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PUSHING YOUR BUTTONS

How game designers get you hooked – and keep you hooked

WEEKLY May 31 - June 6, 2014

The trouble with acetaminophen

INDEPENDENCE

Can science help a new nation find its way in the world

WIMPS IN CRISIS

Dark matter hunt

comes to a head

ECO RESURRECTION

Lost sea came back

from the dead – twice

Science and technology news www.newscientist.com US jobs in science

YOUR INNER TADPOLE

Unlocking the power

to grow new limbs

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CONTENTS

Volume 222 No 2971

This issue online

newscientist.com/issue/2971

News

8

WIMPs in crisis

Dark matter hunt

comes to a head

On the cover

34

The problem with

acetaminophen

Has the world’s favorite

drug had its day

Features

38

Pushing your

buttons

How game designers

get you hooked – and

keep you hooked

PATRICK GEORGE NASA

38 Pushing your buttons

Games you can’t put down

12 Independence

Can science help a new

nation find its way

8 WIMPS in crisis

Hunt for dark matter

16 Eco resurrection

Lost sea came back from

the dead – twice

30 Your inner tadpole

Power to grow new limbs

Coming next week…

The memory fix

Wiring your mind to heal itself

Ahead of the radiation curve

The unexpected benefits of nuclear bomb tests

News

6 UPFRONT

Europe swings to the right. Syrian refugees

go home for cancer therapy. RIP UK fracking

16 THIS WEEK

Lost sea came back from the dead – twice.

Origins of gut flora in newborns. Hacked

brain cells soothe seizures

18 IN BRIEF

Dancing bees assess ecosystems. Longer

life for mice that feel less pain. Planet eaters

Four futures for Scotland

12 Oil investment paradise Offshore riches

High-tech hub Rev up the start-ups

Green beacon All-renewable by 2020

Sickest state in Europe If the dream fails

Technology

21 App to stop sexual harassment. Saving lives

in prison. Ethical app. Radar spots pirates.

Curvy gadgets. Health-tracking dog collar

Aperture

26 Twitter user spots galactic coyote

Opinion

28 A no vote for science Michael Brooks on

how UKIP’s win might prove science’s loss

29 One minute with… Robert Schwartz Older

astronauts are go, says Mars One shortlister

30 We can regrow Michael Levin plans to plug

into bioelectric fields to grow new limbs

32 LETTERS Quantum quirks. Robot minds

Features

34 The problem with acetaminophen

(see above left)

38 Pushing your buttons (see left)

42 The secret language The tribe that

doesn’t want to be heard

CultureLab

46 Join it up From climate change to economic

busts, our problems need holistic thinking

47 On hoverflies Knowledge’s gentle pleasures

48 The world, for free How technology creep

is starting to undermine market certainties

Regulars

5 LEADER Don’t let new boundaries

cut off British science

56 FEEDBACK Mammoth politics

57 THE LAST WORD Lemon, and on, and on

50 JOBS & CAREERS

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 3


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Science sans frontières

Don’t let new boundaries cut off UK science

WHEN Louis Pasteur remarked

that science knows no country, he

clearly wasn’t thinking of research

funding. In principle, scientists

don’t pay much attention to the

nationality of their collaborators:

they simply seek out people who

can help advance their studies.

In practice, the choice of research

partners is constrained by

migration policies, funding

regimes and political will. Today,

the potential choices are greater

than ever – which is why it is

frustrating that the constraints

may now be tightened.

Ungainly though it is, the

European Union is on balance

good for science, and particularly

for science in the UK. That is now

threatened by the surge in

support for Eurosceptic parties in

last week’s elections (see page 6).

If the UK Independence Party

(UKIP) gets its way, and the UK

steps away from the European

Union, the country’s researchers

may find themselves cut off from

their former collaborators (see

page 28). There is no sign that

UKIP is bothered about this: it has

failed to respond to New Scientist’s

repeated requests for comment.

That is not the only question

mark over the future of UK

science. In September, the Scots

will vote on whether they want

their country to secede from the

UK. As we report on pages 12-15,

science and technology would

play important parts in shaping

an independent Scotland’s future,

just as they have shaped its

history: think of Alexander

Graham Bell, James Clerk

Maxwell, James Watt and Lord

Kelvin, among others.

But today’s Scottish science is

rarely done by lone geniuses.

“ Ungainly though it is, the

European Union is good for

science, and particularly

for science in the UK”

Rather, it is conducted at worldleading

research institutes, such

as the Roslin Institute, the UK

Astronomy Technology Centre

and the Higgs Centre for

Theoretical Physics, where

researchers from around the

globe can come together to

collaborate. Again, it is unclear

how cross-border access to

funding and facilities will be

arranged if Scotland goes it alone.

This is worth thinking about,

particularly because UK leaders

have recently been vocal in their

support of a resurgence in science

and technology in pursuit of a

Don’t kill the painkiller

WHOEVER first described the UK

and US as two nations divided

by a common language probably

wasn’t thinking about a molecule

called N-acetyl-p-aminophenol.

But there is possibly no better

example of the cultural divide.

Brits call it paracetamol;

Americans call it acetaminophen.

And attitudes towards the

painkiller are equally divergent.

People in the UK are aware that

a paracetamol overdose can kill.

That goes back to 1998, when

the government restricted the

number of tablets that could be

bought in one purchase and ran an

information campaign explaining

the change. The measures prevent

an estimated 1000 deaths a year.

US awareness is much lower.

When investigative journalism

group Propublica revealed last

year that 1500 Americans die

more balanced economy.

Last month, chancellor George

Osborne outlined a plan to

encourage the development of

research clusters – including one

stretching across southern

Scotland – and pledged to invest

£7 billion in science infrastructure

over the next parliamentary term.

This avowed enthusiasm for

science, from so close to the top of

government, is encouraging, even

if the details remain to be

thrashed out and opinions differ

on how big an economic benefit

such a strategy might yield. But if

UK science is to succeed, Osborne,

his colleagues and his successors

must address its international

dimensions too. So far, science

has gone unmentioned in both

the Scottish and European

debates. That needs to change.

Once, nations guarded the

prowess and achievements of their

researchers jealously. But forgoing

narrow definitions of national

interest in favour of collaboration

has proved hugely productive.

It would be a setback if scientists

found themselves facing those

barriers again, when their ideas so

clearly benefit from being taken up

by anyone, anywhere in the world.

As Pasteur also said, knowledge

belongs to humanity. ■

from accidental overdoses

annually, it was big news.

The drug is now facing further

problems over safety and

effectiveness (see page 34), leading

some to call for it to be withdrawn

from over-the-counter sale.

That would be an overreaction.

As the British experience shows,

people can understand and act on

nuanced messages. Paracetamol

doesn’t need to be banned: people

simply need to be made aware of

its limitations and dangers so that

they can make the right call. ■

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 5


UPFRONT

Right-wing Euro win

IT WAS called a “black day for

the UK, for example, only a third of

Europe”, as far-right parties gained the electorate votes in the European

an unprecedented share of the vote elections. “If you get very low

in last week’s European elections. turnouts, it’s much easier for smaller

Right-wing swings are sometimes parties to make an impact,” says

attributed to harsh economic times, Ed Fieldhouse of the University of

but data from 12 European countries Manchester, UK, who directs the

showed that right-wing parties in half British Election Study.

of them were doing worse after the He says that many voters who

2008 economic crisis. This makes the backed the UK Independence Party

suggestion that economic recovery (see page 28) may well return to

may counter the lurch seem less likely. supporting their usual party when the

“There’s definitely a role played by UK holds its national election next

the economy in this, but it’s not the year. However, his latest study

full picture by a long way,” says

showed that 60 per cent of those who

Marley Morris of political research said they intended to vote UKIP in last

consultancy Counterpoint in London. week’s election said they would also

Higher voter turnouts in national vote UKIP in the general election.

compared with European elections Before the corresponding European

could help make the political

elections in 2009, only 25 per cent

landscape less extreme. Typically in said they would do the same.

–French nationalists celebrate–

CHESNOT/GETTY IMAGES

Futile fracking

THE UK’s new oil rush may have

ended before it even began. There

are several billion barrels of shale

oil under south-east England,

according to a recent report, but it

may not be worth drilling for it.

The British Geological Survey

(BGS) estimates there are between

2.2 billion and 8.6 billion barrels

of oil, but little gas, in the rocks of

the Weald basin, south of London.

Energy companies will have to

resort to fracking to get the oil, but

they may not bother because little

of it can be extracted, says Andrew

“If only 1 per cent of the

shale oil is extractable,

that doesn’t seem like

a very big prize”

Aplin of Durham University, UK.

“Looking at data from the US,

the exploitable amount of oil

from fracking is normally around

5 per cent,” Aplin says. That means

only 110 million to 428 million

barrels of oil could be extracted.

Even that might be optimistic.

The 5 per cent figure comes from

areas rich in limestone. In clay

areas, like the Weald, the figure is

lower. What’s more, the oil in the

Weald comes from similar rocks

to North Sea oil, which is heavy

and viscous. If Weald oil is the

same, extraction will be difficult.

So Aplin estimates only 1 per

cent of the Weald reserve –

between 22 million and 86 million

barrels – can be extracted.

“Britain consumes about half a

billion barrels of oil per year, so if

only 1 per cent is extractable that

would be about two months’

consumption,” says Aplin. “It

doesn’t seem like a very big prize.”

Northern England looks more

promising. An earlier study by

the BGS found evidence of large

deposits of shale gas, perhaps

37.7 trillion cubic metres. The

south-west also has deposits. In

theory, these could meet the UK’s

gas needs for 40 years, but US

figures suggest that only 10 per

cent can be extracted.

“So you’re talking about only

a few years of potential UK

consumption,” says Aplin. “That’s

not to be sniffed at, but it doesn’t

change the basic message that we

as a country will be continuing to

import oil and gas in future.”

Neutrinos ahoy

STEP aside, Higgs boson. A US

panel has concluded the best way

for the nation to contribute to

particle physics is to create a worldleading

neutrino programme.

Neutrinos are elusive particles

that rarely interact with other

matter. They come in three

flavours, each thought to have a

different mass, but our ability to

study those masses with current

detectors is limited. Precision

measurements could help answer

big mysteries about the universe,

such as why there is more matter

than antimatter.

Last week, the Particle Physics

Project Prioritization Panel issued

a report mapping the next 10 to

20 years of US particle physics

research. It recommends

pursuing greater international

collaboration to build a neutrino

experiment of exceptional

physical length, centred at the

Fermi National Accelerator

Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois.

The report also recommends

boosting the energy of Fermilab’s

existing neutrino beams.

Space worms on the menu

MAYBE there’s a reason we call them

mealworms. Three volunteers in

China have just spent three months

eating beetle larvae as part of a

project to test life-support systems

for deep-space travel.

Last week, one man and two

women emerged from Moon Palace 1,

an artificial biosphere at the Beijing

University of Aeronautics and

Astronautics. The volunteers grew

and harvested grain, vegetables and

fruit, feeding the inedible leftovers

to mealworms. Along with some

meat, the mock crew ate dozens

of mealworms each day, trying

out different seasonings and

cooking styles.

Kim Binsted at the University of

Hawaii works on HI-SEAS, another

project that simulates long trips to

space. Her team also considered

growing mealworms for food, but ran

into problems: “In the end we decided

against it, because apparently

they’re little escape artists.”

6 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


For new stories every day, visit newscientist.com/news

60 SECONDS

Ebola epidemic

AN OUTBREAK of deadly Ebola

virus in west Africa has so far killed

174 people, and this week more

cases were confirmed in Sierra

Leone. And deep in the nearby

forest many gorillas and chimps

“An experimental Ebola

vaccine for chimpanzees

is safe and induces a strong

immune response”

could also be dying of the virus.

This strain of Ebola has been

spreading since 1995, killing

thousands of gorillas and chimps.

There is now hope: on Monday

researchers announced that an

experimental Ebola vaccine is

safe and induces a strong immune

response in captive chimps (PNAS,

DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1316902111). The

vaccine, based on a surface protein

from the Ebola virus, had already

been shown to protect monkeys.

But there is a new problem, says

Peter Walsh of the University of

Cambridge, who led the work. We

need to test ways to get the vaccine

into wild chimps, but such tests

may not happen. The US is the

only country that permits

biomedical research on chimps,

but last year, after a campaign by

the Humane Society of the US,

government agencies proposed

ending it. That could stymie

research on the Ebola vaccine.

“This will be a conservation

catastrophe,” says Walsh.

GONG LEI/REX FEATURES

–Deep space dine–

HAIDER ALA/REUTERS

Refugee care costs

FROM one crisis to the next. Many

refugees from middle-eastern

countries like Syria are unable to

get treatment for cancer and other

non-infectious diseases. So says a

report by the United Nations High

Commissioner for Refugees

(UNHCR) published this week.

In past conflicts, medical care for

refugees has focused on infectious

diseases and nutrition. However,

recent waves of refugees from

middle-income countries often

“Refugees with cancer and

other long-term illnesses

have to forego treatment

or face crippling debts”

have costlier needs. The UNHCR

offers financial help to host

countries, but a shortage of

funding has caused it to tighten

its criteria, capping spending at

$2000 per person per year.

Paul Spiegel of the UNHCR

and his colleagues assessed

applications for Iraqi and Syrian

refugees living in Jordan between

2010 and 2012. They found that

around a quarter were for help

with cancer treatment costs. More

than half of these were declined,

either because the patient faced a

poor prognosis or the costs of

treating them were too high

(Lancet Oncology, doi.org/f2rzzt).

As a result, many refugees

–The choice is debt or disease–

living with long-term illnesses

like cancer are having to forgo

treatment or face crippling debts,

trying to pay for it themselves.

Some are forced to return home.

Given limited funding, Spiegel

says that more emphasis needs to

be placed on cancer prevention.

Health insurance systems have

also proved to be effective in other

refugee settings.

Costly exhaust

CARS are pricey enough, but they

take another toll. Smog from road

transport drains $0.8 trillion yearly

from a group of 34 wealthy nations.

A report from the Organisation

for Economic Cooperation and

Development estimates that air

pollution costs OECD countries

$1.7 trillion a year in healthcare

and premature deaths. Road

transport accounts for half of this.

The most harmful emissions

come from diesel engines, so the

OECD wants governments to

remove incentives to buy them.

Air pollution also costs

$1.4 trillion in China and

$0.5 trillion in India. Both have

seen deaths due to smog rising

faster than the global average.

Many nations are trying to

cut smog by making cars more

efficient, but any gains have

been overwhelmed by the rising

number of cars in fast-expanding

cities in China and India.

Canada flexes robo-arm

Astronauts on the International

Space Station can now leave routine

repairs to a robot. Canadian-made

Dextre has replaced two cameras

on fellow bot Canadarm2, a job that

normally entails a human spacewalk.

This time, astronauts chucked the

cameras into an airlock and let

Dextre get to work.

Speedier gene trials

Gene therapy clinical trials in the

US no longer need to be reviewed by

a special federal advisory board, the

National Institutes of Health has

announced. The Recombinant DNA

Advisory Committee will only review

high-risk therapies, with most

proposed trials going through

existing regulatory channels.

Vape alarm

In a letter to the World Health

Organization, 48 scientists have

accused the body of either

“overlooking or purposefully

marginalising” the idea that

e-cigarettes could be a low-risk

alternative to cigarettes. They

say the WHO is treating e-cigarettes

in the same way as traditional

tobacco products.

Toad invasion

Madagascar has been invaded by

toads, which could cause havoc to its

delicate ecosystem, much as cane

toads have in Australia. Biologists

collected six Asian common toads

(Duttaphrynus melanostictus) in the

country in late March and are calling

for them to be eradicated (Nature,

DOI: 10.1038/509563a).

Atomfall

What do you get when you throw

two clouds of frozen atoms off a

tower and grab a stopwatch

A German experiment timing the fall

of rubidium and potassium atoms

in an extreme quantum state has

confirmed Einstein’s prediction that

different types of atoms fall at the

same rate (Physical Review Letters,

doi.org/sxt).

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 7


THIS WEEK

Dark matter hunt

at crisis point

Time to blaze new trails in the search for the

dark stuff Lisa Grossman checks them out

ROADS may soon diverge in the

dark matter wood, and some

physicists want to take the ones

less travelled.

The most promising candidate

for a dark matter particle could be

about to show itself at last, as it is

running out of places to hide. But

should the hunters fail to bag

one of these WIMPs, or weakly

interacting massive particles, the

search for dark matter could be

thrown into crisis.

At a meeting in Cambridge,

Massachusetts, last week,

researchers debated the best

paths forward into the wilder

landscape of less-favoured

candidates, from alternate

particles to changes to our

theory of gravity.

“It’s really refreshing,” says

Lisa Randall at Harvard University.

“For years I went to conferences

where people said, ‘We know what

dark matter is and we’re just

cutting out the parameter space’.

I thought that was strange,

because we really don’t know

what dark matter is.”

So far we have only sensed

dark matter’s presence through

its gravitational effects. But

theory says that WIMPs should

also brush shoulders with normal

atoms occasionally, producing

signals we can detect. WIMP

champions are pinning their

hopes on more sensitive

underground detectors that are

running or under construction.

“This is a golden decade for

dark matter because of detector

sensitivity,” says Kathryn Zurek at

the University of Michigan in Ann

Arbor.

The trouble is that background

noise can prevent us noticing

the impact of a WIMP. Beyond a

certain sensitivity limit, the signal

would be swamped by neutrinos,

nearly massless particles that are

constantly streaming from the

sun and from particle collisions

in our atmosphere. After just a

few more upgrades, WIMP

hunters will hit this limit and the

desired particles may no longer

be detectable.

Indirect methods for spotting

WIMPs offer the best chance of a

sighting. When WIMPs collide

they should annihilate, shattering

into other particles. This includes

“When there is no evidence,

you have to be careful.

We’re looking for a black

cat in a dark room”

gamma rays, and an excess of

these high-energy photons

spotted in the centre of our

galaxy seems to fit nicely with the

simplest models for WIMPs. But

one criticism is that the rays could

just as easily come from fastspinning

dead stars called pulsars.

So if not WIMPs then what

Some theories modify the classic

particle, changing its properties

and offering new places to look.

Others focus more on runner-up

particles, such as axions or sterile

neutrinos. And still others say

dark matter might not exist at all,

and we just need to modify the

laws of gravity (see right).

“It’s always possible WIMPs are

just around the corner,” says Avi

Loeb at Harvard University. “But

when there is no evidence, you

have to be careful. We’re looking

for a black cat in a dark room.” ■

BACKGROUND: NASA LEFT: LUXDARKMATTER/FLICKR MIDDLE: BOREXINO CALLIBRATION RIGHT: XENON

WELCOME TO WIMP CITY

There are good reasons to build up

a metropolis around WIMPs.

Our best models support the

theory that dark matter is the

scaffold around which normal

matter formed galaxies and

clusters. If so, dark matter must

have existed since the dawn of the

universe.

Early theories hinted that dark

matter particles should annihilate

themselves, so physicists knew the galactic centre, says Dan

they must have certain properties, Hooper at the Fermilab in Batavia,

in order for enough of the particles Illinois. But alternative

to still exist and make up the

explanations have not been ruled

amount of dark matter we detect out, and other detection

today. A particle that interacts via techniques have yet to pan out –

gravity and the weak force but not like waiting for a WIMP to smack

with photons fits the bill – and that into an underground detector such

is a WIMP.

as LUX in South Dakota (pictured

“There’s a simplistic beauty to above) or creating one at a particle

the WIMP model. That’s why it’s so accelerator, for example.

compelling,” says James Bullock at If WIMPs remain elusive even as

the University of California, Irvine. we whittle down the places to look,

Signs of exactly this kind of the hypothetical particles become

particle are showing up as an

less attractive candidates, says

excess of gamma rays coming from Bullock. “Then you start to worry.”

8 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


In this section

■ Four futures for Scotland, page 12

■ Lost sea came back from the dead – twice, page 16

■ Radar spots pirates, page 23

WIMPY SUBURBS

AXION FARMS

With classical WIMPs in a bind,

theorists have started expanding

their descriptions of the particle,

creating a sprawling landscape of

WIMP-like alternatives.

One idea is asymmetric dark

matter, which would invoke a dark

anti-particle. We exist because

something in the early universe

allowed more matter than

antimatter to survive after the big

bang. The mechanism for this

asymmetry is still unclear, but if

something similar happened for

dark matter, it should be made of

lightweight particles of about 5 to

10 gigaelectronvolts – just below

what WIMP detectors can see.

Other models say that dark

matter may be a mix of classic

WIMPs and WIMP-like cousins that

would interact with each other via a

hypothetical dark force. Selfinteracting

dark matter would be

harder to find in detectors, but it

would build structures.

Some astronomers are already

hunting for signs of this shadow

cosmos in the motions of stars and

colliding galaxies.

In the absence of WIMPs, the runners-up

are axions, which behave more like an

all-encompassing field than single particles.

Theoretically speaking, axions are just as

likely as WIMPs but are much harder to find.

Classical WIMP detectors, such as the

XENON100 project at Gran Sasso National

Laboratory in Italy (pictured below), can also

hunt for axions. The best limits so far have been

set by the ADMX experiment at the University

of Washington in Seattle, but it is only

sensitive to a small range of possible particles.

Last April, Peter Graham at Stanford

University, California, and his colleagues

devised another way to hunt them using the

same technology as MRI scanners. “There is

still a lot of work to be done, but I think they

deserve a similar effort.”

NEUTRINO PARK

Neutrinos seem like natural candidates for

dark matter: they have mass, yet they flit

through normal matter as if it weren’t there.

The three known types of neutrinos don’t

add up to enough mass to explain all the dark

matter we see in the universe. But what if

there is a fourth flavour of the particle

This sterile neutrino could fit the bill. Hints

of it have popped up and vanished again in

several experiments, including the Borexino

detector at Gran Sasso (pictured below).

A whiff of X-rays from the centre of the

galaxy could be yet another sign of them. In

February, two teams saw extra X-rays in data

from two telescopes, and a sterile neutrino

with a mass of 7 kiloelectronvolts could

explain the sighting. If confirmed, the next

test would be to see if there is enough of

these particles to account for dark matter.

MOND OFF-ROADING

It’s still possible that the search for

any sort of particle is misguided.

Instead, modified Newtonian

dynamics, or MOND, suggests

rewriting one of our most cherished

theories: gravity.

The first evidence for dark matter

came from the ability of rotating

galaxies to hold themselves

together, even though they do not

have enough mass in their planets,

stars and gas to act as the only

gravitational glue.

According to MOND, gravity simply

works differently on galactic scales

than on the scale of solar systems,

and we just need to figure out how.

Some observations of mass in dim

galaxies and the motions of dwarf

galaxies agree better with MOND

than with Newtonian physics,

a mystery that convinced Stacy

McGaugh at Case Western Reserve

University in Cleveland, Ohio, that it

could be the way to go. But starting

afresh with gravity continues to

make many physicists

uncomfortable – including some of

MOND’s grudging supporters.

At the Cambridge conference (see

main story), McGaugh made the case

for MOND but then left his

colleagues with an impassioned

plea: “Please detect this stuff! Put

me out of the misery of having to

give this talk over and over again!”

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 9


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FOUR FUTURES FOR SCOTLAND

Take the high road

In 16 weeks’ time, the people of Scotland will decide whether

their country should become independent of the UK. It is not an

easy decision: the political, economic and cultural questions have

been debated for months.

There are other dimensions to consider, too, including science,

technology and the environment. These can shape any country’s

fate just as much as the social factors – perhaps more so, for a

small new nation looking to carve out its place in the world.

New Scientist looks at how an independent Scotland might reinvest

its oil riches, become a high-tech hub, a green beacon – or the

sickest country in Europe

SMALL nations can shape their own destiny, and this

can be both a blessing and a curse. If the Scots opt

for independence, they would do well to heed other

small nations before them.

Research by the innovation-fostering charity

Nesta has looked at small countries that have

prospered in the last few decades. Take tiny Estonia,

with a population one-quarter the size of Scotland’s.

It is the poster child for newly independent states.

Estonia’s government took advantage of freedom

from the USSR in 1991 to turn the country into a

technology superpower in miniature. From the free

public Wi-Fi in Tallinn to compulsory coding lessons

in schools, Estonia bet big on IT. And it paid off:

Estonians built the technology behind Skype and

run a host of cool start-ups.

But for every Estonia there’s an Iceland. Around the

time the Estonians embarked on their technological

adventure, the Icelanders set themselves up as the

buccaneers of international capitalism. It ended

badly, with the country’s banks collapsing and the

country facing years of painful austerity.

So an independent Scotland must choose its

path carefully. There are a number of directions it

could decide on: oil-investment paradise, renewableenergy

Mecca, high-tech playground.

None of these three scenarios is a sure-fire hit.

High-tech industries could always go the way of

“Silicon Glen”, a region in central Scotland where

electronics manufacturers once flocked. In its heyday

in the mid-1990s, it was claimed that Silicon Glen

produced 35 per cent of PCs in western Europe. But

this success vanished almost overnight when the

dotcom bubble burst and companies headed east in

search of lower costs.

Such scenarios are plausible futures for Scotland,

and there is also a fourth future; one that is more

troubling. Without a plan or a sense of where to

take the nation, it is possible that an independent

Scotland may drift into business-as-usual. Or

perhaps from an economic point of view, it would

be more accurate to call this business-and-financialservices-as-usual

– the time-honoured British model

of an economy run by bankers, built on debt and

managed to the timetable of the quarterly

financial results.

As the experience of Iceland and the Republic of

Ireland shows, this is a perilous path, especially for

a small country. It’s partly about risk: as we have

seen, the financial services sector can act as an

engine for the economy, but it has a nasty habit

of blowing up on the motorway.

There is also something deeper at stake: if

Scotland makes the wrong decisions about its own

economic future, it risks ending up as a backwater

to the rest of the UK, with England – and London

in particular – sucking away its brightest and best.

Independence offers a chance for Scotland to

shape its destiny, but whatever future it aims for,

it must avoid clinging to the old British habit of

muddling through. ■

Stian Westlake is executive director of research

at Nesta in London. Nesta’s report, When Small is

Beautiful: Successful innovation in smaller countries,

will be published on 30 June

MARK PINDER/REPORTDIGITAL.CO.UK

Oil and gas is at

heart of Scots’

future wealth

Rob Edwards, Grangemouth

AS DUSK falls, Grangemouth starts to

glow. Cloaked in clouds of steam and lit

by flares like giant candles, Scotland’s

biggest oil refinery has a strange

beauty. Situated roughly halfway

between Edinburgh and Glasgow on

the Firth of Forth, the 700-hectare

petrochemical complex is a vital hub

of UK oil production. Should Scotland

vote for independence, it will be one

of the new government’s key assets.

According to the industry, there are

between 15 and 24 billion barrels of

recoverable oil and gas left under the

North Sea. About 42bn barrels have

been extracted since production

began there in 1967. Because prices

have risen, 24bn barrels could be

12 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


For more on this, visit newscientist.com/special/scotland

–Waving the flag for independence–

worth £1.5 trillion – more than the

value of all the oil and gas extracted

so far. “That gives us one of the best

financial safety nets of any country in

the world,” the Scottish government

says. If the UK’s Trident nuclear

submarine base moves from the river

Clyde after independence – as Scottish

nationalists say it must – then

prospecting off the west coast could

begin too. It is currently banned in

case it interferes with naval

operations there.

There will be a few other tricky

issues to resolve, like where the lines

are drawn to demarcate which fields

belong to an independent Scotland

and which to the UK, and how the

£35-£50bn cost of decommissioning

old oil rigs would be divided up.

Ultimately the plan is to emulate

Norway, and invest at least some of

the created wealth for the future.

Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond,

has promised to put aside about £1bn

a year, with the aim of generating a

£30bn oil fund over a generation.

Norway’s equivalent, the

Norwegian Pension Fund Global, has

amassed over £500bn from oil and gas

revenues since it was set up in 1990. It

is the world’s largest sovereign wealth

fund and owns 1.3 per cent of all the

world’s listed companies.

According to Bjørn Vidar Lerøen,

an adviser to Norway’s industry body,

“Alex Salmond promises to

put aside about £1 billion

of oil money a year, to

create a £30 billion fund”

Norwegian Oil and Gas Association,

there was political consensus on

the fund from the start. “The oil

belongs to the people and revenues

from oil production shall be used to

build a better society,” he says. The

Norwegian fund has a wide-ranging

ethical policy that forbids investments

in more than 60 companies involved

in tobacco, arms, environmental or

human rights abuses. Ironically, it is

now reviewing whether to disinvest

from fossil fuel companies because of

the damage they do to the climate.

But there is one way in which

Scotland would probably not be able

to copy Norway: the Norwegian

government’s 67 per cent ownership

of the oil company Statoil. “To try to

nationalise companies would not be

politically possible either in Scotland

or the UK,” says Uisdean Vass, an oil

specialist at legal firm Bond Dickinson

in Aberdeen.

Perhaps the biggest conundrum,

though, is the climate. According

to WWF Scotland, burning 24bn

barrels of oil and gas could put more

then 10bn tonnes of carbon dioxide

into the atmosphere – more than

120 times Scotland’s current annual

emissions. “The science is clear,” says

the environmental group’s director,

Lang Banks. “The planet certainly

can’t afford to allow all the oil left

in the North Sea to be burned.” ■

Aping Israel:

how to build a

start-up nation

Jessica Griggs, Edinburgh

EDINBURGH, Scotland’s bustling

and aspiring capital, has dubbed

itself the Athens of the North. If

Scotland gets independence, the

new government should instead

consider looking across the

Mediterranean Sea, to Israel, for

some high-tech inspiration.

Israel’s nickname is the Start-Up

Nation, thanks to a 2009 book of

the same name that explored how

a small country with 7 million

people became a global player

in the tech scene. Today, Israel

is thought to boast the highest

number of start-up companies

per person in the world.

So could Scotland follow >

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 13


FOUR FUTURES FOR SCOTLAND

Israel’s example Scotland has

fewer people – about 5.3 million –

but it already has the start of a

healthy tech scene. In 2006,

Edinburgh had just three

incubators – offices where startups

can rent desk space, network

and hold workshops. Now there

are 17. Glasgow is not far behind.

“It’s a pretty vibrant environment,”

says Danny Helson of Informatics

Ventures, a support network set

up to work with start-ups spun

out from the University of

Edinburgh’s School of Informatics.

The biggest challenge, many

involved agree, is scraping

together the funding to help

companies really take off. What

Scotland needs is for a few homegrown

firms to make it big.

“There is nothing like a couple of

exemplar projects to encourage

“ The biggest challenge is

scraping together the

funding to help companies

really take off”

CHRIS RUBEY/GETTY

venture capitalists,” says Tom

Ogilvie of Edinburgh Research and

Innovation, the commercialisation

arm of the university.

In Israel, trendsetters include

Waze, the traffic app bought by

Google for $1.1 billion last year.

Edinburgh-based Skyscanner,

the flight comparison site, is the

closest to aping that success. Last

year the company’s estimated

value was about $800 million.

Letting private investors

shoulder the risk seems to work.

Government funding kick-started

Israel’s tech scene in the early

1990s, but that has since been

taken over by private industry,

SHETLAND

ISLANDS

says Naomi Krieger Carmy,

director of the UK-Israel Tech Hub

at the British embassy in Tel Aviv.

“The government was able to

assume some of the risk, but to a

large degree it left the reward to

the entrepreneurs,” she says.

To emulate this, some want

an independent Scotland to scrap

Scottish Enterprise, the main

provider of public-sector money

to Scottish firms. Without this

investment competition from the

public sector, the thinking goes,

entrepreneurs might be keener to

invest in Scottish start-ups. Israel’s

example also highlights the

economic importance of aligning

research with industry. Nearly

80 per cent of research in Israel is

done by businesses; in Scotland

Wind will power

the figure is closer to 35 per cent.

In the meantime, there are

Scotland’s

other things Scotland could do to

imitate Israel, such as strengthen green ambitions

connections with the US and

Canada, says Jamie Coleman,

SCOTLAND is arguably one of the

managing director of Codebase, greenest countries in Europe. It

a tech incubator in Edinburgh. produces 40 per cent of Scottish

Codebase occupies the top

electricity demand from renewable

floors of an otherwise empty

sources, and models suggest this

government building and has could rise to 67 per cent by 2018.

plans to extend downwards. By That’s closing in on the government’s

the end of the year, it wants to be goal of producing enough green

the biggest incubator in Europe. power to supply the equivalent of

If Scotland can mature into a all of Scottish demand by 2020.

start-up nation, the benefits could Some fear that independence

be huge. “If you can get global means this goal will be too expensive

companies established then that for Scotland because offshore wind is

leads to economic development expensive. “It’s silly to say it’s going to

for Scotland,” says Helson. ■

be expensive,” says David Toke of the

University of Aberdeen, “when in fact

it can be done pretty cheaply onshore.”

Toke and his colleagues published

estimates last year suggesting that

independence would ruin Scotland’s

chances of hitting its green goal. But

later that year the team made a U-turn:

they now say that it will be cheaper

for Scotland to pursue its 2020 target

as an independent nation.

What changed Newly announced

nuclear power stations will need

funding in the UK and new financial

policies heavily favour nuclear over

–Edinburgh, start-up central– wind power. So it now makes more

Scotland is packed with onshore

wind farms and power companies

have ambitious plans to build more

Installed/operating

Application made

Site under consideration

14.8 TWh

Total renewable

generation 2012

8.3 TWh

Onshore wind

generation 2012

*Terawatt-hours

Estimated onshore wind

generation 2018

17.5 TWh*

sense for a green Scottish consumer

to vote for independence, says Toke.

Electricity bills will still go up – by about

7 per cent, he claims – and this will pay

for onshore wind power. In the UK,

bills would rise by 8 to 10 per cent to

pay for new nuclear, Toke says.

An independent Scotland will need

a close electrical alliance with England

and Wales. A power-sharing market

that allows all those involved to

navigate the peaks and troughs of

supply and demand is a tricky business.

This balancing act is particularly tough

when fickle renewables are involved,

but there is a precedent in Scandinavia.

Nord Pool is a power-sharing market on

a grid that runs largely on renewables.

Accordingly, the incumbent Scottish

National Party (SNP) has proposed an

“energy partnership” with the UK.

Don’t be fooled by all this green

ambition – Scotland won’t be kicking

the oil habit. Its target is to produce

the equivalent of 100 per cent of

Scottish demand with renewables,

but the country will remain a big

energy exporter. The excess will come

largely from its traditional fossil fuel

and nuclear power resources.

But the SNP says emphasis will be

placed on developing carbon dioxide

capture and storage for its fossil fuel

power stations. It’s not easy being

green, but independence might make

it a little easier. Catherine Brahic ■

SOURCE: SCOTTISH NATURAL HERITAGE

14 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


For more on this, visit newscientist.com/special/scotland

SCOTLAND

IN NUMBERS

Don’t look back in

anger from 2062

Jacob Aron

IT IS 2062, and the youngest people

to vote in Scotland’s referendum,

then aged 16, are now approaching

retirement age. A perfect storm of

shifting demographics, dwindling

oil and poor health has left those

north of the border worse off than

the rest of the UK, leading many to

question whether they were right

to vote “yes” all those years ago…

Back in the present, it is

impossible to confidently predict

what will happen should Scotland

decide to go it alone. But three

factors will come into play.

The first is an unavoidable

fact of life: we are all getting

older. Developed nations across

the world are set to struggle

with the effects of an ageing

population over the next 50 years,

but demographic projections

suggest the impact will be felt

even harder in Scotland.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies

(IFS), a think-tank in London,

WHAT ABOUT SCIENCE

Where would an independent

Scotland fit in with the rest of the

science world Could Scottish

researchers lose access to other

international facilities, including

ones in the rest of the UK Will

researchers south of the border

still be able to do science in Scotland

The Scottish government says it

will be business as usual. It plans to

reach an agreement with the rest

of the UK and will continue funding

science through the research councils.

But as with most of the debates

over independence, there are

claims and counterclaims. Scottish

science receives a disproportionately

high share of the UK’s research

council funds: Scotland is home to

8 per cent of the UK population

predicts that by 2062 Scotland’s

population will have grown by

just 4.4 per cent, compared with

22.8 per cent in the UK as a whole.

The problem for Scotland is that

its under-65 population will shrink

while its over-65s increase, putting

big pressure on public finances.

The Scottish government says

independence will allow the

nation to pursue a very different

immigration strategy to the rest

of the UK. But if working-age

“ A large proportion of

Scotland’s higher mortality

is simply down to poverty

and deprivation”

migrants don’t come as hoped,

Scotland will find it more difficult

to support its ageing population.

Things get worse when North

Sea oil and gas are taken into

account. “Oil revenues will almost

certainly fall over the longer

term,” says David Phillips at the

IFS. “If it takes decades, that would

but receives over 13 per cent of that

cash. In 2012-13, it amounted to

£257 million in grants.

The UK government says that an

independent Scotland would have to

supply its own funding, and that to

maintain the status quo would cost

0.23 per cent of Scotland’s 2012 GDP.

It also warns that Scots would lose

out on other funding from UK

government departments, such

as the Ministry of Defence.

In truth, nobody knows. In the case

of a vote for independence, research

funding is one of many details that

would need to be hammered out.

There would be a negotiation and

transition period between the vote

on 18 September and the proposed

Independence Day of 24 March 2016.

give Scotland time to adjust,

although it would still involve

some potentially painful choices.”

Addressing the shortfall in

revenues will mean higher taxes

or a fall in living standards –

something Scotland can ill

afford: life expectancy is already

2.3 years lower for Scottish men

than those in the rest of the UK.

The difference is particularly

stark in Glasgow, where life

expectancy at birth is just

72.6 years for boys and 78.5 for

girls, compared with the UK

averages of 78.9 and 82.7 years.

“Health is Scotland’s Achilles’

heel,” says Gerry McCartney of

NHS Scotland. And it’s a relatively

recent phenomenon.

The reason for the disparity is

not entirely clear, as it is difficult

to untangle the interconnected

health effects of lifestyle, culture

and economics, but inequality in

Scotland certainly plays a role.

“Quite a large proportion of the

higher mortality is explicable

simply by poverty and

deprivation,” says McCartney.

The Scottish government says a

vote for independence will reduce

inequality. But a study by David

Comerford and David Eiser at the

University of Stirling suggests that

new Scottish powers to increase

taxes or benefits may have little

effect. That’s because small nations

can find it difficult to implement

radically different policies to their

larger neighbours: people can

simply decide to cross the border

in search of lower taxes, for

example. This is particularly

problematic when it comes to

funding pensions, which depend

on a thriving workforce. “Raising

tax rates to provide pensions

could be a self-defeating policy if

it leads to an exodus of workers,”

says Comerford.

The voting age for the Scottish

referendum has been lowered

to 16 from the normal UK voting

age of 18, to let teenagers have

a say in their country’s future.

If independence goes wrong,

a youthful yes vote could prove

a big mistake. ■

JEFF J. MITCHELL/GETTY

5.3 million

The population of Scotland

99%

Scotland’s share of the UK’s

offshore oil production over

the next 30 years

14 years

The gap in life expectancy

for boys born in the most

deprived areas compared

with the richest areas

25%

Scotland’s potential share

of the European Union’s wind

and tidal energy

£0

Fees paid by Scottish students

going to university in Scotland

£905m

Research funding of Scottish

universities in 2011/12

1707

Year the UK parliament formed

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 15


THIS WEEK

EZEQUIEL SCAGNETTI/LUZ/EYEVINE

Arid Aral Sea could

be resurrected

Jeff Hecht

IN LESS than a century, humanity

destroyed the Aral Sea. It is one of

the emblematic environmental

disasters. But now it seems the sea

has collapsed at least twice before,

and recovered both times.

In 1960, the Aral Sea in central

Asia was the world’s fourth largest

lake. But massive irrigation

programmes begun during the

Soviet era diverted water from

the rivers that feed it, reducing

the lake’s volume to just 10 per

cent of what it had been and

leaving large areas dry (see map).

The ecosystem collapsed, the

desiccated lake bed is now laced

with pesticides spread by dust

storms, and drinking water is

polluted.

Now geologists have discovered

that the Aral Sea has previously

recovered naturally from such

severe declines.

“History tells us don’t give up

hope,” says Philip Micklin of

Western Michigan University

in Kalamazoo, who was not

involved in the study. “The sea

really has dried in the past and

has come back.”

Sergey Krivonogov of the

Institute of Geology and

Mineralogy in Novosibirsk,

Russia, and his colleagues have

compiled data showing how the

Aral Sea has changed over the

past 2000 years. Researchers had

carbon-dated the shelves etched

into the shoreline by past waves,

and drilled cores to reveal which

layers were once exposed.

It turns out that water levels in

the Aral Sea have varied widely,

Shrunken sea

Soviet irrigation projects cut off the rivers

feeding the Aral Sea, so it has shrunk to

one-tenth of what it was in 1960

1960 Today

KAZAKHSTAN

UZBEKISTAN

Muynak

says Krivonogov. Humans may

have played a role, because we

have been farming the area for

2500 years.

In 1960, the lake’s surface was

54 metres above sea level. Yet

between AD 400 and 600, it was

just 10 metres above sea level, and

recovered. Then between AD 1000

and 1500 it fell to 29 metres above

sea level. The lake grew again after

1600, until Soviet irrigation began

(Gondwana Research, doi.org/svs).

The modern collapse is no

worse than the older ones. By

1989, the lake was 40 metres

above sea level, and a small

northern lake split from the rest.

Since then the northern part

has rebounded. In 2005, a dam

AMU DARYA

Aralsk

SYR DARYA

50 km

–Land ahoy!–

separated it from the south,

cutting water loss from the north.

The north Aral Sea is back up to

42 metres above sea level, and

native fish have returned from

river refuges, says Nikolay Aladin

of the Russian Zoological

Institute in Saint Petersburg.

“ History tells us don’t give

up hope. The sea really

has dried in the past and

has come back”

“The fish catch is a small

fraction of what it was in the

mid-1950s, but the rehabilitation

of the northern part has been

pretty amazing,” says Micklin.

The southern part is still

shrinking though. It has split

into three salty lakes less than

29 metres above sea level. The

eastern one is so salty that only

brine shrimp live there. No work is

under way to restore this southern

region. It has always looked like a

lost cause. So it will keep shrinking

and getting saltier until only brine

shrimp are left, says Aladin.

Using less water to irrigate

crops could restore the entire Aral

Sea, says Micklin. But it would

devastate the farms, which have

actually increased the irrigated

area since the end of the Soviet era

in 1991. Some have shifted from

water-hungry rice and cotton to

winter wheat, but many farmers

need the cotton money. ■

16 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


For daily news stories, visit newscientist.com/news

JESSIE JEAN/GETTY

Surprising origin of the

gut flora in newborns

BABIES in the womb are not as

sheltered from the outside world

as you might think. The placenta

harbours a unique ecosystem of

bacteria that may have a surprising

origin – the mother’s mouth.

Disturbances of the placenta’s

bacterial community may explain

why some women give birth

prematurely. It could also be

one of the ways that a woman’s

diet affects her offspring’s gut

bacteria, and as a result, the child’s

disease risk. “Different nutrients

[in the mother’s diet] are a huge

determinant of which microbes

take up residence in the placenta,”

says Kjersti Aagaard of the Baylor

College of Medicine in Houston.

In the past decade there has

been growing awareness of the

role that our microbiome – the

bacteria, viruses and fungi that

live on and in our bodies – plays in

our health. Disturbances to the

gut microbiome have been linked

with conditions ranging from

obesity to autism.

Until recently it was generally

thought that babies are born with

a sterile gut and that they pick up

microbes on their journey through

their mother’s vagina, which are

the first to colonise the gut. This

theory was challenged when

bacteria were found in the

meconium – a baby’s first stool,

passed within hours of birth.

We now have a clue to where

these bugs are coming from.

Aagaard and her team sequenced

the DNA of bacteria in the

placenta, which transfers

nutrients and oxygen from the

mother’s blood to the fetus. They

took samples from inside the

placentas of 320 women after

they had given birth.

The team found a broad range

of bacteria, including those

necessary for metabolising

nutrients needed by the fetus.

But they were surprised to find

that the bacterial species were

most similar to those normally

found in the adult mouth, as

opposed to the vagina or gut.

“The placenta has its own ecology

and these were not the bacteria

we were expecting,” says James

Kinross, a surgeon at Imperial

College London, who researches

–Born colonised–

gut bacteria and was not involved

in the new work. “Most people

would have expected it to be a

vaginal flora,” he says, because

of its proximity.

The fact that it was most similar

to the mouth microbiome suggests

these bacteria are somehow

finding their way through the

blood to the placenta. Aagaard

suggests that having got that far,

they could reach the fetus either

by crossing into its blood vessels

within the placenta or by passing

into the amniotic fluid and being

swallowed by the fetus.

“ The placenta has its own

ecology and these were

not the bacteria we were

expecting to see”

The team also found different

amounts of some of the bacterial

species in women who had

given birth prematurely – before

37 weeks of pregnancy – compared

with the typical bacterial profile

of the women who went to full

term (Science Translational

Medicine, doi.org/sv5).

This tallies with previous

studies which found that

gum disease raises the risk

of premature birth. Aagaard

speculates that if oral bacteria

do reach the placenta through the

blood, it is possible that diseased

and bleeding gums could allow

harmful bacteria to reach and

colonise the placenta, possibly

triggering an early birth.

In a separate study in monkeys,

Aagaard’s team showed that

giving pregnant animals a highfat

diet altered their offspring’s

microbiome (Nature

Communications, doi.org/sv7).

Many studies have shown that

a person’s risk of obesity and

heart disease is affected by their

mother’s diet, but it was thought

this was passed on through

epigenetic mechanisms – chemical

changes that switch the offspring’s

genes on or off. “But layered on

top of that are variations in the

microbiome,” says Aagaard.

Clare Wilson ■

Epilepsy pill to

switch brain

cells on and off

THERE is a new way to hack the brain.

A technique that involves genetically

engineering brain cells so that they

fire in the presence of certain drugs

has been used to treat epilepsy in

rats, and it could soon be tested

in humans.

Chemogenetics builds on

optogenetics, which involves

genetically engineering brain cells

so that they fire in the presence of

light. Selected neurons can then be

turned on or off with the flick of a

switch, but this requires implanting

fibre-optic cables in the brain, which

is impractical for treating human

brain disorders.

In chemogenetics, however, no

cables are needed because neurons

are altered to fire in the presence of

a certain chemical rather than light.

“It’s got more potential in that you

can give drugs to people more easily

than you can get light into their

brains,” says Dimitri Kullmann of

University College London.

Kullmann’s team tested the

approach by using a harmless virus to

deliver a gene into the brains of rats.

The gene encoded a protein that stops

neurons from firing – but only in the

presence of a chemical called

clozapine N-oxide (CNO).

Several weeks later they injected

the rats with chemicals that trigger

brain seizures, to mimic epilepsy.

If the rats were then given CNO, the

severity of their seizures reduced

significantly within 10 minutes.

(Nature Communications, DOI:

10.1038/ncomms4847).

Kullmann sees chemogenetic

therapy benefiting people with focal

epilepsy, a form of the condition that

is triggered in part of the brain and

then spreads. People with it can often

feel when a seizure is about to come

on, so at that point they could take

CNO as a tablet, or by injection or nasal

spray. The effect would only be

temporary, Kullmann says, because

the drug has a half-life of around

7 hours in humans. Clare Wilson ■

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 17


IN BRIEF

THEO ALLOFS/MINDEN

Big flightless birds get a

shake up of their family tree

HUGE flightless birds like emus and the extinct moa may

look alike, but an analysis of ancient DNA reveals they are

more distantly related than we expected.

Moas, which lived in New Zealand, and emus belong to

a flightless group called ratites. Until now the assumption

was that early ratites spread around the world on foot

while Africa, New Zealand and Australia were one

land mass. When this broke up, the birds were separated

and evolved independently, producing everything from

Madagascar’s huge extinct elephant birds to the smallest

ratite, New Zealand’s kiwis.

Planet-munching suns are messy eaters

HUNGRY suns are unlikely to

be good hosts. Sun-like stars

sometimes devour their Earth-like

planets, and astronomers have

figured out how to identify the

grizzly leftovers.

Stars are mostly made of

hydrogen and helium, but they

can also contain a spattering of

other elements on their surfaces.

Analysing starlight lets scientists

see which elements are present.

Keivan Stassun at Vanderbilt

University in Nashville,

Tennessee, and his colleagues

used telescopes in Chile to look

at the light from a pair of sun-like

stars (The Astrophysical Journal,

doi.org/sv8). Both stars host

relatively large planets, with

masses between those of Neptune

and Jupiter. The team analysed

15 elements, including known

building blocks of rocky worlds.

But their DNA begs to differ. Alan Cooper of the

University of Adelaide in Australia sequenced DNA from

the bones of Madagascan elephant birds, and compared

it with that of other flightless birds. This showed that

elephant birds and moas are not evolutionary siblings at

all, but evolved separately from small flying birds. And

while Madagascar’s elephant birds are indeed closely

related to New Zealand’s kiwis, their last common

ancestor lived much more recently than 100 million years

ago, which is when Madagascar and New Zealand split

apart. This implies that they must have descended from

a bird capable of flying across the oceans.

Moas were most closely related to South American

flying birds called tinamous, which also supports the idea

that it evolved from a flying bird (Science, doi.org/swq).

They found that both stars had

much higher levels of Earth-like

components than our sun,

suggesting that these stars ate

rocky planets that once orbited

alongside the existing gas giants.

Finding stars that show signs

of planet-eating can speed up the

hunt for habitable worlds, because

systems that are unlikely to host

life can be quickly ruled out. “The

one that looks like it swallowed its

Earth already is probably not the

one to start with,” says Stassun.

Unique ‘potter’ frog

packs eggs in mud

A NEWLY discovered frog is the

only amphibian that coats its eggs

in mud. Doing so might protect

the eggs, but beyond that it may

also pay the frogs to be different.

The kumbara night frog lives in

south India. Kotambylu Vasudeva

Gururaja of the Indian Institute of

Science in Bangalore, who found

it, saw them pick up mud with

their forelimbs and spread it on

their eggs (Zootaxa, doi.org/sv6).

They might do it to stop the

eggs drying out, says Gururaja,

or to hide them from predators.

But he thinks the real reason is

that the frogs simply need to be

different from their neighbours.

Two related species, Jog’s night

frog and Rao’s dwarf wrinkled

frog, share the area. So each

species needs to differentiate

itself with distinct behaviours

to avoid futile interbreeding.

Gururaja found that they all make

unique calls, mate differently and

care for their young differently.

Fix leaky gut lining

to slow HIV’s attack

PLUG the gut to stall HIV.

It seems the virus damages the

gut, allowing bacteria to leak out

and spark an immune response,

triggering many lethal diseases.

Ivona Pandrea at the University

of Pittsburgh and colleagues gave

a drug used to treat kidney disease,

called sevelamer, to monkeys

newly infected with the simian

equivalent of HIV. The drug binds

to bacteria, keeping them safely

inside the gut. Those given the

drug had a dramatically reduced

immune response compared with

a control group (Journal of Clinical

Investigation, doi.org/swc).

Because an increased immune

response triggers many lethal

diseases in people with HIV, giving

the drug to people soon after

infection may prolong lives.

18 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


For new stories every day, visit newscientist.com/news

MATTHEW ASHTON/PA

Maths reveals the

best football team

PUBS around the world echo with

the debate: Which is the best

football team of all time Statistics

doesn’t have an answer yet – but it

can crown the best team in the

history of the English league.

Ian McHale and Rose Baker at the

University of Salford, UK, created a

statistical model of team strengths.

They used this to analyse goal data

from 200,000 matches in England

and Wales that occurred between

1888, when the Football League

was founded, and 2012. The games

cover the top four English leagues,

the FA Cup and the League Cup.

The model assessed teams

using three measures: attack

ability divided by an opposite team’s

defence, a team’s strongest average

performance over a 10-year period

and the probability of a team

winning against the second-best

team over a 10-year period.

By the first two measures, the

Chelsea team of 2005/06 comes out

on top, followed by the Manchester

United team of 2007/08. The United

team of 1992-2002 had the best

odds of beating their next best rival

(Journal of the Royal Statistical

Society: Series A, doi.org/swd).

Sanjit Atwal, who runs football

stats site Squawka, agrees with the

result, but says the stats are just

more fuel for the debate. “Fans will

take whatever they can out of the

data to win an argument,” he says.

Lifespan boost for mice that feel less pain

NO PAIN, lots of gain Mice

lacking a type of pain receptor

live significantly longer than

other mice, and have a more

youthful metabolism.

Many researchers suspect a

link between pain and lifespan.

We know that people with chronic

pain often die young, and that

worms and flies lacking certain

sensory neurons live longer than

expected. Now Andrew Dillin at

the University of California,

Berkeley, and his colleagues have

shown that similar findings apply

in mammals too.

Watch crystal grow

one atom at a time

NANO builders rejoice: for the

first time scientists have watched

crystals grow atom by atom,

offering incredible control over

their microscopic structure.

In the nanoscale world, rods,

spheres and dots made from the

same material have dramatically

different chemical and physical

properties. But until now, our

control over such structures has

been limited because they grow

too fast for even the best electron

microscopes to follow.

Nicolas Barry at the University

of Warwick, UK, and his colleagues

fired a beam of electrons at a thin

film of molecules containing the

metal osmium, carbon and other

elements. Most molecules broke

down to release single osmium

atoms, and the remaining film

fused into a graphene lattice.

Left-over atoms created

impurities of boron and sulphur

in the graphene, which slowed

the osmium atoms enough to let

researchers see a crystal grow

(Nature Communications, DOI:

10.1038/ncomms4851). The

method should make it possible

to watch different chemical

recipes in action and figure out

how to make customised crystals

for use in diverse fields.

He found that mice genetically

engineered to lack TRPV1 pain

receptors – which are activated

in response to high temperatures

and hot chilli peppers in food –

live almost 14 per cent longer than

those with the receptor. Mice

lacking the receptors also retain

some youthful features into old

age, such as efficient oxygen

metabolism (Cell, doi.org/swb).

As well as these advantages

to lacking TRPV1 there are

disadvantages, says Dillin. For

example, being able to sense pain

helps animals avoid harmful

Dancing bees report on their habitat

EAVESDROPPING may be rude, but

snooping on honeybees could reveal

a lot about the environment. Their

waggle dance contains clues about

the health of their ecosystem.

Honeybees perform the waggle

dance to tell hive mates about food

sources, so people have wondered

whether the dance might identify

healthy areas of the landscape and

thus evaluate conservation schemes.

To find out, Margaret Couvillon

and her colleagues at the University

of Sussex in Brighton, UK, videoed

5484 waggle dances from three

British honeybee colonies living near

objects and life-threatening

situations. This probably explains

why natural selection has retained

the pain receptors in mammals.

The lifespan-boosting

properties of TRPV1 come as a

surprise, says Gerard Ahern at

Georgetown University in

Washington DC. However, he

thinks applying the discovery

to human health won’t be easy.

Drugs that block TRPV1 have failed

safety testing, he says, because the

people who took them were prone

to burning themselves because of

an impaired heat sensation.

several conservation schemes.

Most bees danced to inform

others about a nature reserve rich in

wildflowers. They also praised farms

covered by Higher Level Stewardship

schemes, which set aside wild land.

But they were less keen on Organic

Entry Level Stewardship farms,

where regular cutting means there

are fewer flowers (Current Biology,

doi.org/sv9).

But honeybees may not tell us all

we need to know, says Lars Chittka of

Queen Mary, University of London.

“What’s good for the honeybee is not

necessarily good for other species.”

SCOTT CAMAZINE/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 19


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TECHNOLOGY

For more technology stories, visit newscientist.com/technology

PATRICK BROWN/PANOS

Hands off

An app that creates maps of sexual harassment

could help women in Bangladesh fight back

Paul Marks

WOMEN walking down the streets

of cities in Bangladesh face a daily

onslaught of sexual harassment.

Euphemistically known as

“Eve teasing”, it takes many forms,

from women being told by men to

adjust their clothing or headgear

to suit religious mores, to sexually

suggestive remarks, groping –

and more serious sexual assaults.

Now a smartphone app has

been created to help combat this.

While making women feel safer

is a major aim of the project,

the creators also want to reduce

the toll on the political lives

of Bangladeshi women. By

discouraging access to public

space, street harassment silences

women’s voices and quashes

their participation in public life,

the team behind the app told

a computing conference in

Canada earlier this month.

The app has been developed by

teams at Bangladesh University of

Engineering and Technology and

North South University – both in

Dhaka – alongside Cornell

University in Ithaca, New York.

Ishtiaque Ahmed at Cornell

says the app – called Protobadi,

meaning “one who protests” in

Bengali – allows women to combat

public harassment in three ways.

First, it has an on-screen button

that if pressed turns the phone

into a shrill rape alarm. This

action also sends text messages to

the woman’s emergency contacts

saying where she is and that she

needs help. Lastly, the incident

data from all users is collated to

create a heat map showing the

areas where harassment is at its

worst. In addition, the user can

annotate the data with a brief blog

post about the type of harassment

they experienced.

Last summer, after publicising

the app on Facebook and at their

respective universities, the team

–Don’t touch–

asked 10 of the 110 people who

signed up whether they felt the

app helped or hindered them day

to day. “They all felt safer having

the app installed on their phone.

They loved the fact that they had

one-touch emergency access to

their friends any time they needed

help,” says Ahmed. “Most of the

“ The idea is to bring highrisk

areas to the attention

of the authorities so

action can be taken”

participants considered the map

useful in choosing their routes

around Dhaka city.”

Some had concerns, however,

saying the maps, while useful,

could also create no-go areas for

women. But the aim, says Ahmed,

is quite the opposite: the idea

is to bring such areas to the

attention of the authorities so

action can be taken. “That way

no-go areas can never be created.”

That’s easier said than done,

however, because the definition

of sexual harassment is far from

a hard and fast one in the

subcontinent’s highly patriarchal

societies, says Priya Virmani, a

political and economic analyst

based in Delhi, India. While she

welcomes the app as a “great tool”

with which women can begin

fighting street harassment, she

points out that the perpetrators

could also consult the maps. “That

could disperse the trouble – they

might move to other parts of the

city.” What could improve the app,

she says, would be linking it to a

radio taxi service, which could

prioritise the sending of cabs to

women in distress – even if they

have no cash on them.

The team sees possibilities in

expanding the app’s use to other

countries where women suffer

serious sexual harassment.

For example, India, where

“Eve teasing” is also common

and where the fatal gang rape

of a woman on a Delhi bus in

December 2012 prompted the

Indian government to classify

sexual harassment as an offence.

“Bottom-up initiatives like

our app are also necessary to

eradicate problems like sexual

harassment,” says Ahmed.

Phone sensors offer other

improvement possibilities, says

Samuel Johnston of OpenSignal,

a London-based company that

crowdsources mobile signal

strength maps from apps on

users’ phones. Getting out a

phone and pressing a button in a

harassment situation could invite

violence. “So enabling them to do

this in less obvious ways could be

a huge benefit,” Johnston says.

Emergency contacts could be

triggered by rotating the phone

or tapping on the screen in a

certain way, he says.

Changing male behaviour could

be a far harder task, however:

a female Protobadi researcher

experienced harassment, abuse

and ridicule for posting flyers

about the app at a university. The

study there was suspended. ■

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 21


TECHNOLOGY

Information

from the inside

A device that keeps tabs on inmates’ vital

signs could save lives in the slammer

CARLOS JAVIER ORTIZ/REDUX/EYEVINE

Aviva Rutkin

US PRISONS could soon have their

fingers on inmates’ pulses. A new

device that can detect a prisoner’s

vital signs from a wall or ceiling

metres away could be used to

tackle steep suicide rates in the

penal system.

The sensor, which was funded

by the US Department of Justice,

monitors inmates’ heartbeat,

breathing and movements for

signs of self-harm.

Suicide is a big problem among

inmates in the US, accounting for

35 per cent of deaths in local jails

and 5.5 per cent of deaths in staterun

facilities in 2011. Inmates who

appear to be at risk can be

assigned extra personnel to check

on them several times every hour,

but this is expensive and invasive.

Sensors would be cheaper and

intrude less, while still alerting

prison officers when they need

to intervene.

Developed by General Electric,

the devices can be mounted inside

prison cells, where they keep track

of inmates’ movements and

vital signs using Doppler radar.

The company modified standard

radar equipment to pick up

the delicate movements of the

chest caused by breathing and

heartbeat. The system can

penetrate non-metallic objects

such as furniture, which could

be useful if an inmate tries to

hide under a bed.

The technology was trialled last

year at the Western Correctional

Institution in Cumberland,

Maryland. Ten members of the

prison staff spent around 90

minutes locked in cells, moving

“Standard radar equipment

was modified to pick up the

delicate movements of the

chest caused by breathing”

around, breathing at different

rates and holding their breath as

if they had stopped breathing.

The device proved to be 86 per

cent accurate at determining

whether someone in a cell

required assistance.

The technology could help

alleviate what is a major issue

for prisons, says Kevin Lockyer,

a criminal justice consultant in

Lincolnshire, UK. But he says

it should be combined with

preventative services such as

therapy to tackle the underlying

causes of suicide.

“It’s got to be part of a holistic

response to those individuals and

the issues,” he says. “Do you deal

with the symptoms or do you deal

with the disease”

General Electric is exploring

ways to commercialise the system

– not just for prisons. It could be

–Help in a heartbeat–

adapted to look after newborn

babies or elderly people that

require close monitoring, says

company spokesman Todd Alhart.

However, Moeness Amin, an

electrical engineer at Villanova

University, Pennsylvania, says

such applications would be

difficult because the environment

outside prisons is more chaotic

and could trip up the system.

“You have many issues in a

typical home that do not exist

in a cell. An empty room with

a person is much easier than a

person in a typical bedroom,”

says Amin. ■

Let your phone

help you tell right

from wrong

FACING a moral quandary and want to

do the right thing Well, there’s now

an app for that.

Ethical Decision Making, as the

iPhone app is helpfully named,

doesn’t need the details of your

problem or the options you’re

considering. It simply asks you to

consider each solution and rate it

from five standpoints: utility, virtue,

rights, justice and the common good.

Each is actually shorthand for a

framework developed by moral

philosophers over the centuries. After

that, you assign a weighting to each of

these factors. You could, for example,

give justice more emphasis than the

rest. The app then scores the solution

according to the customised moral

framework you have just set up.

Distilling ethics down into an app

might be problematic for some

philosophers, but not for Miriam

Schulman, associate director of the

Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at

Santa Clara University in California,

where the app was developed.

“How do we use these very

ancient traditions to help people

who are making these really difficult

decisions” she asks. She says people

could use the app for anything from

weighing up whether to put their

parents in a nursing home to choosing

ethical investments.

The app has been tested with a

group of school principals and in a

communications class focused on

ethical issues. One student said the

tool changed her mind about how to

handle an issue with her boyfriend.

Apps like these aren’t a one-stop

solution but can help initiate

discussion, says Evan Selinger,

a philosopher at the Rochester

Institute of Technology in New York.

“If you come to this hoping it’s

going work out your ethics for you,

you’re up the creek,” he says. “But if

you see this as a tool to be used for

conversation with other people,

thinking out loud and expanding your

mental models, it might make sense.”

Aviva Rutkin ■

22 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


For more technology stories, visit newscientist.com/technology

ONE PER CENT

Pirates incoming! Smart

radar stands watch

BEFORE dawn on 5 May, two pirates

armed with knives boarded a ship in

the Sierra Leone port of Freetown.

They took the duty cadet hostage,

stole some mooring ropes then

slipped back into the darkness. No one

saw them coming, but a new kind of

intelligent radar might have done.

The system, called WatchStander,

uses radar mounted on either side of

a ship to scan the surrounding water

for small objects that look like they

are moving to intercept. It can

automatically sound an alarm and

dispense countermeasures to deter

the approaching vessels.

The system is meant to tackle one

of the biggest issues with preventing

piracy at sea: spotting them coming.

“The problem is that pirates use

skiffs – small, fast fishing boats with

a very low profile on the surface of

the ocean,” says Giacomo Persi Paoli,

a piracy analyst with the RAND

Corporation in Cambridge, UK.

Large ships’ radar systems are

designed to pick up large objects

that are collision risks and to filter out

waves. This means they often miss

skiffs. By contrast, WatchStander’s

radar uses shorter radio wavelengths,

allowing it to see smaller objects.

If WatchStander detects a skiff

that’s heading to intercept the ship,

it will automatically target the boat

it deems most threatening with a

countermeasure. The current system

shines a powerful strobe light

designed to confuse incoming pirates.

In a test earlier this year,

WatchStander was deployed on a

ship carrying liquid natural gas

through the Strait of Hormuz, south

of Iran. The system detected a swarm

of Iranian fishing boats crossing the

ship’s path long before anyone on

board saw them. “These were 12

Iranian skiffs that came bowling past

us. You couldn’t see them at first. We

were getting ready to run a test on the

“ Pirates are hard to spot

because they use small,

fast fishing boats with a

low profile on the ocean”

system when all of a sudden the alarm

went off,” says WatchStander founder

David Rigsby. “The ship’s crew said

they are smugglers, you see them all

the time out in the Strait.”

Paoli likes the idea of the

anti-pirate system, but worries that

allowing it to automatically activate

countermeasures might unfairly

target innocent fishing skiffs or

other boats. “The wakes of these big

commercial ships attract fish to the

surface,” he says. “The fishermen wait

for ships to pass and then go full

speed behind along the wake and

catch the fish.” Hal Hodson ■

HO/REUTERS/CORBIS

Mix real and digital with iPad game

iPad games just got real. Osmo is a new accessory that clips

onto the iPad’s camera to track the games children are

playing on the table in front of it. Alongside Osmo’s character

recognition software, this blend of physical and digital space

lets children play games where they place letters on the

table to spell out the name of an object shown on screen.

Osmo, which can be pre-ordered for $57, also lets children

complete shape puzzles guided by the iPad, or draw on paper

to control games and puzzles on the tablet’s screen.

233 m

The number of eBay users who have had their personal details

stolen by hackers, the site admitted last week. The security

breach occurred between late February and early March. eBay

has told its customers to change their passwords immediately.

Perfect camouflage from every angle

Got something ugly you want to hide An algorithm can

generate a skin that could hide unsightly electrical boxes or

cellphone towers from every possible angle. The system,

developed by Andrew Owens at the Massachusetts Institute

of Technology, stitches together multiple photos of a scene,

taken from different angles, to generate a camouflage

pattern that would make an object blend into the background

when seen from any direction.

Encrypted email from CERN

–Stop them boarding–

A team at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, has hit back at the

US National Security Agency with ProtonMail, an encrypted

email service. The site is free, anonymous and requires two

passwords to log in. Its servers are housed in Switzerland,

where they are insulated by the country’s strict privacy laws.

ProtonMail also features a special self-destruct option: when

users send an email, they can add a time limit before the

message disappears forever.

OSMO

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 23


TECHNOLOGY

INSIGHT Gadget design

MICHAEL NELSON/EPA/CAMERAPRESS

Bending the rules

Smartphones and TVs with curved screens

make our brains light up, says Peter Nowak

THE future looks curvy. A spate of

gadgets sporting concave displays

has already been launched, and the

big manufacturers will soon be hurling

yet more TVs and smartphones with

curved screens on to the shelves.

Rumours continue to swirl that even

Apple’s forthcoming iPhone 6 will bend

to the craze later this year.

There’s more to the trend than

just a novel shape, though. It may be

tapping into a deep-seated desire to

get away from the hard corners and

rectangles that have defined our

appliances for decades. The craze

for curves is also fueling a search for

materials and manufacturing

techniques that will help companies

exploit it to the full.

“The first adjective used by people

to describe curves is ‘soft’,” says

Oshin Vartanian, a neuroscientist at

the University of Toronto, Canada.

“The story about curvature is a real

story about emotion in the brain.”

Vartanian and colleagues espouse

the fledgling field of neuroaesthetics –

understanding the neurological basis

for our appreciation of beauty. Last

year, he used functional magnetic

resonance imaging (fMRI) to test

people’s reactions to pictures of

household interiors, asking them to

rate rooms as “beautiful” or “not

beautiful”. A large majority favoured

rooms with curved features and

furnishings over ones packed with

straight lines. The scans revealed

that curved contours tended to

stimulate the pleasure centres of

the brain, whereas angles activated

“ Electronics has been

trapped in a straight

paradigm, mostly owing to

manufacturing limitations”

circuits in areas that detect threats

(PNAS, doi.org/swv).

The findings reinforce a similar

study conducted in 2010 at the

Walters Art Museum in Baltimore,

Maryland, where visitors were

shown objects with straight or curved

outlines. Here, too, fMRI showed

they had a preference for curves.

But electronics has been trapped

within a straight paradigm for

decades, mostly because of limitations

in our manufacturing know-how.

24 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


For more technology stories, visit newscientist.com/technology

That’s changing. Samsung’s Galaxy

Round smartphone, released in South

Korea last October, uses a bendable

version of Corning’s Gorilla Glass called

Willow. Corning has since announced

an upgraded version, its 3D Gorilla

Glass, which it says can bend up to

75 degrees without breaking. And in

an industry where even a small

advantage in a product’s looks can

translate into billions in extra revenue,

some manufacturers are turning to

sheets of artificially grown sapphire

for their next-generation screens.

Companies selling curved screens

say they offer tangible benefits. The

concave shape reflects less light at the

viewer, allowing screens to be dimmer

and thus extending battery life. Adding

a curve to a widescreen TV enhances a

screen’s central sweet spot, giving the

viewer the illusion of being immersed

in the action.

Not everyone finds curviness a big

deal. “It’s distinct and different and

unique. It does create a ‘wow’ factor,”

says Paul Gray of industry analysts

NPD DisplaySearch. “But the reasons

for curvature beyond the styling seem

to be extremely tenuous.”

Some industry-watchers believe

the fascination will prove to be a fad,

but curved screens remain a fastgrowing

market. Gray’s firm projects

that global curved TV shipments will

grow from 800,000 units this year to

more than six million by 2017 – proof

that we like what we see. ■

TARA ROMASANTA/GETTY IMAGES

Smart collar

brings poorly

pooches to heal

YOUR dog can’t tell you when it’s

sick, but maybe this gadget can.

A smart collar studded with wireless

sensors can now monitor the vital

signs of man’s best friend and alert

the owner as soon as it starts feeling

under the weather.

The device, developed by PetPace

in Burlington, Massachusetts, keeps

track of temperature, pulse and

respiration, as well as activity

patterns and the number of calories

burned. While the dog plays, eats

and sleeps, software compares this

information with other breedspecific

data. If an animal’s statistics

deviate in a way that indicates a

possible problem, an alert is sent

to the owner’s smartphone and

to the vet.

Many pets instinctively hide their

symptoms when they are sick, so

the collar could help detect health

issues early on, says Asaf Dagan,

chief veterinary scientist at PetPace.

The smart collar ensures that “your

pet’s disease, pain or discomfort will

not go unnoticed”, he says.

Because the device works in real

time, vets have more information

on which to base their diagnoses.

They can also keep track of how the

animal responds to treatment,

Dagan says.

The collar costs $150 plus $15 per

month for the monitoring service.

Lauren Hitchings ■

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 25


APERTURE

26 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


Spot the galactic coyote

“CAPTURE & name your own NASA Spitzer

space image! It’s easier than you might think.”

With this tweet, the operators of the Spitzer

Space Telescope invited people to roam around

a gigantic mosaic of the Milky Way.

Composed of more than 2 million infrared

images taken by the telescope over the last

decade, the complete panoramic image can be

viewed online using NASA’s GLIMPSE360 tool.

Released in March, it allows people to explore

more than half of our galaxy’s stars.

Twitter user Kevin Gill (@kevinmgill) discovered

the nebula pictured and tweeted it. “I was

interested in the awesomeness of the data and

the high-resolution views into the depths of space

that no one has ever seen before,” says Gill. “I had

found two other interesting things, but this one

struck me as the funniest, looking like a Minecraft

creeper just staring us down.”

The image has been likened to a fish, a raccoon

and most notably a “cute coyote’s head”. This has

landed the once-unknown region a nickname:

the Coyote Head Nebula. It’s like a Rorschach inkblot

test, say the team. What do you see

Lauren Hitchings

Photography

JPL-Caltech/NASA

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 27


OPINION

A vote against science

UKIP’s strong showing in the European elections could be the first

step towards disaster for British researchers, warns Michael Brooks

POLITICS has become a strange

place. In last week’s European

Parliament elections, many right

wing parties, some of them

extreme, got into their stride.

The upshot is that the elected

body of the European Union will

be stuffed to the gunnels with

people who would rather it didn’t

exist, but will now spend the next

five years representing their

constituents there.

Prominent among them is

Nigel Farage, leader of the UK

Independence Party (UKIP).

Already a member of the

European Parliament, Farage’s

main aim is to get the UK out of

the EU. Its freedom of movement

rules have caused an influx of

migrant workers, which has

served as the backdrop to UKIP’s

rise. While the UK remains within

the EU, it is impossible to stem

this “tide”, Farage says, and

withdrawal is the only solution.

While political scientists watch

this narrative unfold with

fascination, natural scientists

in the UK should do so with

alarm; Farage could turn out to

be a disaster for them.

That’s because they have a lot

to lose. In global terms, the UK

punches above its weight in

science. Although our population

makes up just 1 per cent of the

global total, scientists here

publish 16 per cent of the world’s

most-cited research papers. EU

policy is to “encourage the highest

quality research in Europe

through competitive funding... on

the basis of scientific excellence”.

What this means is that British

scientists get a disproportionate

amount of money from the EU.

For every £1 we contribute to

the research pot, we get

approximately £1.40 back.

If we were to withdraw in the

way UKIP hopes, we would lose

access to the source of much

of this funding: the European

Research Council. British

scientists would also lose

influence over the research

agenda and would be unable

to control the distribution of

funding across research areas.

Just as importantly, they would

haemorrhage collaborators.

The days of the lone scientist

are largely gone. International

collaboration is now vital and

near-ubiquitous. More than a

third of the papers published in

high quality journals are the

result of such links, and EUfunded

science projects require

the involvement of at least three

different member or associate

states.

Ousted from Europe, British

scientists would be out in the

cold. We know this because it has

already happened to scientists in

Switzerland, a non-EU state that

until recently enjoyed access to

EU research funding.

At the end of February, Swiss

voters rejected a deal that would

“British scientists get a

disproportionate amount

of money from the EU.

They have a lot to lose”

allow Croatians free movement

across the country’s borders. It

was a result of campaigning by

the Swiss People’s Party, which

is Eurosceptic and wants strict

limits on immigration, just like

UKIP. Limiting the movement of

people from the newest member

state didn’t comply with EU

principles, so Switzerland was

stripped of its “associate

member” status.

Associate members enjoy

almost full participation in EU

programmes, including research

projects funded from the EU pot.

Switzerland, however, now has

“third country” status, on a par

with the US and Japan.

The latest set of EU-funded

projects is known as Horizon

2020 and has about £65 billion to

allocate over the next six years.

Swiss researchers are now

excluded from receiving any of

its grants. Before February, Swiss

students could get grants to work

in labs anywhere in Europe under

the EU’s Erasmus programme –

not any more.

Researchers report that, as

a result, Switzerland has lost

international competitiveness.

There is a brain drain as senior

researchers head to countries

where they can access EU funds.

Young researchers are also

leaving – many of them rely on

the kudos of prestigious EU grants

to advance their careers. In other

countries, Swiss scientists are

being shed as collaborators.

Christian Sengstag, head of

research at the University of Basel

in Switzerland, warned in April

that the top candidates for

research jobs “will think twice

28 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


For more opinion articles, visit newscientist.com/opinion

before accepting a position in

this country”.

Could the same thing happen

in the UK It is entirely possible.

The UKIP surge in the run up to

last week’s vote was widely seen

as a protest against traditional

politics. Much of UKIP’s support

has come from those who usually

vote Conservative, a situation that

caused UK prime minister David

Cameron, leader of the

Conservatives, to commit to a

referendum on EU membership

should he be re-elected in 2015.

He wants to halt the drift of his

party’s supporters to UKIP.

The Conservatives’ main rival,

Labour, has offered no such sop

should they win power. However,

there is always a danger that

politicians will yield in the face

of a popular movement; Farage

has already said UKIP aims to win

enough MPs next year to hold the

balance of power in the UK.

And, if UK voters can push

UKIP onto the European scene,

there is no reason to believe that

they would not win a national

referendum to quit the EU.

The full process of withdrawal

would take years, but the impact

on science would be nearimmediate.

British science would

find itself in a similar position to

that in Switzerland, assuming a

comparable stand over migration.

It would have third-country

status, and its researchers would

be unable to apply for EU grants.

We wouldn’t be completely

without funds – the UK’s seven

research councils invest about

£3 billion every year. But on the

European stage, British scientists

would suddenly find that they

count for nothing.

Mainstream parties had little

to celebrate after last week’s vote;

but for British researchers it could

be even gloomier if the outcome

proves to be the first step on a

path that ends up with UK science

as the biggest loser of all. ■

Michael Brooks is a consultant for New

Scientist and the author of The Secret

Anarchy of Science (Profile)

ONE MINUTE INTERVIEW

I’d go ‘laughing and crying’

A one-way trip to Mars won’t be too harsh for someone who has

already run telescopes at the South Pole, says Robert Schwarz

PROFILE

Robert Schwarz is an astrophysicist and manages

the Keck Array, a collection of telescopes peering

back at the early universe from the South Pole. He

is one of 705 shortlisted applicants for Mars One,

which aims to colonise the Red Planet by 2025

What is your job at the South Pole

I basically man the telescopes and make sure the

data is coming in. I’m responsible for everything

from electronics to system administration, optics

to mechanics – whatever is needed.

How long do you stay there for

Right now I’m doing back-to-back winters, so I’m

here for nine-and-a-half months. This is my tenth

winter at the South Pole.

Is it hard to adjust when you return home

I’ve done it so many times now it’s like flipping a

switch. I remember my first year it was like, “Wow,

grass, oh, trees”, and things like that. Now I’m back

down here in Antarctica the green world seems

far, far away.

Why did you sign up for the Mars One

enterprise

Becoming an astronaut was always a big dream.

I am from Germany and I applied to the European

Space Agency in 2008 when they had their last

selection, but I didn’t make the last two rounds.

A lot of things have to happen for Mars One to

really take place, but why not give it a shot

In what ways have the long periods in

Antarctica prepared you for living on Mars

I know what it is to live in a remote environment

where you can’t just say, “Oh, I forgot that, I’ll just

order it or go around the corner and buy it.” Also

it’s a harsh environment psychologically because

of the extreme cold and dryness, and the fact that

it’s six months of darkness, six months of light.

How do you think the South Pole compares to

living on the International Space Station

If something happens, people on the ISS can jump

into their Soyuz spacecraft and be back on Earth

in 3 hours. If we lose electricity and can’t start our

backup generators, we’re kind of doomed: it will

take weeks to get a plane down here. If the shit

hits the fan, weeks are definitely too long.

On Mars it might be years until help arrives.

As a colonist, how would you cope

I’m good at fixing electronic and mechanical stuff.

Down here you have limited resources, so must

come up with solutions with the stuff you have.

That will be even harder on Mars.

Does leaving Earth behind scare you

I would leave laughing and crying, as we say in

German. If it happens in 10 years’ time I’ll be 54.

That would be an age where I would say, yes,

okay, I’m ready to leave now. I think the best Mars

astronaut would be between 60 and 70, because

you’d still be healthy enough to have your wits

about you, but you’d had a life on Earth as well.

What about never seeing your family again

I am not married. I still have my parents, a brother

and nieces. It’s certainly something you have to

consider. Going to Antarctica, you never know

what’s going to happen and you can’t just fly

home. Going to Mars is a step farther because

you’re never coming back.

Interview by Jacob Aron

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 29


OPINION INTERVIEW

Cracking the code

to regrow limbs

Lizards, tadpoles and zebrafish can all regenerate lost limbs –

so why can’t we Biologist Michael Levin is working to change

that. He tells Katia Moskvitch why his approach may be the

most effective way to regrow our own organs

You are working on ways to regrow body parts.

Can many species naturally regenerate limbs

A number of animals can regrow lost limbs.

If a predator catches a lizard by the tail, for

example, it will often end up with just the tail

as the lizard scurries off. To escape, lizards can

shed their tails on purpose, and they also have

a remarkable ability to regrow them.

Some insects, such as cockroaches, can

regenerate their legs, as can salamanders,

starfish and lobsters. Zebrafish fins are also

a popular model of regeneration, since they

regrow after amputation. Interestingly,

zebrafish also have a limited capacity to

regenerate their hearts. Deer regenerate their

antlers – regrowing huge amounts of bone,

nerve and skin every year.

When something is regenerated, is it exactly

the same as the lost part

Sometimes, but not always. Salamander limbs,

for example, can regenerate completely, while

tadpole tails are very good structurally but

are missing a few nerve types. Perhaps the

champions are Planaria flatworms. Their

regeneration is perfect; they can regrow every

part of their body – including their head. In

fact, in a recent study we showed that Planaria

flatworms regenerate their heads complete

with information they learned prior to

decapitation!

You have also triggered the regrowth of legs

in young frogs. How did you do it

A few years back my lab investigated the

bioelectrical signals – the change in the

distribution of cells’ resting potentials within

a tissue or organ – that allow young tadpoles

to regenerate their tails. We found that two

components were required on the surface of

cells in a wound to set up a bioelectric state

that allows regeneration: a proton pump,

which pumps hydrogen ions out of the cell

surface, and a specific sodium channel, which

allows sodium ions to flow across the cell

membrane. This bioelectric state was crucial

for cells to multiply enough to rebuild the

structure, for regeneration-specific genes to

be turned on, and for nerves to develop in the

direction of new growth.

How were you able to recreate this crucial

bioelectric state in older tadpoles and frogs

The idea is to trigger a “leg-building module”.

Our data over the last decade suggest that such

modules are encoded in the pattern of cells’

resting potentials across the tissues of the

body – this pattern is what determines which

“ Our goal is to understand

the patterns that encode

the ‘make a limb’ signal”

tissues and organs are made and where.

First we used gene therapy to introduce

a proton pump from yeast to induce the

regenerative bioelectric state in older tadpoles,

which can’t normally regrow their tails. This

forced the regeneration of functional tails,

complete with spinal cord.

We then created a drug cocktail that induced

this same state without gene therapy. When

we gave the drug cocktail to froglets it worked,

inducing the regeneration of hind legs.

Can we apply what we learn about regrowth

in other animals to humans

Humans and simpler animals share most

cell biology pathways, including the pattern

PROFILE

Michael Levin is

director of the Center

for Regenerative and

Developmental Biology

at Tufts University in

Medford, Massachusetts.

He is investigating

bioelectric medicine

and its potential for

regeneration in animals

and humans

formation mechanisms – the basic step-bystep

processes – needed to regenerate complex

organs. The basic mechanisms of bioelectrical

control are likely similar as well.

Since the German physiologist Emil du

Bois-Reymond first used a galvanometer to

measure currents in human skin and wounds

in 1843, they have been studied in hundreds of

experiments with animals. These currents

have important roles in wound healing.

Our recent work on human adult stem

cells, in collaboration with David Kaplan’s

bioengineering lab here at Tufts, showed that

the resting potentials across the cell surface

can control how they differentiate into other

types of cells. But the real power of this

30 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


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Photographed for New Scientist by Scott Brauer

approach isn’t in the control of single cells,

but in understanding how bioelectric

conversations among large groups of cells

direct the growth of complex structures.

So, in principle, one day it will be possible

to regrow human limbs. What do we need

to accomplish that

We need two things. First, we need to crack the

bioelectric code – to figure out how patterns of

bioelectrical gradients map to the creation of

specific organs. We have recently shown that

we can reprogram just about any region in the

frog embryo into a complete eye. We have also

reprogrammed posterior flatworm tissue into

complete heads. But this is just the tip of the

iceberg; we are only beginning to understand

which signals indicate the geometric

arrangement of organs in the body. Our goal

now is to understand which bioelectric

patterns encode the “make a limb” signal.

What else do we need

Second, we need a delivery vehicle – a way to

impose the correct bioelectric state onto cells

in a wound. One example is the BioDome

device made by bioengineers in Kaplan’s lab.

This is a wearable bioreactor that creates an

aqueous environment like amniotic fluid.

Within this we can induce appropriate ion

currents – and thus the correct voltage states –

in the wound and new tissue.

So the road map to eventually being able

to regrow human limbs is to first perfect the

signalling, then the delivery vehicle. That

should someday enable this to be used in

serious limb injuries – likely starting with

regrowing human hands.

Are many researchers working on this type

of regeneration

There are still very few people working in this

field. Some very good work has been done on

the effects of applied electric fields on cell

behaviour, but the key here is to molecularly

understand and control the distribution of

natural voltage gradients – these are the

control knobs that determine the structure >

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 31


OPINION INTERVIEW

LETTERS

and position of complex organs such as limbs,

eyes, the brain and so on.

Most labs are focused on biochemical

and mechanical controls of stem cells so

they can bioengineer and build organs for

transplantation. Of course, even if you could

solve all the problems of stem cell biology and

turn a stem cell into any desired cell type, you

would still have the problem of how to build a

complex organ such as a limb.

Micromanaging the direct assembly of

complex organs from stem cells will be very,

very difficult. Bioelectricity can trigger largescale

reprogramming – not just turn single

stem cells into different cell types. That’s why

I think focusing on a strategy that harnesses

what the host organism already knows about

how to build its organs is the way to go.

If we can harness the potential of this

technology, how else might it be used

If we had control over pattern formation,

we could induce the repair of any organ

Using a technique called “hugging”

a researcher collects frog eggs

damaged by injury, disease, degeneration,

cancer or even ageing. For example, Planaria

flatworms have no known lifespan limit, as

they continuously regenerate tissues that age.

Fundamentally, broad control of

regeneration is the solution to most problems

in biomedicine. Moreover, it will have an

immense impact on the economics of

societies. We face the unavoidable spiral of

treatments needed to prolong the last years

of life becoming increasingly more expensive.

As each new advance patches up the sinking

ship of the ageing body, it makes it that much

more expensive for the next advance to keep

the person alive. Regeneration could break

this cycle by inducing regrowth of healthy

organs throughout the lifespan.

You have a road map – how long do you think

it will take us to get there

I can’t make a solid guess about when – it all

depends on how the science goes and, of

course, how the funding for this expensive

research goes. But I think that experiments

in animals like frogs will allow us and others

to finally crack the bioelectric code and

understand how cell groups can store a

geometric “memory” or template of the

organs they are supposed to become.

Once we learn to speak this bioelectrical

language, we will be able to take advantage

of it and induce regeneration as needed. And

these same signals will be capitalised upon

in synthetic bioengineering as we not only

repair natural organs, but use bioelectrical

shape control to make new hybrid structures –

biobots – to desired specifications.

I am not certain when or how we will be

able to overcome the challenges to get the

technique into medicine. But as to the

approach as a whole – I’m very optimistic. ■

Quantum quirks

From Peter Standen

I greatly enjoyed Matthew

Chalmers’s article on the

subjective nature of reality and

how “quantum weirdness is all in

the mind” (10 May, p 32). The same

problem of subjectivity arises in

psychology when theorists tie

themselves in knots trying to

relate abstractions such as

intelligence or personality to

everyday experience.

Quantum theory cannot “make

sense” without a human to make

sense of it. What a scientist’s

apparatus registers while they are

unable to record it is unknowable

and therefore scientifically

meaningless. Quantum theory

comes up with “the right answer”

because people have struggled

hard to make it that way.

As David Mermin says in the

article, “it really is that simple”,

just as long as we remember that

theories are human constructions

and imperfect for that.

Darlington, Western Australia

From Edward Williams

If quantum weirdness is all in

the mind, what about optical

interference

Set up apparatus that can

record the arrival of an individual

photon on a screen after passing

through one of two slits, and then

ask: “Which slit did that particular

photon pass through”

It will never arrive at a point

not allowed by the two-slit

interference of waves.

Light travels as waves and

32 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


To read more letters, visit newscientist.com/letters

arrives as particles. This is a

weird duality that is inescapable.

Malvern, Worcestershire, UK

From Edward Miller

Quantum Bayesianism, which

views quantum states as existing

only in our minds, seems a red

herring that leads you into a

strange maze of inter-subjectivity.

What happens when the

scientists communicate with each

other and collate their individual

observations They cannot help

but arrive at objective laws of

physics, such as entanglement,

and so we end up coming full

circle back to objectivity.

Cardiff, UK

From Neil Hunt

Chalmers highlights the way a

metaphor may be mistaken for

reality. This reminded me of

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s

book Metaphors We Live By, which

reveals how fundamentally these

structure our thinking.

They demonstrate the deeply

embedded nature of metaphor

within language, and the way this

routinely escapes our notice. For

me, their ideas also made it easy

to view a quantum Bayesianist

argument as plausible.

Eccles, Kent, UK

Attitude adjustment

From Bill Pring

Clare Wilson’s article on how

doctors diagnose mental health

problems took a tone that was

rather sensationalist and negative

(10 May, p 10).

It strikes me that those working

at the front line of anthropogenic

climate change are generally

portrayed in your magazine as

heroes. Their scientific evidence

requires further refinement, but

it is considered by most that we

should act prudently to prevent

climate deterioration.

Psychiatrists treat people

more effectively now than 20 or

50 years ago, using the Diagnostic

and Statistical Manual of Mental

Disorders (DSM) as a rough guide.

We understand that it is flawed,

and don’t use it as a bible.

There are other areas of

medicine in which doctors have

fairly generic approaches to

treating conditions that require

further research to clarify the

cause. Prostate cancer,

rheumatism and even skin

conditions remain somewhat

mysterious but do not face the

same kind of criticism. Those

specialists are not in need of a

“reboot”, so why is psychiatry

Burwood, Victoria, Australia

■ The editor replies:

The view that psychiatry needs

a reboot comes not from our

own quarters, but from the

practitioners themselves. Last

year, Thomas Insel, director of the

US National Institute of Mental

Health, announced on his blog

(bit.ly/ns-Insel) that the

organisation “will be re-orienting

its research away from DSM

categories”.

Mind altering

From Kevin Jones

In Anil Ananthaswamy’s piece

on why robots will never be

conscious, Phil Maguire says

that his team’s proof would not

hold up if information integration

in the brain was reversible

(17 May, p 12).

He will be disappointed to

learn that memories can indeed

be broken down and edited.

Memories are also not lossless;

the act of recalling them changes

them. Some things get added

during the process of recall, some

reinforced, and others subtracted.

In light of this, we can say that

memory is not unchanging, like

a photograph, but something

rather fluid and in flux. Perhaps

the brain really is continually

haemorrhaging information.

Ambergate, Derbyshire, UK

Mars attacks

From Andrew McKenna

I am appalled by the proposal

from Explore Mars to use a

battery of ground-penetrating

missiles in the search for life on

the Red Planet (10 May, p 14).

Clearly executive director Chris

Carberry slept through Ethics 101.

If there is life of any sort on Mars,

by what right do we rain down

bombs on their heads

Buderim, Queensland, Australia

Infinite failure

From Kate Lee

In discussing the infinitely

multiplying multiverse, Lisa

Grossman states that given

enough time, anything that has a

chance of happening will happen

(17 May, p 8). This is not the case.

If you start counting in the

usual way: “1, 2, 3…” and carry on

until infinity, you will never get

to -3, 42.5 or Pi.

It is quite possible for the

number of things spawned by

the multiverse to be infinite,

but to exclude infinitely many

configurations. Much to my

disappointment, therefore,

an infinite multiverse is not

guaranteed to contain a perfect

replica of Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

Or indeed, Boltzmann brains.

London, UK

A stitch in time

From Brian Bennett

Aviva Rutkin’s article about a

3D printer that uses yarn sounds

very much like knitting, and in

particular a Jacquard machine

(17 May, p 21).

This specialised loom uses a

device to carry the yarn over a

series of programmable knitting

needles, allowing various 3D

articles to be made.

One could use yarns with

different properties to make

products more flexible at

different points, and it may

be possible to incorporate

electrically conductive yarns.

The company where I worked

40 years ago produced a

safety glove with electronic

components, but there was not

a lot of interest because of the

difficult economic conditions

at the time.

No doubt modern sensors

and electronics could produce a

similar piece of clothing which

would save lives and money.

Lathom, Lancashire, UK

For the record

■ Our logic got fuzzy when

considering the likelihood of

conscious robots (17 May, p 12). The

outputs should be swapped in our

description of an XOR logic gate.

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31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 33


COVER STORY

The world’s favourite over-the-counter pain remedy,

paracetamol, has a dark side, finds Tiffany O’Callaghan

YOU’VE got a terrible headache. Niggling

knee pain. An aching back. What do

you reach for Chances are that you’ll

open your medicine cabinet and grab some

paracetamol. Half an hour or so later, you’ll

feel a lot better. Or will you

Paracetamol, also known as acetaminophen,

is the cure-all of our age, used to treat

everything from sprained ankles to

toothaches and even labour pain. It is on the

first rung of the World Health Organization’s

“analgesic ladder”, which doctors use to treat

cancer pain. We spoon it to our children to

fight fever; as adults we pop it to relieve

headaches or period cramps, and as we get

older we’re prescribed it to soothe arthritis

or backache. In the US, 27 billion doses of the

drug are sold each year, and it is found in

more than 600 products.

Given its ubiquity, you might assume that

paracetamol is safe and effective – at least at

the recommended dose. That’s why we lean

on it more than aspirin or ibuprofen, which

can irritate the stomach lining and cause

bleeding. But as it turns out, this stalwart of

the medicine cabinet is not quite as reliably

gentle as you might think.

Paracetamol was discovered in the late

19th century, but it was rejected almost

immediately because of a bizarre side effect:

it seemed to turn some people blue (see

timeline, page 36). That was probably because

of contamination with a different drug, but as

a result paracetamol was sidelined until the

1940s, when further tests showed it was good

at reducing fever. Later studies concluded that

it was a pretty effective painkiller too. But it

really took off in the 1960s, in response to

emerging concerns about the long-term side

effects of aspirin and other non-steroidal antiinflammatory

drugs (NSAIDs). Today in the

US, there are about 16,500 NSAID-related

deaths a year in people with arthritis alone.

Paracetamol, on the other hand, we think of

as relatively safe. Sure, if you take lots of

tablets it could seriously damage your liver,

but at the recommended dose, it’s fine, right

This assumption is now being challenged

by research suggesting that, when taken for

prolonged periods, it may damage the

stomach as much as NSAIDs. That might be

an acceptable risk in exchange for pain relief,

but in many of those who take it, paracetamol

barely works better than a placebo.

Mysterious drug

How could this be The fact is, despite its

ubiquity, we still don’t really understand how

paracetamol works. A leading theory is that,

in part, it works like aspirin and ibuprofen, by

blocking enzymes known as cyclooxygenases.

These enzymes are responsible for making

hormone-like compounds called

prostaglandins, which trigger pain and

swelling in the body as well as stimulating

production of the mucous that shields our

stomachs against digestive acids. NSAIDs halt

the swelling process, but leave the stomach

vulnerable. The suspicion was that

paracetamol inhibited cyclooxygenases,

but to a much lesser extent; it doesn’t reduce

inflammation as these other drugs do.

Although studies in the past decade have

hinted that long-term use of paracetamol

might trigger internal bleeding, these findings

were widely dismissed by critics who cited

shortcomings of the study designs. In 2011,

however, Michael Doherty of Nottingham

City Hospital, UK, published a study that was

harder to ignore. He followed the progress of

892 men and women with the niggling knee

pain that often sets in at middle-age – usually

an early symptom of osteoarthritis. Some

were given paracetamol, others ibuprofen,

while a third and fourth group took either a

high or low-dose combination of the two.

Paracetamol is the first drug most doctors

turn to for patients with such symptoms, but

when Doherty looked at the blood results of

those taking it, he was shocked: levels of

haemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen

in the blood, were dropping fast. What’s more,

their red blood cells were growing smaller and

paler. The most logical explanation was that

they were losing blood internally, and

significant quantities of it. After three months,

a fifth of them seemed to have lost the

equivalent of an entire unit of blood (about

400 millilitres). That was the same amount

as those taking ibuprofen – only the ibuprofen

group reported feeling less pain (Annals of the

Rheumatic Diseases, vol 70, p 1534).

In those combining high doses of both

paracetamol and ibuprofen, the haemoglobin

loss after three months was even more

startling: 7 per cent of the people in that group

lost the amount of haemoglobin you would

find in two units of blood. The upshot: when

taken for long periods, paracetamol may be

just as damaging to the stomach lining as

NSAID drugs are.

“The horrifying aspect of this is that

people look at me and say ‘it’s over the

counter, it must be safe’,” says Kay Brune, a

professor of pharmacology and toxicology

at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in

Germany. Brune has been campaigning to

have paracetamol removed from over-thecounter

sale in Germany, but has so far been

unsuccessful. “Before, physicians simply said

‘OK, if it doesn’t work, it may not do any harm’.

But now we know it can do harm,” he says. >

34 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


JONATHON KAMBOURIS/GALLERYSTOCK

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 35


The rise of paracetamol

Early 1880s: German

doctors accidentally

give a patient a

recently synthesised

chemical, acetanilide:

his fever drops

dramatically

1893 German physiologist Joseph von

Mering discovers the acetanilide

derivative, N-acetyl-p-aminophenol

(paracetamol) but thinks it is too

toxic. It still turns people blue

1947 Paracetamol is rediscovered by

physiologists at Yale University. Reduces pain

and fever, without the side effects of

acetanilide. Original observations of toxicity

assumed to be down to contamination

1886 Acetanilide sold under the trade name Antifebrin.

Successful, despite turning some people’s lips and skin blue

Internal bleeding isn’t the only issue that’s

keeping drug regulators on their toes. In

January, the US Food and Drug Administration

asked manufacturers to stop producing

prescription drugs containing more than

325 milligrams of paracetamol per tablet

because of the risk of accidental overdose.

Paracetamol poisoning is responsible for

nearly 80,000 visits to the emergency room

in the US each year, and a third of these are

people who overdosed accidentally.

Although pill packets clearly state that the

maximum recommended dose is no more

than 3 or 4 grams spread over 24 hours

(or six to eight 500 g tablets), because of

paracetamol’s reputation for safety, some

people take more than this. “They know

they’re not supposed to take maybe six or

eight tablets at a time, but they have a

toothache and they just don’t want to go to

the dentist,” says Daniel Budnitz at the US

Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta,

Georgia, who has studied overdose cases.

If you regularly exceed 4 g, you can quickly

enter dangerous territory. During the

breakdown of paracetamol, a toxin is

produced that has to be mopped up by a

specific enzyme in the liver, and if you take too

How effective is your painkiller

much too fast, the supply of that enzyme

quickly dwindles.

As little as 5 to 7.5 g per day can cause serious

liver complications in otherwise healthy

people. For people with compromised liver

function due to alcoholism or liver disease,

a harmful dose can be lower still. And despite

the fact that the recommended maximum

dose is no more than 4 g per day, roughly 6 per

cent of US adults – about 14 million people –

are routinely prescribed more than this, often

in prescriptions that combine the drug with

opioids to treat severe pain.

Do these risks matter Because of the huge

numbers of people who take paracetamol,

and the relative ease with which it is

purchased and consumed, even small risks

become significant. Even so, paracetamol is

valued by medical authorities – not just for

treating life’s little hurts, but for persistent

and potentially debilitating conditions. The

UK’s National Institute for Health and Care

Excellence (NICE), the body that sets standards

for medical practice, recommends

paracetamol as the first-choice drug for

treating the chronic pain associated with

conditions like osteoarthritis and lower back

pain. The American College of Rheumatology

When it comes to relieving acute pain, such as a headache, sprain or post-operative pain, not all drugs are equal

1 2 3 4

Etoricoxib 120mg (Arcoxia)

n=500

Paracetamol 1000mg + Codeine 60mg*

Ibuprofen 400mg

Naproxen 500mg

Diclofenac 50mg

Tramadol 150mg

Paracetamol 1000mg

Aspirin 600mg

Number of people who would have to take a drug for one of them

to experience a 50% reduction in pain over 4-6 hours (smaller

number = better) Data sets vary in size

197

Prescribed drug

Over-the-counter drug

*Codeine 60mg on its own has a poor score (11-48) but combined with paracetamol is more effective

5456

784

1296

561

2759

5061

SOURCE: THE OXFORD LEAGUE TABLE OF ANALGESIC EFFICACY

also recommends it for arthritis.

In the US, an estimated 43 million people

take paracetamol each week, and nearly twothirds

of them take the drug routinely for

longer than six months.

If paracetamol was effective against

chronic pain, you might consider the trade-off

worthwhile, but the drug has been found

seriously wanting. A review of research that

looked at people taking paracetamol to relieve

“ Why are we bothering

to give a drug to people

that’s toxic, when it

often doesn’t work”

chronic joint pain found seven studies that

compared the drug with a placebo. Five of

these found it to be marginally more effective,

but two found no difference.

“Why are we bothering to give a drug to

people that’s toxic, that has significant

potential problems, when it doesn’t work”

asks Andrew Moore, an anaesthetist and

director of pain research at the University of

Oxford. “It’s unethical.”

Of course, placebos can themselves make

people feel better: another review of placebocontrolled

trials for treating joint pain found

that many people experienced moderate relief

from sham treatment, particularly when it was

given as an injection. For ethical reasons, doctors

don’t usually prescribe placebos, so the safest

active pill is often the next best thing.

“Is paracetamol a safe placebo” asks John

Dickson, a rheumatologist with the Redcar

and Cleveland Primary Care Trust in the UK,

and a consulting clinician for the 2008 NICE

guidelines. “The work Doherty did shows

it is not.”

In March, the Osteoarthritis Research

Society International changed its paracetamol

guidelines to “uncertain” to reflect growing

safety concerns. And for a while at least, it

looked like these concerns would be similarly

heeded in the UK. When NICE issued new draft

guidelines for osteoarthritis in August last

year, it did away with the recommendation of


1962 Concerns surface about

stomach bleeding and ulcers

associated with NSAIDs and aspirin.

Paracetamol sales boosted

1955/56 Paracetamol

sold in the US as Tylenol

and in the UK as Panadol

1966 Reports of severe liver

damage from intentional

overdose with paracetamol

1982 Discovery that

aspirin puts small

children at increased risk

of Reye’s syndrome

2013 In the UK, draft guidelines

from NICE recommend removing

paracetamol as first-line

treatment for osteoarthritis

2014 Final NICE guidelines,

keep paracetamol

as first-line treatment

for osteoarthritis

2011 Study suggests

paracetamol causes

reductions in haemoglobin

similar to ibuprofen

paracetamol as a first resort, and flagged its

potential dangers. “On balance, the risks of

paracetamol outweigh the benefits of any gain

in symptom control,” the report read.

Yet by the time the final version was

published in February, the old advice had

been reinstated. This was partly down to

objections raised by doctors about having few

alternative options, though NICE says it is also

awaiting the results of a more comprehensive

review of over-the-counter painkillers by the

UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products

Regulatory Agency. Dickson, like others,

was disappointed. “If paracetamol isn’t safe,

we shouldn’t be prescribing it,” he says.

Of course, most of us don’t take

paracetamol every day; it’s a drug we reach

for when we develop a headache or sprain

an ankle. And for acute pain of that nature,

paracetamol performs reasonably well,

if not as spectacularly as its popularity

might suggest. Pharmacists measure the

effectiveness of painkillers by looking at

whether they can reduce your reported

sensation of pain by at least 50 per cent, and

by counting how many people would need to

take it for one person to experience this level

of relief compared with placebo. This is

known as the number needed to treat (NNT).

Effective relief

For example, in the case of the moderate

pain of a sprained ankle, 3.8 people would

need to take a standard 1 g dose of paracetamol

(2 tablets) for one of them to get effective

relief. For a standard 400-milligram dose of

ibuprofen, the NNT is 2.5 (see table, left).

Most people suffering from acute pain

are unlikely to take these drugs for more

than a few days, so the risk of internal bleeding

is less of a concern than in those taking it

for prolonged periods. But, given that

paracetamol isn’t as effective as some

alternatives for short-term pain, it could

make more sense to take one of them, or a

combination of drugs that work through

So many painkillers:

which to choose

GRANT DELIN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES

different pathways, such as paracetamol

plus ibuprofen.

Should we do away with paracetamol

entirely Most experts believe it’s still a useful

tool in the arsenal against fevers, headaches

and sore muscles because, in the people for

whom it does work, it tends to work fairly well.

It’s just that, as with many analgesics, the

chances are hit-and-miss that it will work for

you – possibly because everyone’s body is

slightly different.

However, when it comes to chronic pain,

it could be time for a rethink. Moore suggests

measuring your pain, tracking whether a drug

makes a difference, and if it doesn’t, quickly

moving on. “Frankly, with paracetamol, if it’s

not going to work within a week, it’s never

going to work with you,” he says.

Indeed, a spokeswoman for McNeil

Consumer Healthcare, which makes Tylenol in

the US, points out that the drug’s label clearly

states that consumers should stop use and ask

a doctor if they have pain that gets worse or

lasts more than 10 days.

Of course, the ideal would be to develop a

paracetamol variant that worked better and

had fewer drawbacks. Stuart Bevan and David

Andersson at King’s College London recently

found that when paracetamol is given, one of

its break-down products activates a protein on

the surface of nerves in the spinal cord and

reduces their ability to transmit pain signals.

If confirmed, targeting this protein could be a

promising starting point.

Pharmaceutical companies are also

researching and developing new analgesics.

But given the huge regulatory hurdles for

over-the-counter drugs, few are focusing on

that market. “It is more likely that medicines

currently available on prescription would

become available over the counter, as they

will already have a good amount of safety

data,” says Roger Knaggs at the University of

Nottingham, UK.

Still, it’s possible that a promising

alternative already exists. Just as paracetamol

was consigned to a dusty back room for half a

century, other analgesics may have been

overlooked or condemned for the wrong

reasons. Safety hurdles today are much higher

than when drugs like paracetamol were first

approved. If it were a new drug, says Moore,

it probably wouldn’t get approval.

It could also be that some drugs which fail

to win approval are doing so because of poor

study design, rather than serious flaws with

the drugs themselves. Robert Dworkin at the

University of Rochester in New York, is the

director of an initiative with the FDA that is

taking a second look at analgesics that didn’t

pass muster in earlier clinical trials. It is

currently focused on prescription-strength

drugs, but Dworkin says a similar approach

could work for over-the-counter remedies too.

In the meantime, what should you do with

the paracetamol in your own cupboard For

short-lived aches and pains, the advice hasn’t

changed much. “If you follow the instructions

and if you don’t take it in too-large doses,

paracetamol is very safe,” says Bevan.

But for ongoing pain, it may be time to start

looking for alternatives. With any drug, there’s

a risk that side effects will outweigh benefits.

For paracetamol, we need to decide which risks

are still worth taking. ■

Tiffany O’Callaghan is senior opinion editor

at New Scientist

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 37


IN APRIL, a landfill in New Mexico disgorged

proof of a decades-old rumour.

The story goes back to 1983, when James

Heller was given an unusual job. His bosses at

video-game maker Atari wanted him to drive

out to the desert with 750,000 copies of their

latest game, and bury them there. Over

decades the story acquired the status of urban

legend, an illustration of the quality of the

game in question, ET: The Extraterrestrial.

Despite a $21 million outlay, Atari’s expected

blockbuster was an unmitigated flop, and was

later dubbed “The worst game of all time”.

Now consider Flappy Bird, a game that,

despite having been created by a single

developer in a couple of days, became an

accidental global obsession. At its peak earlier

this year, Flappy Bird was being played by so

THE

many people on their phones that Dong

Nguyen was making $50,000 a day. “Flappy

Bird was designed to play in a few minutes

when you are relaxed,” he said at the time.

But things took a dark turn. People became so

obsessed with the game that they showered

Nguyen with angry abuse online. In the end it

was too much for him. Nguyen withdrew

Flappy Bird from public circulation.

It has never been possible to know ahead of

time whether your painstakingly crafted game

will soar to the heights of Flappy Bird or

require desert burial. Game designers relied

on a combination of intuition, sheer luck and

years of toil – and have often been taken by

surprise by the runaway success of their own

games. But that’s all about to change.

Although game science is in its infancy, it is

already feeding insights from psychology back

into design to produce what looks like very

much like a recipe for obsession. It has

attracted the attention of interests beyond

OBSESSIONEERS

As psychologists begin to diagnose what gets

us addicted to games, we are zeroing in on a

recipe for obsession. Douglas Heaven finds

that it could hurt us – or heal us

the gaming industry. Will they use it to hurt

us – or help us

We have been aware of some basic

ingredients of habit-forming games since

at least the 1990s. That could explain the

similarity of so many popular puzzle games

like Tetris, Bejeweled and Puyo Puyo: random

shapes appear on a screen that the player must

match up with complementary shapes to clear

the board and score points. Rearranging these

shapes is undeniably, deeply, satisfying.

But why The psychological underpinnings

have only recently begun to be examined in

any detail. Many researchers have suggested

that a love of matching patterns taps into a

basic human compulsion, giving the same fix

we get as an infant pushing shaped blocks into

their corresponding holes. “It’s hard-wired in

our brain to organise things,” says Angelica

Ortiz de Gortari at Nottingham Trent

University, UK.

Perhaps no game has harnessed psychology

as deftly as Candy Crush Saga. Its basic

construction is familiar: presented with a grid

full of colourful “candies”, you line up at least

three matching sets in a row to meet different

targets and progress to subsequent levels.

Unlike some other puzzle games, Candy Crush

has become an instant, unstoppable

juggernaut and a pop culture phenomenon.

Since its introduction two years ago, the

game has become the focus of obsessive

analysis and sordid confessions. Journalists

have openly declared themselves addicts, with

more than a few admitting they have paid

extravagant sums to play. They played on the

train, at work, at weddings, while driving and

during bathroom breaks (according to one

anonymous web confessor, when she finally

got off the toilet after 4 hours of play, her legs

collapsed beneath her).

This is no niche market; no group seems

immune to its charms. So what did Candy

Crush get so right

Its designers appear to have hit upon a

formula that’s beginning to emerge from the

academic discipline of game studies as the

“ludic loop”. Ludic loops are tight, pleasurable

feedback loops that stimulate repetitive, if not

compulsive, behaviour. “It definitely takes us

back to behaviourist psychology,” says

Natasha Dow Schüll at the Massachusetts

Institute of Technology, whose research on

games anthropology led her to study this

phenomenon in popular gaming.

Her formulation has come largely from her

studies of slot machines and their allure to

addicts. Slot machines perfectly illustrate the

concept of the ludic loop. They lure people >

38 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


PATRICK GEORGE

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 39


into short cycles of repeated actions using

tricks familiar to behavioural psychologists:

you do something, the machine responds with

lights, jingling sounds and occasionally cash

rewards. You do it again. And again, and again.

Our affinity for this kind of activity is

typically ascribed to dopamine, a brain

signalling chemical that has been the source

of much confusion about the links between

addiction, reward, gambling and gaming.

Dopamine was long thought to be a simple

reward or pleasure chemical, but the last

decade has brought evidence that its action

in the brain is in fact much more subtle. It is

linked to the compulsion to repeat an activity,

whether or not that activity is pleasurable

(Behavioral Neuroscience, vol 119, p 5).

That would explain the appeal of slot

machines, which beget compulsive behaviour

despite offering virtually no chance of a

tangible long-term reward. Beneath the

obvious blinking lights, Schüll thinks, the real

draw of the slot machine – and all ludic loops –

is a constant, repetitive switching between

certainty and uncertainty. A moment of

uncertainty opens up as the symbols whir

inexorably toward resolution. When it

resolves, “that moment is shut down

immediately”, Schüll says. “But then you

want it again. It’s open, close, open, close.

Uncertainty and then closure.” Pull someone

into this pattern and you can keep them

repeating small actions over and over, with

neither reward nor end in sight. “There’s no

goal here, just the pleasure of being in the

zone created by this machine,” says Schüll.

The ludic loop is its own reward.

Granted, makers of slot machines would

never admit to soliciting licensed psychologists

to help them make the machines more

addictive. Similarly, Candy Crush’s developer,

“ A sense of mastery is a

powerful motivator, even

when we’re not actually

getting any better”

King Digital Entertainment of Dublin, Ireland,

is more likely to have relied on the expert

intuition of game designers and the

exhaustive testing of prototypes on sample

players. “I doubt any of these designers are

sitting around reading behaviourist

psychology,” says Schüll. “Intentionally or not,

“they’ve hit upon this formula.”

So what’s Schüll’s recipe for a ludic loop

The first ingredient is engineered

randomness. Aaron Steed, an independent

game developer who has studied Candy Crush

closely, thinks that if the algorithm that

decides what shapes to drop were truly

random we would see more matches than we

do. That suggests the game’s “randomness”

has been fine-tuned to a sweet spot between

pure chance and the illusion of control. “You

think surely because it’s random there’ll be

something I can solve there. It’s what makes

gambling games popular in general.”

Then there’s the jackpot moment. The most

satisfying thing that can happen in Candy

Crush is when you think you’re matching up

a single row of sweets, but trigger an

unexpected cascade of further matches.

“It makes the game freak out,” says Jamie

Madigan, a psychologist based in St Louis,

Missouri, who specialises in games.

Candy crush nation

Like pattern-matching, our response to

unexpected rewards is hard-wired.

Psychologists have long understood that

random windfalls are better at making us

compulsively repeat a certain behaviour than

predictable ones. This effect, known as the

variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement, was

demonstrated in the 1950s by behavioural

psychologist B. F. Skinner. When his lab rats

received unpredictable and occasional rewards

for pressing a lever, they would continue

pressing that lever long after the rewards

stopped coming, says Luke Clark of the

University of Cambridge, who specialises in

gambling disorders. “Once it’s been set up,

the conditioning is incredibly persistent.”

There’s another reason we find variable

rewards so compelling: they make us think

we are mastering the game. Psychologists

have long understood that a sense of mastery

at some venture seems to be a powerful

motivator, even when we’re not actually

getting any better at it. Even a fleeting

illusion of control puts us in mind of efforts

characterised by setbacks and improvements,

like tennis or golf. And, Clark says, the

cognitive distortion caused by the fuzzy line

between skill and luck in Candy Crush is key

to engineering this illusion. “You’re not really

sure if you’ve caused it,” he says.

Stitch together what appear to be random

rewards with the illusion that we’re somehow

earning them, and we’re hooked.

Whether or not this precise winning formula

was hit upon by accident, Schüll says, it won’t

stay accidental for much longer, now that it’s

clear what’s to be gained from deliberately

engaging the psychology of compulsive play.

King has crushed its competition. At least

500 million people – equivalent to two-thirds

of the population of Europe – have

downloaded Candy Crush, and 7 million of

them play every day. Enough of them pay for

the privilege that King’s revenue is estimated

at about $900,000 per day. But the formula

isn’t easily copied. Even King hasn’t been able

to replicate Candy Crush’s success.

That could explain why psychologists are at

the centre of an industry now springing up to

formalise their understanding into design at

very early stages of game development.

Feeding psychological research back into

game development will take the guesswork

out of design and yield recipes for making

games more compulsive, says Richard Ryan at

the University of Rochester, New York. Ryan

co-founded Immersyve, a consultancy that

advises game studios on how to make their

40 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


games more engaging, in 2003. “We have

developed a lot of metrics so we can measure

whether games are hitting a psychological

satisfaction mark in people,” he says.

They’re not the only ones. “You’re going to

see games companies of all kinds increasingly

adding scientists to their teams,” says Ramin

Shokrizade, an economist at games studio

Wargaming America in Austin, Texas, who

advises game designers.

What happens when this industry matures

Like Candy Crush, it will probably compel an

ever wider net of casual gamers to pay for a

game that they could play for nothing –

something that has until recently been the

purview of specialist gambling apps.

Candy Crush is free, but it requires small

payments if you want to extend your stay in

the ludic loop. For example, you get five free

lives, but each lost life takes half an hour to

refresh. Lose five lives in quick succession and

you have to wait two-and-a-half hours till

“ When you’re immersed,

you don’t stop and say,

wait, this dollar would be

better spent elsewhere”

you’re back with your full complement of

lives. Unless… you’re willing to pay a small

fee, or give up some data through social media.

“When you’re already immersed, you don’t

stop and say ‘Wait, this dollar would be better

spent somewhere else,’ ” says Shokrizade.

As our understanding of the function and

motivation of ludic loops has grown, we are

seeing more games work this way to squeeze

cash out of us. “When games get more

effective – and trust me, they’re going to get

much more effective – we won’t be converting

just some of the population,” he says.

“We could be converting 90 per cent.”

In light of that, it’s not surprising that ludic

loops have caught the attention of industries

beyond gaming. Bite-size loops can turn

dreary tasks into activities many of us will

happily snack on whenever we have a spare

minute. In 2006 Google hit upon the idea of

turning manual image-tagging into a quickfire

game where your input – a word to

describe the content of a given image – was

quickly followed by feedback telling you

whether it matched the input of a random

online collaborator.

Ludic loop mechanisms are also apparent

in the success of projects like EyeWire, a

collaborative online brain-mapping effort.

EyeWire recruits players around the world to

do the painstaking work of colour-coding the

brain, neuron by neuron. The ludic loop is

engaged with frequent feedback. Colour in an

area and you immediately learn whether you

answered with the majority.

Both EyeWire and Google image-tagging

involve tasks that would normally be

outsourced to paid workers. But suck your

workers into a ludic loop and the labour is free.

That’s also appealing to the makers of

healthcare self-tracking apps, who have tried

desperately to find ways to make logging food

intake or other arduous self-monitoring

appealing and compulsive. “Often they point

to Candy Crush as something good to imitate,”

says Schüll.

She is concerned that too many people are

jumping on a bandwagon that nobody fully

understands. “Every time I give a talk, I get

dozens of people coming up to me afterwards

and asking for these secrets for their particular

industry.” She has noticed an slight upturn in

the number of people who refer to themselves

as “behaviour designers”, which she says feels

a little creepy.

If this is all beginning to sound a bit

dystopian, it’s not all bad news. Plenty of

people are trying to hijack our compulsive

tendencies for our own good.

Digital healing

Engaging the ludic loop with interactive

media, for example, could make it easier

for students to learn. Engaging compulsive

mechanisms causes information to get

encoded on a deeper level, says Berni Good

of Cyber Psychologist, a consultancy in

Birmingham, UK, specialising in games

psychology. “It goes into long-term memory

more readily,” she says. The extremely

popular game Minecraft – which has also

inspired musings about compulsion – has

even been used as a teaching aid for subjects

as diverse as quantum physics, geology

and etiquette.

We might even use the ludic loop to heal,

or prevent, psychological damage. Playing

Tetris after viewing a traumatic film, for

example, was found to reduce the likelihood

of flashbacks. The researchers who did the

study suggest games that engage compulsive

behaviours could be used as a “cognitive

vaccine” for post-traumatic stress disorder

(PLoS One, vol 5, p e13706).

It’s not just people with PTSD who need

soothing, though. Shokrizade thinks we all do.

“As society gets more stressful, we need more

entertainment, in any place, at any time.”

Schüll thinks smartphone apps designed

around ludic loops act as digital pacifiers,

damping down stress. “They turn our phones

into mood modulators, little self-medicating

devices,” she says. She remains unconvinced

that turning people into game-addicted

zombies is ever justified. When people ask

for her help in making their product as

compelling as Candy Crush, she tries to

encourage them to avoid the baser

manipulations of the ludic loop. “Just because

these things work doesn’t mean you want to

imitate them,” she says.

But her words are likely to fall on deaf ears:

game developers would prefer not have to

bury the bodies of their failed games in the

desert. And if the ludic loop is a bit of a

Pandora’s box, it’s full of great tricks. ■

Douglas Heaven is a feature editor at New Scientist

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 41


The

secret

ones

In an inaccesible valley in Mali lives a language that hides as

much as it communicates. How did this “anti-language” emerge,

asks Matthew Bradley

ABBIE HANTGAN

42 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


WHEN Westerners say “Timbuktu”,

it is as if we are talking about the ends

of the earth. But the city’s remoteness

is nothing compared to the small village of

Bounou, tucked inside a rugged cul-de-sac

valley 250 kilometres to the south. No

European had ever visited the surrounding

Bandiagara region until French colonial officer

Louis Desplagnes reached it in 1904 – and even

he didn’t get as far as Bounou.

Abbie Hantgan is one of the few Westerners

to have reached the village in recent years.

She can still recall the last leg of her journey,

after an arduous two-day bus trip to the small

market town of Konna (see map, page 45).

It was the height of the rainy season, meaning

that a 5-hour journey by donkey cart was the

only way to traverse the canyon where

Bounou perches.

“The track was flooded waist-high,” she

says. “But the floodwater didn’t keep the cart

from finding every rock and rut in the track

along the way.” Eventually, they reached a

boulder marking the end of the track and

she saw Bounou “hanging on the cliff side”.

It was, she says, “a scene out of time”.

For Hantgan, Bounou’s remoteness was

one of its main attractions. She wanted to

document the words spoken by its

inhabitants, the Bangande. Although these

people share much of their culture with the

surrounding Dogon people, their language,

called Bangime, is very different and has many

unusual characteristics. Understanding its

origins could therefore tell us a lot about the

history of this little-explored area of Africa,

while also offering a way to investigate the

birth and evolution of languages.

As Hantgan embarked on her visit to the

region, she knew it came with its share of risks.

She was taking over research started by the

young Dutch linguist Stefan Elders, who

passed away while working in Bounou the

previous year. He had contracted a stomach

ailment and the isolation of the village meant

he couldn’t reach a hospital in time.

Elders’s work was part of the US National

Science Foundation’s Dogon Project, headed

by linguist Jeffrey Heath at the University of

Michigan. The project investigates

relationships between the various languages

spoken by the Dogon peoples living on the

Bandiagara Escarpment and the adjacent Seno

Plain. Some 80 named Dogon speech varieties

exist, which Western linguists categorise as 22

separate languages and many more dialects.

Hantgan’s experience meant she was ideally

qualified to take Elders’s place in the project.

While volunteering with the US Peace Corps in

Mali, she had learned Fulfulde and a Dogon

language called Bondu-so. Both would

prove useful in her doctoral research into

Bangime. Fulfulde, used as a lingua franca

or bridge language in Bounou, provided her

with a tool to talk to local people and elicit

words in Bangime, while Bondu-so helped

illustrate possible connections with the other

Dogon languages.

Hantgan began by compiling a list of

common words in Bangime – a task that often

attracted derision from the locals. “Every day,

villagers on the way to their day’s work in the

fields would see me seated inside with my

notebook and pen, asking a consultant to

repeat the difference between ‘moon’ and

‘water’ over and over again,” she remembers.

“With their hoes over their shoulders, they

would make fun of me for spending another

day sitting in the shade instead of going out

to tend crops.”

It was a lonely and frustrating time for her,

cut off from contact with family and friends

and without even a shortwave radio to remind

her of home. But she soon found an ally in the

village chief – although he had initially been

anxious about her research. He said it upset

him that visitors from other Dogon villages

often asked why the Bangande have different

surnames and don’t look like the rest of the

Dogon, even though the Bangande consider

themselves to be a Dogon people. Despite

concerns that the research might emphasise

those differences, he could see how much

effort Hantgan was putting in. When villagers

would chide her within the chief’s earshot, he

would say: “She is tending her crops! The pen

is her hoe, and the notebook is her field.”

Once Hantgan had compiled a suitable >

A Bangande family

relaxes outside their

home (left); the village

of Bounou perches on

the side of a remote

canyon (top)

DOGONLANGUAGES.ORG

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 43


number of words, her next task was to identify

any that were “cognates” with the other Dogon

languages. Cognates are words originating

from a common root. For instance, the word

“luna” in Italian is related to the word “lune”

in French, “lluna” in Catalan and “lua” in

Portuguese; all come from “luna” in Latin, the

mother tongue from which these Romance

languages diverged. Identifying cognates can

therefore help demonstrate whether two

languages have a common origin.

Hantgan and her colleagues found that it

was not unusual for at least 50 per cent of the

vocabulary of a given Dogon language to be

cognate with the vocabulary of another

Dogon language – whereas just 10 per cent of

Bangime’s vocabulary seemed to share roots

with Dogon terms. Rather than reflecting a

common mother language, this small shared

vocabulary may simply be due to Bangime

speakers borrowing a few words from their

neighbours, in the same way that cultural ties

resulted in English borrowing words like sushi,

pergola and pyjamas.

In this way, Hantgan’s research seemed

to mark out Bangime as the most recently

discovered language isolate – a tongue not

related to any other language. That is of

interest to historical linguists like Lyle

Campbell at the University of Hawaii in

Honolulu, who points out that scholars tend

to classify African languages as belonging to

one of four major families: Afro-Asiatic,

Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo or Khoisan. The

recognition of Bangime as an isolate might

suggest that the classification system needs

a rethink, he says.

Orphaned tongues

Further evidence for Bangime’s uniqueness

resides in the fact that its grammar is radically

different from that of the other languages

spoken by Dogon groups. To give an example:

although the Dogon languages join words to

form compounds, as does English (think

football, rainstorm or driveway), Bangime

doesn’t. On the other hand, prefixes are found

in Bangime, while being notable by their

absence in the Dogon languages.

These differences are somewhat surprising,

because in other ways, the Bangande and

Dogon cultures are very similar. The Bangande

wear the same clothing and jewellery as the

Dogon people, and both use Tellem

architecture – mud brick, coiled clay and

stone masonry structures set into the cliff

face – for granaries and burial grounds.

Looking at the archaeological record, it is

ABBIE HANTGAN

Abbie Hantgan’s “assigned daughter” (right)

and a friend fetch water from the well

easy to assume that people who share such

material cultures are part of a single language

community. This has been the basis for

theories about the origins of the Indo-

European languages spoken in Europe and

Asia, for instance. Yet the unusual relationship

between the Dogon and Bangande reminds us

that we can’t rely on these assumptions.

What leads to a language becoming an

isolate Campbell notes that isolates may

be the orphans of larger linguistic families

whose other members have slowly died out –

perhaps because the speakers adopted other

languages. Many social, political and

economic factors probably influence which

languages survive, and which perish. Tongues

like Bangime could represent a concerted

effort to resist shifting to others’ words.

The first hint of this comes from the very

name Bangande. Bang translates as secret,

hidden, or furtive, and -ande is a plural

suffix – like -s in English – so the combination

translates as “furtive ones”. The word Bangime

is formed in a similar fashion, with the suffix

-ime signifying language; thus it translates

as “secret language”. Clearly, they were once

keen to keep to themselves.

Hantgan discovered further clues as to

why that might be when she moved from

compiling words and phrases to collecting

longer portions of continuous speech. Along

the way, she documented oral histories of

the Bangande villages as places of refuge for

escapees from Fulani slave caravans, which

served the internal and transatlantic slave

trades. Peoples such as the Bobo, Samo and

the Bangande themselves were commonly

targeted by slave traders because Islamic

law afforded non-Muslims no protection

against enslavement.

“ The slave trade may

explain why the

Bangande were

determined to keep

their own language’”

ABBIE HANTGAN

The oral histories described many of these

escapees as children who were seized while

they were gathering firewood and water

outside their villages. They had sacks placed

over their heads for several days to make sure

they were unable to orient themselves and

attempt escape back to their home village.

Some of those who did escape eventually

found their way to the Bangande settlements,

where they were integrated into the

community and learned Bangime.

The integration of individuals from across

the Sahel to the north and the Volta river

basin to the south may explain the physical

distinctiveness of the Bangande people. Being

joined by runaways seeking sanctuary from

slave raiders may be one reason the Bangande

have come to refer to themselves as “the

furtive ones” – and might explain why they

44 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


Beyond Timbuktu

The Bangande people live in one of the remotest parts of Mali: a village called Bounou. The region was first

visited by Westerners in 1904 - even then, the explorer didn't reach this particular village. Perhaps because

of their remoteness, the Bangande have developed a unique language that is of great interest to linguists

have been determined to keep their own

language.

The Bangande’s eagerness to retain their

secrecy may even have led Bangime to develop

what British linguist Michael Halliday calls an

anti-language. That’s a distinct “dialect that

serves to mark off a group of speakers from

the larger society”, resulting in an “antisociety”.

Jargon is one common element of

such dialects, but Bangime’s anti-language

also uses more elliptical tactics.

Hantgan didn’t become aware of the

existence of the anti-language until near

the end of her third year of work in Bounou,

when she had gained some conversational

proficiency in Bangime. She started to see a

pattern in which some terms were the polar

opposites of the things they described. For

example, a particular white-barked tree was

referred to as “black-eyed,” and a particular

black-barked tree as “white-eyed”.

As her mastery of the language improved

even more, Hantgan began to notice that

many words she had asked the villagers for

didn’t regularly appear in natural speech,

where circumlocutions were often preferred.

For example, she had previously recorded the

term sáàn for fence. Yet one day, she heard a

garden fence being referred to as “stick(s) put

into the ground so that people may pass next

to the rice”. Similarly, cakes were sometimes

called “powder which has been sweetened”,

while sunglasses were “black things to hide

the eyes”.

This sort of linguistic theatricality and

Villagers in Bounou

are nominally Muslim

and celebrate some

major Islamic festivals

Bemako

deception are an example of what Mark Pagel

at the University of Reading, UK, calls “a

powerful social anchor”. He has argued that

languages evolve to deceive and exclude

others, as much as to ease communication.

A roundabout way of describing objects is

just one strategy that helps the Bangande set

themselves apart from other group – and

perhaps helped them to distance themselves

from the passing traders who may have begun

to pick up their everyday words.

Nuances and exceptions

Today, Bounou is accessible only

after a 5-hour donkey-cart ride

from the nearest town, Konna

MALI

Timbuktu

BANDIAGARA

ESCARPMENT

Niger

Mopti

Bani

The slave trade also seems to have left its mark

in the way Bangime distinguishes social class.

The “aristocracy”, who claim to descend from

the families who harboured the escaped

slaves, speak in a high register associated with

a more complex tonal system, compared with

the speech of the “serf” population, who are

thought to be descended from those escapees.

A process known as over-regularisation may

account for the distinction. Learners tend to

assume regular patterns in a language until

a wealth of exposure or being corrected shows

them the nuances and exceptions. For

instance, non-native speakers of English may

say “catched” instead of “caught”.

Such errors can be difficult to overcome,

and they sometimes feed back into the native

language. Indeed, many linguists now believe

this can explain why grammar gets simpler

over time for languages that have a lot of

contact with outsiders, like English. It is easy

to imagine that the escapees learning Bangime

as a second language over-regularised its tonal

system – leading to patterns that are distinct

from those used by people descended from

the native inhabitants.

The ongoing conflict in Mali means that

fieldwork has been halted for the foreseeable

future – yet there is much more to discover.

Konna

Bounou

The first European explorer to

reach a village in this area was

Louis Desplanges in 1904

50 km

Kani Gogouna

BANDIAGARA ESCARPMENT

One of Hantgan’s long-term research goals is

to investigate links between the origin of the

Bangande people and the Dogon cultures.

Previous researchers had suggested that

when the Dogon arrived about 600 years ago,

they displaced the existing populations in the

region. As evidence, they pointed out that

historical Tellem structures and funerary

remains don’t seem to correspond to presentday

Dogon material cultures.

The Ounjougou research project at the

University of Geneva, Switzerland, however,

has revealed how pre-Dogon and Dogon

material culture and funerary practices subtly

influenced each other. It could be that the

Bangande were those people who lived in the

region before the Dogon arrived and shared

some of their cultures with the newcomers,

explaining the similarities we see today.

Alternatively, the ancestors of the Bangande

may have arrived along with those of today’s

Dogon, but speaking an unrelated language.

Other groups may have also moved to the

area, with only the Bangande resisting the

shift to using a Dogon language. Until the

security situation in Mali improves, it won’t

be possible to gather fresh data related to

these hypotheses.

At present, Hantgan is eagerly working as

a newly minted postdoctoral fellow at the

School of Oriental and African Studies in

London. Her position will see her beginning

field research soon in rural Senegal, but she

also hopes to return to her friends and

research in Bounou. Despite the hardships,

her enthusiasm is as strong as ever.

“Investigating the warp and weft of tone, the

rainbow of vowel harmony and the ladder of

consonant mutation, these are the intricacies

that make human speech so fascinating to

me,” she says. ■

Matthew Bradley is a writer based in Massachusetts

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 45


CULTURELAB

The Tao of Systems

Holistic thinking is hard work for humans, but we will need

to learn to do it if we are to solve Earth’s most pressing

problems, finds Mark Buchanan

The Systems View of Life: A unifying

vision by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi

Luisi, Cambridge University Press,

£24.99

WHEN I was about

17, I was briefly

transfixed by the

teachings of

Eastern mysticism.

I read everything

I could about Zen

Buddhism and

Taoism, and pored over books by

spiritual figures who claimed that

ordinary consciousness could be

transcended through discipline

and meditation. I had tantalising

visions of suddenly achieving

“enlightenment” or “oneness”

with the Godhead (although I had

no idea what that was). To me,

it all sounded impossibly cool.

As I also loved mathematics

and physics, I picked up the

bestselling book The Tao of Physics

by physicist Fritjof Capra. It

introduced me to weird concepts

from quantum theory: things like

entanglement and non-locality,

which Einstein famously called

“spooky action at a distance”.

Capra convinced me there

were surprising parallels between

these aspects of modern physics

and Eastern mysticism, that

what Buddhists had been

saying for centuries about the

interconnectedness of everything

in the universe sat quite well with

today’s physics. His wonderful

book kindled a fascination with

quantum theory which I have

never lost (although I gave up on

mystic enlightenment long ago).

I think Capra is now ready to

inspire a new generation of

young readers in much the same

way, only with a focus on

systems biology rather than

quantum physics.

In The Systems View of Life,

Capra and biochemist Pier Luigi

Luisi explore how modern

biology, in trying to understand

the self-organising, adaptive and

creative aspects of life in all its

forms, has by necessity turned

to a holistic, systems view

emphasising pattern and

organisation.

But the main point of the book

isn’t merely that systems biology

is fascinating. More importantly,

Capra and Luisi argue that many

of the most important problems

we face today – from financial

instability to climate change and

ecological degradation – reflect

our collective inability to

appreciate just how the world

operates as a holistic, networked

system in which every part

depends on every other.

“ The 21st-century zeitgeist

is changing from one

of world-as-machine to

world-as-network”

There may be solutions – even

simple ones, they suggest – if we

could manage to start thinking

in this way, and the book is their

effort to help this along. It’s partly

an enjoyable survey of exciting

new developments in systems

biology, valuable to any student

of biology or science, and partly a

bold blueprint for how we might

preserve our future on Earth

using the systems perspective

on life and what sustains it.

You won’t find much by way

of dramatic narrative about

scientists making discoveries.

Rather, this is a book of ideas and

argument. Some of the scientific

history is quite familiar, and

many readers will be able to skim

earlier sections on the rise of

classical physics, or revolutions

of Darwinian evolution, relativity

and quantum theory. That said,

Capra and Luisi use this history

as a useful lens to examine how

human thought has had an onagain,

off-again relationship with

systems thinking for centuries.

They also bring back to life

some of the foundational figures

in systems science, now mostly

forgotten. For example, I had

heard of the Austrian biologist

Ludwig von Bertalanffy, who in

the 1930s developed general ideas

about the organising principles of

living systems. What I didn’t know

is that he also introduced the

important notions of open and

closed systems. An open system is

“open” to an outside world, as our

planetary biosphere is to the flow

of the sun’s energy. Such systems

naturally develop complex,

dynamic structures reminiscent

of life, things absent in closed or

isolated systems.

I had also heard the name

Bogdanov, but had no idea

that Alexander Bogdanov was a

Russian polymath who developed

similar ideas around the turn of

the 20th century; his work is still

largely unknown in the West.

It isn’t until chapter 7 that the

book really takes off, moving

with full force into the more

recent systems revolution in

biology. Capra and Luisi take an

adventurous expedition through

topics from genetic regulation to

ecology, and from climate science

to the origins of life, in every case

DAVID MAITLAND/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK

Causality works bottom-up

and top-down, at once

emphasising the necessity of

taking a holistic perspective if

we are to make progress.

They ask: can we understand

the dynamics of the human heart

in terms of the interactions of its

cells No, because the behaviour

of every cell depends on the

overall state of the heart itself.

Causality works in both

directions, bottom-up and topdown,

at once. What happens

cannot be understood by

46 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


For more books and arts coverage, visit newscientist.com/culturelab

studying any one level on its own.

The book will be a terrific

resource for anyone who wants to

learn about cutting-edge research

into creating artificial cells or

other aspects of synthetic biology,

or in areas such as epigenetics,

where the old gene-centric point

of view has been more or less

completely undermined.

These ideas have helped drive

complexity science forward over

the past few decades. Indeed,

Capra and Luisi argue that the

21st-century zeitgeist is changing

from one of world-as-machine to

world-as-network, a holistic

system in precise interrelation

rather than a collection of

dissociated parts. That sounds

fine in theory, but how can we

put it to use

This is the focus of the third

and final broad section of the

book: on sustaining the web of

life. Here, Capra and Luisi make

some fairly routine observations,

for example, that our success will

require a shift to more sustainable

kinds of economic growth, and

finding ways to organise our

activities in a manner that doesn’t

interfere with nature’s inherent

ability to support life.

Ideas like these are hardly

new, and that could also be said of

much of the book, especially its

discussion of systems theory,

complexity science, ecology and

the roots of our global problems.

“ We are not ecologically

literate or systems literate:

these are languages we

will have to learn ”

But this is a broad synthesis,

linking many areas of science to

make one very important point:

that there’s very little we can do

without holistic thinking, despite

the obvious difficulties involved

in doing it well. We are, they

suggest, not “ecologically literate”

or systems literate, and these are

languages we will have to learn.

As in The Tao of Physics, there is

some Eastern mysticism in this

book, and rightly so. After all,

those philosophies have always

emphasised the deep dependence

of everything human on nature

and the environment, and have

taught living with nature rather

than trying to dominate it.

We should have been listening

long ago. I hope that Capra and

Luisi will manage to persuade

many that we must start listening

now – or face the consequences of

our own ignorance. ■

Mark Buchanan is a visiting professor

at the IMT Institute for Advanced

Studies in Lucca, Italy

JENS RYDELL/NATURBILD/CORBIS

In praise of hoverflies

There is subtle treasure in the indistinct

boundary between science and literature

The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjöberg,

Particular Books, £14.99

Bob Holmes

“LIMITATIONS

cheer me up,”

writes Fredrik

Sjöberg. By that

standard, he

should be

positively radiant.

He finds travel

neither pleasant nor instructive,

preferring to spend his days on a

small island off the Swedish coast

near Stockholm, where he is one

of just 300 permanent residents.

There, the great passion of his

life – and the ostensible subject

of The Fly Trap – is collecting and

studying hoverflies. No flashy

butterflies or beetles here, not

even an ambitious attempt at the

hoverflies of the world: just the

202 species on his island that he

has come to know like old friends.

Of course, as Sjöberg himself

admits, “the hoverflies are only

props… Here and there, my story

is about something else. Exactly

Studying Swedish hoverflies

was a passion for Sjöberg

what, I don’t know.” The reader

doesn’t either, not at first.

Sjöberg, a translator and

literary critic as well as a hoverfly

expert, thrives in the indistinct

boundary between science and

literature. “I used to say that I was

a writer,” he tells us, “but all the

women on the island felt so sorry

for my wife that I started insisting

I was a biologist instead.”

The book unfolds like a leisurely

after-dinner conversation, as

Sjöberg meanders through the

pleasures of collecting hoverflies

on a summer’s day, the

eccentricities of entomologists

and the surprising intimacy of

conversations between strangers

on a ferry (the end of a crossing sets

a time limit, focusing the mind).

Along the way, he indulges a

fascination for the life of Swedish

entomologist René Malaise. Best

known today as the inventor of

an insect trap – hence the book’s

title – he was, in many ways, the

anti-Sjöberg, someone who never

acknowledged limits. As a young

man in the 1920s and 30s, he

collected insects and acquired

a reputation as an intrepid

adventurer and a bit of a ladies’

man: Sjöberg tracks his love life

by noting which women he

named insects after.

But the real message of the

book, published in Swedish a

decade ago and now translated

into English, is the quiet pleasure

to be found in reading the fine

print of knowledge. “A world full

of highly personal mastery

without petty rivalries would be

a nice place to live,” he writes. In

this subtle book, Sjöberg provides

a convincing example. ■

Bob Holmes is a consultant for

New Scientist

31 May 2014 | NewScientist | 47


CULTURELAB

The world, for free

Measuring human worth by possessions or productivity looks barbaric in Jeremy Rifkin’s future world

PROFILE

Jeremy Rifkin is president of the

Foundation on Economic Trends in

Bethesda, Maryland. His book The Zero

Marginal Cost Society is published by

Palgrave Macmillan (£17.99)

STEPHEN JAY GOULD called one

of Jeremy Rifkin’s early books

“anti-intellectual propaganda

masquerading as scholarship”.

In the 30 years since, Rifkin

has prepared governments,

companies and the public for

his controversial version of the

future. Liz Else talks to him

about his latest book.

Your book is called The Zero

Marginal Cost Society. Why

Marginal cost is the cost of

producing an additional unit of

something after the fixed costs

have already been absorbed.

Sellers look for technologies to

increase productivity, and to win

over consumers by offering

cheaper products. But no one ever

imagined marginal costs could

approach zero, making goods

and services potentially free and

therefore beyond market forces.

What is driving this change

Over the past 15 years, millions

of consumers have become

prosumers, producing and

consuming and sharing their

own information goods – music,

film, videos, entertainment,

blogs, knowledge. This shift

devastated the music and media

industries because their high

overheads make it hard for them

to compete. You can argue that

the more you give away, the more

people will be interested in your

premium services. But this hasn’t

really happened on a major scale.

HANS BLOSSEY/IMAGEBROKER/FLPA

Where can we see this idea of

“free” gaining the most ground

It is affecting the provision of

energy at a fantastic rate. There

are more than 3 billion sensors

operating in the world, embedded

in everything from warehouses

and assembly lines to domestic

TVs and washing machines, and

they’re continually feeding data

to the “internet of things”. By

2030, US manufacturer Fairchild

Industries estimates there will be

100 trillion such sensors globally.

Over that time, the internet of

things will evolve into three

internets: for communication,

“ No one ever imagined

marginal costs could

approach zero, making

goods and services free”

Houses planned in Germany

harvest ever-cheaper solar energy

energy and logistics. Take energy.

Forty years ago, a watt of solar

electricity cost $66. Now it costs

66 cents and the price is falling.

You have to install that solar

panel, wind turbine or

geothermal heat pump and pay

for it, but you’re then producing

energy at near-zero marginal cost.

How will this affect our wealth

People who produce their own

energy and physical goods need

less income. There are still going

to be a lot of goods and services

that aren’t free, so we’ll still need

jobs. But there is an institutional

mechanism we all use every day

to obtain goods and services

provided by neither government

nor private enterprise.

Economists call it the not-forprofit

sector, but it’s bigger than

that. It covers everything from

producing and sharing things to

education, healthcare, day care for

children, assisted living for the

elderly, cultural events, sport, arts

and environmental activities.

All these generate a worldwide

revenue of $2.2 trillion – and that’s

only the small bit we know how to

quantify. For the past 20 years,

the not-for-profit sector has been

growing faster than the private

sector. More than 10 per cent of

the UK, US and Canadian

workforce operates in this sector.

What’s in this future for me

The emerging new economy

offers more intense rewards and

greater opportunities for selfdevelopment.

In an economy

centred on sustainable abundance

rather than scarcity, our

grandchildren may look back at

mass-market employment with

the same disbelief with which we

look on slavery and serfdom. The

idea that a human’s worth was

measured almost exclusively by

their productive output of goods,

services and material wealth will

seem primitive, even barbaric.

What could prevent this utopia

Climate change – and so also food

insecurity – and cyberterrorism.

Can we outrun these risks

I’m guardedly hopeful, but not

naive. Our world is becoming

dysfunctional in terms of the

environment we’ve created and

the inequalities we’ve contrived.

If we don’t embark on this

journey, what would be the

alternative ■ Interview by Liz Else

48 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


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FEEDBACK

For more feedback, visit newscientist.com/feedback

PAUL MCDEVITT

GOOD news for South Carolina. Earlier,

its House of Representatives opposed

creationist references that the state

Senate slipped in while enacting

8-year-old Olivia McConnell’s proposal

to name the Columbian mammoth as

the state fossil (26 April). Then an

inter-house “conference committee”

backed the House, despite the

majority of its members initially

voting in favour of the “created on the

Sixth Day” language. On 16 May, the

bill was approved by governor Nikki

Haley. That was wise politics: Olivia had

told CBS News she was determined to

have the unadulterated bill passed,

even if it “might not be until I’m 23 or

40… If it doesn’t pass this year, I’m

going to be back next year.”

EDITING this week’s column, we

found ourselves writing to a

colleague: “next week, Thursday

will take place on Wednesday

21 May.” This is a consequence of

the UK public holiday that some

readers may have enjoyed not

long before reading this, requiring

that everything be done early.

In turn, as we draft this on

Friday 16 May, the word “today”

would mean “Saturday 31 May” –

the date on the cover. Meanwhile,

we are discussing with a colleague

an idea for another publication, in

which “today” is “Friday 23 May”.

So why was it not a journalist but a

patent examiner who realised the

relative nature of time

THERE will now be a short pause while

Feedback savours the phrase “Swiss

patent-attorney humour”. New

Scientist published a letter from Alan

Wells about the patent work of Albert

Einstein, including the phrase: “back

then, the Swiss Patent Office only

examined patent applications relating

to timing means” (12 April, p 32). Alan

now confesses that this sentence was

“ein Schnappsidee” – a term that he

says is “not easily translatable” but

Mail from crowdprediction.cfpf.org.uk tells of

“a ‘Crowd Prediction’ experiment to see if the date

of future catastrophes can be predicted” – but

wouldn’t it be nicer to start with lottery numbers

which we recognise all too easily,

knowing that Schnapps is alcoholic

and Idee is “idea”.

He looks forward to his letter being

cited to support the notion that, as

Graham Greene put it in The Third

Man, 500 years of Swiss democracy

and peace produced “the cuckoo

clock”. In patent-attorney terms, that

would be a “mechano-avian timing

means”. For the record, Alan directs

us to the Swiss Patent Office in Bern

listing patents examined by Einstein,

which include a gravel sorter and an

“electrical typewriter with shuttletype

carrier” (bit.ly/AlbertPatents).

DISCUSSING with colleagues the

prospects for the climate change

talks in Bonn, Germany, next

month, we recalled the immortal

intent of a diplomat in Geneva

“not to move the discussion

unnecessarily forward” (8

February). Other favourite

diplomatic language includes

“I shall have to refer to my

capital,” meaning: “I don’t care

what you lot say for the rest of the

week, I’m not consenting to

anything until we next meet.”

In the record of a meeting, the

words “one country said…” are a

delicate way, in our experience, of

recording occasions when the US,

specifically, means: “dream on,

people, that is so not happening.”

Feedback expects readers have

similar favourites. Will you reveal

them, strictly between us

THE Australian firm behind

georesonance.com claims to detect

metals and minerals. We observed

that in 2011 it was promoting

“Geo-Resonance Rejuvenation – An

Innovation in Holistic Healing”, but

skipped the technicalities (17 May).

Now we have found more similar

claims. In Ukraine, geonmr.com opens

with the wonderfully gnomic “When

we have picked up all grain about new,

very weak, but very ‘powerful’ signals,

we saw a new truth about deep

underground vision…” In Spain we

find esproenko.org, with subsidiaries

in, among other countries, Ukraine.

But how is it supposed to work The

company transcomplex.uk.com

provides a translation of a Ukrainian

patent to which all the above refer.

This specifies that “a black-and-white

negative is used as an aerospace

photograph [and packaged with a]

test wafer and X-ray film, the formed

package is treated with gamma rays.”

The X-ray film is then “chemically

processed and placed in an alternating

electric field of high pressure”. This

method somehow reminds us of

“aura-imaging” practices like Kirlian

photography. How it enables the

detection of underwater or buried

metals or oil, Feedback has no idea.

FINALLY, an update on the

mapping service of a famous web

search engine (FWSE). We reported

that if you locate London and

zoom out to see all of England, the

nearest place shown was Leighon-Sea

in Essex (10 May). This is

still true. But when Viv Brown,

Andrew MacGregor and we last

looked, Brussels had reappeared

and a place called “TOWN

CENTRE” was prominent. Only

zooming back in until we can spot

the trains in the station revealed

that this was Basingstoke.

Feedback has fond memories of

wangling a press visit to the secret

nuclear bunker under an office

block on Alencon Link, by the

station. Could this be connected

with its anonymity

You can send stories to Feedback by

email at feedback@newscientist.com.

Please include your home address.

This week’s and past Feedbacks can

be seen on our website.

56 | NewScientist | 31 May 2014


THE LAST WORD

Last words past and present at newscientist.com/lastword

Lemon, and on, and on

Why does nature like the taste of

lemons so much There is lemonscented

thyme, lemongrass and, of

course, lemons. I can’t think of any

other commonly occurring flavour.

Is it the same flavour, or do we just

have a very broad definition of

“lemon-flavoured”

■ Your correspondent is probably

right that we have a broad

definition of “lemon-flavoured”;

for instance, the characteristic

sourness of lemons is caused by

citric acid, but the other plants

“For humans, lemoniness

is distinctly attractive

rather than repulsive and

we use it extensively”

mentioned don’t contain this

substance. It is more the smell

or “essence” of lemon that nature

loves. I can add quite a few plants

to the list, including lemon balm,

lemon myrtle, lemon tea-tree,

lemon verbena, lemon eucalyptus

and lemon mint.

Chemically, the flavour

similarities arise largely thanks to

a fragrant compound called citral

that is prominent in all lemony

plants. Citral is a mixture of

chemicals called terpenoids. Two

other important bearers of lemon

flavour, which appear in varying

concentrations in the species

listed above, include limonene

and citronellal.

So why is lemon such a popular

flavour We can approach this in

terms of natural selection, by

which complex mechanisms arise

gradually when random genetic

mutations are accumulated and

passed on. Lemony plants are

found all around the world and

most are only distantly related.

But then again, the synthesis of

citral is well-established in plants

and may date back millions of

years. The process might even be

simple enough to have developed

independently in different plants.

After an initial lucky accident

generated floral citral – a cosmic

ray striking and altering a gene,

perhaps – it may have acted as a

lure for pollinators or a repellent

to animals, both of which would

have ensured the mutation’s

natural selection.

For humans, lemoniness is

distinctly attractive rather than

repulsive. We are somewhat

obsessed with the flavour,

employing it extensively in

beauty products, cleaning

agents and, of course, food.

The only other commonly

occurring flavour I can think

of is anise, an essence of aniseed,

fennel, liquorice, star anise

and even a type of mushroom.

However, anise doesn’t come

close to the prevalence of lemon.

Sam Buckton

Chipperfield, Hertfordshire, UK

Dream on

Why do I have recurring dreams, years

after I left university, of being about

to sit an exam but knowing nothing of

the subject matter I’m not alone, lots

of people I speak to have the same.

■ This question sent me back to

the 1930s and Freud’s The

Interpretation of Dreams. In

this book he provided a brief

section about examination

dreams, a kind most students

have experienced. His

interpretation, as I understand

it, was that they derive from

childhood punishments,

although whether in resentment

or guilt was not clear.

This is rather over the top, I feel.

It seems to me that such dreams

are simply an individual’s brain

chewing over an occasion when

they did not quite meet the

standard they hoped they would.

Over the years dreams begin

to echo more recent painful

encounters: disappointing

interviews and the like.

John Postgate

Lewes, East Sussex, UK

“Dreams that wake us are

usually exaggerations of

situations that bother us

in our waking lives”

■ Recurrent dreams that have

the emotional impetus to wake us

up – and hence be remembered –

are usually exaggerations of

situations that bother us in our

waking lives. The setting of the

dream is often concrete and

simplified, in a way that makes

the dreamer unlikely to

misinterpret the emotions

being displayed.

Dreaming of finding oneself

totally unprepared for an exam

is an exaggeration of a current

sponsored by

anxiety that one is unprepared

to cope with. The dream uses an

experience in the person’s life

where dread of being found

wanting is intense.

This is similar to another

common recurrent dream of

finding oneself outside with little

clothing. Here the clear message

is that the dreamer is afraid of

being exposed in some way, such

as not being as knowledgeable

about a subject as expected, and

facing possible shame or

embarrassment. The lack of

clothing is a concrete and

exaggerated manner of

portraying such feelings.

Anne Gray

Paisley, Renfrewshire, UK

This week’s questions

LIGHT AS AIR

While on the scales this morning

I wondered, would passing gas

affect the weight of the human

body at sea level and, if so, in

which direction

Chris Gilfillan

Surrey Hills, Victoria, Australia

STRIPED SWEATER

Years ago I was told that the black

hairs on a zebra heat up while the

white hairs stay cooler. This sets

up a temperature difference

between the stripes, which creates

an air flow by convection and

helps to keep the zebra cool. Does

anyone out there know any more

Rachael O’Brien

Tamworth South,

New South Wales, Australia

The writers of answers published in the

magazine will receive a cheque for £25

(or US$ equivalent). Answers should be

concise. We reserve the right to edit items

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have one. We are pleased to acknowledge

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Send questions and answers to

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lastword (please include a postal address

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Unanswered questions can also be found

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THE LAST WORD ON ENERGY

Win £100 by answering our monthly question about energy issues

Fridge magnets must constantly overcome the force of gravity,

which suggests they are expending energy. So why don’t they run

out of juice and fall off after a few years

Answers should reach us by 23.59 GMT on 3 June 2014 to answers@

newscientist.com or visit www.newscientist.com/topic/energy.

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