post. by the Internet Research Agency the case. It should share as much
whole project could collapse. The question is: how much? in Russia and a third assessing data as possible, being transparent
Facebook’s electoral influence Just because people see a political the spread of polarised content. in how it does so, while still
has come under much scrutiny post or advert on Facebook doesn’t The projects span elections maintaining people’s privacy.
in recent years. Accusations mean it affects how they think or in countries from Europe, If there are genuinely
of fake news, allegations of state vote – even if they share, comment Asia, North America and unsolvable issues with sharing
meddling and the use of private on or “like” it. Studies before have South America. the data, the public deserves to
data for political purposes in the shown correlations. Facebook’s Yet, months on, researchers are know: in its public statements
Cambridge Analytica scandal have offer seemed to promise the data still waiting for much of the data. so far, Facebook barely admits
knocked the company’s image. for a full post-match analysis. Now, as BuzzFeed News revealed there is anything wrong.
It acknowledged as much in In April this year, the Social last month, the SSRC has said that The firm’s motto was once to
April 2018 when it announced that Science Research Council (SSRC), unless the data is handed over by “move fast and break things”.
JOSIE FORD

it would allow researchers to study a US non-profit organisation 30 September, the funders backing Now that things are broken,
social media’s impact on elections administering the initiative, the project will withdraw. will it move fast to fix them? ❚

22 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


Views Columnist
No planet B

The trouble with democracy The apparently never-ending


Brexit crisis may hold some lessons for how we tackle
climate change, writes Graham Lawton

L
AST week, I found myself but wherever you stand on self-interest? At this point, I
participating in a pro- the Brexit issue, the same basic, don’t think these are hypothetical
democracy demonstration: broader question applies. In a questions. Every election from
not in Hong Kong or some other democracy, is it ever legitimate now on, in every jurisdiction, is
distant authoritarian state, but to decide that an objective is of a test of democracy’s ability to
in the heart of my own city, such profound importance that avert climate disaster. Its track
London. I am no stranger to established political structures or record so far isn’t encouraging.
protest marches, but I never constitutional procedures can be At some point, then,
expected to have to take to the swept aside to achieve it? environmentalists may have to
Graham Lawton is a staff streets to defend something as Contemplating the Brexit ask themselves a very difficult
writer at New Scientist and fundamental to British life as struggle, I was reminded of question: which is more
author of The Origin of (Almost) parliamentary democracy. conversations I had with scientists important, saving the planet or
Everything. You can follow him That was before prime minister and policy-makers after the saving democracy? As we have
@grahamlawton Boris Johnson announced his Intergovernmental Panel on seen with Brexit, I think we will
intention to suspend parliament Climate Change published its 2018 find that many people who are
for five weeks in order to push report about the radical and rapid otherwise impeccable democrats
through a no-deal Brexit. changes required to stop warming will decide ditching democracy is
Yes, the B-word. I didn’t really from exceeding 1.5°C. Some openly the lesser of two evils. Some may
want to write about Brexit. This look with envy to authoritarian
is a column about environmental “Which is more regimes such as China, which
issues. But bear with me, because important, saving has stated its aim to build an
I believe the current state of UK “ecological civilisation” and,
the planet or saving
politics tells us something about politically, looks more capable
Graham’s week environmental battles to come. democracy?” of doing so than any democracy.
What I’m reading The “stop the coup” protests – At this point, it helps to bring
Ian McEwan’s novel, and counter-protests – outside the in a bit of cognitive science. For
Machines Like Me, an Palace of Westminster in the past many people in the UK, Brexit
alternative history of AI weeks weren’t widely reported appears to have become what is
if Alan Turing had lived as pro-democracy rallies, but I called a “sacred value”: something
think that is fundamentally what so central to their identity and
What I’m watching they are. The idea of proroguing worldview that it trumps all else.
The new series of Only parliament to secure Brexit As the name implies, such values
Connect has started. In is, to many, including myself, are often religious, but not always.
my house, it is known as profoundly undemocratic – not to Nationalism, freedom and
The Impossible Quiz mention darkly ironic, given one questioned whether the scale democracy are sacred for
oft-cited reason for Brexit, for the of the challenge was compatible some people, too.
What I’m working on UK to restore full parliamentary with democracy. Environmentalism can also be
An article about sovereignty and take back You can see why they worry. a sacred value. When the climate
humanity’s first great democratic control of its affairs. Environmental action is political. crisis bites harder, we will face a
maritime voyage, I do understand that there is The status quo is dragging us to similar reckoning. Now I’m on the
50,000 years ago another way of looking at it. In the disaster and we face difficult side of parliamentary democracy,
2016 referendum, the majority of choices about how we run the but when the shit truly hits the
voters supported the UK leaving economy, obtain energy and fan, I’m not so sure that I would
the EU, but three years and a lot of food, move ourselves around and take to the streets to defend it.
parliamentary wrangling later, the build infrastructure. Freedoms we Is there a way to reconcile the
UK is still in it. If parliament has to take for granted will have to be two? When I asked Caroline Lucas,
be suspended to deliver the will of constrained. There will be losers. the UK’s only Green party MP,
the people, then so be it: the direct Will it really be possible to whether climate action was
REUTERS/HENRY NICHOLLS

democracy of the referendum persuade enough people to make compatible with democracy,
trumps the representative the necessary sacrifices to avert she said yes – but only if we build
This column appears democracy of parliament. environmental disaster? Or will a mass movement to persuade
monthly. Up next week: There are counterarguments to the majority kick the can down politicians to act. Time to put
Annalee Newitz the counterarguments, of course, the road and vote for short-term my marching boots back on.  ❚

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 23


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Views Your letters

Editor’s pick
Health apps need to be
a regulated public good
24 August, p 9
From Alan Taman, Birmingham, UK
I was encouraged to read that
the National Health Service in
England is taking the need to
develop IT-based healthcare
seriously. Clare Wilson’s report
rightly pointed out the need for
companies developing IT with
therapeutic or diagnostic aims
to consider evidence-based
development as paramount to
patient safety and effectiveness.
But the greatest danger isn’t
that companies selling “health”
apps that they claim are diagnostic
or therapeutic fail to understand the
need to develop evidence-based
and peer-reviewed products. It is
that the market actively discourages
the time and trouble this takes. It
encourages strategies that focus on being Andre Geim’s expression of referendum, the mood on the It also shows that the magnitude of
maximising short-term profit with regret over Brexit and its likely streets has changed. Many have the mismatch between the sexual
little or no regard for peer review or effect on scientific enquiry. freely acknowledged that they orientation label one adopts and
high standards of evidence about never understood the full one’s actual sexual inclinations
effectiveness. Understanding isn’t From David Daniels, implications of their decision is a good predictor of the distress
enough: we need regulation. Robertsbridge, East Sussex, UK to vote to leave and have changed one feels about one’s sexuality.
This is anathema to the market- In the interests of science and their minds. The real reasons
led thinking that dominates the the country, Geim proposes, the behind the Brexit situation
The unnecessary carbon
development of “health” apps. UK must implement the result of need to be understood.
Nearly all of these rely on individual the referendum and leave the EU. footprint of your kitchen
purchase, so if they work, they run But leading hard-line Brexiteers Letters, 24 August
Sexual orientation is
the risk of exacerbating existing follow a political and economic From Dinah Sage,
health inequalities or creating philosophy that aims to reduce the somewhere on a continuum Malvern, Worcestershire, UK
new ones. The NHS can develop role of a societal state in myriad 17 August, p 23 As Wiebina Heesterman notes,
effective, universal IT-based ways: lower standards for food and From Robert Epstein, kitchen appliances generate
medicine that is in every way as products, less support by the state Vista, California, US nearly seven times as many
good as, if not better than, many for the disadvantaged and reduced Andrew Barron’s perceptive emissions as food transport.
commercial products. But while employment rights. view of the simplistic idea Cooking in a microwave or on
market-led thinking dominates After the referendum, I became that only two types of sexual the hob takes much less energy
development, it is fighting with involved with the European orientation exist is supported than heating a conventional oven,
one hand tied behind its back. Movement, of which the former by large data sets that I have been but instructions on ready meals
Conservative prime minister accumulating since 2006. In 2012, and in recipes usually specify the
Winston Churchill was a founding I  published a study of 17,785 oven, which is unnecessary for
We need to understand the
member. I spent time on the participants from 48 countries curries and casseroles. Fish almost
reasons for the Brexit vote streets engaging with the public that supports the assertion by always comes with instructions
24 August, p 23 about Brexit. biologist Alfred Kinsey that to cook in an oven, with no
From Balint Bodroghy, The level of ignorance about sexual orientation lies smoothly alternative given.
Brighton, UK the EU, the reasons why it was set on a continuum (Journal of Traditionally, the oven was
Opening New Scientist is like up, its operations and benefits and Homosexuality, doi.org/c92p). used once or twice a week, for
stepping into a stream of cool the peace that has existed since I plan to publish next year a main course and batches of
fresh air, free of tendentious 1945 was staggering. a study with more than 600,000 baking, to save fuel. Surely
partisan advocacy and suffused This points to a decades-long participants from 219 countries avoiding oven use when
by a balanced, evidence-based failure by the EU to counter the and territories that further practical would save time,
view of the world – an example propaganda. Since the Brexit supports Kinsey’s assertion. money and emissions.

26 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


mediocrity in nature and society, of which command high prices? Peacock feathers put
It is time to consider an
which argues that, in the absence Encouraging seaweeds to grow
ammonia energy economy of proof of a specific evolutionary in their proper place
around their margins could
Letters, 3 August advantage, giraffes’ long necks protect from erosion, as well 10 August, p 14
From Phil Pope, Bristol, UK should be considered the fruit as supplying another crop. From Bill Naylor,
Scott McNeil raises concerns of chance. But since they clearly This could also provide Wilsford, Lincolnshire, UK
about producing batteries for have major disadvantages, if they nurseries for fish. Offshore You say peacocks have elaborate
electric vehicles and welcomes had no significant advantage they oil rigs, often seen as pollution tail feathers to impress peahens.
the discussion of hydrogen power would have been bred out. sources, show greatly enhanced The iridescent feathers that make
(8 June, p 20). It is some years since Milo dismisses competition productivity compared with the up the bird’s train and fan out to
you have covered the potential for with other browsers, saying their open sea. impress mates are the upper tail
an ammonia-based fuel economy. nearest competitor is 2 metres coverts. The male peacock’s actual
Ammonia can be compressed shorter. The nearest competitor tail is dull and is raised to support
Prospecting for minerals
and stored much more easily than to a giraffe is another giraffe. the train. It is much shorter than
hydrogen. We already have some from the remains of leaves the tails of other members of the
infrastructure for producing and 17 August, p 12 Phasianidae family.
There is a study on the
transporting it, due to its use in From Kevin Privett,
fertiliser production. It can be a effects of organic food Llandough, South Glamorgan, UK
Letters, 3 August Is a slow magnetic pole flip
direct substitute for natural gas I read your article on gold
in domestic boilers. It can be From Ann Wills, London, UK prospecting using tree leaves really less worrying?
produced using electricity We need to look at an organic with interest. One way to improve 17 August, p17
from intermittent renewable diet and compare the health detection might be to analyse From Bryn Glover, Kirkby Malzeard,
sources, storing energy without outcomes in groups of people the shallow soil where leaves fall North Yorkshire, UK
batteries, and be used in fuel cells who consume organic foods with and rot each year, concentrating I don’t understand why Ruby
or internal combustion engines. those who don’t, suggests Aroha the metals locally over time. Prosser Scully thinks that the
It seems to be a technology that Mahoney. There is a study that As an undergraduate in the erratic behaviour of the magnetic
is ripe for implementation. monitored the diet and health of 1970s, I saw this on the Downs, a poles is less worrying than once
nearly 70,000 people for seven park in Bristol. Trees there take up thought, because any flip will take
years. It found 25 per cent lower naturally occurring uranium into longer than previously imagined.
Classifying dementia may
rates of cancer diagnosis among their leaves. Using a radiation Surely any flip would leave Earth
help find treatments those eating large amounts of detector, I mapped elliptical halos unprotected from solar wind, and
17 August, p 10 organic food (JAMA Internal on the ground beneath each tree; the longer the flip takes, the longer
From Bob Kahn, Medicine, doi.org/gfgt5w). their long axes were parallel to the the danger period will be.
Warrington, Cheshire, UK prevailing wind. These persisted
It is true that cancer kills far more where trees had been removed The editor writes:
I am thrilled by artificial
people in the UK than dementia, or blown down. It is less worrying because the
as Clare Wilson reports. But the islands’ potential uses researchers suggest it may happen
many different types of cancer 20 July, p 10 more gradually than previously
People saw tree stumps
can be readily identified. Dementia From Brian Wood, thought, so there will be time to
is much less clearly defined and it Lenzie, East Dunbartonshire, UK being kept alive earlier adapt over thousands of years.
has many side effects, such as My first reaction on seeing your 3 August, p 18 That could include devising
falls and pneumonia. Researchers report on artificial islands for From Brian Tagg, protections against solar wind.
at University College London wind farms at sea was dismay at Cheddon Fitzpaine, Somerset, UK
and the Alzheimer’s Disease the potential for environmental Ruby Prosser Scully reports that
For the record
Neuroimaging Initiative have damage. On second thought, tree stumps are being kept alive
reclassified dementia into they have exciting potential. by nearby trees. In 2000, Peter ❚ The eruption that caused a mini
subtypes and stages (Nature Such islands could host wave Thomas wrote in Trees: Their ice age in the 6th century AD was
Communications, doi.org/gfhbx4). energy harvesting devices, using natural history that grafts between somewhere in the northern
This could lead to drugs that failed the same infrastructure to get roots of individuals of the same hemisphere (31 August, p 14).
earlier pharmaceutical trials being energy to the mainland, and could species are common in both ❚ Waggle room: male drone bees
shown to work for some subtypes. also bear solar panels. Could they hardwoods and conifers. There have only one set of chromosomes
be used to farm salt-marsh plants are cases where stumps have (17 August, p 38).
such as samphire, purslane, been kept alive via root grafts ❚ Ouch. Many gallstones are
Surely giraffes’ necks must composed of cholesterol and
seakale and sea beet, some for a decade or two.
confer some advantage crystals of calcium compounds
20 July, p 28 (24 August, p 17).
From Derek Bolton, Want to get in touch? ❚ Glowing reference: coral
Sydney, Australia Send letters to New Scientist, 25 Bedford Street, London absorbs short-wavelength light
Simon Ings reviews Daniel Milo’s WC2E 9ES or letters@newscientist.com; see terms at and re-emits it at a safer, longer
Good Enough: The tolerance for newscientist.com/letters wavelength (24 August, p 8).

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 27


Views Aperture

28 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


Engineering the future
Explore spacecraft and smart cities at this year’s show
newscientistlive.com

Against the flow

Photographer Drew Angerer


Agency Getty

THIS 930-square-metre model may


help save the fragile Mississippi
delta and coastal ecosystem.
Researchers at the Louisiana State
University Center for River Studies
in Baton Rouge use it to mimic
320 kilometres of the lower
Mississippi river as it winds its way
to the Gulf of Mexico, simulating
a year of movement in an hour.
The Louisiana coastline has
one of the world’s highest rates
of relative sea level rise. Since
the 1930s, Louisiana has lost more
than 5000 square kilometres of
wetlands through subsidence and
the increased effects of climate
change. Now, an area of coastal
land the size of an American
football field disappears every
90 minutes.
The delta is built from sediment
that washes down the river,
but the construction of levees to
prevent flooding means much of
this sediment ends up in the sea.
The state plans to divert river
sediment into eroding wetlands
to rebuild land. One terracing
project (shown below) has already
converted open water into new
marshlands near Fort St Phillip.
Water and granules can be put
into the model to simulate the
movement of sediment. The
model will help work out how
single or multiple diversions
affect the river’s flow.  ❚

Donna Lu

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 29


Views Culture

Green in tooth and claw


Transforming our turbo-charged capitalism into a force that nurtures green
industry and reins in growth will take a real revolution, finds Fred Pearce
wrong.” She believes that too
many climate scientists and
Book activists baulk at this political
On Fire: The burning truth, clinging to the idea that
case for a green new deal somehow “we can avert
Naomi Klein catastrophe by buying ‘green’
Allen Lane products and creating clever
markets in pollution”.
Growth: From She says global capitalism
microorganisms has become a geological as well
to megacities as a geopolitical force, eating
Vaclav Smil Earth’s resources and spewing out
MIT Press planet-heating gases. “Political
revolution is our only hope,” she
WHEN it comes to digging writes, and those on the political
ourselves out of the climate mess right who say that climate change
we are in, there are a number of is a threat to capitalism aren’t
big questions. Near the top of the being paranoid, “they are paying
list is: can capitalism help? Then, attention”. Leftists, she says, have
if so, how? If not, what can? And yet to capitalise on the fact “that
what do we do about growth? climate science has handed them
Two new books provide us the most powerful argument
with some answers. Radical green against capitalism since William
polemicist Naomi Klein starts her Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’”.
new book, On Fire, with a shocker: Her articles show how she has
she agrees with the climate moved from a preoccupation with but that doesn’t make her wrong. pessimistic. Once, he dismissed
deniers. Only about one thing, but the social fallout of globalisation in Environmental scientist and people like Klein as members
it is a big thing. Both sides believe the sweatshops of Bangladesh and policy analyst Vaclav Smil comes of a “catastrophist cult”, but now
that climate change is, at root, land-grabbed plains of Africa to a at this from a lifetime of Olympian he seems to have joined them.
as much a cultural war as a battle belief that the climate emergency overviews of human society, and a Growth, whether biological, social
for the environment, and that and growing inequality are determinedly non-political stance. or economic, may be normal, he
climate policies are a battleground two sides of the same coin. In his new book, Growth, however, says, but the exponential growth
for how our civilisation evolves, Some climate scientists see her he reaches remarkably similar in economies and lifestyles we
either in an individualistic as an activist who appropriated conclusions to Klein. Smil, whose have seen in recent decades isn’t,
and capitalist way or in a climate as a vehicle for her anti- books have been famously lauded and can’t continue without
collectivistic and socialist way. capitalist prescriptions. Maybe so, by Bill Gates, grows ever more disastrous consequences.
The book, a compilation of The sizes of the average US
some of Klein’s most trenchant house and the average European
journalism coupled with fresh car have doubled in the past half
material about the proposed US century. Typical TV screens have
Green New Deal, underlines that grown 15-fold. The wealth of the
view as she recounts key episodes. richest has grown even more, with
For example, fresh from a meeting the richest 1 per cent owning close
of the conservative, free-market to half of the world’s wealth.
Heartland Institute in Washington There is, says Smil, no way of
DC, Klein writes that its CEO said reconciling the preservation of
that those on the political left big a well-functioning biosphere
ENRI CANAJ/MAGNUM PHOTOS

up climate change because it “is with the standard economic


the perfect thing… the reason why mantra that “does not conceive
we should do everything [the left] any problems of sustainability in
wanted to do anyway”. relation to resources or excessive
Klein follows on by responding stress on the environment”.
that: “They [the right] aren’t Unlike Klein, he doesn’t call for

30 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


What to do next to fight climate change
Hear Christiana Figueres’s ideas at New Scientist Live Don’t miss
newscientistlive.com

the overthrow of capitalism, She repeats the case that the Watch
but urges us to get serious about key to an energy revolution lies Ad Astra, directed by
“the most fundamental existential in creating a modern equivalent James Gray, sees Brad
(and also truly revolutionary) of the New Deal that dragged the Pitt searching for his
task facing modern civilization, US out of the Great Depression father, who vanished
that of making any future growth of the 1930s. It is growing, Klein during a mission to find
compatible with the long-term says, in the form of the proposed alien life. In UK cinemas
preservation of the only biosphere Green New Deal advocated by from 18 September,
we have”. Is capitalism up to the people such as Democrat and most other countries
task he sets? Smil largely avoids Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. by 20 September.
that question. It will require a committed
Could our unrestrained, US administration, supported
turbo-charged version of by a “powerful social movement”
globalised capitalism be as much with many disparate voices,
the problem as capitalism itself? argues Klein. That is why she
SARAH SILBIGER/THE NEW YORK TIME/EYEVINE

Maybe just as capitalism banned welcomes as critical the emerging


slavery in the 19th century, and voices of young North Americans,
adopted health and safety echoed by Greta Thunberg and
measures in the 20th century, it can Extinction Rebellion in Europe.
curb carbon emissions in the 21st. It is also why she spends time
Some leaders, such as Mark raising the profile of the arts Listen
Carney, governor of the Bank of in climate discourse as per The Architecture of
England, believe so. He says that the original New Deal. Emergency is examined
prudent investors are withdrawing Klein makes a splendid attack in a panel discussion at
from coal mines and power on notions that individuals can London’s Barbican
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stations to avoid ending up help stop climate Armageddon. Centre at 7 pm BST on
(above) is a powerful voice for with valueless “stranded assets”. “Stop trying to save the world 19 September. How can
a US Green New Deal to fight Is oil next? Surely we also need all by yourself,” she writes, in architecture cope with
climate change. Hurricane businesses to develop renewables? a lecture originally given to limited resources and
damage (below) is made more Klein may be right when students. Only collective action respond to the current
frequent by global warming she argues that renewables will work, something most people ecological emergency?
have yet to “decouple” economic don’t recognise because they have
growth from emissions growth, been “trained in helplessness”
but if we are to reach any of by those fearful of popular
our greenhouse gas emission progressive politics, she says.
targets, we must switch from Klein does seem to concede
carbon-based fuels to renewables. in her later chapters on the Green
“Maybe just as In this version of a green capitalist New Deal that the world may
capitalism banned future, the herd instinct of fearful get through the crisis without
slavery in the 19th- investors in switching their cash ditching capitalism. Her provisos
century, it can curb could be more effective and act are that capitalism must be recast
faster than any emissions as a machine that gets certain Visit
emissions in the 21st”
target. But Klein is right: the things done and is controlled for Anxiety is the theme
politics is the hardest bit. the public good, rather than be of a show opening
Her nose for the political and followed, come what may, like a on 19 September at
LANDMARK MEDIA/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

cultural US zeitgeist is astute. religion. Despite the brimstone, Science Gallery London.
She gets the power of the political On Fire is an invigorating message Research on psychiatry,
right. Most North Americans, of climate hope through social psychology and
she notes, supported action on transformation. Bring on the neuroscience from King’s
climate change a generation ago. revolution. ❚ College London features
Until the climate deniers, the alongside work from
harbingers of fake news in the Fred Pearce is a consultant for international artists.
21st century, got going, that is. New Scientist

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 31


Views Culture
The TV column

What’s wrong with me? Netflix’s Diagnosis is the best of two new series that
create a real-life House – with added crowdsourcing. It’s a moving show that sets
out to help people find their longed-for diagnoses, says Chelsea Whyte

Lisa Sanders attempts to
solve medical mysteries
in Diagnosis

people who have similar diseases.


The first episode is about Angel
Parker. She’s a 23-year-old from
Nevada with searing pain in her
muscles when she exerts herself,
Chelsea Whyte is a reporter who has spent nine years seeking
for New Scientist based in a diagnosis. We see her cry in pain,
Boston, Massachusetts. watch the worry on her parents’
Follow her on Twitter faces talking about her illness and
@chelswhyte hear her concern about how to pay
the hospital. The documentary
style of the show creates real
COURTESY OF NETFLIX

empathy for the difficulties


of people with chronic pain.
The answer to Parker’s troubles
comes from an Italian paediatric
hospital specialising in genetic
WHEN I heard the premises of studio, game show music and testing. The doctors there had
two new medical shows that use manipulative interviews that seen similar symptoms and they
TV crowdsourcing to help people mine the emotions of people in offer to sequence her genome,
Chasing the Cure with undiagnosed conditions, real pain. It makes a spectacle of diagnosing CPT deficiency, a
TNT and TBS I was extremely sceptical. The the tough work doctors do when condition that prevents the body
medics have failed you, so why they diagnose rare diseases. using certain fats for energy.
Diagnosis not ask some random people I hated every minute. Watching the relief wash
Netflix what they think the problem is? So I’m not sure why I decided over Parker’s face as she heard
As it turned out, I was both to give Netflix’s Diagnosis a try, her diagnosis was very moving
Chelsea also right and wrong. The first show, but I’m glad I did. It is based on and a powerful reminder about
recommends... Chasing the Cure, uses a live talk hope. This young woman’s life
show format to highlight several “Watching the relief was changed just by knowing what
TV people seeking a diagnosis. Host was wrong and how to fix it. Her
wash over Angel
House Ann Curry asks about their doctors also clearly cared about
Amazon Prime symptoms, while messages and
Parker’s face was very finding a diagnosis.
In this drama, surly texts arrive, offering support or moving, a powerful At the beginning of the first
doctor Gregory House suggesting diseases. reminder about hope” episode, Sanders says: “One of the
solves medical mysteries. A panel of doctors sifts through tools doctors use is other doctors
Inspired by doctor the contributions, debunking the a column for The New York in the room. We’re making the
Lisa Sanders, who was a (mostly) irrelevant. This portion Times Magazine by a doctor, Lisa room that much bigger.” But don’t
consultant for the series. seemed geared towards increasing Sanders, about medical mysteries. discount the public – Parker met
viewer and online engagement, In it, she opened up cases to other people with rare diseases
Podcast rather than finding a diagnosis. anyone with information to share who told her they could live well
Sawbones But the professional hunt for a that could help reach a diagnosis. with a similar genetic condition.
Maximum Fun diagnosis is also performative, Each episode is centred on Parker was let down by the
A comedic take on with doctors listing potential one person. Sanders talks them US healthcare system for nearly
historical medical practices causes and crossing out ideas. through her process and shares a decade. This show and those
by Dr Sydnee McElroy and Tests are done off-screen, but they video messages she receives. Most who responded gave her what
her husband Justin McElroy. are rarely referred to. At the end, come from informed sources: she needed. “For the longest
the doctors join Curry and the medical students who recognise time, no one even cared. And
participants to deliver their verdict. the symptoms, vets who have seen now, I have the biggest support
The tone is odd, with a slick such problems in animals and system,” she said.  ❚

32 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


Features Cover story

Woven from
weirdness
The true origins of space-time, the backdrop
to reality, are hidden in the quantum realm,
writes physicist Sean Carroll

L
ET’S say you want to meet a friend for most startling demonstration yet that the
coffee. You have to tell them where you world we see isn’t the world as it is – that there is
are going to be – your location in space – always “something deeply hidden”, as Albert
but you also need to let them know when. Both Einstein put it – and that the only way to
bits of information are necessary because we understand the fundamental nature of reality
live in a four-dimensional continuum: three- is by confronting quantum mechanics head-on.
dimensional space and everything within it, Space-time is a relatively new notion. Isaac
from steaming coffee machines to stars Newton had no need for it. For him, space and
exploding in faraway galaxies, all happening at time were individually real and absolute. Only
different moments of one-dimensional time. when Einstein formulated his special theory of
“Space-time” is simply the physical universe relativity in 1905 did the two start to come
inside which we and everything else exists. together. He showed that different observers
And yet, even after millennia living in it, we will generally divide space-time into “space”
still don’t know what space-time actually is. and “time” in different, incompatible ways;
Physicists have strived to work it out for more what is “space” and what is “time” are relative
than a century. In recent years, many of us have to how an observer is moving.
been trying to figure out what might be the Various thinkers had previously speculated
threads from which the fabric of reality is that the two should be rolled together. In Edgar
woven. We have ideas, each with its own selling Allan Poe’s 1848 prose poem Eureka, for
points and shortcomings. But for my money, instance, he wrote that “space and duration are
the most exciting one is the most surprising. one.” But it wasn’t until 1908 that
It is the idea that space-time emerges from mathematician Hermann Minkowski unified
a weird property of the quantum world that them in a scientific way. He dramatically
means particles and fields, those fundamental proclaimed: “Henceforth, space for itself, and
constituents of nature, can be connected even if time for itself, shall completely reduce to a
they are at opposite ends of the universe. If that mere shadow, and only some sort of union of
is correct, we might finally have found a bridge the two shall preserve independence.”
BRETT RYDER

between the two irreconcilable totems of Einstein was unimpressed, grumbling about
physics, placing us on the threshold of a theory “superfluous learnedness”. But he eventually
of quantum gravity. We would also have the came round to the idea, putting the geometry

34 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


Hear the latest incredible ideas in Big Physics on the
Cosmology stage at New Scientist Live, from 10 to 13 October
newscientistlive.com

Sean Carroll is a physicist at the California


Institute of Technology. His most recent
book is Something Deeply Hidden:
Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of
Spacetime

“How in the world can


space-time exist in a
superposition of
various possibilities?”

of space-time firmly at the heart of his general


relativity. It said that space-time isn’t merely a
static background in which things happen. It is
a dynamic entity, warping and stretching
under the influence of mass and energy. The
curvature of space-time manifests itself to us
as the force of gravity.
Still, it would seem weird to ask what space-
time is “made of” in classical physics. In
general relativity, space-time changes over
time in response to other stuff. But it is still a
background, and a fundamental constituent of
nature. It isn’t made of anything; it just “is”.
The problems with that view started with the
discovery of quantum mechanics, the rules
that govern the behaviour of subatomic
particles and fields. Scientists haven’t been
able to construct a quantum-mechanical
theory of gravity as they have for the three
other fundamental forces of nature. Part of the
issue is technical: when we try to make classical
general relativity into a quantum-mechanical
theory using standard techniques, our
equations blow up and we get nonsensical
answers. But part of it is conceptual.
Quantum mechanics tells us that systems
exist in superpositions of different measurable
quantities like position and velocity. There is
no such thing as “the position” of a quantum
particle; there are many possible positions, >

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 35


ENTANGLED which take on definite values only when we
observe them. How in the world can space-
like the electromagnetic field or a collection of
atoms, is to start with a classical description

TIME time exist in a superposition of different


possibilities? That would make it impossible to
and then “quantise” it. That approach has
failed again and again when it comes to gravity
say for sure that a certain event happened at a and space-time. It also isn’t how nature
In the quest to figure out what lies definite location in space and time. works. The real world doesn’t start classically
behind the backdrop to reality we call Physicists of different persuasions have and then somehow quantise. It is quantum
space-time, we have begun to grasp taken different approaches to constructing a from the start, and the classical world emerges
how the space part can emerge from solution in the form of a theory of quantum as an approximation.
quantum entanglement (see main gravity. The most popular is string theory, So maybe we shouldn’t be trying to quantise
story). Time is a different story. But which replaces particles with loops and gravity at all. Perhaps we should instead
there is one way to derive the fourth segments of vibrating string. String theory formulate a quantum theory from the start,
dimension from the same successfully produces a quantum version of and then show how classical space-time
phenomenon. gravity, but not one that connects with our emerges from that. It is a new approach that
It was suggested back in 1983 by world in an obvious way. Nor does it resolve has dramatic consequences for how we think
Don Page, now at the University of those fundamental conceptual problems. about what space-time itself is made of.
Alberta in Canada, and William String theory’s leading rival, loop quantum
Wootters at Williams College in gravity, is an attempt to directly quantise
Williamstown, Massachusetts. In general relativity. Loop proponents typically Spooky action
quantum mechanics, if a system can take the conceptual challenges of quantum To make progress in this direction, it is
be in various different states, we can gravity more seriously than their stringy helpful to start with our current best
add those states together in any colleagues, but the challenges remain. physical theory, which is quantum field theory.
combination to create new states, This has led some physicists to take a step According to this theory, the fundamental
superpositions of the originals. An back and ask the question in a different way. ingredients of the world are fields, such as
electron, for example, can be spinning The standard approach to developing a the electric and magnetic fields. Even particles
clockwise or counterclockwise, but it quantum description of some phenomenon, like electrons and quarks are simply vibrations
can also be in a superposition of both.
With that in mind, consider a
quantum system consisting of two
subsystems: one is a clock and the “Maybe it was a mistake to quantise
other is everything else. Let the system
as a whole evolve through time, so
gravity, and space-time was lurking
that the clock reads differently at each
moment. Now take a series of such
in quantum mechanics all along”
moments, say one per second, and add
together all the specific quantum
states at all the moments—all the ways
the world actually was at each reading
of the clock.
This gives you a new super-state, a
superposition of individual states with
specific clock readings and specific
configurations of everything else. It
doesn’t evolve with time. But because
this is a quantum system, the clock is
L. CALCADA/EUROPEAN SOUTHERN OBSERVATORY/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

entangled with the rest of the world.


And if we were to measure the clock to
see what it read, the rest of the system
would instantly snap into whatever
quantum state the original system had
at that corresponding time.
In this way, time can appear to
emerge even in an unchanging
quantum state. The key is
entanglement; all we need is a clock Black holes give
subsystem that is entangled with the us reason to
rest of the universe in the right way. think space can
Time is just what your clock reads. emerge like a
hologram

36 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


in fields that stretch through space. Quantum gum
Classically, we can specify the value of a field
in an approximate fashion by dividing space Space-time might be woven from quantum entanglement
into tiny regions, then listing the value of the
field in each region. Once we graduate to
In a model universe, the equations describing gravity in a
quantum field theory, an extra feature volume of space are equivalent to those describing the surface SURFACE:
comes into the game: the values of the field of that volume, which don’t include gravity. This suggests ENTANGLED
in different regions can be entangled with space on the inside somehow emerges from the properties of FIELDS/PARTICLES
each other. Due to quantum uncertainty, we the outside, namely entanglement
don’t know exactly what answer we will get INTERIOR:
if we measure the field at some location, but EMPTY SPACE
entanglement means the answer we get at
one point will affect what we would measure
at any other point.
In the vacuum state of an ordinary quantum
field theory – empty space, no particles flying Sure enough, when you reduce the
around – the entanglement between fields in entanglement connecting two regions
of the outside surface, the space
different regions is directly tied to the distance
inside pulls apart as if pulling at two
between them, and therefore to the geometry ends of a piece of chewing gum
of space-time. Nearby regions are highly
entangled with each other, while faraway
regions share little entanglement.
This suggests an intriguing way to reverse
our normal way of thinking and so find
space-time within quantum theory. Let us
imagine starting with just a quantum state, If you eliminate all entanglement, the
no pre-existing notion of space-time. Now space inside splits in two, suggesting
we can try to work backwards, to extract that entanglement is the thread that
space-time from entanglement. binds space-time
If in ordinary physics the entanglement
between two regions goes down as the regions
get further apart, let us imagine defining the
distance as (inversely) related to the
entanglement. In that case, having a quantum
state automatically gives us the “distance”
between any two parts of it, and therefore
defines a geometry on this emergent space. when space isn’t empty. You can try to add a classical space-time and imagined that there
So far so good. But a quantum state exists at more entanglement, but space-time will bend were quantum fields living within it. Ideally, we
each moment of time, so at best it can define to compensate, so that entropy always remains would like to keep everything quantum from
the geometry of space at that moment. We want proportional to area. the start and derive the existence of space-time
to extend this to four-dimensional space-time. itself. This is something I recently attempted
Thankfully, here we can borrow a trick from with my collaborators, ChunJun (Charles) Cao
physicist Ted Jacobson at the University of
Essence of reality and Spiros Michalakis at the California
Maryland, who, in 1995, showed how we could So Einstein says that energy causes curvature, Institute of Technology. Rather than starting
derive Einstein’s equation for general relativity while Jacobson says entanglement does. But with vibrating quantum fields living in space-
from simple assumptions about the Jacobson also argued that it is really the same time, we started with completely abstract
relationship between entropy and geometry. thing: whenever you add entanglement, quantum “degrees of freedom”.
Entropy, a measure of disorder, is directly energy necessarily follows. From this logic, he This is just some quantity that can take
related to entanglement: the more entangled was able to derive that the curvature of space- on different values, independently of other
a region is with the rest of the world, the more time in his approach obeyed the same quantities. In Newtonian mechanics, the
entropy it contains. Einstein said that it is equation that Einstein first wrote down for degrees of freedom are positions and velocities
adding matter or energy to a region that causes general relativity. Gravity, it appears, can arise of particles; in field theory, they are the values
space-time to curve. Jacobson showed that from entanglement, rather than directly from and rates of change of the fields. In our
increasing the entanglement of a region can mass and energy. This remarkable result approach, the degrees of freedom don’t have
have the same effect, if we insist that the was the beginning of what is now called any direct physical interpretation. They are
amount of entropy must be proportional “thermodynamic” or “entropic” gravity. the basic stuff of reality, the essence out of
to the area bounding that region. That is But it doesn’t quite get us to where we need which everything else is made – a kind of
automatically true in empty space, but to be. In deriving his alternative picture of “quantumness” that pre-exists everything.
Jacobson suggested that it remains true even where gravity comes from, Jacobson assumed Most importantly, these quantum degrees >

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 37


Ethereal connections
between distant quantum
elements could hold the
cosmos together

they dubbed “ER=EPR.” ER stands for Albert


Einstein and Nathan Rosen, who wrote a paper
in 1935 proposing the existence of wormholes,
or shortcuts through space-time. EPR,
meanwhile, stands for Einstein, Boris Podolsky
and Rosen, who collaborated on another paper
emphasising the role of entanglement in
quantum theory. The ER=EPR conjecture
therefore posits that whenever you have two
entangled particles, there is a tiny wormhole
connecting them.
Don’t take this too literally. The wormholes
that purportedly connect pairs of particles
JOSE A. BERNAT BACETE/GETTY

would be microscopically small and impossible


for anything to pass through. It is only when
massive amounts of entanglement become
involved that we begin to see a macroscopic
distortion in the fabric of space.
Moreover, our universe has a positive
vacuum energy, not a negative one, so the
implications of the equivalence revealed in
Maldacena’s negative-vacuum-energy thought
“Only with massive amounts of experiment don’t translate directly to an
entanglement do we see large-scale actionable strategy for dealing with quantum
gravity in the real world. They do, however,
distortions in the fabric of space” serve as another strong hint that quantum
entanglement is at the heart of it all.
All of these ideas are, at present, somewhere
between promising conjectures and optimistic
of freedom are entangled with each other. can be thought of as living on its edge, the dreams. We don’t know the best way to think
With that in mind, we flip around Jacobson’s event horizon, rather than the interior. Juan about these supposed fundamental degrees of
idea. Now we can define the area surrounding Maldacena of the Institute for Advanced Study freedom that entangle together to make space-
a region as the entanglement of its degrees in Princeton used the holographic principle time, nor do we know how they interact with
of freedom with the outside world. And sure to show an equivalence between two very each other in any detailed way. We can’t yet
enough, the corresponding geometry obeys different theories: quantum field theory derive the emergence of quantum fields
Einstein’s equation of general relativity. without gravity in four-dimensional space- living within space-time, obeying the rules
Gravity, in other words, can emerge directly time, and quantum gravity with a negative of relativity. And we certainly can’t answer
from the quantum essence of reality, without vacuum energy in five dimensions. important questions like why the energy of
quantising any assumed classical stuff. empty space is so small, or why space has
That might sound like a conclusion, but it four macroscopic dimensions.
is more like a promising beginning. Many The wormhole connection Even so, imagining that space-time emerges
assumptions went into our derivation, and Subsequent work by Mark van Raamsdonk at from quantum entanglement is a promising
whether these assumptions hold true in nature the University of British Columbia in Canada way to think about the basic nature of reality.
remains to be seen. Most importantly, our and others has shown that the space-time It may be that it was a mistake to start with
derivation of Einstein’s equation from geometry on the quantum-gravity side of this general relativity and try to quantise it; maybe
entanglement only works when gravity is correspondence is directly tied to quantum space-time was lurking within quantum
weak and spacetime is nearly flat. Once gravity entanglement on the field-theory side. As we mechanics all along.
becomes strong and space-time is curved, as in decrease entanglement in the field theory, And even if formulating a complete theory
the Big Bang or near a black hole, radically new space-time on the quantum-gravity side of quantum gravity isn’t your thing, thinking
phenomena become important. grows apart (see “Quantum gum”, page 37). about space-time this way should at least put a
The most dramatic of these is the Maldacena and Leonard Susskind at new slant on the familiar four-dimensional
“holographic principle,” the idea that the Stanford University in California have taken continuum in which we live, rushing around in
degrees of freedom describing a black hole this connection to extremes with a bold idea space to be on time for coffee. ❚

38 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


Features Interview

“The changes could be abrupt


and irreversible. We don’t know
where things may end up”
Ten years ago, Johan Rockström identified nine limits
for Earth’s life-support systems. We have already
exceeded four of them, but he is still cautiously
optimistic for our future, he tells Fred Pearce

H
UMANITY can only thrive if our planet
is hospitable to us, but what are the
limits to its stability? That was the
question posed by Johan Rockström in 2009
in the first scientific assessment of the limits
to safe living for humans on Earth. He and
28 co-authors called them the planetary
boundaries. They warned that if we exceed any
of those nine boundaries, we risk destabilising
Earth’s life-support systems and plunging the
planet into chaos. The good news, they said,
is that staying inside them provided a “safe
operating space” for humanity. The bad news
is that we have already exceeded four of them.
The boundaries have drawn plenty of
criticism, so does Rockström still stand by
the findings? Is he more or less pessimistic
about where we are headed? And where do
Harley-Davidsons fit in?

Fred Pearce: What is the bottom line for Earth


and human civilisation?
Johan Rockström: For the past 10,000 years,
our planet has been in a uniquely stable state,
a warm interglacial era with largely unchanging
climate and ecosystems that we call the
Holocene. It is the era during which human
civilisation has developed, from hunter-
gatherers to digital technology. It is all we know.
But humanity is now driving changes like
global warming and species extinctions. These
threaten to push us beyond the thresholds >

Humanity’s life-
JSC/NASA

support system,
as seen from space

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 39


of the life-support systems that have sustained systems, such as the hydrological cycle and
the Holocene. biodiversity. We are already into the high-risk
The changes could be abrupt and zones for biodiversity and nutrients.
irreversible. We don’t know where things
may end up. If the Holocene is our desired Your critics say you don’t properly distinguish
reference point – the stable planet we know between global and local systems.
and depend on – we need to find out where Of course, before you reach any of our

MIKAEL AXELSSON
those thresholds are, thus identifying our safe planetary boundaries, you can have massive
operating space. That is what our research on problems locally. Lakes dry up, rivers fill with
planetary boundaries tries to do. pollution, ecosystems collapse and so on.
But when we talk about keeping within a safe
So what are these boundaries? Johan Rockström is a global operating space, we mean safe for the planet
We identify nine. There are three that sustainability expert whose research as a whole, not for every human or every
operate at a planetary scale: the oceans, focuses on water in tropical regions. ecosystem. Even so, apparently local problems
the atmospheric climate system and the He is a former director of the Stockholm can go global, especially if they occur widely.
stratospheric ozone layer. Each has thresholds Resilience Centre and is now co-director
beyond which danger lies. There are four more of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Which problems have gone global in this way?
that we call biosphere boundaries. They help Impact Research in Germany Water seems very local, for instance, but
regulate the planetary systems. They are there is a global hydrological cycle that is the
biological diversity, the hydrological cycle, land bloodstream of the biosphere. Take away the
cover such as forests, and the flows of nutrients rain and forests die, triggering massive releases
vital to life, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. of carbon into the atmosphere and loss of
Finally, we identify two categories of alien biodiversity. Or take away a major forest like
things that don’t exist naturally: novel entities
including nuclear waste and gender-bending
chemicals, and aerosol air pollution, which
Overstepping the mark
alters Earth’s energy balance and impacts We have already gone beyond four of the nine proposed safe operating levels for
humans on Earth, know as planetary boundaries
regional climate systems such as the
south Asian monsoon. Below boundary (safe) In zone of uncertainty (increasing risk)
Beyond zone of uncertainty (high risk) Outer boundary of safe zone
How do we know when we have crossed a Start of high-risk zone
planetary boundary? BIODIVERSITY
Our scientific understanding of Earth systems
has advanced tremendously over the past Extinction
30 years, but still we don’t know exactly where Biodiversity rate
CLIMATE
the critical boundaries are for these systems. intactness CHANGE
(boundary to be
So we apply a precautionary approach. We NOVEL ENTITIES
determined)
identify safe zones and high-risk zones. Chemical pollution and
substances that don’t
Between them, uncertainty ranges, within
exist naturally
which we don’t know what might happen. (boundary to be
We place the planetary boundary at the
? determined)
lower levels of the uncertainty ranges.
CHANGE IN
LAND USE
?
What is the boundary for climate change,
for example?
For climate change, we chose the atmospheric STRATOSPHERIC
OZONE
concentration of the most important
greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. We FRESHWATER
assessed the uncertainty range as being USE
between 350 and 450 parts per million,
so the planetary boundary is 350 ppm.
?
ATMOSPHERIC
The world is now well above that, at 410 ppm, AEROSOL LOADING
and we are starting to see dangerous impacts. (boundary to be
In the oceans, there is heating, a slowing down determined)
of the Gulf Stream and accelerated Arctic sea- Phosphorus
ice melting. In the atmosphere, we see a cycle OCEAN
serious impact on the jet stream and many Nitrogen ACIDIFICATION
cycle
more extreme weather events. All these effects
BIOGEOCHEMICAL
may foreshadow the breakdown of other
FLOWS

40 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


Science to save the world
Tech solutions to our planetary problems
will be a big part of our live show this year
newscientistlive.com

the Amazon and we know rainfall declines Straining the


thousands of kilometres away. limits: Arctic sea
Science is still struggling to assess how ice is melting at
much we can disrupt the hydrological cycle an unprecedented
without crossing dangerous thresholds. So, rate (left), and
for now, we have set a boundary where humans plastic pollution
remove no more than a tenth of the natural is piling up (below)

KADIR VAN LOHUIZEN/NOOR FOR CARMIGNAC FONDATION


run-off. It is a proxy for disruption of the
hydrological system as a whole.

What about biodiversity? Does the number


of species on the planet actually matter?
Biodiversity is essential. A living biosphere
regulates the water cycle and climate, cleans
the air and much more. A dead planet wouldn’t
be habitable. So somewhere there must be a
boundary. Our interest isn’t in the number of
species itself, but in functional biodiversity:
what is needed to maintain Earth’s life-support
systems. Scholars are developing a biosphere
integrity index to try to measure this. For
now, we rely on the more established data
on species extinctions.

So how is our planet doing on this measure?


The natural background extinction rate is
up to 10 species per year, but the rate today is
more than 1000 a year. We set the boundary
at 10 times the background rate. I admit it is
rudimentary, but I do believe a globally agreed
scientific target for cutting extinctions would
help policy-makers – like the “below 2 degrees”
GUY MOBERLY/ALAMY

temperature target on climate change.

Might there be other boundaries out there?


I don’t think so. Nobody has made a convincing
argument for a tenth boundary, or that we
should take away any of the nine. But in our
review next year, we are likely to add plastics In the past 10 years, have you become more or solutions, with solar photovoltaics, wind
to the novel entities category, and will improve less optimistic? power and electric mobility all much more
some other boundaries, such as biodiversity Well, the trend lines on the state of the planet economically competitive. And there is
and freshwater. make me more pessimistic. We are running out cultural buy-in. Harley-Davidson just
of time. We need to bend the curves within the announced it is going electric. For me,
What about a people boundary? Human next few years. For climate, we have to cut that is hugely symbolic.
population, say? After all, it is the pressure emissions by half over the next 10 years,
of people that is causing the problems. or we will be well into the high-risk zone. So could we be at a positive tipping point in
Yes, but the boundaries describe Earth’s life- Still, there are some reasons for optimism. humanity’s response to these threats?
support systems that keep us in the Holocene. Over the past 10 years, we have seen an I very much hope so. Change is happening.
The systems themselves aren’t defined by exponential rise in sustainable energy We may be entering a new era, a renaissance
human activity. But of course, within that, in which sustainability is essential to the
our interest as humans is in how we should success of businesses.
use the safe operating space that we identify: “All of these The question now is whether the change
how to stay within it and share it fairly. is happening fast enough to keep us within
The international community has effects may the safe operating space. And we don’t know
made some progress on this. There is the Paris
climate agreement. And the UN’s Sustainable
foreshadow the the answer to that yet. ❚

Development Goals explicitly recognise four breakdown of Fred Pearce is a New Scientist consultant and the
boundaries within which we have to reach author of When the Rivers Run Dry: The global
goals: water, biodiversity, oceans and climate. other systems” water crisis and how to solve it

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 41


Features

Is it really
addiction?
A diagnosis that used to be for substance abuse
now controversially spans all sorts of behaviours.
Moya Sarner digs into the science

I
AN used to play online video games trivialises the issue of addiction or lets people
through the night and into the next day. off the hook for their actions.
Over eight years, he lost his job, his home It isn’t surprising that this is a complex
and his family. “I would have told you I loved issue when you consider that even

MARCO PIUNTI/GETTY
my children more than anything – and I do professionals can’t agree on a definition
love my children very dearly – but the truth of addiction. “If you speak to 50 psychologists,
is I loved the feeling of going online more,” we’ll all give you a completely different
he says. “It made me feel settled, it was a way answer,” says Mark Griffiths, director of
to cope and it was a physical craving.” the International Gaming Research Unit
For Ian and others like him, video games feel at Nottingham Trent University, UK.
as addictive as a drug. In May, the World Health One way to carve up addictions is whether
Organization (WHO) reached a similar they relate to substances or behaviours. Take
conclusion, including gaming disorder in its cigarettes. Louise was smoking 60 a day when
International Classification of Diseases for the she was 15 years old and she has repeatedly “The worse life
first time. Studies suggest that between 0.3 and tried to stop. “I absolutely hate the taste and
1 per cent of the general population might smell of cigarettes, but I still smoke,” she says.
qualify for a diagnosis. In the UK, plans are For many people, nicotine takes such a strong got, the more
under way to open the first National Health hold over the brain that you don’t even need
Service-funded internet addiction centre,
which will initially focus on gaming disorder.
to enjoy smoking to keep doing it.
This kind of substance addiction originally I would
But some argue that to pathologise formed the basis of addiction research, which
problematic gaming as an addiction is a
mistake. In 2017, a group of 24 academics
is relatively new. “There was no neuroscience
of addiction 50 years ago,” says Barry Everitt,
retreat into
argued against attributing this behaviour to a behavioural neuroscientist at the University
a new disorder. “Of particular concern are
moral panics around the harms of video
of Cambridge. Then in the 1960s and 70s,
pioneering studies identified the primary
that online
gaming,” they wrote, which have been targets of addictive drugs within the brain:
seen in the fears around games like Fortnite. the dopamine system, also known as the world”
Such hysteria, the group argued, could lead reward pathways. The greater the surge of
to premature or incorrect diagnoses. the neurotransmitter dopamine triggered
Others simply claim that addiction to by the substance, the more euphoric the high.
gaming, and to other behaviours such as This discovery spurred a number of possible
sex, isn’t real, and that suggesting it is explanations of addiction. Some researchers >

42 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


CASE STUDY

HOOKED ON
video games
Half-Life was the game- he says, “I just played pretty
changer for Ian*. He had played much constantly, taking naps
video games since he was a from time to time. When I
child, but he had always been wasn’t playing, I was irritable,
able to stop until he was in his restless and unhappy, thinking
20s. That was when he went to only about getting back
a colleague’s house after work online.”
and first tried Half-Life, a He lost not just his job,
first-person shooter game, but his family and his home.
played online against other “All that happened over the
people. “I felt an instant course of eight painful years.
attraction to it, and I fell in Gaming was a massive escape
love with these sorts of for me, an adrenaline rush,
games,” he says. and the worse my life got, the
He started playing for a more I would retreat into that
few hours at home every night online world,” he says.
after work, staying up later After trying to limit his
and later. Within the month, gaming first by himself and
he was playing 7 hours every then with the help of a new
evening during the week, and partner, he decided to get
through the night on professional help. He spent 28
weekends. “It started days in a private rehab clinic
interfering with my family life. I run by UK Addiction Treatment
had a child, another one on the Centres, working on trauma he
way and I wasn’t spending any endured in early life. “I had to
time with my partner,” he says. look at what I was running
“It must have been horrible for away from,” he says.
my son to see me sitting in He relapsed a few years ago,
front of the PC not moving. But and spent two months playing
when I was in the zone, in the all night, but hasn’t played
game, I didn’t think about it.” a game since. “My life is
As a result of his gaming, really quite nice today. I have
he started turning up late for my partner, my kids, I have
work or not at all, and was a job – I’m free. I’m not chained
eventually fired. After that, to that addiction any more.”
*Names have been changed to preserve the anonymity of
the individuals featured in the case studies in this article.

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 43


Are video games bad for us?
Hear Pete Etchells dig behind alarmist gaming headlines
newscientistlive.com

CASE STUDY

Addicted to
pornography
Sam, a successful stockbroker
and married father of two, has
a life that looks perfect. “From
the outside, everybody thinks I’m
‘that guy’. I’m always exceeding my
targets, winning awards and helping
people. But on the inside, I have this
shadow that nobody knows about,
that I’m so ashamed of. I hate
myself. It’s a part of me that I cannot
resist or control,” he says.
Sam can remember the
beginnings of obsessive thoughts
and behaviours around pornography
developing at the age of 12. But it
was only in his 20s, when he met his
wife and his career took off, that
they became problematic. “I
remember staying late at the office
TONY BAGGETT/GETTY

saying I had work to do, but really I


was watching porn on my work
computer until midnight, a couple of
times a week. Stress, uncertainty
and fear at work would be massive
triggers for me to reach out to my
drug, which was porn,” he says.
He soon began “using” four times
a week. “I’d wake up next to my wife believed people became hooked on the
with anxiety at midnight, sneak “I have this pleasurable, rewarding dopamine rush. Others
downstairs, then binge until 6 am, observed that for addicts like Ian and Louise
before getting an hour’s sleep and
going to work,” he recalls. Sometimes shadow that (see case studies on pages 43 and 45), there is
little pleasure left. Instead, it could be that
he would start shaking at work, “like regularly hitting up the dopamine system left
a drug addict or an alcoholic”, he
says. Without pornography, he
nobody knows lasting changes in brain function, so the drug
became necessary for a user to feel normal.
couldn’t think or function. It wasn’t until the 1990s, with the rise
His marriage deteriorated. At
times, Sam felt suicidal. About a year
about, that I’m so of molecular imaging, known as PET scans,
that we could see the impact of drugs on the
ago, his wife found him watching human brain in real time and watch what
porn in his office, and that was the ashamed of” happens to the dopamine system.
trigger for Sam to get help. He is One major finding was that the prefrontal
now having therapy for pornography cortex, where decisions are made, is far
addiction at the Laurel Centre in the quieter in the brains of people who are
UK, and is starting to understand the addicted than in those who aren’t. This
impact that two experiences of suggests that their brain function had
sexual assault in his teenage years changed as a result of drug use, says Everitt,
had on him. “I understand this as a leaving them less able to control their own
mental illness now,” he says. “I know behaviour. Whether an addict uses drugs to
it’s not yet considered an addiction, attain pleasure or avoid misery, continued use
but it most definitely is – no two ways will ultimately depend on the extent to which
about it – and it is only a matter of they are able to control their impulses.
time until it is treated like one.” This helps to explain how habits come to
form a big part of addiction. For instance,

44 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


CASE STUDY

Addicted to
Compulsive than gambling, there is some overlap
cigarettes
sexual behaviour in the surge of this chemical in the brains
is now considered of those addicted to substances and those The first time Louise smoked a
a medical addicted to the behaviour. cigarette, she was 10 years old. By
disorder Clark asked himself what it is about the time she was 15, she was up to
gambling that might allow this behaviour 60 a day. When she couldn’t smoke,
to hijack the brain’s reward system in a she felt agitated and stressed,
comparable way to how drugs do it. One unable to think of anything else.
answer, he thinks, could be uncertainty. “I quit school because you weren’t
A reward delivered unpredictably has a allowed to smoke there,” she says.
far greater effect on the dopamine system “At that time, cigarettes were the
than one the brain knows in advance that it most important thing in my life.”
will receive. If you know you are about to win The only time she has been unable
£5, when you do, there is little change in the to smoke was when she was in
system. But if you know that one in every hospital. “I kept everyone awake on
three goes on a slot machine will win you £5, the entire ward, causing chaos. Even
but you aren’t sure which, “the dopamine though I struggled to walk, I got to
system goes wild”, says Clark. the nurses’ station and turned the
In both gambling disorder and gaming lights on and off, screaming and
disorder, the first two behavioural addictions shouting, until they finally let me
recognised by the WHO, “it’s the uncertain out at 5 am. It was ridiculous,
nature of the rewards that allows those disgraceful behaviour, all for a
behaviours to spiral”, he says. Near misses cigarette,” she says.
amplify that uncertainty – and therefore could Now aged 26, she still smokes.
make a game particularly addictive. She doesn’t enjoy it, and never has.
More recent research into gambling and “I’ve tried stopping several times.
gaming addiction suggest other factors are at I’ve never liked cigarettes, nothing
play too. One is the idea of immersion, the appeals to me about them. And now
heady experience of entering “the zone”, a I work in public health, I look like a
hyper-focused state of flow not unlike a drugs hypocrite when I smoke. It is against
high, where you don’t notice time passing and everything I believe in, but I still
troubling thoughts are kept at bay. do it.” However, despite her
Investigating this phenomenon for one determination to quit, she can’t get
someone may be able to resist their cravings recent study, Clark’s team asked psychology below 10 cigarettes a day.
until they visit a place where they normally students and regular gamblers to play on slot
take a drug or meet a person with whom machines in his “casino laboratory” – carpeted
they do it. “Certain cues and stressors elicit and with low lighting and comfortable stools
very, very strongly engendered habits and (but no cocktail bar). Participants were told
people lapse into compulsive use because that some white circles and red squares would
they have lost control,” says Everitt. appear on screens either side of the slot
But what about behaviours? The notion machine while they played. They should ignore
that people could become addicted to these the white circles, but press a button whenever
PLAINPICTURE/RALF GROSSEK

found scientific recognition in 1980 when they saw a red square.


what is now called gambling disorder was first
recognised by the Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders, an influential In the zone
guide to psychiatric disorders. In 2008, the After 30 minutes, participants filled out
NHS’s only specialist service dealing with questionnaires designed to measure their state
this issue opened, the National Problem of immersion by asking them how much they
Gambling Clinic, which sees between 750 agreed with statements such as “I felt You can hate the taste
and 900 people every year. completely absorbed” and “I felt I lost track of cigarettes and still
Then, in around 2012, the first studies of time”. Those who had previously showed struggle to kick the habit
were conducted using PET imaging to look signs of problem gambling were not only more
at the dopamine system in people with a likely to describe themselves as being “in a
gambling addiction. Luke Clark, who is now trance” while playing, but were also worse at
director of the University of British Columbia’s reacting to the red squares. The more addicted
Centre for Gambling Research, and his the players, as measured by the researchers,
colleagues found that although drugs have the less aware they were of their surroundings,
a much more powerful effect on dopamine and the more immersed in the game they >

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 45


2

6
The addiction lottery
Somewhere between 15 and no addiction-like behaviours and
20 per cent of us would develop lowered the amount of the
an addiction if we were exposed chemical in their amygdala to
to addictive drugs, according
to research. “It’s a huge
the level found in the “hooked”
rats. Suddenly, those rats that
13
minority – one large enough had previously chosen the sweet
to create one of the greatest solution now compulsively pressed
public health issues we have on the lever for alcohol, even when
this planet – but it’s still a minority,” given an electric shock.
says Markus Heilig at Linköping Turning to brains donated by
University in Sweden. people who had been addicted
To find out why some people get to alcohol, the team again looked
hooked and others don’t, Heilig and at GAT-3 levels in the amygdala.
his team trained rats to press a “It turns out that the picture in
lever in return for a reward. They human brains is just unbelievably
then gave the rats a choice: either similar to the rats,” says Heilig.
press a lever that delivers a few “We were blown away.”
drops of alcohol or one that This was a pioneering study
delivers a sweet solution. About in pinpointing why some people
15 per cent chose alcohol. Rats are more vulnerable to alcoholism
cannot be labelled as addicted, than others, but there are still
because it is a complex disorder, unanswered questions, including felt – all of which chimes with Ian’s
perhaps with uniquely human how exactly GABA and the descriptions of gaming. The image of an
aspects. But they do show amygdala relate to addiction. addict’s world shrinking is not just a metaphor;
behaviours that closely mimic And explaining this link is likely their field of vision literally narrows, until
some of the key features of clinical to be just one part of the puzzle, their addiction is all they can see.
addiction, and the team theorised says Heilig. Before gambling and gaming disorder were
that the 15 per cent would continue accepted as behavioural addictions by the
to choose alcohol, even if it led to ROLL OF THE DICE WHO, they were included under a different
negative consequences. In the next Other factors include genetics category, impulse control disorders. Last
experiment, every time such a rat and personality. A variant of June, a new impulse control disorder was
pressed the lever delivering the DRD2 gene “is implicated added to the list: compulsive sexual behaviour.
alcohol, it received an electric in nearly all addictive behaviour According to Valerie Voon, a psychiatrist
shock. Did it stay hooked to the I can think of”, says Mark Griffiths and neuroscientist at the University of
alcohol despite the painful zap? at Nottingham Trent University Cambridge who researches sex addiction,
“The answer, to our delight, was a in the UK. “But we also know it is just a matter of time before there is
crystal clear yes,” says Heilig, “and that people who have this don’t enough evidence for its inclusion in the
that’s a first.” necessarily go on to become behavioural addiction category.
Having shown addiction-like an addict, and there are also She and her colleagues designed a study
behaviours in rats, Heilig wanted some people who are addicted to see what happens in the brains of possible
to know whether there were who do not have it. So genetics sex addicts when they watch pornography.
differences between the brains of and biology only play a Nineteen heterosexual men with a diagnosis
the “hooked” rats and the others, contributory part to begin with.” of compulsive sexual behaviour and 19 men
and discovered a striking difference Instead, some people with no history of addiction were shown
in the amygdala, a key part of the may have an unfortunate pornographic and less sexually arousing
brain for dealing with emotions. combination of genetics and videos while having their brain activity
Rats that behaved like people a certain personality type, such scanned using functional MRI.
with alcohol addiction had an as sensation seeking, which In earlier studies, when people addicted to
excess of the neurotransmitter together make them susceptible. substances were exposed to the cue for their
GABA there. That, in turn, was Findings like these are leading addiction, be it cigarettes, alcohol or drugs,
probably due to a lack of a to new approaches for treatments. brain scans showed activity in three specific
chemical called GAT-3, which Heilig’s group is working on 19 regions: the amygdala, the ventral striatum
normally clears out excess GABA. medications that reduce the and the anterior cingulate cortex, areas
To see whether a shortage of production of GABA released associated with the reward system.
GAT-3 really could cause addiction, by nerve cells in the amygdala. So
27 In the study Voon led, there was an increase
Heilig’s team took rats that showed far this seems to work in the rats. in activity in those same three regions in
the brains of the participants with signs
of addiction to sex when they watched the
pornographic videos and not in those of the

46 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


42
LEFT: PLAINPICTURE/LIQUID; MIDDLE: PASHAPIXEL/GETTY; RIGHT: PLAINPICTURE/LOHFINK
“Their field of
vision literally
narrows until is that very few people would be classed as a or not they do is one of the burning questions
genuine addict, he says. “The key difference of addiction research. One suggestion is
their addiction between an excessive healthy enthusiasm and
an addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add
that it is down to differences in the brain’s
molecular machinery (see “The addiction
to life and addictions take away from it.” lottery”, page 46), although genetics and
is all they Significantly, time spent on the behaviour is
not a criterion for addiction, he says. One of his
personality also play a part.
And while some people manage to cut out
most highly cited studies compared two cases, addictive substances from their lives, that isn’t
can see” both men who were gaming for up to 14 hours always possible for certain behaviours. This is
each day. The first was married with three why abstinence isn’t always the answer, says
children and a career before he lost everything psychologist Richard Graham, head of the tech
as a result of his playing. The second had just addiction service at Nightingale Hospital in
left university, had no partner or children and London. He encourages those worried that
went on to meet his wife playing World of they are veering towards unhealthy tech habits
Warcraft. His time spent gaming decreased as to use the American Academy of Pediatrics’
a result, and he now works in the video-game family media plan, which involves establishing
industry. “Computer games were the most “clean” tech-free zones in the home and
important thing in his life, but when he got his technology-free periods every day.
first job, the gaming stopped just like that,” For the individuals affected, the clinicians
control group. Other labs have since says Griffiths. “It was quite clearly nothing to who treat them and the scientists who study
found similar results. do with loss of control or addiction.” them, addictions are as real as heart disease,
Sam says he is an addict, and pornography Griffiths regularly receives emails from just far less understood. And the more we
is his drug (see “Addicted to pornography”, parents who are shocked and worried by the know about them, the more we can do to treat
page 44). And it turns out that substance amount of time their children spend playing them. “My addiction has taught me that life is
addictions and would-be behavioural computer games or on social media. This is the very precious,” says Ian. “I destroyed a lot of
addictions don’t just feel similar, they “technological generation gap”, he says. If their people, including myself.” ❚
look similar in the brain too. children still go to school, see friends and have
Griffiths believes that behavioural other hobbies, he says, they aren’t addicted.
addictions don’t just include gambling, sex and We know that only 15 per cent of people Moya Sarner (@MoyaSarner) is a
gaming. “Any behaviour could be. I don’t care who are exposed to an addictive substance will writer based in London. She is writing
what the behaviour is,” he says. The good news end up hooked, and what determines whether her first book, When do you grow up?

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 47


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The back pages
Puzzles Feedback Picture of the week Almost the last word The Q&A
Quick crossword, A whale of a saving Our pick of your von Food fatigue and Dean Burnett on why
a number puzzle and and crocodile fears: Humboldt-themed human fossils: our teenagers saved the
the quick quiz p52 the week in weird p53 photos p53 readers respond p54 human race p56

How to be a maker 2 Week 10

Birds to the banquet


In the final instalment of this series, Hannah Joshua shows you
how to rig your bird feeder to open and close by remote control
CARDBOARD SHIELD
LAST week, you put together FOR ELECTRONICS
the body of your electronic bird
feeder. In this final instalment of
my second maker series, it is time
to work on its brain, to allow us to
open and close the feeder door.
Using croc clip jumper wires,
attach the servo’s brown wire to
the BBC micro:bit ground, its red
Hannah Joshua is a science wire to 3V and the yellow to p0. In
writer and maker based in the MakeCode editor, choose “on
London. You can follow her button A pressed” from “input”.

DAVID STOCK FOR NEW SCIENTIST


on Twitter @hannahmakes Clip a “servo write pin p0” into this
from the “pins” menu (under
New stuff you need “advanced”), typing zero in the
You have everything box. Power your micro:bit, press A.
already Attach the bottle cap arm to the
servo shaft so that it covers the
Starting next week: bird feeder’s hole. Now, setting the
Stargazing at home “servo write pin p0” to zero moves
ELECTRONICS
Even if you live in a city the door to the closed position, IN HERE DOOR TO PEANUTS
with light pollution, and “servo write 90” moves the
there is a lot you can see door 90 degrees out of the way. Make online
in the night sky. Abigail Let us build on that and write Projects so far and a full list of kit required are at
Beall, author of The Art a program to operate the servo newscientist.com/maker Email: maker@newscientist.com
of Urban Astronomy, when the micro:bit gets a radio
will show you how to signal from another micro:bit, each “if” block, typing 0 in the first Power up both micro:bits and
spot stars, planets, which acts as our remote control. and 90 in the second. This will check they are talking to each
moons and meteors, From “radio” clip “radio set close the door when the micro:bit other, then slot into your feeder
learn basic navigation group 1” into “on start”. As we receives “0” via radio, and open the cardboard piece you made last
and watch Mercury’s saw in week 8, this sets up a the door when it receives “1”. week. This acts as a shelf for the
transit of the sun. No communication channel for the For the remote control, program electronics, with space behind and
telescope required, micro:bits. Next, grab “on radio the other micro:bit. Add “radio set underneath for nuts. Fill the feeder
just a star chart, receivedNumber” (also from group 1” to “on start”. Now grab with peanuts, hang it in the garden
binoculars and a few “radio”). Inside, drop two “if true two “on button A pressed” from and see what animals arrive. You
other household items. then” blocks from “logic”. Replace “input”, changing one to “on can shut the door to unwanted
“true” in both with a “0 = 0” button B pressed”. Slot a “radio guests, such as squirrels.
What you will comparison from “logic”, then send number” block into both. That is it – congratulations, you
need in week 1 drag and drop “receivedNumber” Leave the one under button A as have completed the second maker
Cardboard from the top of the radio block into “0”, but type “1” into the other. series. Keep on making and tweet
Two balls the first zero in both comparisons. Now, when you press A on the me your projects. ❚
Wire Leave the first as “receivedNumber remote micro:bit, it will send 0 to
Sticks = 0”, but change the second to the bird feeder micro:bit, which Next week: Join Abigail Beall for the
Glue and scissors “receivedNumber = 1”. will close the door. Similarly, press first instalment of our new series,
Clip a “servo write pin p0” into B and 1 is sent, opening the door. “Stargazing at home” (see left)

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 51


The back pages Puzzles

Quick crossword #40 Set by Richard Smyh Quick quiz #20 Puzzle set by Ben Sparks
1 Chytrid fungus has
      devastated populations #21 Six weeks of seconds
   of what class of animals
around the globe in Which number is bigger:
recent years?
  The product of all the whole numbers from
2 What letter refers to 1 to 10 inclusively, sometimes written as
a class of string theory in 10 factorial or 10!
   11 dimensions that is a or
leading contender for a The number of seconds in six weeks?
unifying theory of physics?
 
Can you work it out without resorting to
3 Orographic rainfall a calculator?
is caused by what?
   

4 Where are Phobos Answer next week


and Deimos?
 

5 Which German
semiconductor physicist #20 Caesar cipher
 
became a byword for Solution
scientific impropriety in
2002 when it was revealed
he had mainly made up his
ACROSS spectacular results?
7 Rattus norvegicus (5,3) 15 Motherboard connection
9 In geology, an area of that allows for additional
older rock surrounded functionality (9,4) Answers below
by younger rock (6) 17 Flowering plant in the
10 Uterus (4) family Primulaceae (8)
11 Term describing 19 AsH3 (6)
phenomena that emerge 21 Horned pachyderm (10) Cryptic
from the interactions of 22 Burrowing vermivore (4) Crossword #14
objects (10) 23 Catkins (6) Answers
12 Home to the world’s 24 Production of structures You can get from 3 to 47 using the Caesar
tallest skyscraper from within an organism (8) cipher – the method that Julius Caesar used
2004 to 2010 (6) ACROSS 1 Nous, 3 Utopians, to encrypt messages, by shifting letters a
9 Nictate, 10 Anvil,
14 Operating system 11 Terraforming, 13 Baffle,
fixed number of places up the alphabet.
for a series of early 15 Scream, 17 Turning point,
microcomputers (5,3) 20 On ice, 21 Acidity, If you shift the word THREE by four places,
22 Garottes, 23 Emit you get XLVII, which is 47 in Roman
DOWN numerals.
DOWN 1 Nanotube, 2 Ulcer,
1 Area surrounding 8 Branch of the 4 Tremor, 5 Pharmacopeia,
the nipple (6) glossopharyngeal 6 Advance, 7 Salt, 8 Van Allen Coincidentally, if you convert the letters of
2 Wad of cotton used nerve (8,5) belt, 12 Amethyst, 14 Fourier, the alphabet into numbers, A=1, B=2, and
16 Inhale, 18 Idiom, 19 Bong
in medicine (4) 13 In data processing, so on, then C=3, and C+A+E+S+A+R = 47.
3 Force resisting the operating in series (10)
relative motion of 15 Redness of the skin (8)
surfaces or layers (8) 16 Not the driver’s side (8)
4 Kind of internet 18 Membrane such
access (4-2) as those inside the Quick quiz #20
5 Author of maths books mouth and nose (6) Answers
including Here’s Looking 20 Hosiery made from a
At Euclid (2010) (4,6) synthetic thermoplastic 5 Jan Hendrik Schön
6 Purple root of Beta polymer (6) its two moons
vulgaris (8) 22 Prefix denoting a factor
4 Orbiting Mars – they are

of 106 (4)
over mountains
3 Water-laden air rising
or possibly something else Get in touch
“magic”, “mystery”, “membrane” Email us at
Answers and the next cryptic crossword next week. 2 M-theory. The M stands for
crossword@newscientist.com
1 Amphibians, particularly frogs
puzzles@newscientist.com

52 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


The back pages Feedback

Sturm und Drang be informed that he would save


3500 kilograms of CO2 per year,
Picture of the week Alexander von Humboldt
US president Donald Trump has which, he is told, is “the weight
previously dismissed climate of an orca whale”. Now that’s a
change as a Chinese hoax. Feedback killer deal.
wonders whether at least part of his
brain sees Beijing behind the force
of Hurricane Dorian. After leaving
Crocodile fears
a deadly trail of destruction in the A reminder that the fight against
Bahamas, the storm hit the US east environmental degradation has
coast last week. many fronts comes from police
The clean-up begins, but it seems in Devon, UK, who sprang into
Trump has the germ of a longer- action after a dogwalker reported
term anti-hurricane plan, expressed a crocodile lurking in Loddiswell
last month before Dorian broke. swamp. After a “deathly struggle”,
He asked aides if hurricanes might according to dispatcher Lisa
be destroyed with nuclear bombs. Burnett, officers apprehended
Yes, when all you have is a the beast of Loddiswell: a plastic
hammer, everything looks like a toy crocodile.
nail. And when you have 4000 We’ve been warned about the
nuclear warheads burning a hole dangers of releasing microplastics
in your pocket, everything looks like into our aquatic environments:
an opportunity to get some kind of could it be that entire ecosystems
return on that investment. are now starting to evolve from it?
According to the news website
Axios, which broke the story, one of
Trump’s aides assured him that the
Plus size sub
proposal would be looked into. This We recently pondered what the Our picture this week is of Aoife Kidd and a Humboldt penguin at London Zoo.
standard response of courtiers to most expensive mistake ever The penguin’s natural habitat is along the coasts of Chile and Peru where they
the foibles of royalty everywhere made by an individual might be swim in the Humboldt current, which is named after Alexander von Humboldt.
ought to be the end of it. after an open hatch nearly sank The next theme is women in STEM, to commemorate Elizabeth Garrett
But the US has a track record in a £2.4 billion Indian nuclear Anderson, the first woman to qualify for a medical licence in Britain.
declaring war on inanimate objects, submarine (22 June). Naval yards Email us your related photos to readerpics@newscientist.com by
like drugs and terror. Let’s not be are a rich source of such costly Tuesday 17 September.
too surprised if we’re soon treated errors, Roger Helms writes, Terms and conditions at newscientist.com/pictureoftheweek-terms
to the spectacle of helicopter pointing us to the saga of Spain’s
gunships strafing clouds with new diesel-electric Isaac Pera probe barrelling towards the who wrote a series of books about
machine-gun fire, or modern-day submarine class. The arrival of North Atlantic shipping lanes being a firefighter in the glory days
Minutemen lining up on the Florida the first sub has been delayed rather than towards Mars. But of the UK’s Great Western Railway,
keys, pushing back storm surges because it is 75 tonnes too heavy. what other competitors do we once told of a locomotive shed in
with volleys of AR-15 fire. The ability to sink quickly to the have for the most expensive Wolverhampton “where, allegedly,
Actually, back up a moment. bottom of the sea isn’t a terrible typo of all time? the staffroom teapot hadn’t been
Nuking hurricanes might be a feature in a submarine, but it does emptied since the shed was built
terrible idea, but perhaps this help crew morale if it is capable in the mid-19th century”. Each
sort of gung-ho attitude is what’s of surfacing afterwards. The
True brew morning, the engineers simply
needed to inspire right-thinking engineers’ response has been to No sooner had we filed our topped up the pot with boiling
Americans to take up arms against lengthen the vessel to bring its grant application to study the water and another spoonful of tea.
climate change. Repeat after us: overall density down, but this has extremophile bacteria that may “It was supposedly a formidable
we’re going to build a sea wall, created a new problem. The 81- be lurking in Thai restaurant and, understandably, unique brew
and make the hurricanes pay for it. metre submarine is now too big to Wattana Panich’s 45-year-old that became something of a test
fit in its dock at the Spanish navy’s stew (17 August) than Helen Waldie of character for visiting crewmen,”
submarine base in Cartagena. The writes to inform us of research says Helen. We furtively slide
A whale of a saving port may have to be redesigned. opportunities much closer to home. our own well-tannined receptacle
Meanwhile on the less hurricane- The Isaac Peral’s excess weight She says that Harold Gasson, out of view. ❚
prone side of the pond, practical is reportedly the result of a single
measures against climate change. decimal point being out of place
Having recently switched his UK during the drafting stage. Got a story for Feedback?
energy supplier to Bulb, which Feedback is reminded of the single Send it to New Scientist, 25 Bedford Street,
boasts a renewable energy policy, missing overbar that in 1962 London WC2E 9ES or you can email us at
John Rowlands was delighted to supposedly sent NASA’s Mariner 1 feedback@newscientist.com

14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 53


The back pages Almost the last word

Just what is it that makes


Food fatigue
science appealing to some
I often feel tired after a large people and not others?
meal and I am told it is because
blood “rushes to the stomach to Tony Holkham
help with digestion”. Is this actually Boncath, Pembrokeshire, UK
what happens? How can the body Humans have made an almost
regulate that? indelible impression on this
planet, so we will be detectable
Joy Cummings for many millions of years. There
Leeds, West Yorkshire, UK will be fossils of us and of our
When food enters the digestive domesticated animals, just as
system, enterogastrone hormones we find fossils of dinosaurs and

SOLSTOCK/GETTY
are released. These increase blood their distant ancestors. There will
flow through the dilation of be clues in the chemistry of Earth
vessels supplying the digestive that are indicative of a civilisation
system. They also reduce blood that has changed the climate,
flow in other parts of the body, This week’s new questions extracted raw materials and
leading to tiredness. manufactured things.
Tiredness is particularly Different minds Why do some people become interested in There will also be signs of
noticeable after large meals or science and some don’t? Students of year 7A, Mirboo North our visits to other bodies in
ones rich in carbohydrates, due Secondary College, Victoria, Australia the solar system, particularly the
to their high glycaemic index, moon and Mars. But perhaps the
meaning that glucose is released Gurgling guts What causes the sound in a “rumbling” most telling evidence will be our
quickly into the bloodstream. stomach? Jonathan Sakula, Wakefield, Quebec, Canada electromagnetic communications
This increases insulin production, signature, which is spreading out
which helps tryptophan cross the into space at the speed of light in
blood-brain barrier. Tryptophan of food coma. Eating releases are dependent on continuous an ever-expanding envelope. It
can cause drowsiness and also enterogastrone hormones, which maintenance. But the answer may even include the details of
helps the body produce serotonin, can increase levels of serotonin depends on how closely the our demise, if we have time to
which plays a role in sleep and melatonin, both of which aliens look. After 500 years, broadcast these before perishing.
regulation. promote sleepiness. And an the only things visible from
excess of glucose inhibits a space would be plants, but surface Hillary Shaw
Sam Buckton hormone called orexin, which exploration would uncover signs Newport, Shropshire, UK
Chipperfield, Hertfordshire, UK promotes wakefulness. of us for another few thousand Traces of human activity
Tiredness following a meal is often Food coma could be adaptive years, just as we find ancient could linger on to infinity.
called a “food coma”. Its causes are in evolutionary terms. It has been civilisations today. Vegetation, storms, fires, frost,
complex and still debated, as is its suggested that we evolved to feel Unsurprisingly, plastics and rust, earthquakes and burrowing
evolutionary relevance. alert when hungry so we could nuclear waste will be around the animal activity would erase most
Blood does indeed rush to the locate food, then following a longest. Perhaps the ocean floor of our visible traces within a
stomach and intestines following meal, we could afford to rest. will contain a layer of polymer thousand years, but the ruins of
a meal, providing relevant systems sediment to give us away, much some massive concrete structures
with oxygen and transporting Human traces like the 65-million-year-old might remain for millennia. Our
the products of digestion. To iridium layer that reveals the pollution record might be found
maintain overall blood pressure, In the near future, a mystery dinosaur-killing asteroid impact. after millions of years, if aliens
our heart rate increases and virus wipes out the entire human Radiation hotspots could knew where to look and could
blood vessels constrict. race almost overnight. Later on, be detected even later than this, interpret the geochemical results.
However, up to a third of older a group of extraterrestrials lands but might be considered natural But our fossil tunnels may
people experience postprandial on Earth. There are now no visible unless some of our technology endure for much longer still.
hypotension, where this process signs that human civilisation was fossilised. Ultimately, tectonic Today, in Australia, there is crust
doesn’t work properly, leading ever existed. How many years plate subduction will melt all our surviving from 4.4 billion years
to dizziness and drowsiness. in the future would this be? remains into the mantle, leaving ago. Any tunnels built in crust
You might also feel unusually aliens to make up stories about that isn’t subducted could
tired if you have an allergic Graham Perkins what might have been. endure for at least as long.  ❚
reaction to food, as your body Milton Keynes, UK
uses energy to combat the This exact question is addressed
resulting inflammation. by Alan Weisman in The World Want to send us a question or answer?
In most people, the rush of Without Us. Megastructures Email us at lastword@newscientist.com
blood to the digestive system like the Panama Canal would Questions should be about everyday science phenomena
probably isn’t the major cause disappear quickly because they Full terms and conditions at newscientist.com/lw-terms

54 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


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14 September 2019 | New Scientist | 55


The back pages The Q&A

Neuroscientist Dean Burnett’s latest book


unpicks the mysteries of the teenage brain. He
says the behaviour that parents find so difficult
may actually have saved the human race

As a child, what did you want to How has your field of study changed in
do when you grew up? the time you have been working in it?
I wanted to be one of the crew of the starship I’m intrigued to see the shift away from
Enterprise, then a writer, then a scientist. “traditional” depression and antidepressant

Explain your work in one easy paragraph.


models and a move towards alternatives, like
ketamine-based antidepressants.
“I wanted to
I write books about the brain. My latest is about know what
Do you have an unexpected hobby, and
how teen and adult brains differ, explained in the
context of classic arguments between parents if so, please will you tell us about it? made me so
and teens, which I think we can all relate to. Most people are surprised, even alarmed,
to learn that I dabble in stand-up comedy.
unlike my family,
Why did you choose this field? so I started
How useful will your skills be after
reading books
I was a quiet and studious child, while most of the
Burnetts were – and are – outgoing, larger-than- the apocalypse?
life characters. It made me wonder: what is it that
makes me so unlike them, even though we live
My skills are mostly centred around explaining
how the brain works. So I’ll either be able to
about the brain”
in the same place? I sought out some basic manipulate the survivors or I’ll scare them and
brain books and it went from there. they’ll do away with me: warlord or main course,
in other words.
Did you have to overcome any particular
challenges to get to where you are today?
My background and origins were quite a hurdle. If you could have a long conversation
I’m from a remote, working-class, former mining with any scientist, living or dead,
community in south Wales. I’m also the first who would it be?
person in my family to show any interest in Eric Kandel, who won the Nobel prize in 2000
science. Nobody in academia was actively biased for discovering the mechanisms of memory
against me, but for many people, that world was storage in neurons. I’d really like to know how
familiar. I, by contrast, spent a lot of time figuring he figured out how to do this in the 70s, using
it out. By the time I did, it was usually too late. much cruder technology than we have now
and California sea slugs as subjects.
Were you good at science at school?
Yes. I once got 100 per cent in a test and a teacher
accused me of copying. Since I had the highest OK, one last thing: tell us something that
mark, I don’t know who I could have copied. will blow our minds…
Teenagers are how they are because it was
If you could send a message back to evolutionarily useful. Long term, sticking to
yourself as a kid, what would you say? the safe and familiar can lead to stagnation
I wouldn’t do this even if I could. I’ve just spent and extinction. Having individuals strike out
months researching how the teenage brain on their own can refresh the gene pool and
works. Being given weirdly specific, unsolicited uncover useful information. Hence, teens
instructions from some older bloke who claims reject authority, crave independence, take risks
he’s you? Given how most teen brains are geared, and so on. Far from being a constant annoyance,
that’s likely to make them more willing to do the teenagers may be the reason humanity is as
thing you’re warning against. smart and successful as it is.  ❚
What’s wrong with
What scientific development do you your parents?
hope to see in your lifetime? Dean Burnett’s latest book is Why Your Come and see Dean talking
It would be good to see progress in regenerating Parents Are Driving You Up the Wall and about this exciting topic at
nerves. So many problems, like paralysis and What to Do About It New Scientist Live
Alzheimer’s, could be mitigated or even cured. AXIS IMAGES/ALAMY newscientistlive.com

56 | New Scientist | 14 September 2019


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