Main New Scientist Magazine - 24 April 2010

New Scientist Magazine - 24 April 2010

Volume: 206
Year: 2010
Publisher: Reed Business Information
Language: english
Pages: 60
File: PDF, 6.11 MB
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Volume 206 No 2757


EDITORIAL Social media foil knee-jerk drug laws


UPFRONT The perils of standing on asteroids,
New law claims fetuses feel pain





All life is here
It's been
3.8 billion years
in the making ...
now what does
the future hold?

Tracking down the first Darwinian ancestor,
Mind gym skills of limited use, Cave dwellings on
Mars, The curious link between smell and aging
9 INS IGHT It takes more than barbed wire to
secure weapons-grade nuclear material
14 IN BRIEF Algae get sexy. Why acupuncture
works, Bubble-blowing black holes
17 TECHNOLOGY Touchscreens touch back,
Robots feed on ocean heat. Quantum broadband

Cover image
SarahJ. Coleman

22 A platform for science New Scientist

consultant Michael Brooks on why he is standing
for Parliament in the UK general election
23 One minute with Anil Seth How redness and
feeling unreal can help crack consciouness
24 LETTERS Humanity's cradle, Are we zombies?
26 Thinking cel l s Forget molecular minutiae:
amazing things emerge when you focus on
neurons as a whole, says BrianJ, Ford

Bli ngtronics
Gold, silver and
diamonds will
be at the heart
of tomorrow's

28 Bl ingtronics (see right)

32 The hot zone Why are the tropics

so rich in biodiversity?
36 Paradise regained Conservation can

be a frustrating business - which makes
this rare success all the more gratifying
38 After the fal l Humans are causing
a mass extinction, but we will shape
life's recovery too

Coming next week
Vote of no confidence

42 Mephedrone, fact and fiction Was the UK

government right to ban this "legal high"?

T h e math proves it -


fa i r elections a re i m poss i b l e

Reviews The hidden powers of human senses,
Neither biology nor upbringing dictate our destiny
56 FEEDBACK Crispy." but where's the seaweed?
57 THE LAST WORD How long is a pencil line?

Womb with a view
A "picky" uterus boosts the chances
of a successful pregnancy

PLUS Why whales are
left -handed


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24April201O 1 N ewScie ntist 11



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Psychonaut Research Project monitors
the web for novel recreational drugs. It has
already identified MDAI, developed as an
antidepressant, and NRG-l, prescribed as an
appetite suppressant in France, as candidates
for the next wave of legal highs.
Tra d it i o n a l knee -je rk reactions
Prohibitionist approaches to such drugs
to new leg a l h i g hs are i ncreas i n g ly
have long been seen by many as futile at best
mi spl aced i n the i nternet age
and harmful at worst. What few in power seem
to have noticed is the game-changing role of
THE recreational drug mephedrone, aka
the internet. In today's connected world of
miaow-miaow, was banned in the UK last
social media, reactionary, prohibitory policies
week, a month after front-page stories of still
are increasingly irrelevant.
Experimental chemists and "psychonauts"
unproven links between it and a number of
deaths. By the time the law came into force
chat in web forums. Young people who used to
on 16 April, online dealers were already
selling new legal alternatives.
"Free flow of i nformation on the web
It's a well-established cycle: the authorities
is exposing the wild exaggeration of
crack down on illegal drugs or ban legal ones,
mainstream reporting on drugs"
underground chemists do some molecular
tweaking or dust off old research chemicals to ignore their parents and politicians in favour
of friends now get their drug information
create a new legal high, dealers order in new
stocks from primarily Chinese manufacturers from Twitter, Facebook or myriad other social
sites. In the US, 18 to 30-year-olds trust non­
and set up shop online, the police encourage
government websites more than their parents.
the media so that political pressure builds
The free flow of information on the web is
up, a ban follows, and around we go.
So far, so predictable, but the cycle is speeding exposing not only the wild exaggeration and
up. The UK's Advisory Council on the Misuse
speculation of much mainstream media
of Drugs was pushed into recommending a
reporting, but also undermining populist
mephedrone ban when there was little hard
politicians whose instincts are to ban first
evidence of its effects (see page 42) - although
and ask questions later, if at alL
its chemical similarity to amphetamine and
If governments continue to tailor their
anecdotal reports suggest large doses probably drugs policies to pacify loud but ignorant
newspaper editors, their policies will soon
are dangerous, and potentially fatal. A ban
might save lives,but it may lead mephedrone
cease to be relevant in the real world. If they
users to try more impure, illegal drugs, boost
want their drugs policy to work, it must be
the trade of criminal gangs and certainly drive thoughtful, rational and evidence-based, not
a cynical, politically motivated stunt to pacify
the development of legal alternatives.
The European Commission-funded
the editors of tabloid newspapers.•

Ban later, ask
questions first

Let's put an end to
THE introduction of the dingo to Australia
might have contributed to the downfall
of some native species, such as the thylacine,
but it is now protecting others by keeping
foxes and cats in check.
While a few introduced species have
wreaked havoc, some biologists argue that
most increase biodiversity, both directly and
by spurring evolution. With a large proportion
of species set for extinction in the coming
century, we cannot be choosy about future
sources of diversity. If we want thriving
ecosystems we may have to embrace exotic
invaders, feral animals like the dingo and
perhaps even some genetically modified,
cloned or artificial additions (see page 38). This
prospect will horrify many. But it is too late to
be sentimental about the past. •

Mind that elephant
POLICY-MAKERS have been much occupied
with so-called "black swans" - rare, disruptive
events that lie well beyond normal expectations.
Is the current air-travel pandemonium across
Europe such a bird (see page 4)?
No. We've long known that Iceland has
active volcanoes and that ash and jet engines
don't mix. It seems we need a term for big,
obvious threats that are sure to emerge­
think asteroid impacts - but which few want
to face. Handily, students of "collapsonomics"
have already coined one: "black elephants".•

,+ What's hot on

TECH Virtual characters
get real sense of balance

Computer-animated characters
with a new awareness of physics
react to blows with realistic
staggers and stumbles. They
should make for more convincing
computer games and movies
BLOG One US-state m icrobe
chosen, 49 to go Wisconsin
has appointed the cheesemaking bacterium Loctococcus
loctis as its official state microbe.

It's the first state to do so, which
got us thinking: what should the
other states' microbes be?

ail GAL LERY The b iggest

• • I

electricity - whether to power
a cellphone or a shopping mall

WOULD you l ike to take part in a research project
to improve New Scientist through the
appl ication of neuroscience?

fetus affects its mother

You will need to be based in the London area
and be prepared to give us up to 2 hours of your

bangs in h istory Our
planet has taken its share of hard
knocks overthe years - here's
our rundown of chart-topping
blasts from the past

Fetal jiggles increase maternal
heart rate and stimulate the
sympathetic nervous system even when mother's unaware
of the movements

time, though you must cover your own trave l.

CLEAN TECH Green machine:

For breaking news, video and
online debate, please visit

your deta ils there, putting "neuro" in the

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For more i nformation, or to volunteer to take
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message field.

24 April 2010 1 NewScientist 1 3


Out of gas
IT'S a lesser-known downside
of stricter homeland security.
This week, members of the US
Congress will discuss what to
do about a helium-3 shortage
that is hampering both scientific
research and the policing of illicit
nuclear materials.
In 1988, the US stopped
making tritium, which decays
into helium-3. Until recently,
stockpiles were adequate for
helium-3's major uses in neutron
detection and cryogenics, but that
changed when neutron detectors
were deployed to search for
nuclear materials at ports.
The shortage is hindering the
study of quantum computing
and other fields that require

"Stockpi les were adequate
until neutron detectors
were deployed to search
for n uclear materia ls"

Get used to ash-carrying weather
A BLOCKAGE caused by a pile-up is

on Climate Change simulations of

compounding the atmospheric chaos

air flow, Cassou and colleague Eric

The sun has just passed a peak

caused by Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull

Gui lyardi show that global warming

of activity, suggesting that blocking

where the jet stream blows.

vo lcano. And although trolls have yet

will i ncrease blocking weather

patterns will become more common

to be blamed for this disruption, a

patterns in summers over Europe

over Europe.

modern-day bogeyman - climate

(La Meteor%gie,

change - has been.
Ash-laden Arctic air is blowing

The phenomenon occurs when a
powerful, high-altitude, westerly air

to melting glaciers. This could relieve

over Europe because the preva iling

current called a jet stream suddenly

so potentially i ncrease volcanic

westerly winds have been "blocked" by

slows down, and mea nders as a

activity - but climate change could

a high-pressure weather system . We'd

result. Sometimes the meanders

a lso make the blocking worse. "As the

better get used to it: solar variability

double back, allowing north-easterly

troposphere becomes warmer you

and climate change means such

winds to fill the gap.

get more vertica l mixing but less

blockages may become more common.

no 59, p 22).

When solar activity is low this

G loba l wa rming has been linked
pressure on magma chambers and

horizontal mixing, making it easier for
a blocking eventto occur," saysJulian

"The frequency and length of blocking

jet stream "pile-up" tends to sh ift

events will i ncrease in a wa rmer

eastwards across the Atlantic Ocean,

Hunt, a climate scientist at Un iversity

climate," says Christophe Cassou of
the European Centre for Research

bringing blocking weather systems to
Europe. The reason seems to be that

College London.
Hunt's research suggests that

and Advanced Training in Scientific

solar activity influences stratospheric

blocking events may become more

Computation in Toulouse, France.

winds, which eventually feed

frequent in summers to come, and

through to the troposphere,

sit over Europe for 20 days or more.

Using Intergovernmenta l Panel

4 1 NewScie ntist 1 24 Apri l 2010

extreme cold. "Everyone who uses
helium-3 is getting pinched," says
William Halperin of Northwestern
University in Evanston, Illinois,
who runs cryogenic equipment at
his lab. Security systems and labs
that use neutron detectors have
also been left short. Lithium and
boron can be used instead, but
they are less sensitive.
A House of Representatives
subcommittee was to discuss
the problem on 22 April.

Next stop: asteroid
THE next American astronauts to
travel beyond the International
Space Station won't want to take
any giant leaps. NASA's next
stop will probably be an asteroid,
where explorers would have to
be careful not to drift into space.
Long-awaited details of the
White House's plan for the space
agency emerged last week in a
speech by President Barack
Obama. A new spacecraft will be
ready by 2025 to carry astronauts
into deep space, beginning with a

For daily news stories, visit


trip to an asteroid, he said.
Travelling to an asteroid will not
be easy. Astronauts will be exposed
to higher levels of radiation, and
will have to find a way to attach
themselves to the asteroid's surface
to cope with its weak gravity.
But the pay-off for planetary
defence could be big. One future
mission might be to nudge an
asteroid from its original orbit.
That "would demonstrate once
and for all that we're smarter than
the dinosaurs and could therefore
avoid what they didn't", White
House science adviser John
Holdren said in a discussion
after the speech.

Dam war rages on
A TUG of war that has raged for
decades over the construction of
what would be the world's third­
largest dam is becoming frantic.
The Belo Monte dam on the
Xingu river in the Brazilian
Amazon could power as many
as 23 million homes. But since
its proposal 20 years ago, it has
been the subject of a vitriolic
dispute with the government on
one side and indigenous people
and green groups on the other.
The latter say it would flood
500 square kilometres of farms
and rainforest and prevent the
migration of fish that are a major
food source for 800 indigenous
communities. It would also
function at full capacity for a mere
three months of the year - the dry
season means its overall efficiency
would be just 39 per cent.
Contractors were due to bid for
the project at noon on Tuesday
but the auction was suspended
by an injunction late on Monday.
A similar injunction was issued,
then lifted, last week.
The latest one calls for Brazil's
environment agency to revoke
a go-ahead it gave the project
earlier this year. It claims some
evidence was ignored during the
environmental impact assessment.
As New Scientist went to press, this
injunction was still in place.

Paper wastage

recycled paper consumes 64 per
cent less energy and 50 per cent
less water, and creates 74 per cent
less air pollution, compared with
paper made from virgin wood
pulp. The biggest obstacle to
recycling, says Worldwatch, is a

NEXT time you reach for the toilet
roll, consider this: 60 million rolls
of toilet paper are flushed away in
Europe every day. And the average
American gets though 57 sheets a
day, six times the global average.
In a report last week, the
"Millions of tonnes of office
Worldwatch Institute in
paper and newspaper are
Washington DC highlighted the
dumped, despite being
wastage of paper in rich and rapidly recyclable as toil et paper"
developing nations. In the US,
14.5 million tonnes of office paper preference for luxury, multi-ply
tissues. The problem is growing:
and newspaper will be dumped
western nations are the biggest
this decade, despite being ideal
for recycling as toilet paper.
users of toilet paper, but its use is
The potential savings are huge: increasing in China and Africa.

New law claims fetuses feel pain

CAN fetuses feel pa in - and if so,

The law a lso claims that after 20

T ibetan toll
China's Qinghai province is
recovering from a magnitude
6.9 earthquake that hit on 13 April,
kill ing a round 2000 people. The
Un ited States Geological Survey
says the quake occurred because
the Indian plate is col liding with Asia,
causing this part of the Tibetan
Plateau to move eastwards.

Halting hepatitis (
Hepatitis C virus - which causes
l iver cancer and cirrhosis and
infects nearly 200 m illion people
worldwide - may have met its match.
An experimental drug stopped it
repl icating i n test tubes and reduced
the levels of virus in eight people
with hepatitis C by a factor of more
than 1000 (Nature, 001: 10.10381

when? The questions have long been

weeks fetuses have reflex responses

debated by scientists and are key for

to evade pa inful stimuli. Rosen

Sunbed worship

opponents of abortion. But this week

counters that these responses a re

Surveys normally used to identify

Nebraska became the first US state

involuntary, and, like "knee-jerk"

a lcoholism have found that of

to restrict abortion on that basis.

reflexes, don't correspond to pain.

229 users of tanning beds, the

The N ebraska law, passed on
13 Apri l, lays out several arguments

Vivette Glover of Imperial Col lege
London says that fetuses may feel

behaviour of 50 i ndicated addiction.
The study authors suggest that

about fetal pain. Each was

pain at 20 weeks, but they can be

interventions to reduce skin cancer

contradicted last month in a letter

given anaesthetics in any case.

must address addiction and anxiety
in orderto be effective (Archives of

to the Nebraska legislature by Mark

Rosen and others bel ieve the

Rosen of the University of Ca lifornia,

law is designed to provoke a lega l

San Franc isco, co-author of a 2005

challenge from LeRoy Carhart, a

review on the subject.

surgeon who performs late-term

The law states that at 20 weeks
a fetus "has the physica l structures

abortions in Nebraska. This could
take the claims of feta l pain to the US

necessary to experience pain". But

Supreme Court, which has the power

Rosen argues that fetuses don't have

to overturn the Roe vs Wade ruling

the brai n connections needed to feel

of 1973 that gave US women almost

pain until about 29 weeks.

unrestricted access to abortion.

Derma tology, vol 146, p 412).

Salt licked
The US government should curb
sa lt levels i n prepared and processed
foods, accord ing to a National
Academy of Sciences report. The
Food and Drug Administration has
the authority to force manufacturers
and restaurants to reduce sa lt levels.
Companies should a Iso cut them
voluntari ly, the report says.

Tree data released
A UK university has been told
to release tree ring data going
back about 7000 years. The rul i ng
follows a three-year Freedom of
Information (FOI) dispute.lnJanuary,
the Information Commissioner's
office criticised the University
of East Anglia for its hand ling
of FOI requests from climate
change sceptics.

24 April 2010 I NewScientist 1 5


Catherine Brahic

IN THE beginning there were Ida
and Luca. The initial Darwinian
ancestor - Ida - and the last
universal common ancestor­
Luca - assembled themselves from
the spare parts sloshing around
on the early Earth. Once all the
ingredients were in place, it looks
like life was all but inevitable.
The finding comes from recent
discoveries about the behaviour
of chemicals thought to have been
present on the primordial Earth,
relating to two key stages in the
evolution of life. Ida was the first
molecule that was able to self­
replicate. Once it was around,
busy making copies of itself, it
somehow evolved the ability to
store information in the form of
the genetic code. That led to the
life form from which we all
descended: Luca.
Luca probably popped up
about 4 billion years ago - some
500 million years after a spinning
galactic cloud coalesced into

lIThe genetic code is the
consequence of chemical
affinities between
RNA and a mino acidsll
planet Earth and a few hundred
million years before complex life
evolved and began to leave fossil
traces. We can deduce Luca must
have existed because all life forms
that we know of - from bacteria
and viruses to T. rex, bananas and
humans - share the same genetic
code, with a few small exceptions.
Luca is thought to have been
based on RNA, the close cousin to
DNA, because strands of RNA can
act as enzymes. This means
metabolism could operate before
proteins evolved to take over.
The genetic code consists
of triplets of genetic building
blocks, or nucleotides, with each
triplet coding for a particular
amino acid or acting as an onloff
switch for amino acid production.
Amino acids are the building
blocks of proteins and hence of
organic life forms.
6 1 NewScientist 1 24 Apri l 2010

In this section
• The curious l ink between smell and ageing, page 8
• M ind gym skills of l i mited use, page 10
• Cave dwellings on Mars, page 12

The catalyst that allowed the
in the development of life happened
first RNA chains to form is a
missing link in the evolution of
early life, says Lane. "There is kind
of an assumption that it was there
Amino acids preferentially cluster around
specific triplets of RNA nucleotides,
somehow, but no one has ever
suggesting the genetic code may have
found it." While Lane agrees that
arisen through simple chemical bonds
cofactors might have been
involved in the early stages of life,
he thinks there could be an even
simpler way to explain how the
first chains of RNA appeared.
That comes from a team led
� I�NO
�� AC
= ID�
by Ernesto Di Mauro at Sapienza
University of Rome, Italy. In their
experiments, they have shown
Nucleotides need a catalystto form chains of RNA
that cyclic nucleotides, which are
a chemical variation of the
nucleotides that make up RNA
(see diagram), will spontaneously
Natural attraction
link to each other and form viable
Yarus works with artificial
RNA chains (The Journal of
But new results suggest cyclic nucleotides - a chemical variant of the kind that
make RNA - can form RNA chains spontaneously
RNA and has shown that these
Biological Chemistry, DOl:
chemical affinities do exist. Mix
• •
strands of RNA with amino acids
This suggests that if there
were cyclic nucleotides in the
and the amino acids will more
or less spontaneously nestle
primordial soup, there was
up to their corresponding triplets.
no need for a catalyst, says
"Yarus found that anticodons
Lane. Given the right ingredients,
triplet according to the genetic
from a long chain of nucleotides­ the first self-replicating life
[a type of triplet found in some
assemble itself?
RNAs] were particularly good
forms would have essentially
code (Proceedings of the National
Nucleotides don't tend to
in this regard and bind the
Academy of Sciences, DOl:
booted themselves up. "Cyclic
form chains without catalysts
'correct' amino acid with up to a
nucleotides are just as likely to
to help them. In living cells,
"Not only is there a chemical
millionfold greater affinity than
occur in these primordial
those catalysts are always
environments as any other
other amino acids," says Nick Lane reason for these affinities
proteins, yet the first proteins
of University College London.
between amino acids and their
nucleotides," he says.
triplets but you can see them in
were made by Luca; they did not
Now David Johnson and Lei
For Lane, these reactions in
Wang of the Salk Institute for
a natural, biological system," says exist in the time of Ida. Something all probability happened around
the piping hot black smokers of
Yarus. What's more, he adds, the
Biological Sciences in La Jolla,
California, have shown for the
IIWith the rig ht ingredients, the oceanic abyss, where the
ribosome is an evolutionarily
Earth's crust is wrenched apart by
ancient structure, supporting the the first self-repl icating
first time that these natural
affinities occur in real organisms. idea that these affinities go way
l ife forms would have
immense geological forces. "In
environments like hydrothermal
back. All this, he says, backs his
Johnson and Wang decided to
booted themselves Upll
look for evidence in ribosomes­
vents it is likely, but as yet
theory that relatively simple
is needed that is like RNA but
key components of the cellular
chemical interactions allowed
experimentally unproven, that
simple enough to replicate itself
machinery that assemble
a range of amino acids and
Luca to evolve the universal
genetic code.
without a catalyst.
proteins from amino acids.
nucleotides would be formed by
Yarus says that the answer
the laws of chemistry," he says.
Ribosomes are made of a tangle
It also allows him to speculate
lies in small-molecule enzymes
of RNA and amino acid chains,
about Ida. While the genetic code
Local currents, he adds, would
called cofactors that help
is central to life as we know it,
probably draw the molecules
so if there was natural attraction
going on, it should be found there, there is no reason to think that
RNA and DNA do their jobs.
together, making it more likely
that self-replicating chains of
other self-replicating life forms
"They're absolutely universal
they reasoned.
in biology today and therefore
Sure enough, when the pair
RNA could form and associate
have to use it. However, since Ida
with amino acids.
gave rise to the RNA-based Luca,
very old," he says. Because they
looked at where amino acids
sat in the ribosome, they found
Once that happened, the
it is logical to assume Ida was also are made of nucleotides, the
that 11 of 20 standard amino acids made of RNA or something very
emergence of life was all but
cofactors could have started
RNA chains (Cold Spring Harbor
were far more likely than not to
similar. But that creates a
inevitable. "The Darwinian game
problem: how did RNA -made
Perspectives in Biology, DOl:
be positioned next to the "right"
was fully on," says Yarus.•
According to Michael Yarus
of the University of Colorado
at Boulder, Luca evolved the code
as a result of natural chemical
affinities between nucleotides
and amino acids. Chemical
bonding, he says, means that
different amino acids naturally
like to sit next to some triplets
and not others.
In other words, the genetic code
is the inevitable consequence of
affinities between the molecular
building blocks of RNA and those
of the proteins they code for. If
he's right, it will explain why
individual triplets always code for
the same amino acids, whether in
a virus or a human.

Life gets started

We're getting closer to understanding how two key transitions

------[--7---- ;;\ (

------ -----�


24 April 2010 1 NewScientist 1 7


Sense of smell
makes flies' time fly
Ewen Callaway

COULD smells affect your
lifespan? Female fruit flies
deprived of the ability to smell
food outlive their peers. The sense
of smell may be linked to the
cellular ageing process in many
other organisms - even people.
A link has recently been found
between sensory experiences and
lifespan in both worms and flies.
For example, Scott Pletcher,
a molecular biologist at the
University of Michigan, Ann
Arbor, found that eliminating
fruit flies' ability to smell any
odour at all enabled them to live
nearly 20 per cent longer than
flies with an intact sense of smell
(Science, vol 31S, p 1133).
Why is this so? Pletcher's team
reasoned that food smells were
the ones most likely to affect
ageing, as nutrition and longevity
are known to be linked in many
organisms. For example, cutting
the amount of food consumed
lengthens the lifespan of yeast,
mice and monkeys, and keeps a
variety of diseases at bay in people.
To test the idea that food

odours affect lifespan, Pletcher's
team eliminated flies' ability to
smell carbon dioxide, which is
produced by some fly foods, such
as live yeast. They left the rest
of the olfactory system intact.
The intervention had no effect
on male flies, but the females
lived 30 per cent longer than
normal (PLoS Bio[ogy, DOl:

Giant bacteria hog seabed
off the coast of Chile
J UST off the coast of the world's

of Concepcion. The bug thrives in

driest desert, the lifeless Atacama

water a lmost devoid of oxygen by

in northern Ch ile, lies one of the

extracting energy from hydrogen

largest and densest masses of l ife

sulphide in sed iments on the sea bed,

a nywhere on Earth. The vast tangled

and feeds on nutrients dispersed by

m at of wh ite "hai r", the size of

fish in the waters of the cold, fertile

Greece, was recently mapped as part

Humboldt current above.

of the first com prehensive Census of
Mari ne Life.

resemble fossil ised bacterial mats

The g hostly submarine prairie

Gallardo says the wispy bacteria
dating back 2.5 billion years.

is made of wispy strings of g iant

In total, he and his colleagues

bacteria, says Victor Gallardo, a

estimate that the mat conta ins

marine biolog ist at Chile's University

hundreds of m i llions of tonnes

8 1 NewScientist 1 24 Apri l 2010

between lifespan and sensory
Pletcher reckons eliminating the experience in worms, says tastes
are similarly linked to ageing.
ability to smell COz may deprive
flies of information about food
Pletcher isn't sure why the
availability. This could signal to
change in his fruit flies only
cells that food is scarce, triggering affected the lifespans of the
processes that promote survival.
females, but he suggests that
Indeed, his team found that the
females may simply be more
COz-insensitive female flies stored sensitive to the odour of COz.
Meanwhile, he has reason to
extra fat and that both males and
females rendered immune to COz believe that it's more than a lack
of odours that can extend life in
were more resistant to oxidative
stress than normal flies.
flies: specific odours may perform
Joy Alcedeo, a neuroscientist
the same trick. His says his team
has identified a brain circuit that
at Friedrich Miescher Institute
for Biomedical Research in Basel,
extends lifespan when activated
Switzerland, who has found links
and which is also linked to the
olfactory system. But he has yet
to discover what smells might
trigger it.
A smell or taste that stretches
lifespan in humans could be a
potential preventative for age­
related disease, he adds. Although
in fruit flies it appears to be the
smell of COz that affects ageing, he
says that an analogue in humans
might be a smell or taste linked
to human food - or a lack of it.
Matt Kaeberlein studies ageing
at the University of Washington in
Seattle. He cautions that we don't
know whether ageing and smell
are linked in mammals, but he's
optimistic. "We definitely undergo
physiological changes in response
to smelling food - I'm getting
hungry just thinking about it so I think it's possible." •

of bacteria, and that the whole

triangle", the region of coral reefs

system regenerates every 10 weeks.

off south-east Asia, accord ing to

Ind ividual bacteria can reach

Ann Bucklin of the Un iversity of
Connecticut - Avery Poi nt.

7 centimetres long.
The decade-long census, whose
aim is to cata logue all ocean life, is
rapidly changing our ideas abo ut how
many species there a re on Earth and
where they are to be found. The
Amazon ra i nforest has long been
thought to contain the greatest
biodiversity on the planet. In fact, the
winner is more like ly to be the "coral

"The wispy bacteria
resemble fossil ised
bacterial mats dating
back 2.5 billion years"

Another, entirely unexpected
hots pot is the deep ocean below
1000 metres. This huge ocean
wilderness may be low in biomass
volume, says Buckl i n, but it is
fabulously d iverse.
Bacteria and other m icrobes may
make up as much as 90 per cent
of the oceans' biomass, and there
could be up to a b i l l ion species on
Earth, says John Baross of the
Un iversity of Washington, Seattle,
more than 10 times as many as
previously suspected. Fred Pearce •

For daily news stories, visit

Brain shuts
off in response
to prayer


WHEN we fa ll under the spell of a
cha rismatic fig ure, areas of the brain
responsible for scepticism and
vigilance become less active. That's
the finding of a study which looked at
people's response to prayers spoken
by someone purportedly possessing
d ivine hea l ing powers.
To identify the brain processes


underlying the i nfluence of
cha rismatic individua ls, Uffe Schjadt
of Aarhus Un iversity in Denmark and
colleagues turned to Pentecostal
Christians, who believe that some
people have divinely i nspired powers
of hea li ng, wisdom and prophecy.

Never had


significant amounts
Past stockpiles cut
to less than 1 kg
1 to lOkg


• 100 to1000kg
• 1000 to 1O,000kg
• More than 10,000kg

Using functional magnetic
resonance imaging (fM RI), Schjadt
and his colleagues scanned the brains
of 20 Pentecostalists and 20 non­
believers while playing them recorded
prayers. The vo lunteers were told
that six of the prayers were read by
a non-Ch ristian, six by an ord inary
Christian and six by a healer. In fact,
a l l were read by ord inary Christians.
Only in the devout volunteers d id
the bra i n activity mon itored by the
researchers change in response to
the prayers. Parts of the prefronta I
and anterior cingu late cortices, which
play key roles in vig i lance and
scepticism when judging the truth
and im portance of what people say,
were deactivated when the subjects
listened to a supposed healer.
Activity diminished to a lesser extent
when the speaker was supposedly
a norma l Christian (Social Cognitive
and Affective Neuroscience,

001: 10.1093/sca n/nsq023).
Schjadt says that this explains why
certa in i nd ividuals can gain influence
over others, and concludes that thei r
abi lity t o do s o depends heavily o n
preconceived notions o f the i r
authority and trustworth iness.
It's not clear whether the results
extend beyond relig ious leaders, but
Schjadt speculates that bra i n regions
may be deactivated in a similar way i n
response t o doctors, parents and

Can we keep tabs on stockpiles of nuclear fuel?
COULD a terrorist build a nuclear bomb?
One urgent task is to find cost­
effective ways to convert HEU-burning
Opinion is divided - but someone out
there certainly wants to buy the
reactors to a safer fuel, especially the
ingredients, In March, police in the
world's 130 often poorly guarded
republic of Georgia stopped a gang
research reactors, In the meantime,
trying to sell weapons-grade, highly
technologies are available that could
enriched uranium (HEU) on the black
reveal tampering with fuels, The
market. It was the eighth such
European Commission's Joint Research
interception in Georgia since 2000,
Centre in Ispra, Italy, has developed a
Such tales helped persuade 47
seal for HEU fuel rods with a pattern of
world leaders meeting in Washington flaws visible on ultrasound scans that
DC last week to pledge to lock up the
cannot be removed without leaving
telltale signs, The seals were installed
world's weapons-grade material by
2014, By current estimates, that's
1600 tonnes of HEU andSOOtonnes "Barbed wire a nd armed
guards wo n't be enough.
of separated plutonium.
But how to do that? One thing is
Smarter d etection
clear: barbed wire and armed guards
technology will be needed"
won't be enough, Safer reactor fuels
and smarter detection technology will last year in Romania and Pakistan,
be needed, says Benn Tannenbaum
If thieves steal spent fuel, they will
of the American Association forthe
need to get the plutonium out of it.
Advancement of Science,
Current methods for detecting illicit
extraction of plutonium require samples
The effort is overdue, It used to be
assumed that only governments could to be taken nearby, which can be
use fissile materials to make a bomb, so politically impossible, But extraction also
international safeguards focus on what releases the radioactive gas krypton-8S,
national nuclear agencies do with their which can be carried away on the wind
stockpiles, "Keeping civilian stockpiles and picked up by distant sensors,
safe from criminals has been a poor
The iGSE project led by Simon
cousin," says Wyn Bowen, director of
Hebel of the University of Hamburg,
the Centre for Science and Security
Germany, has developed ways to
Studies at King's College London,
detect krypton-8S and track its source

from several hundred kilometres away.
It is testing this for the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),
If all else fails, stolen material could
be detected en route to its target.
The US had planned to install 1400
detectors in ports worldwide to pick
up neutrons and gamma rays emitted
by HEU and plutonium, but because
the neutron detectors require
helium-3, which is in short supply (see
page 4), their number has been cut.
Gamma rays are more difficultthan
neutrons to detect reliably. Existing
germanium-crystal detectors have a
high false positive rate, and a clued-up
smuggler would not find it hard to
block the gamma rays altogether,
Muon detectors have been
developed as a back-up, but they work
very slowly. Tannenbaum says the
liquid argon detectors now used by
physicists to spot neutrinos could,
in principle, be used to detect both
gamma rays and neutrons, but there
are no plans to implement this idea,
Funding is a big stumbling block,
No money was pledged at last week's
summit beyond what countries
already contribute to the IAEA's small
research programme, Bowen says,
The iGSE group's funding runs out
next month, Debora M acKenzie .

politicians. Andy Coghlan •

24 April 2010 1 N ewScientist 1 9


Skills from the mind
gym don't transfer
Ewen (allaway

BR AIN-training software may be a
waste of time. People who played
"mind-boosting" games made the
same modest cognitive gains as
those who spent a similar amount
of time surfing the web.
"It didn't really make any
difference what people did,"
says Adrian Owen of the MRC
Cognition and Brain Sciences
Unit in Cambridge, UK, who
tested brain-training software
on volunteers recruited through
a BBC television programme.
Over the past five years, there
has been an explosion in the
market for brain-training software,
which supposedly keeps the brain
youthful. The BBC approached
Owen with the idea of testing such
software after he wrote a review
of the scientific literature on it.
Only a handful of studies existed
on the topic, many lacking good
controls or enough volunteers,
he says. "The scientific evidence
for it was extremely weak."
Owen and his colleagues asked
11,000 volunteers to take tests to

"A lot of what is marketed
as 'brain-tra ining' is
not created based on
scientific evidence"
gauge their reasoning ability and
verbal and spatial memory.
Participants then spent six weeks
playing on one of two computer
programs, or just surfing the web
for trivia. In one program, which
mimics commercial brain-training
software, the volunteers solved
simple mathematics problems and
puzzles that tested their memories.
The other was designed specifically
to boost cognitive abilities such as
reasoning and planning.
After six weeks, the participants
underwent a second round of
10 1 NewScientist 1 24 April 2010

cognitive tests. Both groups who
played the games made modest
improvements, yet so did the web
surfers (Nature, DOl: 10.1038/
Skills learned via the programs
didn't transfer to the cognitive
tests, even when they relied on
similar abilities, says Owen. For
instance, people who played a
game in which they had to find
a match for a briefly overturned
card struggled at a similar test
that used stars "hidden" in boxes.
"Even when the tests were
conceptually quite similar we
didn't see any improvement,"
says Owen. He concludes that
brain-training software only
makes people better at the specific
tasks they have been practising.
Torkel Klingberg, a psychologist
at the Karolinska Institute in
Stockholm, Sweden, agrees - to
a point. "A lot of what is currently
marketed as 'brain-training' is
not created based on scientific
evidence and not properly tested,"
he says.
Yet Klingberg, who founded
a cognitive-training firm called
Cogmed, bristles at the conclusion
that all brain training is bunk. The
participants in Owen's study
didn't practise for long enough
and there was no quality control
over what practise people did, he
says. "Asking subjects to sit at home
and do tests online, perhaps with
the TV on or other distractions
around, is likely to result in noisy
data," he says. "This paper does in
no way disprove that the brain is
plastic or that cognitive functions
can be improved by training."
Owen counters that his team's
research took place in settings
similar to the ones people are
likely to practise in. "This is what
people are doing. They're sitting
at home on their computers doing
brain training." •

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Miscarriage blamed
on non-fussy uterus
Linda Geddes

FAR from being a passive
container, the human uterus
seems to be highly selective about
which embryos it accepts. Women
with less "fussy" uteruses may be
at higher risk of miscarriage.
Miscarriage is the most
common complication of
pregnancy, with around 1 in 3
embryos lost before 6 weeks of
pregnancy and a further 10 per

Martian tubes
could be home
for 'cavenauts'
OUR ancestors made their first homes

cent before 12 weeks. For years,
faulty embryos or problems such
as abnormal clotting or immune
responses have been blamed.
Jan Brosens at Imperial College
London wondered if another
process was at work. He had noted
that many women who had
repeated miscarriages claimed to
have conceived incredibly quickly.
"Each one of their pregnancies
was conceived within one or two
months of trying," he says. What's

Ames Research Center in Mounta i n
View, California.
What's more, the ana lysis suggests

them. They a lso looked at how long it

condensed as frost onto the a l ready
icy wa lls. The model showed that

conta in a ready supply of water,

their cave as a box 10 metres square

the ice would be stable, lasting for

in the form of ice.

by 8 metres high, with a single sma ll

up to 100,000 years ( tcarus, 001:

opening to the atmosphere in the roof.

10.1016/j. icarus.2010.03.039).

Lava tubes are the most l ikely
form of cave that we could occupy
on Mars. These tunnel -like caves

They found that during the Martian
day, warm, buoyant air would not

Such ice could prove a handy
source of water for habitation and

were created when ancient lava

enter the cool cave, saving the ice

fuel, and could a lso provide she lter

flows so lidified at the surface, while
lava inside drained away.

from melting. At night, as the outside

from dangerous solar radiation.
Astro nauts would find the caves

the Tharsis rise and the Elysium rise,

The existence of ice in these

conta in volcanic features which may

caves has been suggested before,

be suitable locations for caves," says

but Williams and colleagues have

lead author Kaj Will iams of NASA's

taken the idea one step further by

12 1 NewScientist 1 24 Apri l 2010

air coo led, it would sink into the
cave and bring in water vapour that

m ight last. The team represented

in caves. Now it looks like the first
An analysis of Martian geography

using a computer model t o f i n d out
exactly how ice m ight build up inside

that caves in these reg ions will

humans on Mars will do the same.
suggests where to look for the right
kind of caves. "At least two reg ions,

more, some studies have hinted
in the women who had miscarried
that embryos implanting outside than in those who hadn't and
the normal window of uterine
this was maintained for
receptivity were more likely to
longer, suggesting that their
implantation window lasts longer.
To investigate further, he and
These women also produced far
his colleagues took cells from the
less prolactin, a sign that their
uteruses of women who had
cells don't decidualise properly.
undergone miscarriages and ones
Further studies indicated that
this impaired decidualisation
who hadn't. They measured the
expression of a key regulator of
interfered with the signalling
uterine receptivity calledPROKl
between the embryo and
and levels of prolactin, a marker of the uterus at the time of
decidualisation - the monthly
implantation. The researchers
process by which the uterus
conclude that these uteruses are
prepares to receive an embryo.
less picky, allowing abnormal
Decidualisation involves a
embryos to implant, which later
thickening of the uterine wall and spontaneously abort (PLoS One,
the growth of new blood vessels.
DOl: 10.1371/journaL
Expression of PROKl was higher pone.0010287).
Abnormal decidualisation may
also interfere with placental
formation - another reason
such women are more likely to
miscarry, says Brosens.
These are exciting findings
says Anne Croy, a pregnancy
researcher at Queen's University
in Toronto, Canada. "We have
invested huge effort in assessing
the quality of the embryo. This
[study] strongly suggests that we
must be aware of the endometrial
environment as welL"
A test might be developed to
predict whether a woman is at
high risk of miscarriage before
she tries for a baby. With a better
understanding of decidualisation,
drugs might be developed to
reduce miscarriage . •

"Ice formed on the walls
of Martian caves would
be stable, lasting for up
to 100,000 years"

excellent homes, says co-author
Brian Toon of the Un iversity of
Co lorado, Bo ulder. "Perhaps we co uld
ca ll them 'cavenauts'." Stuart (lark .

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Warped stars feed black
holes to fatten them up
W H Y are supermassive black holes

gas, causing d ifferent streams to

so, we ll, supermassive? It has long

co l lide. The gas loses momentum and

been a mystery how enough matter

eventua lly gets close enough to the

can reach these cosm ic g luttons

black hole to be swallowed up. In this

to swell them to such large sizes.

way, black holes could consume as

Now it seems the answer co uld be

much as 10 solar masses of gas each

connected to a starry disc at the heart

year, Hopkins says. That's enough to

of the Andromeda ga laxy. Although

feed ga lactic black holes at the peak

they may be hard to see, such discs

of the ir g luttony, some 10 billion
years ago (

may be common.
Black holes m i l lions or bill ions
times as massive as the sun reside at

Loo ki n g to
h i re i n cl i n i ca l
o n co l ogy?
Cl i n ica l Oncology Feature
J une 5 issue of New Scientist.

Evidence may be in our
neighbouring galaxy. Andromeda

the heart of most ga laxies, i ncluding

sports a "double nucleus" - two bright

our own. These black holes have been

spots at its hea rt - thought to be a

fattened up by huge a mounts of gas.

sign of an oval d isc of stars and gas.

But astronomers don't know how
that gas makes it through a final
hurd le, migrating the last dozens or
hundreds of l ight years to be eaten.
Philip Hopkins and Eliot Quataert

lIThe ring of stars saps the
mo mentu m of incoming
gasl so it spira ls in towa rds
the black holell

of the Un iversity of Ca l ifornia,
8erkeley, suggest that the formation

One test will be to see whether

O u r part i c i pat i o n i n t h e N ew Sc i e n t i st
Ca n c e r Feat u re y i e l d ed a t re m e n d o u s

of a skewed ring of stars facilitates

other ga laxies have this stellar

respo nse to t h e Ca ncer/O n c o l ogy pos i t i o n s

the flow of gas, by sa pping its

feature. "[Andromeda] is not un ique.

ava i l a b l e . W e rece i ved a l a rge n u m be r o f

momentum so that it spirals in

What we see there is likely to be

towards the black hole.

commonplace," says Tod Lauer of

Their simu lations show that

the National Optical Astronomy

extremely q u a l ified a p p l i c a nts, a nd are i n
t h e process of h i ri ng based o n t h e stro ng

when there is enough gas present

Observatory in Tucson, Arizona, who

respo nse we rece ived .

to prompt significant amounts of star

has identified several such galaxies.

Lara Hess, Children 's Memorial Research Center

formation, the newly formed stars


"The attractive feature of this model

orbiting a black hole natura l ly a l ign

i s it seems to be a single ca lculation

to create an elliptica l d isc that can

that can get the gas all the way in,"

stretch out dozens of l ight years from

says Scott Tremaine of the I nstitute

the centre of the galaxy. This oval

for Advanced Study in Princeton,

structure tugs uneven ly on i ncom ing

New Jersey. Rachel Courtland •

R eserva t i o n s m u st be rece i ved
by M ay

2 6 , 20 1 0 .

E ma i l N SSa l es@ N ewSc i e n t i st . com
Ca l l

78 l . 734 . 8 7 7 0
720.356.92 1 7


"en "st J


24 Apri l 2010 I NewScientist 1 13


Fatty diet bad news
for granddaughters

Be a good dog and you'll
live a long, healthy life

breeds, such as German shepherds, poodles and bichon
frises, tended to be the longest lived, wh ile hard-to-train
dogs such as pomeranians and beagles were more l i kely

GENES may not be the only
way cancer passes down the
generations. Feeding pregnant
rats a fatty diet puts both their
daughters and granddaughters
at greater risk of breast cancer.
Sonia de Assis of Georgetown
University Medical Center in
Washington DC and colleagues
had discovered that the daughters
of pregnant rats fed unhealthily
are more likely to develop breast
cancer. Now they have shown
that even if these daughters eat
healthily, their offspring are still
at greater risk of disease. De Assis,
who presented the work at the
American Association for Cancer
Research meeting in Washington
DC, says a fatty diet may cause
"epigenetic" DNA modifications
that can be passed on to future
If the process applies to people,
genes may not be the only reason
why a family history of breast
cancer puts a woman at risk.

to die younger. Another trait, aggressiveness, was linked
LIVE fast, die young: it's an adage that appl ies not just to

to metabolic rate, with docile dogs such as collies burning

humans. Disobed ient dog breeds tend to die earlier than

calories more slowly than territorial great danes, for

docile dogs, according to a study that compared the

instance (The American Naturalist, 001: 10.1086/652435).

longevity of different breeds.
Vincent Careau at the University of Sherbrooke in

Dogs were domesticated from wolves more than

Even algae can
get sexy

10,000 years ago, but Careau doubts that long lifespan

Quebec, Canada, compared data from previous studies

or rapid metabolism were selected on purpose. Most

of personal ity in a number of dog breeds, and mortality

of today's 400-plus recognised breeds are the product

TWO algae may hold the secret
to the evolution of sex cells.
of intensive breeding over the past 100 years and it is
data on the same varieties. Some of the data came
lames Umen of the Salk
more likely that by selecting dogs that are easier to trai n
Institute for Biological Studies
from insurance compan ies that sell pet policies. After
in La Iolla, California, compared
or more aggressive, we ended u p with long-lived and
controlling for size - big dogs tend to d ie younger than
Chlamydomonas reinhardtii
small ones - Careau's team found the most obed ient
calorie-hungry breeds, he says.
and Volvox carteri. They diverged
200 million years ago, yet V. carteri
that the filaments have their shape produces eggs and sperm, while
Bubbly black holes stop stars appearing
because they are made of dragged the sex cells of C. reinhardtii are
BLACK holes blowing huge
Edward Pope of the University
cold gas. By removing so much
similar in dimensions and cannot
bubbles may explain the lack of
of Victoria in British Columbia,
gas from near the core, the bubbles be described as male and female.
Umen focused on the "mating
Canada, and colleagues. These
make star formation there less
star formation in the cores of
locus" (MT) - the genetic sequence
galaxy clusters.
likely, the team say. Their paper
form when a black hole belches
Gas at the centre of galaxy
out jets of hot plasma, which are
will appear in Monthly Notices of
behind the making of sex cells. He
the Royal Astronomical Society.
clusters should be cooling as it
then pushed out of the core by
found five genes that were only
loses energy; this would allow
The research is a new take on an in female V. carteri and eight new
surrounding denser gas.
Pope and his colleagues studied old problem, says Brian McNamara male-only genes. C. renhardtii had
nearby material to compress the
gas and create ideal conditions for filaments of material - some up to of the University of Waterloo
similar genes near but outside its
MT. Like so much else, it seems sex
making stars. But giant "bubbles" 30,000 light years long - trailing
in Ontario, Canada. "They have
cells are all about location, location,
of hot, low-density gas may be
in the wake of such bubbles in the their own angle on it, which is
location (Science, vo13 28, p 351).
dragging away the cool gas, say
Perseus cluster. They calculated
pretty interesting."
14 1 NewScientist 1 24 April 2010

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M82 calling Earth:

explain, please
THE RE is something strange in
the cosmic neighbourhood. An
unknown object in the nearby
ga laxy M 82 has started sending out
rad io waves unlike anything seen
before. "We don't know what it is,"
says co-discoverer Tom M uxlow of
Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics
near Macdesfield, UK.
The powerful radio emission
emerged over a few days last
May - quite rapidly in astronom ica l
terms - and its intensity has hard ly
varied since. That means it is

'Fatness gene' may thin your brain
A GENE variant that helps us gain Africans have a variant of a gene
weight may shrink our brains into called FTO that increases the risk
of obesity by two-thirds. The
the bargain.
Elderly obese people are likelier variant is thought to affect
to develop dementia and their
metabolism and fat storage.
brains tend to be smaller than
When Thompson's team looked
those of people of normal weight. at brain scans of 206 healthy
This has been put down to clogged people aged 70 to 80, they found
arteries slowing the blood flow
that those with at least one copy
of the FTO variant had 8 per cent
to the brain, killing neurons. But
now Paul Thompson's team at
less volume in their frontal lobes
the University of California, Los
and 12 per cent less in the occipital
Angeles, has found that a gene
lobes, compared with their
variant linked to obesity may
counterparts lacking the variant
harm the brain directly.
(Proceedings of the National
Academy ofSciences, DOl: 10.1073/
Half of Europeans and west

pnas.og10878107). The brains
of those with the variant "looked
16 years older", Thompson says.
His participants did not have
cognitive problems. However,
these brain areas are critical to
problem-solving and perception,
and brain atrophy there increases
the risk of dementia and memory
problems, Thompson says.
The FTO variant could be
damaging the brain indirectly by
helping to make people fatter, but
Thompson reckons it plays a more
direct role, too, as FTO is expressed
at high levels in the brain.

probably not a supernova, because
supernovae usual ly brighten over
weeks then fade over months. And
it's too far from the middle of M82 to
be a supermassive black hole.

Why acupuncture
aids spinal recovery

It could be a "microquasar"
- a black hole feeding on gas from a
nearby star - but the X-rays typically
em itted from such objects are
absent. "So that's not right either,"
says M uxlow, who reported the
discovery at the Roya I Astronomical
Society National Astronomy
Meeting in Glasgow, UK, last week.
M uxlow's best g uess is that
the thing is a dense object accreting
surrounding material - perhaps
a large black hole i n an unusual
environment. The phenomenon
might be more common in M82
because it is a "starburst" galaxy,
where massive stars form and
explode at a high rate, creating
a lot of new b lack holes.

RATS with damaged spines can
walk again thanks to acupuncture.
But it's not due to improvements
in their energy flow or "chi" :
acupuncture seems to stop nerve
death by reducing inflammation.
Acupuncture's scientific
credentials are growing. Trials
show that it improves sensory and
motor functions in people with
spinal cord injuries. To probe why,
Doo Choi and his colleagues at
Kyung Hee University in Seoul,
South Korea, damaged the spines
of 75 rats. One-third were given
acupuncture in two locations:
Shuigou - between their snout
and mouth, and Yanglingquan­
in the upper hind leg. Others
received "simulated acupuncture"
with a toothpick or no treatment.
After 35 days, the acupuncture
group were able to stand at a
steeper incline than the others
and walk better. They also had less
nerve cell death and lower levels
of proteins known to induce
inflammation after spinal cord
injury and worsen neural damage
(Neurobiology ofDisease: DOl:
One explanation is that sharp
needles - but not toothpicks­
prompt a stress response that
dampens down inflammation.

It may be toxic sludge, but it's home
LIQUID asphalt is not a likely home,

range of fungi, bacteria and archaea.

but hardy m icrobes have been found
thriving in a natural lake made of the

"We found a thriving ecosystem,"
says Schulze-Makuch (arxiv.orgl

stuff. The d iscovery hints that alien


l ife could exist in similar places.
M icrobes are known to exist in tar
pits, but it was not known if natural

The organisms may feed on the
asphalt, but Schulze-Makuch was
surprised that they can survive with

asphalt pools, with their more toxic

l ittle water. It's "right at the margin"

composition, could harbour l ife.

of where l ife is possible, he says.

Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington

Saturn's moon Titan has similar

State University in Pullman and his

lakes of hydrocarbons, albeit in a

team analysed samples from Pitch
Lake in Trinidad - one of the planet's

much colder environment. "This is a
good reminder that we have to keep

three known natural asphalt lakes ­

an open mind about where l ife might

where hydrocarbons seep up from a n

be found in the universe," says Ralph

oil deposit below. They identified a

Lorenz of NASA's Cassini m ission.

24 Apri l 2010 I NewScientist 1 15

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Ca rbon flakes
brush u p for sola r

Unbrea ka ble code
secures network

GIVING graphene - atom-thick
sheets of carbon - a good brush
could be the key to boosting the
efficiency of cheap solar cells.
A graphene-based dye that
yields photoelectrons could be
used in dye-sensitised solar cells­
a cheaper alternative to silicon­
based cells. But the idea turned
out to have a sticky problem.
A team of chemists led by
Liang-shi Li at Indiana University
in Bloomington were able to make
graphene flakes of a suitable size
for photoelectric dyes - about
2 nanometres across. But usually
flakes of this size would coalesce
to form insoluble graphite.
Li's team found that bonding
"brushes" in the form of phenyl
groups onto the graphene surface
ensured the flakes remained free,
and showed that solar cells made
using the dye would work (Nano
Letters, DOl: 10.1021/nh01060h).

THE first high-speed network link
that is so secure it is theoretically
unbreakable has been created,
thanks to quantum physics.
A team at Toshiba Research
Europe in Cambridge, UK, has
sent encrypted data at over
1 megabit per second along
50 kilometres of optical fibre.
That's fast enough to stream video.
Secure links like Toshiba's
involve one user sending a secret
"key" to the other, encoded into
the quantum properties of a
string of single photons.
Quantum mechanics ensures
that any attempt to intercept

per cent of Fortune
500 companies have
had their computer
networks infected
by Zeus malware,
RSA Security says

this quantum key will change it,
revealing the attack.
Until now, the fastest way to
send the encoded photons was
through the air, but the best
spanned not much more than 700
metres. For quantum encryption
to be practical, the photons need
to travel further and use existing
infrastructure, such as the optical
fibre that already forms the
internet's backbone.
Unfortunately, optical fibre
can only transmit light over long
distances when it is of a certain
wavelength. Individual photons
of that wavelength are difficult
to detect, but Toshiba has now
developed a detector that can pick
them up (Applied Physics Letters,
DOl: 10.1063/1.33852 93).

"We wi l l have a wide ra nge of laser weapons"
Douglas Graham of US security com pany Lockheed M a rtin

is adama ntthat laser- based
weapons wi 11 be operational in five to 10 years, d espite the Airborne Lase r p roject he
was working on being sca led back (San Francisco Ch ran ic/e, 16 A pri l)

24 April 2010 I NewScientist 1 17


Putti ng the touch back
i nto touchscreens
By m a ki ng use of the way ou r senses ca n be fool ed, e n g i neers a re
m a ki n g featu rel ess flat screens fee l l i ke a proper keyboa rd
Hayward's team has been
working on similar systems, using
YOUR eyes tell you that your hand surface vibrations to generate
is locked in a vice-like mechanical sensations of texture. By altering
device, but your fingertips tell
the frequencies of the vibration,
you you're stroking fur. Welcome
they are able to make the surface
to the world of haptics, where
feel rougher or smoother at wilL
nothing is quite how it feels.
Others, like Gabriel Robles De
As neuroscientists decode
La Torre, a neuroscientist and
computer engineer based in
how we process signals from
nerves that sense touch, engineers Mexico City, have used vibrating
surfaces to simulate sensations of
are beginning to use their
discoveries to dupe us into feeling sharpness, again by using motors
something that isn't there. Given
to impart lateral movement to a
the right kind of manipulation,
smooth, flat surface. This produces
a smooth surface can be made
a sharp change in the resistance
to mimic the feel of a range of
a user's finger feels as they move
materials, and a solid slab can be
made to feel like shifting sand.
As well as producing weird
tactile illusions, haptics have
practical uses. For example, tactile
feedback can make touchscreen
devices more intuitive to use, says
Vincent Hayward, head of haptics
at the Institute of Intelligent
Systems and Robotics at Pierre
and Marie Curie University
in Paris, France. Such systems
are already in use on some
smartphones in which actuators
within the touchscreen produce
a basic "clicking" sensation when
the screen is pressed.
Immersion, a company in
San Jose, California, is attempting
to push haptics further. In a
system planned for later this year,
users will be given the tactile
illusion that touchscreen buttons
protrude from the surface.
This will be achieved by using a
piezoelectric motor to vibrate the
screen laterally, though beyond
that Immersion is not revealing
how its system will work.
Duncan Graham-Rowe

18 1 NewScientist 1 24 Apri l 2010

it across a particular portion
of the screen, and this change
is perceived as a sharp edge.
Meanwhile Ed Colgate,
a mechanical engineer at
Northwestern University in
Evanston, Illinois, has used
vibrations to achieve a very
different effect - making objects
feel more slippery. His system
vibrates their surface at high
frequency with an amplitude
of a mere 2 micrometres. "It's
not much but it's enough to act
like a pump, pumping a little
bit of air underneath a finger
when touched."

Under normal circumstances,
our sense of touch combines
input from different kinds of
sensory nerves to build up a
model of what we are touching.
Some of the nerves in our skin
sense pressure, while others
detect stretching of the skin.
Systems like Robles De La
Torre's show that it is not
necessary for both kinds of
nerves to be stimulated. Though
his device only mimics the way an
edge stretches the skin, the brain
is fooled into feeling pressure.
A force-feedback system
devised by Ian Summers at the
University of Exeter, UK, expoits
pressure-sensitive nerves, rather
than stretch-sensitive ones. It is
able to simulate the feel of a range
of flexible materials, including
silk, hessian and fur. Subjects
place their hand in a constraining
device inside which are 24

"Our brain combines input
from different kinds of
nerves to build up a model
of what we are touching"

For daily technology stories, visit

computer-controlled actuators
that make contact with the skin.
"The computer imagines you are
moving each bit of your finger over
the material, and works out what
mechanical input would be applied
to your finger," says Summers.
"With something like fur it
doesn't have to press very hard."
Our sense of touch can also use
temperature changes to helps us
identify materials. Haptics
researcher Lynette Jones at the
Massachusetts Institute of
Technology has devised a mouse­
like contraption that exploits this,
in which the temperature changes
are produced by the Peltier effect­
the heating or cooling that occurs
when current flows between two
dissimilar metals. Running current
through strips of metal laid one on
top of another on the surface of the
mouse allows rapid changes to be
made to the temperature sensed
by the subject's fingers when they
graspit. "You can get them to
respond very quickly, on the order
of milliseconds," says Jones. This
can be used to induce rapid

Where's the feedback?

changes of skin temperature,
simulating the different rates at
which heat is transferred to and
from the skin by different
materials. Jones says her team has
identified how different materials
conduct heat, and how to adjust
current in their device to convince
subjects that they are touching
metal or plastic, for example.
Jones is exploring how this
could help people with
impairment to their sensory
systems, such as the nerve damage
caused by diabetes. Haptic devices
could be used to retrain their
senses, by tricking them to grasp
objects more tightly than their
damaged nerves suggest is needed.
It is not just the sense of touch
in our fingers that is attracting the
attention of haptics researchers.
Instead, Yon Visell at the Centre
for Intelligent Machines at McGill
University in Montreal, Canada, is
focusing on the feet, and has
developed a novel surface
designed to simulate walking on
different types of ground. It uses a
series of 30-centimetre tiles, each
with sensors at its corners and an
actuator similar to a loudspeaker
coil mounted beneath it. By
modelling the properties of
various surfaces and calculating
what vibrating forces the coil
should apply as different parts of
the foot make contact with it,
Visell has been able to mimic the
sensation of walking on solid
ground, gravel or sand.
Visell's tiles could be used to
help rehabilitate people who have
difficulty walking. By making
them feel as if they are walking on
a soft, compliant surface like sand,
for example, their muscles could
be retrained to lift the foot higher
to ensure that it clears the ground
between steps.
So far, haptics researchers
have concentrated on individual
facets of our sense of touch, but
Hayward looks forward to future
applications which will combine
them. For example, by vibrating a
Peltier device it should be possible
to convey temperature and texture
information in a single surface . •

Nasa's underwater rover
SOLO- TREe gets all its power from changes in sea temperature
as it travels from the cold depths to the warmer surface
In warm water wax on the
craft's surface melts and
expands, compressing pipes
and squeezing the

oil inside

into a high-pressure tan k


Once the tan k is full, a valve
is released and the oil passes
through a hydraulic turbine ­
generating energy to charge
batteries - the oil is then held
in a low-pressure tan k
As the vessel descends,the
wax solidifies and contracts,
pulling the oil back into the
central tubes.
Energy stored in the batteries


can then be used to help the
craft rise to warmer waters,
where the process can


begin again

Ti reless robot runs a nd runs
on the ocea n's heat
EAT your heart o ut, Durace ll bunny:

can d ive and surface, and also the

NASA has unveiled an ocean-going

float's G PS receiver, sensors and

robot that rea l ly can go on forever.

the transm itter that beams data to

It is the first of its kind to be fuelled

satel l ites when at the surface.

entirely by renewable energy.

"Each fu l l dive generates a bout

Th is month the agency revea led

200 watts for 30 seconds," saysjack

that SOLO-TREC, a wax-filled buoy

jones, one of the project's leaders at

powered only by the temperature

the jet Propulsion Laboratory in

differences in the water around it,

Pasadena, Ca lifornia.

has been tire lessly diving to depths

He and colleagues hope to create

of 500 metres off the Hawa i ian coast

large num bers of the floats to boost

three times a day since November

existing monitoring of oceanic

2009. The float gathers data on

cond itions, which helps in weather

te mperature and sa lin ity to improve

and cli mate pred iction.

studies of ocean currents.
SOLO-TREC extracts thermal
energy from the ocean each time
it travels from the cold depths to
the warmer surface. Tubes of
oil on its shell are surrounded by a
compartment fi lled with two
different waxes. They flip from so lid

More mobile robots that use the
techno logy are planned. Te ledyne
Webb Research in Fa lmouth,

lITh e buoy c a n recharge as it
travels to the warm surface.
Each d ive generates a bout
200 watts for 30 seconds"

to l iquid when the sea temperature
exceeds 10 °C, and expand by 13 per

M assach usetts, makes winged

cent (see d iagram).

robots that "g l ide" underwater using

The expa nding wax squeezes o i l
from the tubes into the float's
interior, where it is stored at high
pressure. The oil can then be re leased

thermal wax t o contro l buoyancy.
But they need batteries for the ir
e lectronics.
The US Office of Nava l Research

to drive a generator and charge

has asked the two teams for ideas for

batteries. They power the pumps that

g l iders that will never need a battery

take on and expel water so the buoy

change. Rachel Courtland •

24 April 2010 1 NewScientist 1 19


For chea p water purification,
look to the cactus
FORGET expensive machinery,
the best way to purify water could
be hiding in a cactus. It turns out
that an extract from the prickly
pear cactus is effective at
removing sediment and bacteria
from dirty water.
Many water purification
methods introduced into the
developing world are quickly
abandoned as people don't know
how to use and maintain them,
says Norma Alcantar at the
University of 50uth Florida
in Tampa. 50 she and her
colleagues decided to investigate
the prickly pear cactus, Opuntia
ficus-indica, which 19th-century
Mexican communities used as
a water purifier. The cactus is

found across the globe.
The team extracted the cactus's
mucilage - the thick gum the
plant uses to store water. They
then mixed this with water to
which they had added high levels
of either sediment or the
bacterium Bacillus cereus.
Alcantar found that the
mucilage acted as a flocculant,
causing the sediment particles
Householders in the developing
to join together and settle to the
bottom of the water samples. The world could boil a slice of cactus
gum also caused the bacteria to
to release the mucilage and add
combine and settle, allowing
it to water in need of purification,
98 per cent of bacteria to be filtered says Alcantar. "The cactus's
from the water (Environmental
prevalence, affordability and
Science and Technology, DOl:
cultural acceptance make it an
10.1021/es9030744). They now
attractive natural material for
intend to test it on natural water.
water purification technologies."

But Colin Horwitz of GreenOx
Catalysts in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, says many issues
remain, including how much
land and water is needed to
grow cacti for widespread water
purification, and how households
will know all the bacteria have
been removed. Helen Kn ight .

Bright future projected
for ha nd- held games
TO TRY a new gaming style, grab some

the computer by a small circuit

plastic and put a chip on your shoulder.

behind the screen.

Zi Ye and Hammad Kha lid of
the Human Media Lab at Queen's

Three i nfrared LEDS mounted
on the display are tracked by a camera

University i n Kingston, Ontario,

housed with the projector, enabling

Canada, have devised a way of using

the rotation of the screen to be used

a shou lder-mounted projector system

in, say, driving games. "The projection

to display - and play - a game on a

follows the display automatica lly.

bendy A4-sized sliver of p lastic.

A very wide ra nge of game actions

Sensors in the screen al low gameplay

can be supported," says Ye.

to be controlled by bending, shaking

"Cobra provides the gaming
power of a laptop while
Cobra, was shown last week at the
giving the gamer the
Computer-Human Interaction meeting freedom of a hand-held"

or tapping it.
A prototype of the system, ca l ied

in Atlanta, Georgia. It runs games on a
computer housed in a shoulder pouch,

Cobra provides the gaming power of

projector that shines images onto the

a laptop whi le g iving the gamer the

flexible screen, held by the gamer.

freedom of a hand-held.

The back of the screen is criss­
crossed with flex-sensing wires, and
other sensors note when the screen

20 1 NewScientist 1 24 Apri l 2010

The upshot, the pa ir say, is that

while the pouch's straps hold a sma 11

There is a growing interest in using
projectors to enhance d isplays, says
Shah ram Izadi of M icrosoft Research

is tapped or shaken - actions which

in Cambridge, UK. They allow

could be used to, say, swing a virtua l

programmers "to radically augment

sword or reload your trusty bazooka.

the desktop with natural, intuitive

These signa Is are sent wirelessly to

user interfaces". Paul Marks .











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Case Western Reserve University

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Bechtel Corporation
National Radio Astronomy Observatory
Research in Motion


Pol itica l science
The U K pa rl i a m e nt i s d o m i n ated by scientific i l l iterates, That's why I'm
sta n d i ng as a ca ndi date i n the gen era l electi o n , says
THIS month I had a new
experience: I was front-page
news. When I announced my
intention to stand in the UK
general election, reporters got in
touch immediately. The idea that
someone with a PhD in quantum
physics would be interested in
politics seemed so far-fetched
that it made the front page of...
The Hinckley Times.
OK, so it is hardly The New York
Times. Hinckley is a small town in
the English midlands, part of the
Bosworth constituency where I
am a candidate. But the question
remains: is it so far-fetched to
think that scientists might be
willing to get involved in politics?
Not in Germany, where
Chancellor Angela Merkel holds
a doctorate and has research
experience in quantum
chemistry. In the UK, however,
things are a little different.
In the last parliament, only
27 members out of a total of
650 held a science degree; 584
members described themselves
as having no political interest in
science and technology, according
to figures from political research
organisation Dods People. Some,
such as the Conservative MP I am
standing against, David Tredinnick,
are positively anti-science.
When the House of Commons
science and technology select
committee examined the
scientific evidence for
homeopathy and deliberated
on its use by the National Health
Service (NHS), it concluded that
homeopathy does not provide
value for money, even as a
placebo. Tredinnick, an ardent
advocate of homeopathy, has
22 1 NewScientist 1 24 April 2010

Michael Brooks

used his MP's expense account
to buy astrology software and
training for its use.
When this emerged, he repaid
the money. But he stands by the
concept. Last month, Tredinnick
told another local newspaper, The
Leicester Mercury, that, because
healthcare systems in India and
China have linked medicine and
astronomy for centuries, we
should consider doing it too.
"Are we really just dismissing
their views?" he asked.
I don't need to answer that here.
What I do need to point out is that
we tend to hold our politicians to
too Iow a standard.
As a human being, Tredinnick
is not unusual. Many people
hold beliefs that others regard
as irrational or eccentric. But
very few get to exercise their
beliefs in votes on government
policy that affect the allocation
of scarce resources. Wouldn't it
be good to know that those who
since led an effort to get the
It is only a short step from there
exercise that privilege do so
report's conclusions dismissed.
to finding 70 MPs who are willing from a position of scientific
This is an arrogant and
to dismiss scientists' research
understanding? In a scientific
irresponsible stance. For one
into climate change. Or to back
age, we need scientifically
thing, Tredinnick's constituents
literate representatives.
the idea that the NHS should
have a right to have their tax
consider including astrology
So where are they? Judging
money spent wisely and
as a means of diagnosis.
by the blogs, Twitter feeds and
That sounds ridiculous, doesn't other forms of communication
accountably. There is another
point here, too: Tredinnick clearly it? I only wish it were a reductio ad that the internet provides, it is
thinks that the scientific process
absurdum, but I am actually
clear that scientists are extremely
on which entire economies,
recounting something Tredinnick interested in politics. But how
industries and civilisations have
himself has suggested. This MP,
many are interested enough to
get their hands dirty?
been built carries less weight than who has been in a position of
his personal beliefs.
power, authority and influence
Not many. Julian Huppert,
Unfortunately, Tredinnick's
for more than two decades, even
a physicist at the University
anti-science attitude is proving
of Cambridge, is standing for
" In the last UK parliament,
dangerously infectious. So far,
election. Ex-biologist Stephen
he has convinced 70 members
584 MPs described
Ladyman is standing for re­
themselves as having no
of parliament to sign his motion
election, as is Evan Harris, a
against the homeopathy report.
political interest in science" doctor who routinely stands

Comment on these stories at

up for science. And now there is
me. Maybe there are more, but
not enough to counter the
influence of Tredinnick and his
ilk. Despite my campaign, he is
defending a large majority and
is the red-hot favourite to win­
and may well be sitting on the
government benches rather than
the opposition ones after the
election on 6 May.
Of course, scientifically inclined
people don't have to stand for
election to have a say in politics.
Voting for the party whose
manifesto recognises the
importance of science and offers
the tightest ring-fencing for the
science budget makes sense.
But manifestos are made for
elections, not for the difficult
periods when government
departments are wrangling over
money. The big question is this:
will there be enough scientifically
literate MPs in positions of
influence when the campaigning
is a distant memory and
realpolitik has taken over? There
certainly won't be many.
It is worth pointing out that
people trust scientists. In surveys
of public attitudes, scientists have
always been hailed as far more
trustworthy than politicians. In
an age of cynicism about politics,
that trust is an incredible asset.
My manifesto is simple. I am
standing to highlight the fact that
the current spread of politicians'
interests doesn't reflect the
population they are supposed to
represent. Science is not just an
indulgence for the curious. It is
vital to our life, culture and
economic well-being. The
Hinckley Times got a lot of things
wrong - it described me as a " top
scientist" for a start - but it got
one thing right: it is surprising
to have scientists get involved
in politics. It shouldn't be.•
Michael Brooks is standing as the
Science Party candidate in the
Bosworth constituency. He is a
consultant to New Scientist and the
author of 13 Things That Don't Make
Sense (Profile, 2008 )

One m i n ute with ...

An i l Seth

The co-d i recto r of the U K's new centre for co nsc i o u s n ess
science on the essence of red ness - a n d fee l i ng u n rea l

What's so special a bo ut this centre?

It opens this week at the University of Sussex,
a university founded along interdisciplinary lines
in the 1960s, Instead of single-discipline schools,
there was, for example, the School of Cognitive
and Computing Sciences, where I studied, It had a
mixture of philosophers, psychologists, linguists
and artificial intelligence researchers,
Which d isciplines a re you bringing together?

Mainly psychology, neuroscience, medical sciences
including psychiatry, and informatics, computer
science and AI.
Ca n yo u g ive me a l ittle background?

A key feature of the centre will be to integrate
theoretical research and practical work into
treatments for conditions ranging from coma to
schizophrenia, One of the dominant theoretical
approaches was championed by Francis Crick and
Christof Koch, who wanted to take a pure, simple,
conscious experience and match it to something
going on in the brain, This correlational approach
can leave you dissatisfied, however, because while
someone can be conscious of, say, the redness of
something, and we can see activity in a region of
their brain, it doesn't tell us why that activity and
the redness go together,
It a l l sounds exceed ingly tricky.

It is very challenging, We think there is no such
thing as an experience of pure redness, Every
experience is composed of many different parts
and influenced by many common things, but they
are all bound together into an integrated whole you, the person having the conscious experience,


Anil Seth runs the Sackler Centre for
Consciousness Science, University of Sussex,
UK, with Hugo Critchley. The centre is funded by
the Or Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation

reports a conscious experience, that explains more
about consciousness than an arbitrary correlation,
What about the practica l research?

We want to differentiate conscious states
between healthy people and people who are
anaesthetised, asleep, or have various kinds of
post-traumatic brain damage, We are also trying
to find out what kind of brain activity might show
that someone in a vegetative state still has residual
consciousness - without relying on spoken
instructions because it turns out that some people
can be conscious without understanding language,

What's your co nception of conscio usness?

What a bout psychiatric research?

Think in terms of the dimensions of experiences:
any experience, including redness, will be at a
point within that space, Rather than taking a
point in that space and working out the underlying
neurological mechanism, we want to identify
what gives rise to the dimensions themselves, If
we can characterise them, and if we find similar
brain processes are present when a person

One big area is a condition called depersonalisation
disorder, This is the feeling "I am not particularly
real", It's not as dramatic as Cotard's delusion, where
you think you are dead, but it is very interesting,
Even "normal" people experience it: they can be
vividly engaged, but at other times, under high
stress or fatigue, they feel a little less "there",
I nterview by Liz E lse

24 April 2010 1 N ewScientist 1 23


Hu manity's cradle

From Calvin Malham
While reading the many
elaborate schemes discussed
by Urn Giles for mitigating our
effect on the climate (3 April, p 6),
I was struck by two salient points
about the human condition.
First, how innately ingenious
and creative we are, and secondly,
how unable we are to notice
the obvious.
Space-based light reflectors,

cloud seeding and artificial trees
are all very exciting, but why do
we miss, or choose to ignore, the
low risk, low cost and middling
effectiveness of reforestation?
It appeared on the accompanying
chart, but was notably absent in
the text.
Humans are profoundly
childlike in outlook. Perhaps it
is time we grew up and did the
mundane chores, like planting
trees globally.
Summercourt, Cornwall, UK

From Alan Atkinson
As part of your "Nine big brain
questions" special (3 April, p 26),
Celeste Biever made a reference
to the familiar problem that
we "have no way of proving
we are not the only self-aware
individuals in a world of unaware
'zombies' ''. I have often wondered

Enigma Number 1592

Seeing spots

If you take a domino set and
discard all those dominoes which
involve a 5 or a 5, leaving 15
dominoes with a 0, 1, 2, 3 or 4 at
each end, then the rest can be laid
out, spotty sides up, to form a
5-by-5 rectangle. Then, taking
the number of spots in each square
as that square's value, the product
of each row can be calculated by
multiplying together the values
of the six squares in that row.
Your task is to lay out the
dominoes so that the five products
are all different, less than 1000, and

in increasing order as you come
down the rectangle. Just one row
must have a product which is odd,
just one must have a product which
is a power of 2, and just one other
must have a product which is a non­
zero perfect square.
List the products of the five rows.

WIN £15 will be awarded to the sender of the first correct

answer opened on Tuesday 25 May. The Editor's decision is final.
Please send entries to Enigma 1592, New Scientist, Lacon House,
8 4 Theobald's Road, London WC1X 8 NS, or to
(please include your postal address).
Answer to 1586 So touching: Columns 2, 3 and 4
The winner lan Snell of Oxford, UK

24 1 NewScientist 1 24 April 2010

why this doubt persists when
there is a cogent argument for
accepting the consciousness
of others.
The only knowledge we have
of the nature of consciousness
is our own direct personal
experience of it. A zombie,
lacking consciousness, could
not have any comprehension of
conscious experience, in the
same way that a person blind
from birth supposedly has no
understanding of colour. This
would mean that a zombie would
be unable to discuss the subject
with a conscious entity.
Since we discuss consciousness
with other people, we have good
reason to believe that they are as
conscious as we are.
Newton Aycliffe,
County Durham, UK

From Anna Wood
The link between the mind and
body is interesting and complex,
but Linda Geddes should take
care when asserting that the
wise doctor should "probe the
mental state of a patient whose
symptoms are hard to explain
physically". In fact, it is an
arrogant doctor who will do
this without being mindful
of the deficiencies in medical
It is naive to believe that we
understand everything about the
human body, and unacceptable
that an absence of certain physical
symptoms automatically makes
the patient mentally ill. In the
past, people with multiple
sclerosis and diabetes have been
wrongly given a psychological
diagnosis, simply because doctors
could not find anything physically
wrong with them. Today it is
patients with ME (myalgic
encephalitis) who suffer this
Rather than assuming a
diagnosis of mental illness, the
wise doctor will diagnose both
physical and psychological illness
according to available evidence­
and be prepared to admit that
he or she does not know the

answer when the necessary
evidence is lacking.
Glasgow, UK

Multiversal mirror
From Jim Kemp
If I read Amanda Gefter's
fascinating article right, for
observers outside a black hole all
information about stuff that has
been sucked through the event
horizon is smeared across the
surface of the horizon (6 March,
p 28). It's a hologram. Thus the
holographic principle: that
the surface of every volume,
including the infinite multiverse,
contains all information within
the volume.
Now, although we may not
be able to access the multiverse,
the boundary between it and
us will contain all multiverse
information, so if we can access
the boundary we can make
predictions about the multiverse
and test them, observing and
interacting with information
about it.
Or does this overlook a
huge difference between
information in black holes and
in the multiverse? Everything
passing into a black hole started
out in our domain, but nothing
in the multiverse did. Or did it?
Sonoma, California, US

Atheist selection
From John Ewing
Your editorial "Time to accept that
atheism, not god, is odd" makes

For more letters and to join the debate, visit

the case that since atheists are a
and allowing a much faster heat
minority group, they should be
transfer to the freezer.
considered abnormal (6 March,
Totnes, Devon, UK
p 3). However, almost every belief
system has a history of stamping
From John Eagle
out non-believers, whereas there
It would be an interesting check
are, to my knowledge, no recorded on hypotheses about the Mpemba
instances of the reverse, so there
effect if the test were to be carried
is a definite selective pressure
out under zero gravity, which
against atheism. Calling atheism
would result in suppression of
abnormal is then no more logical thermal convection.
than calling left-handedness
Wilmslow, Cheshire, UK
Preuschdoif, Bas-Rhin, France

homeopathy is good because it
costs less than conventional
medicine. Of course, water and
sugar should be cheaper than
clinically tested drugs, but that
does not make it usefuL
He then argues that
homeopathy satisfies a real
demand in healthcare, to the
inconvenience of big drug
companies, ignoring the fact that
selling water and sugar to people
is of great convenience to the big
homeopathy companies.

Convection conviction
Wonderful water

From Jim Logan
Scott Turner and Rupert Soar
suggest that the circulation of air
From Keith Ross
in termite nests is driven by wind
Marcus Chown reports on James
Brownridge's theory that the
blowing across the mounds rather
reason hot water freezes faster
than by convection currents
within them (20 February, p 35).
than cold -the Mpemba effect is a consequence of supercooling
This may be so in the mounds
in the water that started off cold
they studied in Namibia­
(27 March, p 10). However, after
although it does not explain why
many years of getting my primary the nest does not overheat and
school classes to investigate the
the termites suffocate on windless
phenomenon, the neatest
days - but it is not the case
explanation I have found centres
I have observed that the
on the role of convection.
We often compared two
Macrotermes nests in Sudan and
samples, one of which started
east Africa, and the Odontotermes
hotter than the other, and found
nests in India use convection
that the hot water contained more currents, as previously suggested
ice than the cold. Crucially, they
by entomologist Martin Uischer.
You can tell by placing your hand
were both partly frozen. This
discounts the supercooling
over the top of a mound chimney:
you should feel the warm, moist
explanation because once the
first ice crystals had appeared in
air coming out. It is possible to
distinguish live termite nests
the supercooled water it would
from abandoned ones in this way.
have quickly formed more ice
A more dramatic
than had formed in the hot water.
A better explanation relates to
demonstration is achieved by
the rates at which heat can be
dusting talcum powder at the
transferred away from the water.
base of the mound. After about
We postulated that when placed
30 seconds a plume of talc erupts
in a freezer, cold water would
from the top of the chimney.
quickly separate into three layers: Gatehouse ofFleet,
water at 4 QC at the bottom of the
Kirkcudbrightshire, UK
flask, 0 QC ice at the top and room
temperature water in between.
This separation would leave
Sugaring the pill
conduction as the only method
From Lee Hart
available for further heat loss.
In the hot water system,
Colin Jacobson's letter on
homeopathy (20 March, p 25)
however, convection currents
would persist, preventing this
annoyed me.
static phase from establishing
First, he argues that


slow pace of science (19 December
2009, p 58), Stephen Battersby
suggests that "a carefully
controlled 10,ooo-year
experiment should do the trick"
of seeing whether " any form of
silica glass is fluid at room
That experiment has already
been started. I recently saw the
exhibition Molten Colour:
Glassmaking in Antiquity at the
Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades,
California. On display are
beautiful glass vessels dating
from 2500 BC, which makes them
almost halfway through the time
span Battersby calls for.
The vessels are all standing
upright, showing no sign of either
flow or sag.
Williamstown, Massachusetts, US

For the record
• We mistakenly ill ustrated

a story about "poi ntill ist graphics"

Next, Jacobsen suggests that
the author of the original article
on homeopathy, Martin Robbins,
should take into consideration
the anecdotal evidence of his
miraculously cured dog,
disregarding the importance
of the scientific method.
Finally, he rounds off by stating
that homeopathy is "cheap,
effective and safe". There are
cheaper placebos on the market,
more effective ways to treat
people and there are safer,
more reliable ways to run a
healthcare system.
The day we found out we could
give sweets to educated adults to
make them feel better was the day
we should have realised that
people really are fools unto
themselves, and that fools and
their money are soon parted.
Oxford, UK

Glass flowing over
From Jay Pasachoff
In his article about persistent
observations and the sometimes

for computers (3 April, p 18) with
a standard polygon image; had it
been pointi ll ist it would have been
less blocky.
• The physicist Eugene Wigner was

Hungarian, not German (10 April,
p 28). He stud ied in Germany until
1930 and beca me a US citizen in 1937.
• We misspelled Kerri Moloughney's
surname in our article on aerial

detection of grave sites (10 April, p 18).
• The statement "Shakespeare's

prose would have a higher entropy
than Egyptian hieroglyphs or Morse
code" had low information content
(10 April, p 11). Sha kespeare coded in
Morse and in Roman script would
have the same entropy, higher than
that of, say, a laundry list, as it is less
predictable and less "ordered".

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24 Apri l 2010 1 NewScientist 1 25


The secret power
of the si ng le cel l
Is a neu ron rea l ly a ti ny com pute r? H ow do lowly
a m oebas bu i l d com p l ex s h e l l s? S i n g l e cel l s may tel l us

a lot a bout the roots of i nte l l igence, says BrianJ .
LATE at night on a sultry evening, I watch
intently as the predator senses its prey,
gathers itself, and strikes. It could be a polecat,
or even a mantis - but in fact it's a microbe.
The microscopic world of the single, living
cell mirrors our own in so many ways: cells
are essentially autonomous, sentient and
ingenious. In the lives of single cells we can
perceive the roots of our own intelligence.
Molecular biology and genetics have
driven the biosciences, but have not given
us the miraculous new insights we were led
to expect. From professional biologists to
schoolchildren, people are concentrating on
the minutiae of what goes on in the deepest
recesses of the cell. For me, however, this
misses out on life in the round: it is only when
we look at the living cell as a whole organism
that wonderful realities emerge that will alter
our perception not only of how single cells
enact their intricate lives but what we
humans truly are.
The problem is that whole-cell biology
is not popular. Microscopy is hell-bent
on increased resolution and ever higher
magnification, as though we could learn more
about animal behaviour by putting a bacon
sandwich under lenses of increasing power.
We know much about what goes on within
parts of a cell, but so much less about how
whole cells conduct their lives.
Currently, cell biology deals largely with the
components within cells, and systems biology

Bria n J . Ford is a research biologist based
at Gonville and Caius College, University of
Cambridge. He is a fellow of Cardiff University in
the UK. His books include Sensitive Souls. This
article is based on his paper in Interdisciplinary
Science Reviews (vo1 34, p 350)

26 1 NewScientist 1 24 Apri l 2010


with how the components interact. There is
nothing to counterbalance this reductionism
with a focus on how whole cells behave.
Molecular biology and genetics are the wrong
sciences to tackle the task.
Let's take a look at some of the evidence
for ingenuity and intelligence in cells that is
missing from the curriculum. Take the red
algae Rhodophyta, in which many species
carry out remarkable repairs to damaged cells.
Cut a filament of Antithamnion cells so the cell
is cut across and the cytoplasm escapes into
the surrounding aquatic medium. All that
remains are two fragments of empty,
disrupted cell wall lying adjacent to, but
separate from, each other. Within 24 hours,
however, the adjacent cells have made
good the damage, the empty cell space has
been restored to full activity, and the cell
walls meticulously realigned and
seamlessly repaired.
The only place where this can happen
is in the lab. In nature, the broken ends of
the severed cell would nearly always end