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This week’s issue
On the
36 Apollo 11 50th
anniversary: The moon
How we got there
What we learned
Why we’re going back
32 Why everything
you know about
nutrition is wrong
Convoluted studies
Cherry-picked evidence
Contradictory advice
next week
Cosmic countdown
The universe’s fate could be
stranger than we thought
46 Predictive policing 14 Arctic on fire 8 More CRISPR babies
12 Hypersonic arms race 17 Very ancient Greeks
Vol 243 No 3238
10 Computer genius
Software mimics a legendary
mathematician’s style
32 Everything you know
about nutrition is wrong
Why almost all food advice
is fatally flawed
13 Murder in the Palaeolithic
Modern forensics identifies
an early homicide
36 The moon
50 years on from the Apollo 11
landing, moon fever is back
18 China races ahead
The nation leads the world
when it comes to electric
46 Predictive policing
The criminologist working to
stop crime before it happens
The back pages
21 Comment
We need to think about how
we die, says Clare Wilson
51 Maker
Use electronics to communicate
with plants
22 The columnist
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
wants to save our helium
52 Puzzles
A moon-themed cryptic
crossword, puzzles and quiz
24 Letters
Consciousness really does
pose a hard problem
53 Feedback
Corr conspiracies and bus building
26 Aperture
A kitsch celebration of the
epic Soviet space dog flights
54 Almost the last word
Readers discuss dinosaur noises
and chickpea foam
30 Culture columnist
Simon Ings delights in
The Hummingbird Project
28 Art in the Anthropocene Olafur Eliasson is returning to Tate Modern
56 Me and my telescope
Sue Black on tech, women
and knitting before it was cool
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 3
Space: Past
and future USA
A rare opportunity to explore the evolution
of space over two weeks
A comprehensive and unforgettable experience of visiting sites that have been,
and will continue to be, key to the development of space travel. Leading space
journalists and academics will accompany the tour to provide fascinating insights.
Space centres on the tour include:
Plus, visits to:
k NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland
k Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum
k Steven F. Udvar Hazy Space Center, Virginia
k New Mexico Museum of Space History
k NASA Kennedy Space Center, Florida
k New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science
k Virgin America Spaceport USA, New Mexico
k The Very Large Array Observatory
k NASA Space Center Houston, Texas
k New Mexico’s stunning landscape
To give guests the best possible experience, we have only 29 slots available per tour,
so please get in touch early to ensure you don’t miss out.
To book call +1 516 226 7726 (UK opening hours 9am to 5:30pm GMT)
Or email [email protected]
15 days from $6,655
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14 days from $6,049
14 September 2020
The leader
Back for good
When we return to the moon, let’s do it for all the right reasons
WHEN the Soviet Union put the first
satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit in 1957,
Lyndon Johnson, then a US senator,
stoked the idea that it was an affront to
American prestige. “Control of space
means control of the world,” he said. In
1961, President John F. Kennedy agreed
with the sentiment and committed to
putting a man on the moon that decade.
The subsequent success of the Apollo
programme was one of the most
extraordinary achievements in human
history, and our special issue this week
explores its legacy (see page 36). But
this isn’t just about the past. Fifty years
on, we are going back to the moon. The
participants in the new race are different,
as are the reasons for going, which this
time means we are more likely to stay.
Science is one reason. Returning to
the moon will help us find out how our
Humans first
reached the
surface of the
moon half a
century ago
planet formed and open up new fields
of science and discovery, while lunar
bases will become staging posts for
exploration of Mars and the rest of
the solar system.
Commerce is another motive. The
new space race is as much between rival
commercial operations as it is between
countries. It remains to be seen how
long companies will have to wait until
they see a return on their investment:
tourism opportunities may bring cash
in and providing cargo and passenger
transport to the lunar surface could
become profitable, but it doesn’t look
like a space-based economy will be
functional for quite a while.
So we need to be clear about the
reasons for going back. The first
principle should be that the return is the
start of something long-term. For the
sake of scientific discovery, human lunar
exploration shouldn’t peter out like it
did last time. The second principle
should be to ensure the moon really is
for everyone. Despite the diversity of
actors in the new race, the old drivers –
pride and territoriality and Johnson’s
appeal to control – are still there. We
must examine the objectives of new
missions and ensure that the moon
remains an object of wonder and
inspiration for everyone. ❚
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Explore the Galapagos Islands from
the comfort and luxury of a yacht
Embark on a magical tour and discover a paradise for lovers of natural history,
animals and geology, under the expert guidance of marine conservationist and
documentary producer Jo Ruxton.
Highlights of the tour include:
k Explore eight varied islands including
Before setting off, take in
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k Exclusive behind the scenes access at
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Latin America’s largest and
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Marine conservationist and
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are successfully
extorting people p9
AI football pitch
Google teaches
machines to play the
beautiful game p12
Arms restored
Nerve transfer
surgery helps hands
work again p15
Runaway exomoons
get an oddball new
name p15
Seal memory
They recall their
actions – but only for
18 seconds p16
Artificial intelligence
Sheet of glass can
recognise numbers
IT IS the smartest piece of
glass in the world. A team at
the University of Wisconsin–
Madison has made an
artificially intelligent piece of
the stuff that can distinguish
images of numbers.
Bubbles and impurities in
the glass bend light waves
as they pass through it.
Depending on which of the
digits 0 to 9 is written on a
piece of paper held up to the
glass, the light waves are
brought to different focal
points, allowing the material
to identify digits (Photonics
The glass AI could
eventually be used as a kind
of “biometric lock”, say the
researchers. ❚ Donna Lu
Earthquakes hit California
Two large tremors just a day apart in California have got people
asking if there is a bigger quake coming, reports Michael Le Page
IS THE much feared “big one”
about to strike? That question
is back in the minds of many in
California after the strongest
quakes for two decades struck
the state. But we don’t know if
these have made an even bigger
earthquake any more or less likely.
A magnitude 6.4 tremor struck
southern California on 4 July,
followed by a magnitude 7.1 quake
on 5 July, with hundreds of smaller
aftershocks in their wake. It was
fortunate that the epicentres were
under a sparsely populated region,
near the city of Ridgecrest.
No one was killed, but the
quakes were felt across the state.
They left a long crack in the desert
and damaged buildings and roads
in the area (pictured above).
The San Andreas fault runs the
length of California and lies near
major cities such as Los Angeles
and San Francisco. A major quake,
possibly of magnitude 8 or greater,
could occur on the fault at any
time, potentially killing thousands
of people and causing hundreds
of billions of dollars in damage.
However, the latest tremors
occurred on different faults far
from the San Andreas. Geologists
don’t know whether these latest
quakes have made a major
earthquake on the San Andreas
fault more likely or not.
There is no way to predict big
quakes hours or days in advance,
and some think it may never be
possible. Some regions have early
warning systems that issue alerts
as soon as the first tremors are
detected, giving people a few
seconds or more of warning
before the most dangerous
shaking starts. The US Geological
Survey is currently developing
such a “ShakeAlert” system for
the west coast.
Modern buildings in California
are designed to withstand sizeable
earthquakes, though many could
still be left unusable. However,
the state has many older buildings
that need retrofitting to be safe.
The vast Sacramento river delta
is also protected by embankments
that could fail in a big quake. If that
happened and seawater floods the
delta, it would cut off a lot of the
fresh water supply to southern
California for a year or more. ❚
Global warming
Attenborough talks
up climate action
THE UK must take radical
steps to meet its climate
change targets, David
Attenborough told a UK
parliamentary committee
on Tuesday. But he warned
ministers must carry the
public with them because
of the cost of such action.
“We cannot be radical
enough in dealing with these
issues,” he said when asked
if the UK should bring
forward its target of cutting
greenhouse gas emissions
to net zero by 2050. But he
said the real issue was what
is politically possible. “The
question of how fast we can
go is how fast we can carry
the electorate with us.” ❚
Adam Vaughan
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 7
Gene editing
Next CRISPR babies planned
A controversial effort to edit human embryos in an attempt to avoid
deafness could soon be under way, reports Michael Le Page
safely – editing the genes of babies
might be justified in this situation.
That is why Rebrikov at the
Kulakov National Medical
Research Center for Obstetrics,
Gynecology and Perinatology
in Moscow has sought out these
very unusual couples. “It is clear
and understandable to ordinary
people,” he says. “Each new
baby for this pair would be deaf
without gene mutation editing.”
In November, a biophysicist in
China announced that he had
created the first-ever gene-edited
8 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
babies using CRISPR. He Jiankui
tried to induce mutations that
protect against HIV by geneediting IVF embryos from couples
in which the man is HIV-positive.
His work has been condemned
for many reasons, but one of the
biggest is that there is no need to
resort to such a risky experimental
procedure to prevent these men
giving their children HIV.
In June, Rebrikov told Nature
he plans to use CRISPR to create
HIV-resistant babies, this time for
couples where the mother is HIVpositive, but again experts have
pointed out that there is no need
for risky gene editing in this case.
Now Rebrikov has told New
Scientist that he also wants to
prevent children inheriting a
form of deafness caused by
mutations in the GJB2 gene.
In western Siberia, many people
have a missing DNA letter in
position 35 of this gene. People
with two copies of this mutation
never develop the ability to hear.
Rebrikov has found five couples
in which both would-be parents
are deaf because of this mutation
and don’t want their children to be
deaf too. So he plans to use CRISPR
to correct it in IVF embryos from
these couples. All the embryos
will have two mutations of the
GJB2 gene, and correcting one will
prevent deafness. “Technically,
it is achievable,” says Burgio.
In November, experts in the
field issued a statement saying
this kind of germline genome
editing could be acceptable if risks
were addressed and certain criteria
are met. Those criteria include “a
compelling medical need” and “an
absence of reasonable alternatives”.
“You shouldn’t be
starting with an embryo
that stands to lead a
pretty normal life”
Babies have their
hearing tested shortly
after they are born
FIVE Russian couples who are deaf
want to try CRISPR gene-editing
so they can have a child who can
hear, biologist Denis Rebrikov has
told New Scientist. He plans to
apply to Russian authorities for
permission in “a couple of weeks”.
The case for using CRISPR for
this purpose is stronger than it is
for trying to make children HIVresistant, as attempted previously,
but the risks still outweigh the
benefits, say other researchers.
“Rebrikov is definitely
determined to do some germline
gene editing, and I think we
should take him very seriously,”
says Gaetan Burgio at the
Australian National University.
“But it’s too early, it’s too risky.”
Both would-be parents in each
couple have a recessive form of
deafness, meaning that all their
children would normally inherit
the same condition. While the vast
majority of genetic diseases can
be prevented by screening IVF
embryos before implantation,
with no need for gene editing, this
isn’t an option for these couples.
Several bioethics reports have
suggested that – if it can be done
plans to edit
have been
The five couples don’t have any
other choice if they want to have
their own biological children who
can hear. But not everyone will
agree that there is a compelling
need, because deafness isn’t a lifethreatening disorder. In fact, some
people who are deaf don’t consider
it to be a disability and want their
children to inherit the condition
in order to preserve deaf culture.
The risks of CRISPR haven’t
been addressed either. There is
no proven way to ensure that
gene-edited children won’t have
unintended mutations, or that
every cell in the children’s bodies
will have the corrected gene.
“The first human trials should
start with embryos or infants
with nothing to lose, with fatal
conditions,” says bioethicist
Julian Savulescu at the University
of Oxford. “You should not be
starting with an embryo that
stands to lead a pretty normal life.”
So why isn’t Rebrikov trying
to prevent more deadly genetic
disorders? It is because people
with such recessive disorders
almost never find themselves in
the same situation. For instance,
people with cystic fibrosis usually
die young and are discouraged
from meeting to avoid swapping
the bacteria that infect their lungs.
Savulescu thinks the first geneediting trials should involve
couples whose children could
inherit fatal conditions such as
Tay-Sachs, but who refuse to opt
for screening IVF embryos because
they are opposed to destroying
embryos on religious grounds.
If germline gene editing is
shown to be safe, Savulescu thinks
there would then be a moral
imperative to use it to prevent
conditions such as deafness. ❚
Analysis Ransomware
Cybercriminals are cashing in As extortion ransomware spreads,
organisations are paying to release their data. It is a risky move,
says Chris Stokel-Walker
through malicious email
attachments. It encrypts every
file on the computer and directs
the victim to send two encrypted
files to an email address. The two
files are returned, decrypted, along
with a bitcoin wallet address.
The victim must send bitcoins
to this address to unlock the rest.
Ransomware attacks
encrypt your data until
you pay up
“As criminals become more
adept and the tools more
sophisticated, yet easier to obtain,
fewer attacks are directed towards
citizens and more towards small
businesses and larger targets,
where greater potential profits lie,”
says Philipp Amann of Europol’s
European Cybercrime Centre.
As more organisations pay
out rather than lose their data,
hackers become bolder. “The
reason we’re seeing so much
ransomware is that it manifestly
works,” says Alan Woodward
at the University of Surrey, UK.
Affected organisations
often have to pay only a small
percentage of the total amount.
Lake City paid about $10,000
of the $530,000 ransom, with
its insurance company picking
up the rest.
Giving in to demands is
dangerous, however. “You’re
not guaranteed to get your system
unlocked,” says Woodward,
because the hackers have little
incentive to unlock the data
once they have the money.
Paying up probably increases
the likelihood of future attacks
too: criminals distribute “suckers
lists” of those who have proven
susceptible to extortion.
Stopping such attacks is
difficult, but there are things
people can do. The ransomware
attacks often work because
computer users often have little
understanding of the software
they use. Better IT literacy, such
as knowing not to open email
attachments from strangers,
would help prevent the spread. ❚
Down here on Earth, getting heart
disease doesn’t make you more or
less likely to also get cancer – the
two conditions develop relatively
independently of each other.
But if radiation exposure were
causing a surge in both conditions
among people who have been to
space, then the higher rate of death
from one illness may hide a higher
rate of the other. This is because
anyone who dies from heart
disease can’t also die from cancer.
Reynolds’s team plotted the
space-goers’ deaths over time as
survival curves – which show the
rate at which a particular group is
dying – for each disease, and found
no sign of this dampening effect
(Scientific Reports,
However, that doesn’t rule out
radiation giving space-goers a
higher rate of one condition but not
the other – for instance, if it caused
cancer but not heart disease.
Radiation would hit future Mars
visitors for longer, says Reynolds,
so it could still affect their health. ❚
Clare Wilson
RANSOMWARE attacks are on
the rise. These see individuals
and organisations denied access
to their data unless they pay the
hackers who are holding it hostage.
The latest apparent victim is the
biggest provider of forensic
services to the UK.
Eurofins Scientific in
Luxembourg was hit with a
ransomware attack in early June.
Last week, the BBC reported that
a ransom had been paid to regain
control of the data. Eurofins didn’t
respond to a request for comment
from New Scientist.
This is one of a number
of recent high-profile attacks.
Lake City in Florida paid $530,000
in bitcoin to unlock its data in
June, and another Florida city,
Riviera Beach, paid out $600,000.
The strain of ransomware
used is called Ryuk. It was
unleashed by a Russia-based
organised crime group called
Grim Spider in August 2018. It is
estimated that Ryuk earned its
creators more than $3.7 million in
its first four months of operation.
Ryuk, like most ransomware,
secretes itself onto computers
Space health
Exposure to space
radiation not a
problem so far
SPACE exploration is a risky
business. As well as the physical
dangers, radiation – from the sun
and cosmic rays – is thought to put
astronauts at a higher risk of getting
cancer and heart disease in later life.
But so far there is no sign space
travellers are dying early from these
conditions. “We haven’t ruled it out,
but we looked for a signal and we
didn’t see it,” says Robert Reynolds
of Mortality Research & Consulting.
Not enough space-goers have
died from these conditions to just be
able to compare their age of death
with that of other groups. Instead,
Reynolds’s team used a statistical
technique on survival figures for
301 US astronauts and 117 Soviet
and Russian cosmonauts.
A total of 89 have died to date.
Three-quarters of cosmonaut
deaths were due to cancer or
heart disease, but only half
of the astronaut deaths were.
This is principally because there
have been more fatal accidents
in the US space programme, such
as the Challenger shuttle disaster.
Number of astronauts and
cosmonauts who have ever died
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 9
Computer attempts to replicate the
dream-like maths of Ramanujan
Donna Lu
To mimic this approach, Gal
Raayoni at the Israel Institute of
Technology and his colleagues
created the Ramanujan Machine.
It has already come up with tens
of conjectures that use continued
fractions to approximate π and e
One method the program uses
to search for new conjectures is a
“meet in the middle” approach.
This involves generating many
mathematical expressions,
computing their value for a
limited number of iterations
and eliminating the expressions
that give inaccurate results.
For example, when trying to
approximate e, whose value is a
decimal that begins 2.718…, any
potential conjectures that yield
numbers with a value that is too
high or too low are eliminated.
Conjectures that appear to work
are then calculated for more
iterations to identify ones likely
to be true. This approach gave the
new conjecture shown on the left.
Schleimer likens the method
to an extensive process of trial
and error. “What they’re doing
is a nice piece of experimental
mathematics,” he says. “But it’s not
like this is a new way of thinking.”
THE legendary mathematician
Srinivasa Ramanujan was
known for coming up with
unconventional mathematical
ideas. He has now inspired a
computer program that does
the same.
Called the Ramanujan Machine,
the software poses conjectures
for generating equations
whose output is fundamental
mathematical constants such as π
and e. A conjecture is an unproven
mathematical statement.
Born in 1887 in what is now
Tamil Nadu in India, Ramanujan
was a self-taught mathematician.
He often claimed that his
results came to him in a
dream, and disliked the formal
proofs favoured by most
mathematicians. Ramanujan
moved to the UK in 1914 to study
at the University of Cambridge
with the mathematician G. H.
Hardy, and their long friendship
led to a series of important results
in the field of number theory.
“Ramanujan had a way of
producing things which looked
true [but] he couldn’t necessarily
convince other people why they
were true,” says Saul Schleimer
at the University of Warwick, UK.
Srinivasa Ramanujan, above,
came up with many equations
similar to the one below, but
this formula for the constant e
was created by a machine
e= 3 +
7+ ...
Many of Ramanujan’s conjectures
were later formally proven.
The theorems Ramanujan
produced often involved
continued fractions, which
express a number as the sum
of infinitely nested fractions.
Some of the formulas the
Ramanujan Machine has come
up with are new, while others have
previously been discovered by
human mathematicians.
The team wants people to
submit suggested proofs to the
new conjectures, as it is impossible
to prove they are correct with
“Ramanujan had a way of
producing things which
looked true but he couldn’t
always convince others”
simple arithmetic since they
involve infinite sums.
“It produces conjectures
without exactly knowing why
they’re true and it likes continued
fractions, which Ramanujan was
very, very fond of, ” says Schleimer.
But it can’t really match him, he
says. “Ramanujan’s continued
fractions were more subtle and
in some sense more mature.”
The researchers behind the
Ramanujan Machine have also
shared its software, so anyone can
download the programme to run
on their own computer while it
isn’t in use. Any conjectures a
participant discovers will be
named after them, says the team. ❚
Extracting sperm
from testicles may
help infertility
TAKING sperm directly from the
testicles rather than using semen
may help some couples conceive
through IVF.
The approach has been used for
some time in men who are infertile
because they have a blockage in the
tubes that take sperm to the penis,
for example. It is now being offered
more widely, partly because of a
10 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
suspicion that some infertility may
be down to damage occurring to
sperm after they have formed,
through exposure to free radicals.
“Free radicals are very
detrimental to sperm DNA,” says
Sandro Esteves of Androfert, a male
infertility centre in Campinas, Brazil.
But sceptics are concerned that
by taking sperm from the testicles,
doctors may inadvertently select
less fit sperm, which could lead
to health problems for the baby.
Esteves and his colleagues
looked at data from 86 couples
Sperm in the
testicles haven’t
been exposed
to as many free
radicals, which
damage DNA
with unexplained infertility and
sperm DNA damage who visited
the Androfert centre. Thirty-six had
IVF using sperm from their testicles.
The rest had IVF using sperm
from semen.
Regardless of the method used,
the team found that the eggs had
a similar chance of being fertilised
and developing into embryos with
the right number of chromosomes.
Esteves presented the results at
the European Society of Human
Reproduction and Embryology
conference in Vienna.
Kevin McEleny at the Newcastle
Fertility Centre, UK, would still like
to see evidence of improved live
birth rates before the technique is
used more widely. ❚
Clare Wilson
Human evolution
Skull rewrites our history
Our species was in Europe 165,000 years earlier than thought
Michael Marshall
HOMO SAPIENS lived in Greece
210,000 years ago. The finding
rewrites human prehistory,
suggesting our ancestors migrated
out of Africa – and reached
Europe – earlier than we thought.
The evidence comes from
Apidima cave in southern Greece.
Two hominin skulls, both missing
their lower jaws, were discovered
in the cave in the 1970s. They were
thought to be from Neanderthals,
who lived in Europe long before
modern humans arrived.
Katerina Harvati at the
University of Tübingen in
Germany and her colleagues have
now taken a closer look. They CTscanned the skulls and compared
their shapes to other hominin
specimens. As expected, one of the
skulls was from a Neanderthal. But
to their surprise, the other didn’t
fit the Neanderthal mould, and was
instead from a modern human.
The next step was to find out
how old the skulls were. This was
difficult, because they were found
encased in a block of hardened
mud and rocks stuck to the cave
ceiling. “This means that they did
not come from the same context
as any material excavated from
the cave floor,” says Harvati.
So Harvati’s team turned to
uranium-thorium dating, which
estimates the age of an object by
tracking the decay of radioactive
elements. This found the
Neanderthal skull to be 170,000
years old. But the human skull was
significantly older: 210,000 years
old. “This age makes it older than
any other accepted Homo sapiens
specimen outside of Africa,” says
Harvati (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/
In the early 2000s, most
anthropologists agreed that Homo
sapiens arose in Africa 200,000
years ago and that everyone of
recent non-African descent came
from a group that left Africa about
The ancient skull
was found along this
Greek coastline
60,000 years ago, with Europe
reached 45,000 years ago.
However, this story is being
revised. Fossils from modern
humans found in Morocco date
to 315,000 years ago, pushing back
the age of our species. A jawbone
found in an Israeli cave is 177,000
years old, meaning humans
roamed beyond Africa earlier.
There are also putative modern
humans in China at similarly early
times, but these are disputed.
Before these discoveries,
the Apidima find would have
been a shock, but “nothing
surprises us any more”, says
Fred Spoor of London’s Natural
History Museum.
Mathieu Duval at Griffith
University in Nathan, Australia,
points out that the uraniumthorium dating method gives
the minimum age of the fossils,
meaning the skulls could be
even older.
Key findings must now be
reconsidered, says Eleanor Scerri
at the Max Planck Institute for
the Science of Human History
in Jena, Germany. For instance,
65,000-year-old cave art from
Spain has been attributed to the
Neanderthals, as modern humans
were assumed to be absent from
Europe. “Those assumptions can’t
be made now,” she says.
This cave contained
a 210,000-year-old
modern human skull
The human skull at Apidima
does make sense of a puzzle.
Famously, humans and
Neanderthals interbred about
50,000 years ago, leaving all
people of recent non-African
descent with a small amount of
Neanderthal DNA in their cells.
But it also seems they interbred
over 200,000 years ago, giving
Neanderthals human DNA. This
made no sense if they lived on
separate continents, but the
Apidima skull suggests they
overlapped and so could have met.
In separate research, Adam
Siepel of Cold Spring Harbor
Laboratory in New York and his
colleagues have reanalysed
modern human and Neanderthal
DNA using a new technique. They
found that the early interbreeding
occurred between 300,000 and
200,000 years ago (bioRxiv, The two studies
are “consistent in that respect”,
he says.
It remains clear that humans
evolved in Africa, says Scerri. “The
oldest fossils are still in Africa and
they’re 100,000 years older than
these,” she says.
However, Scerri says there may
have been multiple dispersals
out of Africa, perhaps enabled
by a greening of the Sahara and
Arabian deserts, which happens
every 100,000 years.
Scerri and her colleagues
promote African multiregionalism:
the idea that there were many
ancient human populations living
in Africa, which were sometimes
isolated and sometimes
connected. It now seems this web
of populations extended beyond
Africa. “We have this sort of
human patchwork of very small
populations,” she says. ❚
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 11
Military technology
Machine learning
China, Russia and the US
in hypersonic arms race
Google has made a
virtual football pitch
for training AIs
David Hambling
Donna Lu
THE race for hypersonic
weapons is heating up.
China, Russia and the US
are all attempting to create
weapons that travel at more
than five times the speed of
sound. The technology could
escalate tensions around
the world.
Hypersonic weapons
move incredibly fast, but
what differentiates them from
traditional ballistic missiles is
that all of their journey is done
within the atmosphere, rather
1.7 km/s
Hypersonic weapons
travel at least this fast
than through space. They
can also be manoeuvred
during flight, making them
harder to defend against.
Last month, US aerospace
giant Raytheon announced
it was preparing to test a
hypersonic scramjet, a jetpowered vehicle that moves
at rocket-like speed and gets
oxygen from the atmosphere.
The test was part of the US
12 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
Pentagon’s three-pronged effort
to obtain hypersonic weapons, a
top priority that attracts billions
of dollars in funding.
The other two approaches
are the Air-Launched Rapid
Response Weapon, which uses
new but not publicly known
technology, and the Hypersonic
Conventional Strike Weapon,
which repurposes existing
technology. All three weapons
will be launched from aircraft
and carry conventional
explosives. They could be
in service in the early 2020s.
Russia is also progressing
with two hypersonic weapons:
the Kinzhal (Dagger), launched
from a plane, and the Avangard,
a hypersonic vehicle launched
from an upgraded 1960s
ballistic missile. Avangard is
“invulnerable to intercept by
any existing and prospective
missile defence”, said Russian
president Vladimir Putin,
after witnessing a test in 2018.
Avangard may be ready by the
end of the year and Kinzhal
could already be in use.
China has carried out more
hypersonic tests than the US
in recent years, such as for
the Xingkong-2 missile and
Jiageng-1, which is believed
to be a scramjet.
“Developing hypersonic
weapons has become an
end in itself, first as a kind of
competitive sport, then as an
arms race,” says Mark Gubrud
at the University of North
Carolina. It is part of a trend
towards faster warfare, he
says. A report by US think
tank RAND Corporation warned
that hypersonics will compress
reaction times and lead to “hair
trigger” responses. The result
could be increased instability,
says Justin Bronk at defence
think tank Royal United
Services Institute.
“When nuclear missiles
replaced bombers, it was highly
destabilising because they gave
you minutes rather than hours,”
says Bronk. He says that was
why nuclear powers had
ways to mitigate the reduced
response time, like the MoscowWashington hotline, a means of
direct communication between
US and Russian leaders.
Recently, US president
Donald Trump said he changed
his mind about launching
conventional strikes on Iran
with minutes to spare. The
faster pace of hypersonic
operations might reduce
time for such second thoughts.
Gubrud says a ban
on hypersonic test flights,
which has been discussed by the
United Nations, would stop the
arms race. “US national security
would hardly suffer if plans
were put on hold at least long
enough to see if China and
Russia would reciprocate.” ❚
MANY people have been inspired
by football’s 2019 Women’s
World Cup in France. Now artificial
intelligences are learning the
game too.
Karol Kurach and his colleagues
at Google Research in Zurich,
Switzerland, have made a virtual
football training pitch that AIs can
use to understand how to play.
Software simulates a
standard football game, with
features including goals, corner
kicks, offsides and penalties. An
AI controls one or all 11 players
on a team and tries to defeat
another AI opponent.
Google has tested its own
AI on it and another from sister
company DeepMind, but anyone
can download the program to
train their own AIs.
Because football requires both
short-term control and high-level
tactics, it is challenging for AIs to
grasp, says Kurach.
To master football, an AI must
learn to deal with unpredictability –
for example, when a player kicks
the ball, it may land in different
locations or be intercepted by
A Russian fighter
jet carries a Kinzhal
hypersonic missile
For machines to
master football,
they need to
balance shortterm control and
high-level tactics
the opposing team. “Unlike games
such as chess or Go, there is not a
set model of moves,” says Kurach.
The approach differs from the
computer opponents used in games
such as the FIFA series, which are
manually programmed by game
designers to use specific rules and
strategies. “Such bots can do only
what they were programmed for
and always follow the same
pattern,” says Kurach. ❚
Forensic science
Stone Age human was murdered
Injury patterns on an ancient skull strongly indicate an early case of homicide
Ruby Prosser Scully
Then, using CT scans, they
discovered that there were
no signs of healing around
the fractures, indicating that
Cioclovina man didn’t recover
from his injuries.
The next step was to
determine whether Cioclovina
man’s fractures were caused by
a fall, being hit on the head with
a rock, or something else.
The pattern of the fractures gave
Kranioti and the team some clues.
A fairly straight fracture stretched
across the skull, while another
more circular fracture pushed
fragments inwards into the brain.
While the cracks from
the circular fracture radiated
outwards, they stopped when they
met the straight line, meaning
the straight fracture came first.
“The distinctive [circular]
depressed fracture found on
the right side of the skull is
unquestionably evidence that
up. Most early measurements come
from Europe, the US and regions
along trade routes – around 20 per
cent of Earth’s area, says Rasmus
Benestad at the Norwegian
Meteorological Institute in Oslo.
Some climate deniers have
argued this means records are
too incomplete to be reliable, but
temperatures are generally similar
across regions, so climatologists
have been able to fill in the gaps.
However, Benestad and his
colleagues found a subtler problem.
The early weather stations were all
in regions where the temperature
doesn’t vary too much over time.
Only later were stations built in
places like Siberia, where monthto-month changes are larger.
To find out if this was an issue,
Benestad’s team ran computer
models of the global climate
from 1861 to 2017 and noted
how the simulated global average
The skull has fractures
typical of modern attacks
with baseball bats
ONE of the oldest ever cold cases
has been confirmed as murder,
33,000 years after the crime
was committed. The weapon?
A baseball bat-like implement.
The Cioclovina calvaria (or
skull cap) specimen was found
in a cave in Transylvania, Romania,
in 1941 by miners searching for
phosphate. It is one of the oldest
partial skulls of an early modern
human in Europe in the Upper
Palaeolithic period yet found.
There are extensive fractures
on one side of the skull, but their
cause was a mystery. Forensic
scientist Elena Kranioti at the
University of Crete, Greece, and
her colleagues decided to apply
modern forensic techniques
in search of an answer.
They looked for signs of
whether the bones were broken
before or after death. Kranioti
knew that if the skull was damaged
long after Cioclovina man had
died, the fractures would be in
random patterns and be squareshaped with sharp edges, because
old and dry bone breaks in a
different way to “living” bone.
Instead, they found characteristics
that suggest the damage occurred
at around the time of death.
the person was struck with a blunt
object, which directly implies a
human agent,” says Kranioti.
The researchers then recreated
the blow on artificial skulls filled
with ballistic gelatin. They tested
several scenarios, including falls
and blows with a rock or a baseball
bat, to different locations on the
skulls. The fracture patterns found
on Cioclovina man’s skull strongly
resemble what happened when
the artificial skulls were hit twice
with a round, club-like object
while against the ground
(PLoS One,
“The linear fracture happened
first and could have been a result
of a person falling from their own
height – while running from
someone, for example,” says
Kranioti. The second fracture
is a result of violence, she says.
“Which means that, in modern
terms, if I had to define the cause
and matter of death as a forensic
pathologist, I would say that the
person died of craniocerebral
injuries and that it was homicide,”
says Kranioti.
Stanley Serafin at the University
of New South Wales, Australia, says
the authors present a “thoroughly
convincing case”. ❚
Climate change
Earth warmed more
than we thought
last century
AN OVERSIGHT in historical weather
records means we underestimated
how much the climate warmed
in the past century or so. The
finding means we are 0.1°C closer
than we thought to passing the
internationally agreed absolute
upper limit of 2°C of warming.
The problem stems from where
the first weather stations were set
“The net result was that
the combined warming
over the period was
underestimated by 0.1°C”
temperature changed. Then,
they ran the models again using
data corresponding to the weather
stations that were present in each
year (Geophysical Research
They found the early weather
station sites created a problem. The
older records came out slightly too
warm, while more recent ones were
slightly too cold. The net result was
that the combined warming from
1881 to 1910 and 1986 to 2015
was underestimated by 0.1°C. ❚
Michael Marshall
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 13
Extreme weather
The Arctic is on fire
Unusual wildfires are releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide
Adam Vaughan
bigger than 100,000 hectares,
which would classify them as
megafires. There are signs they are
still burning, although detection
is hampered by cloud cover. “Some
hotspots are apparent through
gaps in clouds, which suggest
fires are continuing,” he says.
Some Arctic fires seem
large enough to be
classed as megafires
The fires seem to be mostly
on carbon-rich peatland.
Parrington calculates that the
wildfires in June released about
50 megatonnes of CO2, on par
with Sweden’s total emissions in
2017. That CO2 will lead to more
warming, in a feedback loop.
The blazes also seem to be
accelerating climate change by
depositing soot and ash on sea ice.
Satellite photos in June show sea
ice in the Laptev Sea and East
Siberian Sea turning darker, which
will exacerbate melting, in turn
bringing more warming because
the sea is darker than ice and so
absorbs more of the sun’s energy.
The Arctic wildfires are in line
with predictions made a decade
ago, when researchers said they
expected the region – which is
warming faster than the rest of the
world – to see some of the biggest
increases in fires. “What we might
be seeing this year is widespread
breach of a critical temperature
threshold, leading to such
widespread fires,” says Smith.
“The term ‘Arctic fire’ is a
relatively new arrival to science
and still causes consternation.
It isn’t part of common sense yet,”
says Guillermo Rein of Imperial
College London.
What started these fires isn’t
known, but given how sparsely
inhabited the region is, lightning
is thought to be a likely cause.
Meanwhile, at least 18 people
were killed in the Siberian region
of Irkutsk after severe flooding
caused by heavy rainfall. A state
of emergency was declared and
Russian military personnel sent
to the region. ❚
and Reddit showed that clicks on
posts of each category had no
impact on what users saw next.
“If you engage with something,
[YouTube’s algorithm] shows you
more of it, whether it’s cooking
videos, music or extremist
content,” Whittaker told the
Terrorism and Social Media
Conference in Swansea.
Instead, YouTube’s algorithms
could encourage people to break out
of their filter bubbles, says Emillie
de Keulenaar at the University of
Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
YouTube told New Scientist that
it can’t prevent fake or extremist
views being published on the site,
but it is reducing their prominence.
During the analysis, YouTube said
it would tweak its algorithms.
Changes are ongoing, but only a
handful of extremist channels seen
in the study have been removed. ❚
Chris Stokel-Walker
DOZENS of wildfires have been
raging across the Arctic circle
for the past few weeks, releasing
as much carbon dioxide in just
one month as Sweden’s total
annual emissions.
Fires in the region aren’t
unknown, but the scale of the
blazes, predominantly in boreal
peatlands across Siberia, is
unprecedented. Satellite
measurements show that the
energy released by the fires in June
is more than that produced during
the previous nine Junes combined.
“It’s quite striking, it does really
stand out,” says Mark Parrington
at the European Centre for
Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.
The last time the region had
such big fires was 15 years ago.
The driver for the fires seems
to be the unusually high
temperatures in June, the hottest
one on record in Europe. The
Arctic was also warmer than
average. “It’s hotter and drier. If
the temperature is high enough
and there’s ignition, fuel burns,”
says Parrington.
The size of the burning area isn’t
clear. Thomas Smith at the London
School of Economics says satellite
photos suggest that some fires are
Social media
YouTube’s algorithm
keeps suggesting
extremist content
YOUTUBE’S recommendation
algorithm steers people to more
extremist content than two other
popular sites. The other two were
Gab, a social-media site favoured
by people on the far-right, and
Reddit, a news aggregation site.
Joe Whittaker at Swansea
University, UK, and his colleagues
analysed how personalisation
14 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
algorithms on the three sites
recommend content.
They made three YouTube
accounts: one clicked mainly on
neutral content, one mainly on
extremist videos and one didn’t
click at all. Extremist content was
recommended to the extreme
account nearly every time it visited
the homepage and was twice as
likely to be recommended than it
was for the non-interacting account.
The neutral-interacting account saw
extreme content once in every five
sessions. A similar analysis on Gab
“If you engage with
something, YouTube
shows you more of it, be it
music or extreme content”
Paralysed hands work
again after nerve ops
When moons leave
home they may
become ‘ploonets‘
Ruby Prosser Scully
Chelsea Whyte
can return
to paralysed
limbs by
injury site. But someone with
tetraplegia can still have limited
nerve activity in their arms, even
if they lack hand function for
example, because some nerves to
the limbs may branch away from
the spinal cord above the injury.
Van Zyl and her team spliced
these working nerves to nonfunctioning ones below the injury
site that help control movements
in the hands and elbows.
Two years after surgery, and
after intensive physical therapy,
13 participants still involved in the
study regained some hand and
Rough number of people who
have had nerve transfer surgery
arm control – for instance, being
able to open their hands, grasp
and pinch again (The Lancet,
This study is sufficient to
establish the safety and efficacy of
the surgery, says Jeremy Simcock
at the University of Otago in
Christchurch, New Zealand.
The nerve transfer technique is
similar to tendon transfer, which
Simcock says surgeons have been
using for 30 years to help people
with tetraplegic injury gain some
use of their hands. But unlike
tendon transfers, which usually
involve rerouting a working
tendon to provide one muscular
function, multiple nerve transfers
can be done at once and each one
can reanimate multiple muscles.
Each person in the study was
given at least one nerve transfer,
and many had an additional
tendon transfer.
“It’s a stronger hand [following
just tendon transfer], but it’s a bit
more clawed in its position and
not as natural in its feeling [as with
a nerve transfer],” says van Zyl.
“It doesn’t open as well.”
Van Zyl and her team have
performed about 160 of these
nerve transfer operations so
far, but she says many people
around the world don’t have
access to the technology.
She hopes the new study
will help ensure that more people
who are eligible are able to have
the surgery. ❚
SURGEONS have reanimated the
hands and arms of people who are
paralysed by connecting working
nerves to injured ones, giving
recipients the ability to feed
themselves again, use their
phones and apply make-up.
The operation is life-changing,
says surgeon Natasha van Zyl at
Austin Health in Australia. One
recipient is now travelling in
Europe and another can take
his grandchild to the movies.
Her team in Melbourne and a
few other small groups around the
world have been developing this
technique over several years and
have seen promising results, but
published research has focused
only on individual cases or small
retrospective studies that can’t say
for sure how safe and effective it is.
So van Zyl and her colleagues
recruited 16 people with spinal
injuries that led to arm and leg
paralysis, otherwise known as
quadriplegia or tetraplegia, for
a more thorough assessment.
If an injury is relatively high up
on the spinal cord, it can lead to
arm paralysis because many of the
nerves through which we control
our arms branch off below the
DESPITE a lot of searching, we
haven’t found a moon around
an exoplanet yet. According to
a new study, that could be
because an exomoon can be
ejected from orbit around its
home world and turned into
a miniature planet called a
“ploonet”. This fate may even
befall our own moon one day.
Mario Sucerquia at the
University of Antioquia in
Colombia and his colleagues
modelled the interplay between
exomoons and the gas giant
planets they could form around.
These worlds are between
0.5 and 1.8 times the mass of
Neptune, orbiting stars at the
distance Mercury lies from the
sun. Their size and proximity to
their stars makes any exomoons
they have more detectable.
However, these worlds turn
out to be prone to losing moons.
That is because such exoplanets
form further out from their star
and migrate inward. When near
their star, its gravity can disturb
any moons they have,
potentially flinging them into
their own orbits around the star.
“Closer-in giant planets are
more prone to lose their moons
because the tidal interaction
between the star and the planet
An exomoon flung into
orbit around a star could
be a kind of mini planet
is stronger,” says Sucerquia.
“This is, in fact, bad news for
exomoon hunters.”
Sucerquia and his team
found that about 44 per cent
of ejected exomoons would
collide with their planet in
this process, about 6 per cent
would be absorbed by the star,
and about 2 per cent would
be flung out of the planetary
system entirely. But the rest
would become ploonets.
Of those, 54 per cent would
end up in orbits further from
the star than their home planet.
Another 14 per cent would
end up on orbits closer to the
star, and almost a third would
take on eccentric orbits where
the ploonet’s path would
cross the planet’s orbit every
once in a while (
“Earth’s tidal strength is
gradually pushing the moon
away from us at a rate of
about 3 centimetres a year,”
says Sucerquia. “Therefore,
the moon is indeed a potential
ploonet once it reaches an
unstable orbit.” ❚
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 15
News In brief
Climate change
Breeding less gassy cattle
could cut harmful emissions
COWS could be selectively bred to
halve their significant contribution
to global warming.
Livestock are responsible for
14.5 per cent of greenhouse gas
emissions, with the majority
stemming from beef and milk
production, largely because
flatulent, belching cattle emit so
much methane. Researchers have
previously looked at tweaking their
diet to reduce these emissions.
But now there might be another
fix. John Wallace at the University
of Aberdeen, UK, and his colleagues
found that a core group of gut
microbes play a key role in how
much methane a cow emits.
They looked at 1000 cows on
seven farms in Europe over four
years, finding that at least half of
the animals at all the farms had the
same group of 500 gut microbes.
Animal behaviour
SEA lions and seals can recall what
they have just done, and repeat it
on command, if asked to do so
within 18 seconds. This suggests
a degree of awareness.
Simeon Smeele at the
University of Southern Denmark
in Odense and his colleagues
tested seven captive animals:
a grey seal, two harbour seals and
four South American sea lions.
All had previously been trained
to perform actions like waving a
flipper on command. They were
first taught a new command that
meant “repeat what you just did”.
To ensure each animal really
was thinking about what it did
rather than simply recalling the
command for the action, it was
asked to perform a task, then told
to “repeat” it, and then “repeat” it
a second time. At which point just
remembering the previous cue –
“repeat” – wouldn’t help, so it
16 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
could only respond to the request
correctly by recalling the action.
All seven animals could do this
(Animal Cognition,
Smeele says this shows an
awareness of their own behaviour.
That means they have a degree
of consciousness. But it doesn’t
make them as self-aware as we
are, as they would also need to be
aware of their own inner state and
be aware of their own awareness.
To make it even harder, the
team started putting a delay of a
few seconds between the original
action and the repeat command.
The animals became less accurate
with longer delays, and after 18
seconds they were no better than
chance. However, Smeele says
they may remember actions for
longer in more natural settings.
So far, we only know of two
other animals that can remember
their actions: bottlenose dolphins
and monkeys called southern pigtailed macaques, which are both
renowned for their intelligence,
unlike seals. Michael Marshall
Squishy marbles can
take on many shapes
LIQUID marbles have been
developed that can be moulded
into different forms, such as mini
disco balls (pictured below).
Syuji Fujii at the Osaka Institute
of Technology in Japan and his
team were inspired by aphids,
which make liquid marbles by
coating honeydew with wax
particles so that they can easily
transport them.
The team’s lab-made versions
Seals remember,
but not for long
Genetic analysis found a small but
abundant number of those microbes
were heritable and played a key role
in determining methane emissions
(Science Advances,
The team says the microbiome of
herds could be sequenced and those
animals with the heritable, highemission microbes selectively bred
out. Eliminating the worst offenders
in the microbiome could halve
livestock emissions, says Wallace.
James Osman of the UK National
Farmers Union says a better
understanding of the genetics of
low-methane livestock, and any
trade-offs with other important
traits, would be needed first.
The proposed breeding would
take decades. A simpler, short-term
idea is a probiotic for young
cattle to alter their microbiome,
says Wallace. Adam Vaughan
consist of a droplet surrounded by
small hexagonal plates of a waterrepellent plastic – polyethylene
terephthalate, or PET. They used
liquids such as water and glycerol.
The shape of the marbles
depends on the relative sizes of
droplet and plates. When they are
similar sizes, you get cube-shaped,
tetrahedral or pentahedral
marbles. When the droplets are
larger than the plates, you get
marbles that are nearly spherical,
taking on the form of a disco ball
(Advanced Functional Materials,
If the marbles are made from
transparent plates, they can be
used as sensors to detect the
presence of gases, says Fujii.
For example, by making the
droplet from liquid that contains
phenolphthalein, the marble’s
colour changes to pink in the
presence of ammonia vapour.
They could also be used to create
different-shaped miniature
chemical reactors used to
catalyse reactions. Donna Lu
New Scientist Daily
Get the latest scientific discoveries in your inbox
Space exploration
Really brief
Solar panels in space
just got a bit easier
A SPECIAL plastic can make folded
solar panels unfurl on their own
when exposed to sunlight. This
might be helpful for the panels
that power some spacecraft.
Such panels have to be launched
in a small container and opened
out in orbit. This usually relies on
something like a coiled spring or
a motor. But Chiara Daraio at the
California Institute of Technology
and her team have built a solar cell
that unfolds itself using a shape-
Largest ever patch
of seaweed seen
Satellites have revealed
a 9000-kilometre algae
bloom stretching from
West Africa to the Gulf
of Mexico, spurred on
by fertiliser discharged
from the Amazon river.
The seaweed hampers
marine life, as well as
plaguing coastal towns that
have to keep removing it
from beaches (pictured).
A cockatoo called Snowball
has invented 14 different
dance moves to music.
They include body rolls and
head banging with a foot
in the air (Current Biology, Sulphurcrested cockatoos like
Snowball are smart and can
use tools. However, they
are not known to dance
in this way in the wild.
Zika babies can
make a recovery
Among a group of 216
babies born to mothers
who contracted Zika virus,
about one-third had
developmental delays.
However, a new study has
found about half of the
affected babies had normal
developmental test results
by age 3 (Nature Medicine,
DOI: 10.1038/s41591019-0496-1).
the pre-creased sheet would twist
them into a tight bundle, known
as a flasher origami fold.
When the folded apparatus was
exposed to heat, the expansion of
both the hinges and the creases
in the sheet caused the shards
to unfurl into a solar panel, its
surface area going from 5 square
centimetres to half a square metre
in under 40 seconds (Physical
Review Applied,
This could be used as a simpler
solar power device for spacecraft
that unfolds when exposed to
sunshine after launch, says Daraio.
Leah Crane
Sweet answer for
safer data storage
Cockatoo learns a
dance move or two
memory polymer which can be
packed away and then return to
a set shape when warmed.
They started with a plastic ring
from an expanding toy called a
Hoberman sphere. The ring
comprises a series of hinged joints
that allow it to take on a much
smaller size. The researchers
replaced the hinges with polymers
that expand when exposed to
temperatures above about 35°C.
They stretched a sheet of shapememory polymer across the ring,
and covered it with shards of solar
panel. They arranged the shards so
that when the ring was collapsed,
Biblical Philistines had
genetic link to Greeks
DNA from skeletons suggests the
Philistine people mentioned in the
Bible were a genetically distinct
community with ties to an influx
of Aegean immigrants.
The Old Testament makes many
references to the Philistines, often
as adversaries of Hebrew people.
To find out more about them,
Michal Feldman at the Max Planck
Institute for the Science of Human
History in Jena, Germany, and her
team used DNA from 10 skeletons
found in the ancient Philistine city
of Ashkelon (pictured), on the coast
of what is now Israel. The earliest
three remains date to about 1600
BC, four were infants buried around
1200 BC, and three individuals date
to about 1100 BC. Their DNA was
compared with DNA from all over
the world, both ancient and modern.
Those from the middle period had
significant ancestry from southern
Europe, but this signal had faded in
the most recent group, probably as
a result of assimilation with locals
(Science Advances,
The new genetic data, together
with existing archaeological data
such as Greek-style pottery found
in Philistine cities, strengthens the
case that such places saw migration
from Greece and western Turkey,
says Christoph Bachhuber at the
University of Oxford. Clare Wilson
WE KNOW DNA can be used for
digital storage. Now it turns out
that solutions of sugars, amino
acids and other small molecules
could replace hard drives too.
Jacob Rosenstein and his
colleagues at Brown University,
Rhode Island, stored and retrieved
pictures of an Egyptian cat, an ibex
and an anchor using an array of
these small molecules. They say
storing data this way could make
it less vulnerable to hacking and
better for use in more extreme
environmental conditions.
Rosenstein’s team created
mixtures of common metabolites,
solutions containing sugars,
amino acids and other small
molecules that humans and other
living organisms use to digest
food and to carry out other
important chemical functions.
The presence or absence of
particular metabolites in different
drops of the mixtures represented
the binary 1s and 0s to encode
information. Rosenstein and his
colleagues used many separate
drops on a plate to store data and
were able to retrieve it with around
99 per cent accuracy. They did this
by using a mass spectrometer to
analyse the chemical mix within
each drop (PLoS One,
c7x6). Ruby Prosser Scully
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 17
News Insight
Electric vehicles
China drives into the future
FORGET Tesla – the world’s biggest
electric car manufacturer is a
Chinese company you have
probably never heard of. With
the age of the fossil-fuel car
drawing to an end, electric vehicles
(EVs) from China could be on track
for global dominance – assuming
that the hundreds of start-ups in
the sector don’t skid out and crash.
China buys more EVs than any
other nation. Last year, 1.25 million
electric cars – 984,000 of which
were solely battery-powered –
were sold in the country,
accounting for more than half of
all EVs sold globally. A significant
proportion of them were made
by BYD Auto, a firm headquartered
in Xi’an, China.
In 2018, BYD sold nearly 248,000
zero-emissions vehicles globally,
outpacing Tesla’s sales of roughly
245,000. The company began in
1995 as a manufacturer of batteries
for mobile phones and digital
cameras, and has since expanded
to produce battery-powered cars,
buses and trucks. Last week, it
launched a fleet of 37 fully electric
double decker buses as part of
London’s public transport system.
Other Chinese companies with
international reach include Chery
and the Zhejiang Geely Holding
Group, which is the behemoth
that now owns Volvo, Lotus and
the London Taxi Company.
Rest of the world
Electric cars sold in China last year,
more than half of global sales
All this means that despite an
overall decline in car sales – the
number of Chinese-produced
cars sold last year dropped nearly
8 per cent from 2017 – the EV
industry is booming. Battery
electric vehicle sales rose by
more than 50 per cent in 2018.
“We are witnessing a transition
from internal combustion engine
vehicles to zero-emission
vehicles,” says Yunshi Wang,
director of the China Center for
Energy and Transportation at the
University of California, Davis.
The shift has been driven by
a Chinese government goal of
reaching 5 million “new-energy”
vehicles – including battery
electrics, hybrid cars and fuel-cell
cars – on China’s roads by 2020,
18 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
when yearly sales of these cars
should hit 2 million.
Energy security is also a
concern. About 70 per cent of
China’s crude oil is imported.
“China wants to rely mostly on
electricity, which it can produce
domestically,” says Wang.
The Chinese government has
been subsidising electric car
designs for a decade and has given
financial backing to many EV
manufacturers. It has also invested
in infrastructure for charging the
vehicles. By the end of last year,
China had an estimated 342,000
public charging points – and new
residential buildings are required
to have somewhere to plug in.
In comparison, there are about
67,000 public chargers in the US.
Climate change and the quality
of the air are also important
factors. China has pledged to
reduce its carbon emissions in line
with its commitment to the Paris
climate agreement, and in June
2018, the government launched a
three-year action plan to fight air
pollution in its cities.
Under the plan, which covers
regions home to around one-third
of China’s population, heavy
logistics vehicles with internal
combustion engines will be
banned from entering cities.
“China is kind of a poster
child for incentives in that it is
Global plug-in electric car sales
China’s electric vehicle market
is growing much faster than
those anywhere else
Sam Korus, an analyst at
investment firm ARK, estimates
that there are nearly 500 EV
companies in China, many of
which are yet to produce their first
vehicle. Recent reports suggest
that 330 firms are registered
for government subsidies
encouraging investment in EVs.
Shifting to electric vehicles is an essential part of tackling climate change
and China is doing far better than the West, reports Donna Lu
subsidising both the supply and
demand,” says Jack Barkenbus
at the Vanderbilt Institute for
Energy and the Environment
in Tennessee.
For example, zero-emissions
licence plates have been
introduced in cities including
Shanghai and Beijing, where there
are restrictions on the number of
new car registrations each year.
In Shanghai, new licence plates
are sold for around 90,000 yuan
($13,000), says Wang. “If you buy
a zero-emission vehicle, you can
waive it and get the licence plate
right away,” he says. The wait for
a licence plate for an internal
combustion car is about two years.
Shen, an EV owner who lives in
Beijing, says he bought his first
electric car – a Geely DiHao – in
2016 because it was more difficult
to obtain a licence plate for a fossilfuel car. “In Beijing, if you have an
internal combustion car, there’s
one day a week you can’t drive it,
whereas there are no restrictions
on electric cars,” he says.
More Insight online
Your guide to a rapidly changing world
“By the early 2020s, an
electric vehicle will be
priced cheaper than a
fossil-fuel counterpart”
than China. “It’s doubtful that
we will sell more cars [in these
countries] in the future than we
have been able to sell in the last
few years,” he says. “That’s not the
case in China where the per capita
ownership is much lower.”
And there is still a lot of room to
grow. Even though the Chinese EV
BYD Auto sells more
electric cars than any
other firm in the world
market is already the biggest in
the world, EVs still only make up
an estimated 4 per cent of total
car sales there. The world leader
is Norway, where last year
46 per cent of cars sold were EVs.
The transition will take time,
says Wang. He calculates that
even if close to 100 per cent of
Chinese car sales are EVs by 2031,
they will still only number around
30 per cent of all cars on roads.
And government subsidies to
manufacturers, which peaked
in 2014 at 100,000 yuan per car,
are on track to be phased out by
2020, sparking concerns that sales
will plummet.
Korus says it may lead to a
reduction in the number of
Chinese EV firms. He compares it
to the US auto industry in the early
1900s, which shrunk from 250
manufacturers to less than 50 in
about a decade. “This is a good
thing for the market,” he says.
International firms are also
competing for a share of the
Chinese market: Volkswagen
announced plans in April to
produce 11.6 million EVs in China
by 2028, and Tesla is building a
massive factory in Shanghai.
But why aren’t overseas
consumers driving Chinese-made
EVs yet? To date, Chinese vehicle
companies have been more
comfortable exporting
commercial logistics vehicles
than passenger cars, says Wang,
because they prefer to avoid the
vagaries of consumer demand.
There are also questions over
privacy. For example, it was
claimed last year that electric
car-makers in China give the
government data from their cars,
and more than a million cars are
being tracked in real time.
Claims that companies such
as BYD will produce a car that
rivals Tesla are overblown, says
Barkenbus. “I think it’d be pretty
hard to match Tesla in terms of
its performance.” Where Chinese
vehicles may be successful, he
says, is in making mid-range
vehicles for the global market.
Although Tesla’s goal is to make
affordable EVs, the price of its
current cheapest model is close
to that of other luxury car brands.
The background in battery
manufacturing of BYD – and
another Chinese firm, CATL – may
be a boon for the Chinese industry.
Battery costs account for about
a quarter of an EV’s price, and
are consistently becoming
cheaper to make, says Korus.
“Our research suggests that
by the early 2020s, you’re going
to have an electric vehicle that is
sticker-priced cheaper than a gas
counterpart,” he says, at which
point he foresees a swing in
demand. For the sake of the planet,
that can’t come soon enough. ❚
▲ Jodrell Bank
Not all satellite dishes
are ugly - Jodrell Bank
Observatory in Cheshire,
UK, is now a UNESCO
world heritage site.
▲ Billions of trees
Enlarging forests by a
third could lock up enough
carbon to give us 20 more
years to stupidly dither on
tackling climate change.
▼ British Airways
UK data watchdogs have
threatened BA with a
£183 million fine for
failure to protect customer
details – maybe they got
sent to the wrong airport?
▼ Uber Eats
The switch to EVs has been
easier in China because private
car ownership is a relatively new
phenomenon, says Isbrand Ho
at BYD Europe in the Netherlands,
so there is little brand loyalty.
“Whatever will work efficiently,
effectively and comfortably for
the consumer, they are most
likely to adopt,” he says.
Barkenbus says peak car
ownership in places like the US
and UK means that such countries
have been slower to adapt to EVs
Sorting the week’s
supernovae from
the absolute zeros
The takeaway delivery
service has a radical new
idea – order your food,
then sit down to eat it
at a restaurant. No need
to wait at home!
▼ Space baby
SpaceLife Origins, a
Netherlands start-up, had
wanted to enable the first
birth in space. Now plans
are “on hold”, presumably
after realising they were
really, really, really bad.
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 19
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The columnist
Chanda PrescodWeinstein wants to
save our helium p22
Consciousness really
does pose a hard
problem p24
A kitsch celebration
of the epic Soviet
space dogs flights p26
Artist Olafur Eliasson
explores the
Anthropocene p28
Culture columnist
Simon Ings delights
in The Hummingbird
Project p30
Make a living will
For our own sakes, and for those we leave behind, we all need
to think about how we want to die, says Clare Wilson
Clare Wilson is a medicine
and health reporter for
New Scientist. Follow her
on Twitter @ClareWilsonMed
Y THE time you read this,
Vincent Lambert may
well be dead. He has been
in a vegetative state since a car
crash in 2008. In a twilight zone
between life and death, he has
been unable to talk, eat or respond
meaningfully to others. Last week,
doctors in Reims, France, began
to remove his life support
following a ruling from the
Court of Cassation, the country’s
highest appeals court.
It followed a six-year legal battle
between two sides of Lambert’s
family – his wife and six brothers
and sisters, who sought to let
him die, and his parents and
two other siblings, who wanted
him to continue to live. The case
brought interventions from
politicians, the Pope and the
United Nations Committee on the
Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Whatever our views on this
case, most of us would think it
is sad that Lambert’s family,
who presumably all care deeply
about him, have been fighting
over his fate in court.
The problem is that few
of us like talking about death,
so few of us take an important
step to ensure that our loved ones
know how we wish to be treated at
the end of our lives – in situations
such as this and in far more
common ones.
That step is to make a living will,
or advance decision, a document
that sets out your medical
preferences if you are unable to
communicate. In the UK, groups
such as Compassion in Dying and
Advance Decisions Assistance
provide free templates online
and advise on how to help make
sure these documents don’t get
ignored when they are needed.
In the US, the National Institute
on Aging website provides advice.
Many people would want all
the medical treatments available
to be thrown at them if they were
unable to communicate their
wishes, and worry that medical
staff will give up too soon. It is
their right to express that wish.
But talk frankly to doctors
and they will tell you the bigger
problem is the opposite: of
overtreatment and inappropriate
medical care that makes death
more unpleasant and prolonged.
It can be just as important to state
clearly in what situations you
wish to avoid certain treatments.
For example, sometimes
people in hospital who are dying
and have stopped eating and
drinking as their body shuts down
will have a feeding tube placed
through their nose, causing
distress and discomfort. Often
families pressure staff to do this
because they can’t accept how
close their relative is to death.
Then there are people who
aren’t dying, but who have very
poor quality of life because
of severe Alzheimer’s disease,
for instance. Would you want to
continue living in that situation?
While assisted dying is illegal
in the UK, as in most countries,
it is legal to refrain from treating
infections such as pneumonia,
to let people die naturally. This
used to be more common, but
is often now resisted by relatives
or care-home nurses.
Some people object strongly
to such a course, while others see
it as being sensible and humane.
The range of opinion is the crux
of this matter. Unless you make
a living will, it won’t be you who
decides what happens to you at
the end. It will be someone else. ❚
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 21
Views Columnist
Field notes from space-time
No laughing matter Helium is one of the most abundant elements
in the universe, yet supplies on Earth are running out – a reminder of
how precious our resources are, says Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
is an assistant professor of
physics and astronomy,
and a core faculty member
in women’s studies at the
University of New Hampshire.
Find her on Twitter
@IBJIYONGI and the web
Chanda’s week
What are you reading?
I am working my way
through C. Riley Snorton’s
Black on Both Sides:
A racial history of
trans identity.
What are you watching?
I have been glued to
the soccer Women’s
World Cup for the past
few weeks. I have also
finally managed to see
Avengers: Endgame.
This column appears
monthly. Up next week:
Graham Lawton
22 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
What are you
working on?
I want to better
understand the dynamics
between galaxies and
their dark matter haloes.
HEN I was 4, my
favourite book was
Balloonia by Audrey
Wood. It tells the story of a little
girl who realises that balloons
have an afterlife when they
float away. Wielding a sharp pin,
she takes a balloon hostage,
demanding that it take her to
Balloonia. There, she experiences
a world where everything is made
of balloons, including the animals
and the landscape they populate.
It is a wonderful tale. It is only
later in life that I have come to
worry it might be predicated on
the continued availability of the
second most abundant element
in the universe: helium. Trouble
is, helium is running out on Earth.
When we fill a balloon with
helium, it floats because helium
is lighter than air. Sound also
travels through helium faster
than it travels through air, which
is why inhaling helium makes
people’s voices sound temporarily
more high-pitched.
Beyond its entertainment value,
helium is also a crucial coolant in
its liquid form. It pops up in diverse
technologies, from fancy medical
equipment like MRI machines
to big physics toys such as space
rockets and the Axion Dark Matter
Experiment, which searches for
axion particles, my favourite
candidate to make up the
universe’s missing dark matter.
On a day-to-day basis, we
rarely give much thought to the
origins of helium, but they are
fascinating. Almost all of the
helium in the universe was
produced when space-time as
we know it was only a few minutes
old. This period is called big bang
nucleosynthesis, an era that
began when the universe became
cool enough that radiation could
no longer prevent protons and
neutrons coming together to
form the first atomic nuclei.
During that time, the first
element in the periodic table,
hydrogen, formed in great
quantities, making up 75 per cent
of the luminous matter in the
universe. Nearly all the rest is the
second lightest element – helium.
These two elements make up
most of the gas clouds that hang
around the universe. Along with
a small amount of lithium made
at the same time, they formed
the foundation for the first
generation of stars.
Stars aren’t just made from
helium; they are also a site for
making it. Stars are collections
of tightly packed hydrogen and
“The existence of
a world of floating
balloons is
predicated on
the availability
of helium”
helium atoms whose high density
causes the initiation of nuclear
explosions. These explosions are
extremely bright, producing light
across the electromagnetic
spectrum, including at visible
wavelengths. That is what we
have to thank for every sunrise
and the beauty of the night sky.
But these explosions also smash
and glue elements together to
make heavier ones. In our sun,
hydrogen nuclei fuse into helium,
producing high-energy radiation
in the form of gamma rays. In
more massive stars, this stellar
nucleosynthesis is more complex,
leading to the production of
heavier elements like the carbon
that is the basis for human life.
We really are made of star stuff!
There is an irony in this cosmic
abundance, however. All the
helium we have on Earth, from
the stuff we put in balloons to
the stuff we put in MRI machines,
originates not directly in stars,
but in radioactive decays in
Earth’s crust. Over time, the
heavy elements uranium and
thorium – themselves made when
stars explode at the end of their
lives or when neutron stars
collide – break down. The products
include alpha particles consisting
of two protons and two neutrons
bound together, otherwise known
as helium nuclei.
Unfortunately for Earth
(and Balloonia), helium isn’t
endlessly abundant. In fact,
we are currently facing a global
shortage. More than 90 per cent
of the world’s helium supply
comes from just three countries –
the US, Qatar and Algeria – with
most of it a byproduct of natural
gas extraction.
Current sources are running low
and efforts to tap new ones have
been delayed. Scientists have tried
to get the US Congress to improve
the management of existing
supplies, but political challenges
have got in the way.
The link between natural gas
and helium supplies is one reason
this is complicated: accelerating
global warming demands that we
move away from fossil fuels as
energy sources, not look for more
of them. But unlinking helium
from fossil fuels raises difficult-toaddress questions given current
economic structures.
Changing how we do things
often seems like an impossibility.
The case of helium reminds us
that the universe is a vast and
wonderful place, but also how
we need to make do with – and
cherish – what we have on Earth. ❚
Don’t miss a special souvenir issue from
New Scientist celebrating the 50th anniversary
of the moon landings. Explore the past, present
and future of space exploration with over 100
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solar system, plus 20 pages of newly resurfaced
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Available from all good
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Views Your letters
Consciousness does in fact
pose a hard problem
22 June, p 34
From Guy Inchbald, Upton-uponSevern, Worcestershire, UK
Rowan Hooper, with help from
philosophers Patricia Churchland
and Daniel Dennett, does a great
disservice to “the hard problem”
in the theory of mind. Were
“qualia”, the experiential qualities
of consciousness, so easily
dismissed as the maunderings of
the spooky-minded, the problem
would never have become so
notoriously difficult.
Why do we experience
consciousness at all? Nothing in
any objective scientific theory of
physics or information accounts
for the subjective qualities of our
otherwise empirically measurable
experiences. In the integrated
information theory proposed
by Giulio Tononi, consciousness
is what information feels like
when it reaches a certain level
of sophistication. But the fact of
that feeling has no underpinning.
That is the hard problem.
From Trevor Hussey, High
Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, UK
“What is consciousness?” isn’t
answered by saying how it is
produced and where in the brain
this happens, unless we start by
assuming we know the answer.
If it is just neural activity, there
is nothing more to explain. But
if I am sad, feeling guilt or in pain
and I describe the accompanying
physical goings-on in minute
detail, you wouldn’t know what I
was experiencing. What is missing
is the subjective experience: what
I am aware of and you aren’t.
We may want a naturalistic
explanation of consciousness
and not a “spooky non-biological”
account, but we need one that
preserves what is characteristic
of consciousness: the subjective
phenomena. This “hard problem”
isn’t solved by dismissing these
as illusory. For something to be
an illusion, it has to be observed –
that is to say, experienced.
Evolution has produced
24 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
something of great selective
advantage using only the physical
stuff of the universe, but that also
involves subjective phenomena.
We know of consciousness only
by means of those phenomena,
which adds to the puzzle.
From David Fitzgerald,
Margate, Kent, UK
It was interesting how much
of your article on the human
brain was littered with computer
analogies. I suspect some future
human brains will shake their
formidable heads at this, reflecting
on how each generation tries
to explain things with the
mechanism of their day.
Singapore’s falsehood law
leaves the courts to decide
1 June, p 23
From Foo Chi Hsia,
High Commissioner for the
Republic of Singapore, London, UK
Donna Lu makes claims
about Singapore’s Protection
from Online Falsehoods and
Manipulation Bill (POFMB).
Minister for Education Ong Ye
Kung and other Singapore officials
have said that POFMB can’t affect
expressions of opinion, since
it covers only false statements
of fact. It follows existing
jurisprudence that defines what
a false statement of fact is. This
means that academic research
won’t be subject to POFMB so
doesn’t need to be exempted.
Inquiry in the humanities also
won’t be covered, as it is in the
domain of opinion, not fact.
Lu suggests that the bill gives
government free rein to ban any
information that the “state deems
to be false”. The bill prescribes
that Singapore’s courts, not its
government, are the final arbiters
of truth. Singapore welcomes
groundbreaking research and
the government is committed
to applying the law responsibly.
We aren’t seeking to set any global
precedent with this law, which is
designed for our own multiracial
and multireligious context.
Remember that climate
concern goes way back
From the archives, 1 June
From Lucia Singer
Wantage, Oxfordshire, UK
In his article on how New Scientist
covered a proposed solution to the
hole in the ozone layer in 1994,
Simon Ings says concern about
climate change was then the
“preserve of a fringe few”. Even
in the 1980s, global warming
was mainstream enough for my
teenage friends and me to dread
it alongside nuclear war and
mass unemployment.
This is important because
there were already climate change
deniers. Then, they said that the
planet wasn’t warming; now, they
can’t say this, so instead insist it is
a natural fluctuation. These people
are running behind the science,
throwing dust in the air to try to
obscure the facts. It is our duty to
point out that they were wrong in
the past so that we can decide how
much to trust them now.
The importance of climate
change for Christians
22 June, p 24
From Peter Bennett,
Nantwich, Cheshire, UK
Graham Lawton notes the
potential for common ground
between science and religion
on climate change. The Anglican
church defines its mission in five
areas. The fifth, added in 1990, is
Views From the archives
“to strive to safeguard the integrity
of creation, and sustain and renew
the life of the earth”.
Climate change will probably
disproportionately affect the
poorest in the world. Another part
of the Anglican mission is to work
to “transform unjust structures of
society”. The challenges of climate
change should be as immediate
to Christians as to atheists.
in an underground vault. In 1992,
I studied Salix alba in the cold, arid
conditions of Ladakh in India and
observed that the seeds lose their
viability six to seven weeks after
collection. I noticed a reduction
in germination after 14 days and
no germination after 52 days.
I suggest the Kew scientists
check before banking seeds in
deep freeze for long-term use.
From Patrick Davey,
Dublin, Ireland
It is generally accepted that
Pope Francis publishing the
encyclical letter Laudato Si’
six months before the 2015
United Nations Climate Change
Conference had a material effect
on the resulting Paris agreement.
This isn’t forgotten by the Global
Catholic Climate Movement.
Flexibility and innovation
are key in education
This looks like yet another
carbon capture illusion
25 May, p 12
From Derek Bolton,
Sydney, Australia
Donna Lu reports a scheme to
capture the carbon dioxide from
industry “before it enters the
atmosphere” and produce animal
feed by growing bacteria on it.
But if CO2 from fossil fuels
is captured, used to make either
carbohydrate or hydrocarbon
using solar power, then used as
animal feed or fuel, it has still gone
from being safely sequestered
underground into the air. The only
gain has been a single reuse, a
halving of the carbon intensity
of that power station.
Letters, 15 June
From Merlin Reader, London, UK
Guy Cox says “able” pupils
aren’t challenged in non-selective
schools. But most people are able
in different ways. As I was good at
maths, I could take an exam two
years early at my non-selective
school thanks to the Secondary
Mathematics Individualised
Learning Experiment, set up
by the Inner London Education
Authority, now sadly scrapped.
This allowed pupils to learn at
their own pace and for the more
advanced students to assist others,
a good way of reinforcing learning
that was valuable for both pupils.
There were always areas in which
less academically able pupils were
better. Mixing people of varying
abilities at school was a good
learning experience for everyone.
Selection isn’t necessary
if teachers are innovative and
schools are well-funded. No child
in such schools would feel they
had failed academically before
they had even started there. ❚
For the record
Please check that those
willow seeds will be viable
25 May, p 13
From Vijay Koul,
Canberra, Australia
Adam Vaughan describes
seeking willow seeds to deposit
❚ The area in which ammonia
was detected on Pluto is about
200 kilometres wide (8 June, p 18).
❚ Earth takes 23 hours 56 minutes
to complete one rotation and Mars
takes 24 hours 37 minutes
(15 June, p 38).
60 years ago, New Scientist
reported on deadly kuru disease,
presaging controversies to come
IT WAS an exhibition at the
Wellcome Medical Museum
in London that drew our attention
to kuru, a rare disease found
only among the people of one
tribe in New Guinea. “By a savage
irony, one of the most irresistible
and mysterious diseases that
afflict man is symptomised
by uncontrolled laughter,”
we wrote in our 2 July 1959 issue.
The disease was always fatal. Its first stage
“is marked by tremors akin to shivering, occasional
jerks and a state of euphoria”, we reported. “The second
stage involves shock-like jerks, inability to walk except
with the aid of sticks, strabismus or rolling of the eyes,
and easily provoked and excessive laughter.”
We later learned that kuru was spread by members
of the tribe eating dead human bodies during funerals.
But it took a while to get to grips with the neurological
underpinnings of kuru, along with scrapie in sheep and
certain other similar degenerative disorders. In 1982,
neurologist Stanley Prusiner identified misfolded
proteins known as prions as the cause – and a second,
equally dark chapter in the story began to unfold.
On 5 November 1987, in an article entitled
“Brain disease drives cows wild”, we reported that vets
at the UK’s Ministry of Agriculture had identified a new
disease among cattle. “The fatal disease, which they
have called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, causes
degeneration of the brain,” we wrote. “Afflicted cows
eventually become uncoordinated and difficult to
handle.” Eventually, they had to be slaughtered.
If the disease should turn out to be infectious, we
wrote, “it could cause problems out of proportion
to the number of cases”.
It later became clear that infected cattle had been
given feed that included meat-and-bone meal from
other cows – effectively turning them into cannibals.
In 1996, the UK government announced that BSE,
also known as mad cow disease, had jumped the
species barrier to humans. Since then, every consumer
of 1980s British beef has been living in the crosshairs
of a kuru-like threat. For a prionic disease, kuru has a
relatively short incubation period of six to nine months.
With Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human variant
of mad cow disease, we simply aren’t sure of the
incubation period. We might not be out of the
BSE woods yet. Simon Ings
Want to get in touch?
Send letters to New Scientist, 25 Bedford Street, London
WC2E 9ES or [email protected]; see terms at
To find more from the archives, visit
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 25
Views Aperture
26 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
Serious about space?
Find more chronicles of the cosmos at
Space hounds
Photographer Martin Parr
AS WE celebrate the 50th
anniversary of the Apollo 11
moon landing (see page 36), it is
easy to forget that the US’s bitter
ideological rival, the Soviet Union,
made the decisive first moves in
the space race. And that wouldn’t
have been possible without
a uniquely Soviet team of
heroes: the space dogs.
Laika, a stray from the streets
of Moscow, was the most famous
of their kind. On 3 November 1957,
less than a month after the Soviets
launched the first artificial
satellite, Sputnik 1, she became
the first animal to orbit Earth.
For years, the official story
was that Laika died painlessly
after about a week in orbit.
In 2002, it emerged that she
probably survived for only
a few hours before the heat
and stress got to her.
Back on the ground, Laika
gained a fanatical following – as
did Belka and Strelka, two dogs
who, in 1960, returned home
safely after a day orbiting Earth
aboard Sputnik 5. The space
dogs were celebrated on stamps,
posters, clocks and all manner
of memorabilia. Laika even had
her own brand of cigarettes,
sold until the 1990s.
Photographer Martin Parr has
acquired an extensive collection
of space dog kitsch, the result of
a “20-year obsession”, he says.
Together with journalist Richard
Hollingham, he has now written
the book Space Dogs: The story of
the celebrated canine cosmonauts.
His collection also features in
the exhibition Space Steps: The
moon and beyond at the Royal
Photographic Society in Bristol,
UK, until 29 September. ❚
Richard Webb
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 27
Views Culture
An artist in the Anthropocene
Olafur Eliasson is returning to London’s Tate Modern after a decade and a half.
Liz Else and Simon Ings asked him how his art has adapted to a globalised world
SIXTEEN years ago, DanishIcelandic artist Olafur Eliasson
caught London off guard with a
massive indoor artwork. Some
2 million people visited The
Weather Project at the Tate
Modern gallery to bask in the glow
of a giant, artificial sun. It was a
rare moment of collective awe –
created using the simplest of
materials. This week, Eliasson is
back with a major retrospective
exhibition and most of the pieces
are new to the UK. But a lot has
changed since 2003. Days before
his new show opens, we asked the
artist about selfie culture, what
accessible art looks like in the
teched-up Anthropocene, and the
hefty carbon footprint that pictures
and installations leave behind.
Wasn’t there a plan to stage
something outside the gallery?
Yes. We’re installing three
waterfalls. We know today there
are no real waterfalls left because
they’re all human-influenced,
if not human-made. So our
waterfalls are as real as anything
in nature – or as unreal.
Do big art and big science have
to justify themselves to people
who don’t get the point?
Sadly, yes, and it’s an argument
we’re losing because great science
and great art are very much
long-term projects, views given to
politicians with short-term goals.
Making a work might take 10
years. Getting it shown might take
another 10. For people to finally
settle down with the experience
might take 10 years, too. It’s a very
slow piece of communication.
You command big budgets. Is the
relationship with money tricky
for artists?
To make big projects is expensive.
But think about how much money
an alcohol company throws into
the promotion of some new drink!
I believe there are studies showing
that if you throw a euro or a pound
into the culture sector, it generates
two to three times as much
income. There are more people
working in the culture sector
than there are in the car industry.
It’s also a part of our democratic
stability. It’s a space where
28 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
“If we’re going to
re-engineer the systems
of tomorrow, we need
to risk being foolish.
We need to take risks”
Olafur Eliasson:
In real life
runs from 11 July to
5 January at Tate Modern
in London
we feel we can have difficult
conversations. Is that expensive?
No. It’s actually very cheap.
What can we expect from the show
at Tate Modern?
We have about 42 works, big
and small. Some are entertaining,
like Your Uncertain Shadow and
Your Blind Passenger, where a
tunnel full of smoke gives you
the experience of being blind.
Of course, instantly your ears get
more active, you touch the wall
and stretch out your hand so as
not to bump into somebody. Other
works are more contemplative.
Do you consider yourself an
environmental artist?
In the show, there is a series
of 40 photos of glacial tongues
from Iceland, taken in 1998.
I believed then that culture and
nature were two distinct spaces.
I didn’t fully understand that
the Anthropocene age had started.
When people look at the photos
now, they say “this is about
climate”. When I took them, it
was about their beauty. Soon, I’ll
be retaking those photos from the
same angles, in the same places.
Maybe in October, if I’ve finished,
we will sneak in the new pictures
so we have the two series hanging
next to each other, 20 years apart.
In December, you brought
30 polar ice blocks from Greenland
to London and let them melt. Why?
Some 235,000 people were
estimated to have been not
just walking by, but at the ice –
sometimes physically hugging it –
and this, I think, made Ice Watch a
clear and robust statement. This is
what the data from the scientists
looks like. This is what a block
of ice 15,000 years old looks like.
And it’s going to be gone in a week.
How big is the carbon footprint
of your work?
We worked with a consultancy
called Julie’s Bicycle, which
helps people in the culture sector
calculate their climate footprint.
The London project came to the
equivalent of 52 return flights
from London to Ilulissat in
Hot under the collar?
Don’t miss
Greenland. For almost two years,
we’ve been trying to come up
with a step-by-step solution for
my Berlin studio. And whenever I
work with museums and logistics
teams, I ask them to come up with
a response to the climate.
Our readers care about green
footprints, but does everyone?
I was with teenage children in
Ethiopia in January. They knew
all about global warming, they
understood about greenhouse
gases and how it wasn’t really
them, their parents or their
ecology that created this problem.
There is no place left where people
don’t know this. There are deniers
in places like the White House
who deny things because they’re
following other economic or
power priorities.
What can artists bring to the
climate debate?
Recently, a far right Danish
politician lost a huge number
In his element: Olafur
Eliasson’s Your Uncertain
Shadow (below)
of voters and one of the most
prominent members of that
party said, well, it’s all these
climate fools. And immediately,
across the political spectrum,
people picked up on it, saying
“I’m a clown, a fool, a klimatosser”.
If we’re going to re-engineer the
systems of tomorrow, we need
to risk being foolish. Previous
models of success can’t be
applied. The planet simply
can’t host them any longer.
We need to take risks.
“Art and culture
are hard work, not
consumerism. You
have to give something
to get something”
How has social media affected
your work?
It’s kind of the stone age,
the way people walk through
exhibitions. People walk up to
a piece of art that’s very tangible,
highly emotional, with sounds
and smells and all sorts of things –
and they just bloody look at their
phone! The problem isn’t
necessarily the audience, but
the way institutions over-explain
everything, as though without
a long text people just won’t get
it. And once we are used to that,
that’s how we react: “My God,
there was no text! I had to find
out everything myself!” I say, yes,
art and culture are hard work, not
consumerism. You have to give
something to get something.
Does activism consume much of
your working life?
I’m lucky that art can be seen
to be flirting with activism,
and maybe there is a fertilising
relationship there. But that’s one
of the good things about getting
older: you know there are things
that you aren’t good at. I’m very
content just being an artist.
But you run a business to
drive social change.
I have a social entrepreneurship
project called Little Sun, which
makes a small, handheld, portable
solar lantern. On one side, it has a
photovoltaic panel, on the other
an LED. It replaces the kerosene or
petroleum lantern that you would
have used previously. Obviously,
sitting with an open-wick
petroleum lantern is both very
unhealthy and very bad for the
climate. It’s also expensive.
Is the Little Sun a success?
We’ve done studies on the
impact of the lamp. Say a family
eats dinner, then the girl does
the dishes while the boy does his
homework. Once the girl is done,
she sits down only to find there’s
not enough petroleum left for her
homework. One study showed
that the Little Sun increased the
boy’s homework efficiency by
20 per cent, but increased the
girl’s efficiency by 80 per cent.
So the Little Sun project is
incredibly inspiring. ❚
London Green Film
Festival, at Regent’s
Place from 17 July, is
full of stories of how we
can all treat the planet a
little more kindly. There
is also the promise of
“indulgent vegan dirty
jackfruit”. Exciting times…
Kew Science Festival,
from 20 to 21 July,
offers visitors the latest
botanical science in the
beautiful and biodiverse
setting of the Royal
Botanic Gardens, Kew,
in London. This year’s
theme is “rare and
More Things in
the Heavens: How
infrared astronomy is
expanding our view of
the universe by Michael
Werner and Peter
Eisenhardt (Princeton
University Press) tours
the cosmos through the
Spitzer Space Telescope.
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 29
Explore our climate futures at New Scientist Live
Views Culture
The science of film
An American dream A drama about two cousins setting out to get seriously rich
by building a 1600-kilometre-long optical fibre link between New York and Kansas
is both funny and fascinating, says Simon Ings
Simon Ings is a novelist and
science writer and a culture
editor at New Scientist.
Follow him on Instagram
The Hummingbird
Written and directed
by Kim Nguyen
Simon also
The Social Network
Directed by David Fincher
Jesse Eisenberg plays
Facebook’s founder Mark
Zuckerberg in this
superlative tech just-so story.
The Big Short
Directed by Adam McKay
A meticulous takedown of
Wall Street with Steve Carell
and Christian Bale.
30 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
Jesse Eisenberg and
Alexander Skarsgård star
as cousins with a plan
IT IS 2011, a couple of years after
the Great Recession. Quantitative
analyst Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg)
and his programmer cousin Anton
(Alexander Skarsgård) have found
a way to steal a march on Wall
Street: trading a millisecond
ahead of the competition.
Where will they find this tiny,
telling pinch of extra time? They
plan to make it themselves, by
stretching an optical fibre from
Kansas City Internet Exchange
to New York in as straight a line
as possible. While everyone else
waits 17 milliseconds for their
information (the beat of a
hummingbird’s wing is the film’s
poetic, and accurate enough,
conceit), Vincent, Anton and their
backers will only have to wait 16
milliseconds. That’s time enough
to squeeze in a few thousand
algorithmically generated trades.
The trick will be to lay the cable
as straight as the law allows. Never
mind Amish farms, Appalachian
mountain ranges, loneliness,
obsession or physical frailty. They
will build this 1600-kilometrelong, 10-centimetre-wide fibre
tunnel if it kills them.
Scripted and filmed like a truelife story (after all, who in their
right mind would make up a
thriller about high-frequency
trading infrastructures?) The
Hummingbird Project, incredibly,
springs entirely from the head of
writer-director Kim Nguyen. It
can’t quite decide whether to be a
think piece or a buddy movie, but
“Do you recall when it
took a microsecond to
win or lose a fortune?
What slowcoaches we
were, eight years ago”
it can be staggeringly funny. Salma
Hayek has indecent amounts of
fun as Eva, the cousins’ abandoned
boss. In a frantic attempt to keep
them on her payroll, at one point
she shouts: “I think we can break
the walls of perception together!”
It is one of those stories that, in
being made up, encapsulates a lot
of historical and technical insight.
Hayek’s Eva can talk “nanosecond
financial engineering” all she
wants. As a sceptical investor
notes, her style of trading is really
just scalping: profiting off small,
short-lived price anomalies
between financial exchanges.
Scalping is hard because one
hefty loss wipes out millions of
tiny profitable trades. And it is
also impossible to do without
computers because markets adjust
quicker than the eye can follow.
When world markets crashed in
2008, this took a lot of the heat. It
was easier for politicians to point
the finger at runaway tech and
artificially accelerated trading
than to challenge and dismantle
key institutions. But while trading
algorithms have caused the odd
“flash crash”, they do far more to
sustain a market economy than
to threaten it. This is why so-called
mechanical arbitrage runs over
half the trades in many markets.
Vincent and Anton’s project is
entirely reasonable in a world that
puts commercial operations as
close to market exchanges as
possible to steal millisecond
advantages over competitors.
Hanging over the cousins’ project
is a rival bid to leave fibre behind
and send financial information by
microwave (and the discussion of
“pulse-shaping algorithms” will
warm the heart of any telecoms
engineer). Today, the industry is
even more complex, with atomic
clocks to arbitrate the timing of
financial information. Financial
instruments that scalp multiple
markets are driving the creation
of strategic data centres in unlikely
places, as banks head for space
via Elon Musk’s Starlink servers.
All of which gives the film a
curiously nostalgic feel. Do you
recall when it took a thousandth
of a second to win or lose a
fortune? What slowcoaches
we were, eight years ago. ❚
Features Cover story
The only
food advice
you need
Every week seems to bring contradictory advice
about diet. That’s because almost all nutritional
science is fatally flawed, finds Clare Wilson
NE morning a few months ago,
I saw a headline that made my
heart sink. It claimed that eggs
can give you heart attacks.
It wasn’t that I was about to eat eggs
for breakfast. It was because, as a medical
journalist, I knew friends and family would
soon ask me what to make of this claim. And
I would have a tough time answering. Advice
about what to eat seems to change every week.
Eggs are a classic example. They were
once seen as wholesome packages of
protein and vitamins, a perfect start to
the day. But in the 1960s we woke up to the
dangers of cholesterol. Eggs, which are rich
in this fatty substance, became frowned upon.
But wait! Around 20 years ago, our ideas
about cholesterol were revised: the amount in
our food no longer mattered, because it didn’t
really affect the levels in our blood and hence
our heart health. In the years that followed,
it became OK to eat eggs once more. Then in
March, the latest study showed the opposite
again – that cholesterol in eggs was bad for us.
Sometimes I wonder if we should believe
anything we read about food. That might
sound like an overreaction, but perhaps it
is a rational stance. A growing number of
scientists are now saying nutrition science
is so flawed that we can’t even trust pillars
of advice like eating plenty of vegetables
and avoiding saturated fat. Within certain
32 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
common sense boundaries, they say, it
doesn’t matter what we eat. But could that
really be true?
When I started researching this article,
I wondered if the doubters were being unfair.
Sure, occasional studies with unusual results
get seized on by the media, but maybe they
are unrepresentative of the wider field.
I discovered that this is the first response
of nutrition scientists when a journalist tries
to ask them, tactfully, if their field is broken.
“You have to be careful about not taking one
study and saying that’s the be-all and end-all,”
says Louis Levy, head of nutrition at Public
Health England. “You have to look at the
broader evidence.”
Yet the more I dug into the subject, the
more it became clear that, while misleading
media coverage is part of the problem, this
field’s flaws run much deeper. There are
huge amounts of research on diet published
every year, a lot of it funded by governments
concerned about rising levels of obesity and
diabetes. But even in the pages of respected
science journals, we find conflicting results
about much of what we eat and drink:
potatoes, dairy products, bacon, fruit juice,
alcohol, even water. And this isn’t just
quibbling over details: there is a major
fault line dividing the field over whether
we should eat food that is low in fat or
low in carbohydrates, for example.
Many of the problems stem from the fact
that the vast majority of food studies are
of a certain kind that makes them easier
to carry out but more likely to lead to false
conclusions. To understand their weakness,
consider the better kind of research, the
randomised controlled trial. Here, doctors ask
a random half of their subjects to take a new
medicine, while the rest take dummy pills that
look just like the real ones so no one knows
who is taking what. If those that take the real
drug end up in better health, there is a good
chance the medicine was responsible.
“Even the
of dietary
advice fail to
translate into
That kind of study is hard to do for food. Few
would agree to change their diet for years based
on the roll of a dice, and it would be hard to keep
secret what they are eating. So instead, nutrition
scientists usually observe what people eat by
asking them to fill out food diaries, and then
track the health of participants.
The big problem with these “observational”
studies is that eating certain foods tends to go
hand in hand with other behaviours that affect
health. People who eat what is generally seen
as an unhealthy diet – with more fast food, for
instance – tend to have lower incomes and
unhealthy lifestyles in other ways, such as
smoking and taking less exercise. Conversely,
eating supposed health foods correlates with
higher incomes, with all the benefits they bring.
These other behaviours are known as
confounders, because in observational studies
they can lead us astray. For example, even if
blueberries don’t affect heart attack rates, those
who eat more of them will have fewer heart
attacks, simply because eating blueberries
is a badge of middle-class prosperity.
Researchers use statistical techniques
to try to remove the distorting effects of
confounders. But no one knows for certain
which confounders to include, and picking
different ones can change results.
To show just how conclusions can vary
based on choice of confounders, Chirag Patel
at Harvard Medical School examined the
effects of taking a vitamin E supplement.
He used a massive data set from a respected
US study called the National Health and
Nutrition Examination Survey. Depending
on which mix of 13 possible confounders
are used, taking this vitamin can apparently
either reduce death rates, have no effect at all
or even raise deaths.
Patel says this shows researchers can get any
result they want out of their data, by plugging
into their analysis tools whatever confounders
give an outcome that fits their favoured diet,
be it low-fat or low-carbohydrate, vegetarian
or Mediterranean. “We have large studies that
measure all things simultaneously – it’s more
possible than ever to cherry pick,” he says.
Another source of error is known
as publication bias: studies that show
interesting results are more likely to get
published than those that don’t. So if two
studies look at red meat and cancer, for
instance, and only one shows a link, that
one is more likely to be published.
This bias happens at nearly every stage
of the long process from the initial research
to publication in a scientific journal and
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 33
Food for thought
Out of the roughly 1 million papers that have
been published in nutrition, only a tiny fraction,
perhaps a few hundred, are large, good-quality
randomised trials, says Ioannidis. The rest are
mainly observational studies, small or poorly
designed trials, opinion pieces, or reviews that
summarise the results of other papers, with
all their potential flaws. Even national dietary
guidelines are based on this kind of work.
And what do the few hundred
decent-sized, randomised trials find?
Here is the clincher: when the trials test
the dietary recommendations based on
observational studies, the strategies almost
never succeed at extending lifespan. The
studies either find no effect, or one that
is much smaller than that predicted by
observational studies – so small as to be
practically meaningless. Usually any change
isn’t in rates of deaths, cancer or heart attacks,
but in “biomarkers”; these are generally
substances in the blood, such as cholesterol,
that are thought to affect health outcomes,
but the evidence isn’t clear-cut. “There is
almost nothing that finds you can live longer,”
says Ioannidis.
Take the idea of vitamin pills for the
healthy general population. Many
observational studies suggested that taking
various vitamin supplements kept people
healthier. But when these ideas were tested
in trials, the pills either had no effect or
actually made people die sooner.
Fish oil supplements, too, have been shown
to have no benefit in clinical trials, despite
dozens of observational studies claiming the
opposite. Yet dietary advice in many countries,
including Australia, the UK and the US is still
that people should eat oily fish regularly.
34 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
Even the linchpins of today’s dietary
advice fail to translate into unambiguous
benefits when put to the test. “There are
no randomised controlled trials showing
whole grains, fruit and veg or fibre affect
mortality or heart attacks or cancer rates,”
says Levy. “It’s just not plausible to do a
trial following a large enough group over
a sufficient period to see enough deaths.”
That’s right. Despite all the urging that we
should “eat a rainbow” of different-coloured
plant foods, aiming for five portions a day – or
maybe seven or even nine, depending on who
you listen to – no trial has shown that doing
so makes us live longer.
The same goes for eating wholegrain
versions of foods such as bread, pasta and rice,
which is recommended for the fibre content.
The best support that randomised trials have
given us here is that a type of fibre found
in oats, called beta-glucan, brings small
improvements in blood pressure and
cholesterol levels. But these effects are
so small that it is unclear they would protect
you from a heart attack, and to achieve them
requires eating the equivalent of three bowls
of porridge a day – something most people
would find hard to swallow.
Then we come to the shambles over
advice on fat. Numerous national guidelines
say we can prevent heart attacks by avoiding
saturated fat, mainly found in red meat
and dairy products. Again, not one single
randomised trial has shown that doing this
saves lives, says Susan Jebb at the University
“The problem
is serious
enough that
we should
be sceptical
of all dietary
ultimately to news stories, if journalists like
me write about it. “What you see published in
the nightly news is the end result of a system
where everyone is incentivised to come up
with a positive result,” says Vinay Prasad
at Oregon Health and Science University.
Prasad is an oncologist who has highlighted
the lack of evidence behind certain cancer
medicines. But he says nutrition research is
in a worse state than his own field. “And they
don’t seem to want to improve themselves.”
It is impossible to quantify exactly how
much confounders and publication bias
are distorting the field. But they are enough
of a problem that we should be sceptical of
all dietary advice, says data scientist John
Ioannidis at Stanford University in California.
of Oxford, one of the UK’s highest-profile
nutrition researchers. The problem is that
trials generally don’t last very long, she says,
while diet takes years to affect health.
“And people don’t necessarily stick to the
diet you have recommended.”
Although they can’t show that saturated
fat reduction saves lives, some trials have at
least changed cholesterol levels in ways that
should, in theory, cut heart attacks, says Jebb.
Yet here the evidence is contradictory from
one trial to the next. There is no help even
from meta-analyses, which combine the
results from multiple trials to try to get
an overall picture. One meta-analysis
concludes that replacing saturated fat
with unsaturated is good for our cholesterol
and another shows no effect. To add to the
confusion, we lack a clear understanding of
how cholesterol affects our arteries, making
it unreliable as a biomarker for heart health.
Then there is the low-carbing craze. Some
trials show that people can lose weight and
reverse diabetes by eating a diet that is low in
carbohydrates, but high in saturated fat. And
it doesn’t raise cholesterol levels, contrary to
what government dietary guidelines suggest,
although it isn’t known if the approach would
be safe in people with a genetic condition that
causes high cholesterol. It should also be noted
that low-carbing hasn’t been shown in trials
to extend lifespan any more than “traditional”
low-fat diets. And low-carbing isn’t the only
way to lose weight or manage diabetes:
people can do the same on a low-fat diet.
This is why one week we will hear that
experts recommend low-carbing, and the
next, a different set of experts will be telling
us to avoid meat and eat a low-fat, plant-based
diet. “You can find evidence to back up any
position you want to confirm your existing
beliefs,” says Anthony Warner, a UK food
industry chef who skewers fad diets in his
books and blogging. “The one conflict of
interest that’s never mentioned is people’s
ideologies – there’s a lot of ideology in diet.”
The simplest explanation for this mess of
contradictions is that there are no underlying
truths waiting to be discovered, says Ioannidis.
It is all just random noise in the data.
That doesn’t mean we can now eat as much
cake as we like, because when we become
seriously overweight, it physically strains
the circulatory system and joints. But it does
suggest that within limits of common sense
and moderation, one way of eating is about
as good as another. “If you overeat massively,
that’s going to be unhealthy. And there’s a floor
beneath which you really can’t go. But if you do
everything in moderation, you’ll be fine,” says
Amy Tuteur, a former obstetrician and writer
who is another critic of nutrition research.
It would be unfair to conclude that nutrition
science has taught us nothing, though. It was
thanks to dietary studies that we identified the
vitamin deficiencies of malnutrition, such
as rickets, caused by a lack of vitamin D. More
recently, it was nutritionists who showed that
pregnant women could protect their babies
from the spinal disorder spina bifida by taking
folic acid supplements, and that people
with high blood pressure can bring it down
by cutting salt intake. Interestingly, these
last two findings have been demonstrated
in randomised trials, showing that they can
be done, when there is a real effect to find.
But these successes came some time ago.
“Nutrition science did an amazing job in
terms of addressing deficiencies,” says
Warner. “But when we started having
enough to eat, that science tends not to
give as many clear answers.”
Ioannidis says nutrition researchers need to
universally adopt the good research practices
seen elsewhere, such as pre-registering all
studies, including stating which confounders
they will use, to prevent cherry-picking
after the results come in. Prasad goes further,
saying there should be a moratorium on
observational studies until the problems are
fixed. “The public is becoming so fatigued
with flip-flopping advice that they are losing
faith in science more broadly.”
In the meantime, common sense and
moderation feel like an unsatisfyingly vague
set of dietary principles. And of course, many
of us have reasons other than health for eating
one way or another, such as forgoing meat for
ethical or environmental reasons. Dietary
fibre helps prevent constipation, and no
one needs a randomised trial to prove that.
Can it really be safe to just follow our gut?
Duane Mellor, a spokesperson for the British
Dietetic Association, says that it might be a
reasonable strategy if it weren’t for the fact
that we are now surrounded by tempting
high-calorie foods, and lots of us simply can’t
help overeating. “If we had no food guidelines
at all, what would regulate industry?” he says.
I can’t think of a good answer.
I must admit to some biases of my own.
I am happy to accept the evidence that
saturated fat has been unfairly maligned
all these years, which conveniently means
I can eat things like red meat and butter.
Yet I find it hard to let go of the idea that it
is good for me to eat whole grains and fruit
and veg. I try to eat quite a lot of these foods,
mainly because I like them or perhaps
because I am middle class. I will probably
continue, even though I accept that there
is little evidence to support doing so. It looks
like I’m not immune to ideology either. ❚
Clare Wilson is a medicine
and health reporter for
New Scientist. Follow her
on Twitter @ClareWilsonMed
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 35
Features Special
36 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
In the 1960s, astronauts trained
in mock cockpits and rigs that
simulated the effects of thrusters
on a capsule’s orientation
T USED to feel like the moon was
somewhere we visited half a
lifetime ago, then forgot about. But
as we approach the 50th anniversary
of the Apollo 11 landing on 20 July, the
world seems to be entering a second era
of moon fever. In January, China became
the first country to land a rover on the
far side of the moon. India is set to
launch its first lander before the year
is out. And the US has vowed to return
humans to the dusty lunar plains by
2024. The moon is cool again.
The second space race comes with
new, 21st-century challenges. To rise to
them, the world will need to consider
our satellite’s past, present and future,
as we do over the next 10 pages. If we are
to visit again, it is worth remembering
what a prodigious effort it took the first
time, not just in terms of cash, but
ingenuity (page 37). Samples from the
moon have taught us plenty about
Earth, and planetary systems beyond
our own too, and there is so much more
to learn if we pick the right places to
land (page 39). Most importantly, we
must understand why we are going back
and who we want to send (page 42).
For most of the past half century,
only robotic missions have made
it to the moon, such as the GRAIL
probes, launched in 2011
Before anyone had even been
to space, engineers had to
figure out how to operate there.
Nancy Atkinson investigates
how NASA did it
OW did the crew of Apollo 11 know how
to land on the moon? Practice. In the
early days of the space race, NASA engineers
spent countless hours simulating space flight
before the first astronaut ever left Earth. That
is why most Fridays in 1960, Harold Miller
and Dick Koos took the “fruit flight” from
Cape Canaveral in Florida to NASA’s Langley
Research Center in Virginia.
Miller and Koos had been part of a small
team working on space simulations at Langley
for about a year. But eventually they needed
to move their operations far from their homes,
to Florida, where the mission control would
be based. The passenger planes that flew them
home from Florida’s Patrick Air Force Base at
the end of the week were always loaded with
the Sunshine State’s citrus bounty. When
travellers grabbed their bags at the end of the
journey, they could also get a large sack of
oranges for $3.
Cheap fruit was one of the few perks of
working at the Mercury Control Center and
launch facilities on the isolated and jungle-like
Cape Canaveral all week. If a test rocket blew up
(which happened about half the time in those
days) and a brush fire started, you had to watch
out for the alligators or wild hogs trying to
escape the flames.
Project Mercury, NASA’s first human spaceflight programme, had the goal of putting
humans in Earth orbit and getting them safely
down again – preferably before the Soviet
Union did so. But in those days, no one knew
for certain if a person could stay alive, let alone
work, in the weightless environment of space.
Even if they could, no one knew how humans
should operate a spacecraft.
Miller, Koos and the small simulation task
group were charged with figuring out not only
how to train the Mercury astronauts to fly in
space, but also with training the fledgling flight
control team on the ground. Like everything
else under NASA’s purview at that time, it
meant figuring out how to do things that had
never been done before.
“My first trip to Florida in 1960,” Koos recalls,
“Harold gave me a tour around the cape, and I
said, ‘it sure is sink or swim around here.’ And
he said, ‘That’s right. And we don’t have time
to teach you how to swim either.’ And that’s >
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 37
384,400 km
The moon’s average
distance from Earth
really what it was. Everything was happening
so fast; it was like drinking out of a fire hose.”
Chris Kraft, NASA’s first flight director, had
the idea to combine the training for flight
controllers with the astronaut crew training,
because astronauts would work closely with
mission control during the flights. Members
of the simulation group needed to organise
these “integrated simulations”.
In a back room at the first Mission Control
Center at Cape Canaveral they used the
Mercury cockpit trainer, a rudimentary
spacecraft simulator that contained replica
switches, gauges, dials and controls – just like
the real Mercury spacecraft that would soon
carry the first Americans into space. All the
instrumentation was connected to a computer
console that could manipulate the readouts.
In turn, the readouts were wired to the basic
consoles developed for the flight control
team so it could monitor the spacecraft’s
“dashboard” during a mission.
The simulations used a room-sized
computer to recreate the gauge readings
of many events that would take place in a
spacecraft during a real mission. Ways were
38 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
29.5 Earth days
The number of new missions to
the moon set to launch in 2019
The length of the moon’s day
“Everything going on
at NASA in its early
days involved
figuring out how to
do things that had
never been done”
simulations, mission controllers went through
every system, working out what could be done
if the spacecraft malfunctioned. This helped
them produce guidance for what to do in the
event of almost every potential glitch.
Looking back now, the initial training runs
were crude, says Miller. But they built a closeknit team and helped prepare the astronauts
and the flight controllers for all the possible
contingencies in the various phases of flight.
When the Mercury missions to Earth orbit
began in 1961, the simulations continued.
The weekly trips to the launch base in Florida
turned into longer stays, mostly because
of launch time slips due to bad weather or
problems with rockets. One stretch had
Miller and Koos there for six weeks straight.
The entire space programme kept moving at
an incredible pace. Just as the Mercury flights
got started, President Kennedy challenged
NASA to reach the moon before the end of the
1960s. The simulation group knew that would
mean an even bigger job. After Mercury came
the Gemini missions, again to Earth orbit, but
they were longer and involved space walks.
And the Apollo missions that followed would
also developed to inject problems during the
simulations. Staff could fake a huge drop in
cabin pressure, for instance, or loss of the
manoeuvring thrusters. They could also
make the various gauges in the cockpit show
readings that called for a simulated abort or
flight modifications.
Unrealistic problems were deemed off
limits, but the simulation team’s goal was
to think about all the things that could go
wrong so that flight controllers could develop
solutions to have at their fingertips. Using
Our satellite has revealed
secrets of the solar system
– and much more besides,
says Stuart Clark
The Mercury Control Center with
simulation capsule (middle) was
where practising for space began.
But everything had to be simulated
in advance, from reduced gravity
walking (far left) to the way the
lunar lander’s engines would kick
up dust (near left).
involve finally landing on the moon. It all had
to be practised in advance.
The simulation operations moved to the
new Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston,
Texas. With better computers and more
functional cockpit simulators – some even
had a moving base to recreate the motion of
a spacecraft – Miller and Koos’s team devised
more sophisticated and complex scenarios.
The mission control building had no
windows, but that hardly mattered, says Miller.
During the run-up to Apollo, the team usually
worked seven days a week, and 10 to 12 hours
a day. There was no time to glance out of the
window, let alone leave the building.
The simulation supervisors began to
develop reputations for being diabolical,
with the crazy, complicated problems they
concocted. “In the Star Wars era, we would
have been considered to be on the dark side,”
jokes Koos. But they had an uncanny knack
for coming up with problems that ultimately
happened during real missions. For example,
they inserted engine failures in several early
Apollo simulations. Then during the uncrewed
Apollo 6 flight, two engines shut down
prematurely. Because of the training, the flight
control team knew to burn the remaining
three engines longer to compensate.
The most celebrated instance might be the
“1202” computer alarms that occurred during
the Apollo 11 lunar landing. This obscure error
code signalled that the lunar module’s
navigation computer was overloaded and
needed to reboot. The flight control team knew
how essential the navigation computer was for
the lunar landing, and might have called it off.
However, just a few days before Apollo 11
launched, Koos introduced the same computer
alarms in the final training run, and one of the
flight controllers knew the computer could
handle a reboot. Without that simulation, Neil
Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s Apollo 11 moon
landing may have very well been aborted,
changing forever the mission’s distinguished
place in space history. ❚
Nancy Atkinson is a science writer
based in Minnesota. Her latest
book is Eight Years to the Moon:
The history of the Apollo missions
HERE have been more than 70 successful
missions to the moon: fly-bys, orbiters,
landers and of course 12 moonwalkers. After
Earth, it is the most studied celestial object
in our solar system. These missions have
unlocked the moon’s geological history,
determined its internal structure and
measured its surface composition. The
conclusions of those explorations stretch
well beyond the barren lunar surface.
“The moon has been Earth’s sister through
these last four and a half billion years,”
says Katherine Joy, a lunar geologist at the
University of Manchester, UK. Like all
siblings, the moon has secrets to tell.
The same astronomical processes that have
influenced Earth have also been felt by the
moon. Yet while weathering and the restless
shifting of the continents on our planet
have largely erased the most ancient events
from our geological record, that isn’t true
of moon rocks. “The moon is a tape recorder
of terrestrial processes,” says Joy.
Decoding the tape began in earnest 50 years
ago, when the first moon rocks were collected
by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
During a 2 hour and 36 minute moonwalk,
they pocketed 22 kilograms of the lunar
surface, then brought it back to Earth for
analysis. Another five Apollo missions added
to the tally, returning a total of 2200 samples
that collectively weigh 382 kilograms.
The dust and rocks kept at the Johnson
Space Center in Houston, Texas, are treated
as a priceless scientific and cultural resource.
“Of the 2200 numbered samples, all but
six have been looked at in some manner
or another,” says Ryan Zeigler, NASA’s lunar
sample curator. About half of each sample
is kept in reserve for future study. And for
good reason. Over the years, improved
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 39
2.5 seconds
The time to wait for a reply
when video-chatting to
someone on the moon
-233°C and 123°C
Temperatures measured at
the coldest and hottest points
on the moon
Number of people who have
walked on the moon, all
between 1969 and 1972
“The collision that formed the
moon was so hard that the
Earth seems to have entirely
melted in the process”
The Lunar Sample Laboratory
Facility (top) at NASA’s
Johnson Space Center is
where moon rock samples
are stored. One experiment
tried culturing plant material
on lunar soil, which turned it
a greeny-yellow (bottom).
40 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
4.5 billion years
These are the smallest particles
brought back from the moon,
magnified many times. With no wind
to smooth them off, moon dust tends
to stay sharp and spiky
The age of the moon
instrumentation has allowed us to make
ever more sensitive measurements. “Each
one of those opens up a new avenue of study
about the moon,” says Zeigler.
It also allows us to re-examine old questions
in light of more precise information. Of these,
the biggest question is how the moon formed.
“We look up in the sky and see the moon and
we want to know why it’s there, and how it got
there,” says Zoe Leinhardt, an astrophysicist at
the University of Bristol, UK. But researchers
keep revisiting this question and changing the
answer bit by bit.
Astronomers have toyed with many ideas
about the moon’s origin. Perhaps Earth was
spinning very fast and a piece broke off?
Or maybe the moon was wandering through
space and was captured by our gravity? In 1946,
Canadian geologist Reginald Aldworth Daly
proposed what we now think is the right idea:
that a smaller planet hit Earth, kicking out a
ring of debris from which the moon formed.
In their first investigations of the Apollo moon
rocks, geologists found good evidence that
this was the case. The moon rocks looked
sufficiently similar to Earth rocks to suggest
that the pulverised impactor had been mixed
with a large portion of Earth debris.
Modern reanalysis shows that the moon
rocks are in fact almost identical to Earth’s.
In terms of the giant impact formation
The moon experience
Be entranced by a 7-metre model
of the moon. Touch moon rocks.
Explore what the moon smells like.
Maggie Aderin-Pocock
Hear her talk about what the moon
has done for us.
Welcome to Lunarville
Architect Daniel Inocente will speak
about how he designed a moon village
model, that means just one thing: “They
had such a big impact that they were totally,
intimately mixed up,” says Leinhardt.
Her colleagues Simon Lock and Sarah
Stewart developed a new model in which
Earth was hit so hard that it melted, absorbing
the impactor and surrounding itself with a
doughnut shaped cloud of vaporised rock.
They think the moon formed out of this,
explaining the similarity of the rocks.
“The moon rocks have given us a huge
amount of information. What we need is to
be able to make an entire story,” says Leinhardt.
This involves using computers to simulate
this cataclysmic event from the moment of
impact to the birth of the moon.
At present, the simulations can’t follow
the process from beginning to end. They
can simulate the formation of the debris
doughnut, called a synestia, but can’t follow
its condensation into the moon. And while
they can keep track of the temperature and
pressure of the synestia, they don’t include
any chemistry. To make progress, Leinhardt
says better computing rather than more
exploration is necessary.
Although Leinhardt doesn’t think new
samples from the moon will be helpful for her
investigations, what happened to the moon
after it formed has got other researchers
itching for a return mission.
Even a casual glance at the moon reveals
dark markings across its surface. They are
thought to have begun forming during a
relatively short period called the late heavy
bombardment. Evidence came from the
Apollo samples, many of which are about
3.9 billion years old. These suggest a period
lasting somewhere between about 20 million
and 100 million years in which the moon
and the rest of the solar system were heavily
pummelled by asteroids, creating large
impact basins we see on the moon’s surface.
That may not be entirely accurate. “Our
ideas are changing as we are reanalysing those
samples,” says Joy. Part of that reanalysis is
intended to help understand where the moon
rocks came from. None of the Apollo samples
were bedrock – rocks sampled in the place
where they formed – and this has robbed
geologists of the geographical context needed
to fully interpret their results.
It is now thought that most of the Apollo
samples could be the debris ejected during the
formation of the Imbrium basin, a vast crater
formed 3.9 billion years ago. If so, the late
heavy bombardment never happened – we
were fooled into believing it did by a single
huge event that scattered rocks across the
lunar nearside.
“This could be a massive bias in how
we’ve been interpreting these samples,”
says Joy. “For the next generation of
spacecraft, actually picking places where we
can go to sample bedrock is going to be really,
really important.”
Migrating giants
In this way, the true ages of other basins can
be determined. And it will show whether there
was a short, sharp late heavy bombardment
or a continual rain over a longer period.
It isn’t just about the Earth and the moon,
either. If moon rocks have taught us anything,
it is that the entire solar system is connected.
Indeed, knowledge about the surfaces of
Mercury, Venus and Mars has come from
counting craters on the moon and relating
that to the ages of the moon rocks. The late
heavy bombardment, however it unfolded,
was probably caused by gas giant planets
including Jupiter migrating through the
solar system, knocking asteroids out of their
way, some of which sailed towards Earth.
Because our solar system is thought to
form in essentially the same way as other
planetary systems, we are now realising that
the moon can teach us about things beyond
the reaches of our star’s influence. “There are
lots of giant impacts that happen at the end
of a solar system’s formation. That would
happen in extrasolar systems as well,” says
Leinhardt. She says that understanding giant
impacts is the key to grasping the diversity
of those planetary systems, and comparing
them with our own. It may even help tell us
which exoplanets are likely to be habitable,
because in our solar system the moon’s
gravitational pull stops Earth toppling over,
keeping its climate stable.
“Moon rocks have told us about so many
other places than just the moon,” says Zeigler.
And with a return on the cards in the near
future, who knows what family secrets our
sibling still has to share. ❚
Stuart Clark is an astronomy writer
based in Hertfordshire, UK. His
latest book is The Unknown
Universe (Head of Zeus)
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 41
For more moon-related fun, turn to page 52
and a special selection of puzzles celebrating
50 years since the Apollo 11 landing
There are many reasons to return
to the lunar surface. The ones we
pick will shape it forever, says
Rebecca Boyle
We have left an
extraordinary array of
objects on the moon.
Chelsea Whyte picks
through the rubbish
42 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
THE moon looks pristine from our
vantage point. But there have been six
crewed moon landings and about 20
successful rover and lander missions
on its surface, and these have left
rather a lot of mess behind them.
Both intentionally and by accident,
we have scattered detritus across
the lunar surface during our attempts
to land there and as the Apollo
astronauts explored the desolate
Now a new space race is heating
up, and astronauts may soon
return to what Buzz Aldrin called its
“magnificent desolation”. If they do,
they may well come across some of
“not because it was easy, but because it was
hard”. And to beat the communists. In 2069,
humans go for many reasons. Some are drawn
to the bleak beauty of this place. Others are
more interested in making life-saving drugs
or fibre-optic cables with better quality than
is possible on Earth. And there is a good deal
of money to be made too. People pay a lot for
tomatoes, textiles and art from the moon.
But none of this would be possible if,
50 years earlier, people hadn’t decided to
go back, for reasons including the simple
fact that they could.
the estimated 187,000 kilograms of
rubbish strewn across it. Here is some
of what they might find.
China’s Chang’e 4 rover landed on
the moon in January, bringing with
it the first moon garden. In a sealed
biosphere, cotton, oilseed rape and
potato became the first plants that
we know of to germinate on another
world. After the probe lost power, the
plants probably died as the freezing
lunar night fell over them. But this
experiment is a landmark step towards
building a flourishing lunar base where
humans can farm their own crops.
HACKLETON BASE, JULY 2069 – The habitat’s
carbon-fibre dome glistens as the lunar day
dawns. Inside, men and women are tending to
rows of tomato plants, the leaves curled towards
the sun, the trusses bearing huge fruit. Growing
in gravity that is just 17 per cent of Earth’s, the
plants’ fuzzy stalks don’t need help carrying
their load, so they spread widely.
Some of the tomatoes are almost ripe, and
will make a fine welcome treat for the new
arrivals in a couple of Earth-days, coming for
the 100th anniversary ceremony.
A century ago, humans went to the moon
It is nothing to be embarrassed about:
everyone needs to defecate, even
space explorers. And when the Apollo
astronauts were planning their trip
5.5 km
The number of rovers that
have trundled across the
lunar surface
Base to peak height of the
moon’s tallest mountain,
Mons Huygens
382 kg
Billionaire Yusaku Maezawa
(above) has bought all the seats
on a trip around the moon planned
for 2023. There are many visions
for moon bases (left)
Shackleton Base is imaginary, for now. What
is real is this: a generation after the Apollo
missions, the people preparing to visit the
moon look different to their forebears.
They aren’t all white American men, for a
start (for all that the Soviet Union made the
running early on in the space race, when it
came to putting someone on the moon, it
never really got close). Neither are they all
specially trained astronauts; they include
artists and billionaires. There are people from
China, Japan and Europe, and many will launch
far from Cape Canaveral. Once they reach their
In a long, narrow depression to the
west of the Montes Apenninus, a
mountain range in the moon’s
northern hemisphere, is a memorial
to eight American astronauts and
six Soviets who died in the pursuit
of space travel. The 8.5-centimetre
Earth and other planets or to be burned to
generate power. Water prospecting is likely to
draw people to the moon’s shadowed craters,
especially at the south pole, where spacecraft
have sniffed its presence for the past decade.
Under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload
Services programme, private firms are
competing for grants to design spacecraft that
can deliver various landers and instruments,
including some that can search for resources
like water. In March, when US vice-president
Mike Pence directed NASA to return humans
to the moon by 2024 for a landing at the south
pole, he highlighted its abundant water.
But water harvesting is only one element of
the moon’s possible future. It can be more than
a place where people are allowed to extract
resources for profit. Perhaps it will end up as
an environmental reserve, where mining is
banned but tourists can enjoy hiking trips,
albeit pretty extreme trips. Or it could be a
bastion of research for its own sake, much
like Antarctica’s various scientific outposts.
Now is the time to decide, according to
anthropologists who study space exploration.
To figure out what the next crop of
moonwalkers will look like, we must first decide
why we want to send them, says Lisa Messeri, an
anthropologist at Yale University. “What I want
for our spacefaring future is honesty about our
reasons for going,” she says. “Apollo was as much
political as it was anything else, but it was always
couched in the language of science and human
ingenuity, and I think that led to the kinds of
people who were selected and who went.”
The Apollo astronauts were mostly pilots
with a penchant for danger, hastily trained in >
metal sculpture is in the crude shape
of an astronaut. It was commissioned
and placed on the moon by the crew
of Apollo 15, alongside a plaque
commemorating their lost comrades.
To learn about the interior of the
moon, Apollo astronauts used
explosives to give it a good thump
and then measured the ensuing
sound waves wobbling through its
rocky subsurface. The explosives were
either remotely launched after they
left the moon, or were set to go off
days after a grenade-like pin was
pulled by astronauts, who then made
home, they jettisoned as much weight
from the spacecraft as they could to
make room for the cargo of heavy
moon rocks they were bringing back
to Earth. The materials they ejected
included 96 bags of faeces and urine
(pictured left).
destination, they might live in inflatable
shelters, single-occupancy domes connected
like Lego bricks and larger 3D-printed habitats.
And once they arrive, they will change the
moon and our relationship with it for good.
Most of the countries and companies vying
to go back to the moon will want to claw back
some of their huge investments, so mining
is likely to be one of the first activities on
the agenda. Water will probably be the most
valuable resource on Earth’s satellite, at least to
begin with. It could be split into hydrogen and
oxygen to make rocket fuel for return trips to
The mass of moon rocks
returned to Earth
their escape using lunar buggies. The
mortar launchers remain on the moon
(pictured above), but who knows if
they would still work after decades
of exposure to the harsh conditions.
The most recent attempt to land on
the moon took place in April 2019
and ended with the crash of the
privately funded Beresheet spacecraft.
However, its payload was well
protected and might just have survived
the impact. The lander was carrying a
disc with a 30-million page data library
that includes the English version of
Wikipedia, tens of thousands of books
and the technical instructions for David
Copperfield’s illusions. An orbiting
NASA craft has spotted the crash site,
so future explorers would know where
to look for the answers.
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 43
geology during field expeditions to Arizona
and Iceland. Just one geologist, Harrison “Jack”
Schmitt, went to the moon, on Apollo 17,
though he also advised other missions.
Messeri says more inclusive lunar futures are
only possible if mission planners are clear
about what they want.
“If we are going for mining, then say that; say
this is what we want to invest in. If it’s to expand
human frontiers or inspire the next generation,
then great, send artists,” Messeri says. “We can
make the decision as a community to spend a
huge amount of money to send artists to space,
and that seems to me as legitimate and worthy
as sending a bunch of miners.”
Last year, Japanese billionaire Yusaku
Maezawa made headlines when he bought
all the seats on a SpaceX capsule that the
company’s CEO Elon Musk wants to send
around the moon in 2023. Maezawa said he
planned to bring artists and performers, who
would be commissioned to create new works
inspired by what they see. “If John Lennon
could have seen the curvature of the Earth,
what kind of songs would he have written?”
he said at the time.
Maezawa’s plan contrasts with the way Musk
often talks about future space settlements on
the moon and Mars, says Lucianne Walkowicz,
an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in
Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard
went to a lot of trouble to have a bit of
fun on the moon. When he boarded
the spacecraft, he brought with him
two golf balls and a specially designed
golf club head, which he attached to
the handle of a soil and rock sampling
device to forge a makeshift club. He
hit two shots: the first sliced to the
side and rolled into a crater, but the
second flew about 180 metres. Fore!
Galileo is said to have dropped two
balls of different weights off the
Leaning Tower of Pisa, proving
44 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
Chicago. She says she finds a lot of his rhetoric
objectionable, partly because it doesn’t
imagine an inclusive future and partly because
he uses inappropriate language. Using terms
like “colonising” space, for example, recalls a
violent history of colonial subjugation, which
continues to exclude people of colour and
women from the imagined future of space,
she says. “I felt it was not only harmful to the
way we imagine space exploration, but that
it whitewashes a lot of history on Earth.”
In a gesture towards inclusivity, NASA’s
administrator announced that the Artemis
programme to return humans to the moon by
2024, will include the first woman among its
hammer and a falcon feather
(pictured left) taken from a US Air
Force mascot. The vacuum of space
eliminates air resistance and the
feather hit the lunar soil at the same
time as the hammer.
gravity’s pull on them was unrelated
to their mass when they hit the
ground at the same time. Apollo 15
astronaut David Scott performed a
version of this experiment using a
With NASA and others eyeing a
return to the moon, it looks likely that
humans will return in the not-toodistant future (see “The next moon
walkers”, page 42). This time we
ought to go forth with a cleaner
mentality, says Vera Assis Fernandes,
a lunar geologist at the University of
Manchester, UK.
We may as well leave the debris
from our past excursions where it is,
she says. “If we clean up the mess,
we will also be disturbing the lunar
environment.” So what is there can
stay as a kind of monument to
explorations past.
But we should take better care
over what we abandon there in the
future. The moon is a finite resource,
and we can’t just trash it and hope
that we won’t run into the same
problems we have seen on Earth.
“There’s a revival of interest in the
moon without a great pondering,”
says Assis Fernandes. “Do we want
to do the same damage there that
we’ve done to this planet?” ❚
187,000 kg
Estimated mass of
rubbish left on the moon
NASA is among those
planning a base on the
moon, envisaging
habitations (far left) as
part of a larger complex
(left). Meanwhile, the use
of robots for lunar mining is
tested on Earth (centre left)
crew. Named after Apollo’s sister, a Greek
goddess of the moon, the mission will include
an orbiting lunar space station enabling sorties
to the moon’s surface.
China is also developing the hardware it will
need to land its taikonauts on the moon. In
2018, the country accelerated development of
its Long March 9 rocket, similar in size to the
Saturn V that launched the Apollo missions.
Chinese officials have said the rocket will
power its first lunar surface missions in the
2030s. China’s plans may be one reason for the
sudden US interest in returning to the moon
within the next five years, instead of NASA’s
original plan for a 2028 time frame.
If the next moonwalkers aren’t Chinese
taikonauts or female NASA crew members
searching for water, maybe they will be space
miners sent by Jeff Bezos. In May, the Amazon
boss, also founder of rocket company Blue
Origin, unveiled a new lunar lander design
called Blue Moon. He said the lander would
help NASA meet Trump’s goal to send
astronauts to the moon by 2024. “It’s time to
go back to the moon, this time to stay,” Bezos
said during the announcement.
Citizens of the moon
If China, the US and private companies make
it to the moon, they might encounter an
international moon village, a plan espoused
by the European Space Agency’s director
general, Jan Woerner. Future moon citizens
could include all of the above, mixing jobs and
objectives. Taikonauts exploring at the south
“Maybe the moon will
be a reserve where
mining is prohibited
but tourists enjoy
extreme hiking”
pole may, for instance, cross paths with radio
astronomers erecting an observatory on the
moon’s far side. From that vantage point,
the moon blocks radio transmissions and
noise leaking from Earth. This real estate is
potentially so valuable that Claudio Maccone
at the National Institute for Astrophysics in
Italy recently called for a radio-free zone on the
far side. If that is to be realised, governments
and private entities may need to establish
firmer rules for how the moon should be used.
Some argue that the moon should be treated
like a national park, with rules designed to
keep it pristine. But the legal framework for
doing this is unclear, says Sara Langston, a
space ethicist at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical
University in Daytona Beach, Florida. “If we
want to establish some normative framework
that creates a duty of humans to the moon
as another environmental area, what does
that mean?” she says. It could be that not just
governments, but scientists and citizens
ought to have a part in setting the rules.
But recognising the intrinsic value of the
environment on the moon is probably going
51 hours 49 minutes
The time it took Apollo 11 to get
from Earth to lunar orbit
to be harder than it is on Earth, says Moriba Jah,
who studies space debris at the University of
Texas at Austin. “If people don’t see it hit their
pocket, they don’t get very concerned with it,”
says Jah. “But near-Earth space, and other
planetary resources, are a commons. It belongs
to all peoples. Going by the premise of firstcome, first-served, without any regard to the
long-term sustainability of the environment,
is just not right.”
Today, the laws of space are governed by
the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which rules
that celestial bodies, including the moon, can’t
be claimed by any country or enterprise. But
the treaty doesn’t prohibit mining or other
activities. The 108 nations that are parties
to the treaty, as well as private companies,
all operate as though the moon is similar to
international waters. Two hundred nautical
miles from a coastline, the oceans belong to
everyone and no one. The countries that can
access that territory will be the first to access
its contents, and possibly get rich from it.
There is one other perspective to consider:
that of the moon itself. An average person’s
lifespan is a blip compared with the time
that has elapsed since the moon formed.
“This gives humans a very unrealistic sense
of time, with a sense of urgency to accomplish
as much as possible within those 70 years,”
wrote Vera Assis Fernandes, at the University
of Manchester, UK, in a recent essay. She argues
that a truly sustainable lunar environment
would mean leaving it alone.
“The celestial body closest to the Earth
is an important, powerful and fragile
environment that needs to be understood
and taken into consideration before we set
sail to it again,” she wrote. “Have we ever
asked why humans want to return to the
moon and then colonise it? There is a need
to acknowledge the moon as an entity
beyond ourselves that needs to be respected.”
Walkowicz says the next wave of lunar
missions can do better if we think ahead and
have inclusivity in mind. “Going to space is
hard. If it’s going to be hard in the engineering
sense, then why pretend that the human
community and inclusion is too hard?”
Walkowicz says. “If we’re going to be patting
ourselves on the back for doing the hard
things, we might as well do all of them.” ❚
Rebecca Boyle is a freelance writer
in St Louis, Missouri. She is writing a
book about humanity’s relationship
with the moon
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 45
Features Interview
Caught before the act
Shane Johnson is a pioneer of predictive policing. The approach is already
changing how we tackle crime, he tells Joshua Howgego
PREMONITION tells me I will enjoy
meeting a professor of future crimes
at University College London.
And I do: his work is fascinating. As well as
forecasting how new technologies can be
exploited by criminals, Shane Johnson studies
which policing strategies really work. He is
helping to run one of the most sophisticated
predictive policing experiments yet, being
trialled on the streets in West Yorkshire, UK.
What does a professor of future crimes do?
When new technologies are introduced,
criminals quickly see ways to exploit them.
46 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
The reason is that companies don’t often
think about the crime implications when
they launch new products. For instance,
back in the 1980s, vehicle crime was soaring
because there were some models of car where
one key would open one in five vehicles.
Today, it is the internet of things. Around
2016, we started to see malware scouring
the internet for devices where the usernames
and passwords were easily guessable, and
then using those devices to overload websites
and make them unavailable. Our aim is to
look at some of the things that are happening
over the next five to 10 years – from drones to
counterfeiting technology – and imagine
what the implications are, with a view to try
to mitigate them.
What are your major concerns in the near future?
The number of internet-connected devices
in our homes is growing. Many of these devices
have access to our data, can stream images
to or from our homes and may even control
physical security measures, such as door
and window locks. We know that many of
these devices are insecure, and this needs
addressing. Advances in machine learning –
currently used in satellite navigation systems,
voice-activated devices and so on – continue to
revolutionise our lives, but offer opportunities
for misuse. At the same time, it is important
not to be too alarmist – these technologies can
be used to help reduce or detect crime, too.
You also study evidence-based policing.
How does that work in practice?
It means asking whether things the police
do will have the desired effect. For example,
the City of London Police has recently been
running trials to gather evidence on whether
having officers wearing tasers increases the
number of violent incidents they are involved
in. During the trial period, it turned out that
officers carrying a taser on their chest were
assaulted 48 per cent more than unarmed
officers outside the trial period. You can test
things like this with trials.
More and more groups around the world,
including universities and some police forces,
are championing evidence-based policing and
working collaboratively to generate evidence.
But having evidence that a certain policing
method is better isn’t yet a requirement
for police, and I think there could be more
of a push in that direction. I hope future
generations of officers are exposed to it
right from the start of their careers.
This makes sense: if thieves get away with
a burglary and know the area, they might be
tempted to come back. So you can use weekly
reports of burglaries to predict future ones.
We developed algorithms based on this,
and showed in a 2006 trial that they would
out-predict hotspot policing if deployed weekly.
Similar algorithms to ours have been used
to create commercial predictive policing
products. One, called PredPol, is now widely
used by police in the US.
Could predictions improve further?
I think so – and in two ways. First off, most
algorithms make predictions in the form
of squares on a map. But these bear no
relationship to the urban landscape – they
might be bisected by a train line. Working
with West Yorkshire Police on their PatrolWise
project, we wanted to try making predictions
at the level of street segments, meaning any
section of road between intersections. This is
meaningful urban geography, both for police
officers and the way that an offender might
“Officers carrying
a taser were
assaulted more
You have done a lot of work in predictive policing.
It sounds a bit like sci-fi — does it work?
than unarmed
Forty years of research shows that, roughly
speaking, 80 per cent of urban crime occurs
in 20 per cent of places. That’s according to
both reported crime statistics and surveys
of victims, which capture crimes that aren’t
reported to the police. Given that we know
this, the question is how you direct limited
police resources to do the most good. One
solution is hotspot policing, where you send
police to the places with the most concentrated
reports of crime. Randomised controlled trials
show that it is effective: if officers patrol the
hotspots, it suppresses crime and it doesn’t
shift it elsewhere.
But you took it further?
Places of high crime are unlikely to be the same
tomorrow as they are today. One area might
generally have the most crime in it over the
course of a year, but on a daily basis, it is going
to move and temporarily flare up in other
places. When we started asking if we could
predict that, we discovered a phenomenon
we called “near repeats”: when a home is
burgled, that house and its neighbours are at
greater risk of repeat victimisation for a short
period, before the risk quickly fades away.
navigate. The idea is that offenders become
aware of a house and then forage around
the streets nearby for new targets.
Second, the high-risk areas we predict can
be all over the place, such as on different sides
of the city. So we developed our algorithm to
spit out four 2.5-kilometre-long patrol routes
that cover the highest-risk areas possible in
a continuous line. The trial isn’t finished yet,
but so far, police figures suggest that crime
has reduced more quickly in the areas that
are using PatrolWise than those that aren’t.
A lot of people are worried about bias
in algorithms. Are you?
The big worry is that algorithms might
perpetuate bias in existing data sets.
We should definitely be worried about
this – and more worried the less
transparent the approaches used are.
But this doesn’t apply equally to all
algorithms. With the place-based crime
prediction that we do, the data that goes in
Shane Johnson is a
criminologist and director
of the Dawes Centre for
Future Crime at University
College London
is crimes reported to the police. For things
like burglary and vehicle theft, we know from
victim surveys that most are reported, not
least because you need a crime number for
insurance purposes. So we have a good picture
of crime that is committed. That’s different
to when an algorithm might be working from
a data set that doesn’t include crimes against
certain demographics of the population.
What our algorithms don’t work on is data
on arrests. If they did, that would be a problem,
because arrests are a function of police activity,
which can, in theory, be biased, for example
because not all crime is detected.
Besides sending out police on patrols, what can
you do to prevent the crime you predict?
In something we called Operation Swordfish,
we tried to see if we could intervene to prevent
burglaries in an easier and less expensive
way than sending patrols. In a randomised
controlled trial in the East Midlands, we gave
at-risk homes a “target hardening kit”, which
included things like a tiny LED that made it
look like your TV was on at night, and a door
alarm. The total cost was about £12. We told
people, “you’re at an elevated risk, it’s going to
go away – nothing scary – but here are some
things you can use to protect yourself.” For
every 1000 burglaries that were reported to the
police and prompted the delivery of the targethardening kit to nearby homes, around six or
seven burglaries were prevented per week.
Many people worried the approach would
have negative effects, increasing fear of crime,
for instance. But we tested it and found that’s
not what happens at all: it didn’t increase fear
of crime and people in these treatment areas
were more satisfied with the police. ❚
Joshua Howgego is a features editor at New Scientist
specialising in physical sciences
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 47
The University of Chicago:
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We seek candidates with expertise in social psychology, broadly defined. The
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48 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
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Assistant/Associate Professor
(tenure-leading) in Bioinformatics
and Human Microbiome
University of Nebraska Medical Center. The Department
of Genetics, Cell Biology and Anatomy (GCBA) invites
applications for for a tenure-leading, Assistant/
Associate Professor position at the interdisciplinary area
of ‘Bioinformatics and Human Microbiome’ to start Fall
2019. The incumbent will complement the existing
strengths in genomics, metagenomics, infectious
diseases, and bioinformatics at UNMC. We are seeking
a dynamic faculty member who interfaces with
crosscutting disciplines such as cancer, neuroscience,
infectious diseases, precision medicine, etc. to integrate
the human microbiome research applications.
We seek candidates with a strong record of
achievements at the interface of human microbial
studies and Bioinformatics including a strong and
relevant publication record, proven capacity or clear
potential to attract externally sponsored research
funding, and demonstrated experience in teaching and
mentoring graduate students and postdocs. The
candidate should have a Ph.D., or M.D. (or equivalent
degree) in Bioinformatics or a related discipline with
postdoctoral training in a genomics-based research
area associated with microbiomes or infectious
diseases. Wet lab experience is a strong plus but not a
State of the art research laboratories, biomedical
informatics infrastructure, core facilities and
collaborative investigators are available at UNMC/UNL
to conduct world-class research in Bioinformatics and
Human Microbiome. The research ecosystem contains a
number of ongoing projects related to genomics,
metagenomics and dietary modulation of gut
microbiome to develop independent and collaborative
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development of new computational tools and data
analysis pipelines in the areas of metagenomics,
nutrigenomics, obesity predisposition and prevention,
and dietary modulation of gut microbiome.
UNMC is an equal opportunity employer
Applications must include curriculum vitae, statements
of research and teaching interests, and contact
information for three professional referees. Application
review will begin immediately and continue until the
To apply to this position please go to:
Postdoctoral AssociatesHuman Immunology
Dr. Karolina Palucka, Principal Investigator
Dr. Adam Williams, Principal Investigator
The Palucka Lab and Williams Lab at JAX-GM are
currently seeking motivated scientists interested in
leveraging modern genomic advancements to study
immune responses to viruses and tumors. Particular
focus is on antigen presenting cells in lung cancer and
breast cancer, and their interaction with epithelial
cells. To learn more more, visit the Palucka Lab and
Williams Lab online.
• Research training and mentorship from awardwinning faculty
• Individualized career advising and a dedicated
• A uniquely collaborative academic research
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The successful candidates will be able to plan,
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13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 49
Our popular event is
coming to Boston …
September 7, 2019
District Hall, Boston
You’re in possession of one of the most complex and
incredible objects in the known universe: the human brain.
How does a 1.4 kilogram tangle of nerve cells allow
you to sense, understand and change the world?
Discover why this is the most exciting time in the
history of brain science with six experts working at
the forefront of neuroscience, genetics and psychiatry.
Plus much more
Reserve your place today and view our speaker line-up
The back pages
A moon-themed
cryptic crossword,
puzzles and quiz p52
Corr conspiracies
and bus building:
the week in weird p53
What does…
Liana Finck?
A cartoonist’s take
on the world p53
Almost the last word
Readers discuss
dinosaur noises and
chickpea foam p54
Me and my telescope
Sue Black on tech,
women and knitting
before it was cool p56
How to be a maker 2 Week 1
Communicating with plants
The outdoors is the theme for Hannah Joshua’s new series
of projects that you can make at home
New stuff you need
BBC micro:bit starter kit (the
same one we used in the first
“How to be a maker” series)
Soil moisture sensor
Crocodile clips
Jumper wires
Next in
the series
1 Moisture-sensing plant
2 Moisture and
3 Plant auto-waterer
4 Tweeting wildlife cam
5 Pest scarer
6 BBQ thermometer
7 Rain alarm
8 Mini weather station
9 Remote controlled
pest-proof bird feeder
part 1
10 Remote controlled
pest-proof bird feeder
part 2
Hannah Joshua is a science
writer and maker based in
London. You can follow her
on Twitter @hannahmakes
IN OUR previous 10-week “How
to be a maker” series, we went on
a tour of the basics, culminating
in building an autonomous
biscuit-fetching robot. If you
missed it, you can catch up
online at the address below.
This second series will explore
some practical applications of the
skills you learned and help you get
in touch with plants, wildlife and
the great outdoors. Projects will
range from a tweeting wildlife
camera to a pest-resistant bird
feeder. Whether your outdoors is
a window box or a wildlife reserve,
there will be something for you.
To start off, we are going to
enable plants to communicate.
My spider plant Marvin is
delighted, although he might
not look it from the picture.
For this project, you need a
soil moisture sensor. It will have
two legs with metal strips down
the middle. The sensor works by
passing a current through the
soil between the legs and seeing
how much resistance there is to
its flow. The more water there is,
the lower the resistance. That lets
us estimate how wet the soil is.
Using the crocodile clips and
jumper wires, attach the sensor’s
“gnd” wire to the micro:bit’s
ground, its “vcc” to the 3V pin
and its “ao” (analogue out) to
pin 0. Then, go to the online
micro:bit MakeCode editor
to create a program. From the
“Basic” menu on the left, grab a
“show number” block, then put it
in “forever”. Next, from the “Pins”
menu (under “Advanced”), take an
“analogue read pin p0” and clip it
Make online
Projects will be posted each week at Email: [email protected]
in “show number”. Now you have
a simple program to display the
sensor output. Download it to the
micro:bit and attach its battery.
Time for an experiment. Poke
your sensor into some dry soil
and note the reading, then do the
same for freshly watered soil. I got
around 1000 for the dry soil and
400 for the wet. Between these
extremes, pick a number that you
think represents when your plant
might be thirsty. I chose 800.
Back in the editor, grab an “if <>
then else” from the “Logic” menu
and clip it into “forever”. Next, take
a “0 < 0” comparison from the
same menu, change the “<” to “>”
and clip the comparison over the
default “true”. Clip another
“analogue read pin p0” over
the first 0, then change the
second 0 to your threshold.
Find “show icon” in “Basic” and
nestle it in the if block, picking the
sad face icon from the drop-down
list. In the else part, add another
“show icon” with a happy face.
And just like that, your
plant can pull faces! It will look
miserable when thirsty and
smile when satisfied. Remember,
though, plants’ thresholds can
change. A cactus needs to stay
dry in winter, for example.
Next week, we will get to know
our plants better by improving
their communication skills. ❚
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 51
The back pages Puzzles... in a lunar phase
Cryptic crossword #10 Set by Wingding
Madness to put global body
in ornate surroundings (6)
8 Regret turning zero
pressure to 9 (6)
9 Satellite low on gas (4)
10 Haze goes solar, chaotically,
defying gravity (8)
11 One follows woman, sign
of 9 observer (7)
13 Nothing spinning behind
unknown gas (5)
15 Severe wound in hospital
department (5)
Dazzling light is a precursor
to migraines outside
operating theatre (6)
No way back without
oxygen - boring! (4)
Desperately try
sage whirls (7)
Highland water
rambler distilled (5)
Superbug odour a
sign of 9 (8)
A vote on nothing that
sent people to 9 (6)
3 Where does our moon
rank in the table of solar
system satellites by size,
relative to their planets?
4 The Chinese probe
Chang’e 4 achieved what
first on 3 January 2019?
5 What name is given
to the Mars-sized object
that, according to the
giant impact hypothesis,
smashed into early Earth,
carving out the moon?
Answers below
17 Carbon evaluators
are the pits (7)
20 Worms initially fed
on grains - a clue for
astrobiologists? (5,3)
21 Train becomes a lab
staple after test (4)
22 Reptile poisoned again
with uranium (6)
23 9 explorer, somewhat
pathological drinker (6)
12 Obstructing any white
moves? (2,3,3)
14 Four elements in
armoury (7)
16 Tinker with 9 lander? (6)
18 Fast runner raised bar
a little (6)
19 Newton chased bird
with a 9 (5)
21 Bound to hear effect
of 9 (4)
Answers and the next quick crossword next week.
52 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
#11 Lunar years
2 On 15 April 1970, Fred
Haise, James Lovell and John
Swigert set a still-unbroken
record of 400,171
kilometres for what?
1 Neil Armstrong was the
first man to walk on the
moon. Who was the last?
Crossword #35
Across 1 Cubic, 4 Kraftwerk,
9 Two, 10 One, 11 Meccano,
12 Sick, 13 Epithelial, 15 Prime,
16 Tyre Tread, 17 Laserdisc,
21 Pulse, 23 Tree Canopy,
24 Gaia, 27 Edifact, 28 Cat,
29 Dog, 30 Eclampsia, 31 Hoyle
Down 1 Cetus, 2 Bronchi,
3 Crow, 4 Kneepit, 5 Ammeter,
6 Ticker Tape, 7 Examine,
8 Knowledge, 14 Meerschaum,
15 Polythene, 18 Special,
19 Ignites, 20 Captcha, 22 Leap
Day, 25 Angle, 26 Itch
Quick quiz #11
Puzzles set by Hugh Hunt
1 Eugene Cernan, as
commander of the Apollo 17
mission in December 1972. A
total of 12 people walked on the
2 The furthest distance reached
by humans from Earth. The crew
of the ill-starred Apollo 13
mission, they were forced to orbit
high around the moon’s far side
to regain a homeward trajectory
3 First. It is fifth largest overall:
Ganymede (Jupiter), Titan
(Saturn), Callisto and Io (both
Jupiter) are bigger
4 Touching down on the far side
of the moon
5 Theia
Quick quiz #11
My twin sister went to live on the moon
on our 30th birthday. From then on, she
counted a year as 365 sunrises, just as we
do on Earth. I am now 60. Which birthday
did she last celebrate?
#12 Hole of the moon
I punched a hole 6 millimetres across in a
piece of paper and held it at arm’s length
to look at the full moon. I was pleased to
find that the moon filled the hole perfectly.
If the moon is 3500 kilometres across, can
you estimate how far away it is?
Answers next week
#10 Betty’s change
The smallest amount of change you could
have received is 30 cents. With no nickels,
Betty would have been obliged to give you a
quarter – the largest coin that doesn’t take
her over the amount that she owes you –
and then five pennies (25c+1c+1c+1c+
1c+1c), so six coins in total. She could
have reduced the number of coins to
three by giving you your change in dimes
Get in touch
Email us at
[email protected]
[email protected]
The back pages Feedback
What does Liana Finck?
Corr blimey
“Funny how #Homeopathy gets
ridiculed in the media, yet royalty
swear by it. They sure live to ripe
old ages...” So sayeth on Twitter Jim
Corr, the male quarter of celebrated
1990s Irish band The Corrs.
Indeed, there is something about
being born into a life of wealth and
privilege that seems to keep one
chipper. Must be (a very little)
something in the water.
Not feeling so chipper, though, is
Corr himself, if his Twitter timeline
is at all reflective of his mood. In
the past few weeks alone he has
collected a dizzying number of
stamps on his balderdash bingo
card, from pointing to the
“imaginary problem” of climate
change to retweeting opinions
about the dangers of 5G wireless
Despite protestations from fans
(of Irish music and science), Corr
also isn’t dropping his anti-vaccine
position – although he did manage
to meet critics halfway somewhat
by accident, musing aloud: “What if
we were actually meant to get mild
childhood illnesses like Measles
so as to help prime our immune
systems into fighting much greater
diseases in later life?”
An inoculation to ward off more
serious illnesses? A Corrking idea.
Seek and ye shall not find
Winning in the STEM skills stakes,
meanwhile, is blond bombshell
Boris Johnson, whose aspirations
to become the next UK prime
minister have, somewhat
indirectly, led him to confess to a
surprising hobby of constructing
model buses.
Arise conspiracy theories more
left-field than Jim Corr’s tick-box
efforts. A post on the website
of digital consultancy Parallax
suggests Johnson’s actions are
those of a Machiavellian political
operator of unparalleled genius
in search-engine optimisation.
A man not short of torrid
relationships, Johnson’s previous
with buses is proving particularly
vexing. During the UK’s Brexit
referendum, he famously used
the side of a red bus hired by the
campaign to quit the European
Union to deliver promises about
the amount of money an exit
would bequeath the nation’s
public services – promises that led
to accusations that they were, in
fact, lies, and an attempt to take
him to court over the matter.
What better way to send those
earlier inconvenient headlines
plunging down the search
rankings than to invent a cockand-bus story?
Or indeed a story about a story.
Checking for the effectiveness of
the scheme by typing “Boris bus”
into a well-known search engine
on our mobile teleconnecting
device, Feedback discovers that
the first page of results is largely
devoted to stories about whether
the candidate is an evil cyber
genius for contriving to create
a story to displace other
inconvenient stories.
And now we’re adding to it. Sigh.
But sweltering in a traffic jam in an
unexpected burst of London heat,
we are at least glad to see the first
of our search results directs us to
the New Routemaster, a retro
model of London bus introduced
by Johnson in a former life as the
capital’s mayor. The double-decker
is infamous for roasting its
inhabitants in the heat of summer.
Sadly it seems some legacies are
less easily expunged.
It’s a negative
It may be dehydration kicking in, but
Feedback thinks that if life gives you
lemons, make lemonade. And if life
gives you 1000 lemons, and you
are a mechanic, try making a battery
strong enough to jump-start a car.
Russian YouTube channel
Garage 54 did just that last month,
constructing a zesty power pack
capable of getting 13 volts from
60 kilos of lemons. Unfortunately,
the meagre current generated by
the device and the non-existent
charge-storage capacity of the fruit
meant the lemons would have been
better used for biofuel.
The intrepid engineers calculate
that, based on their experiment,
they would need 66 million
lemons to summon enough juice
to start a car. Which gives a whole
new meaning to the phrase “being
sold a lemon”.
Eye watering sums
Talking of lemons, Feedback
previously pondered what the
costliest piece of equipment ever
trashed by a forgetful user is. Bids
began at $3billion, the price of the
Indian nuclear sub nearly scuttled
by an open hatch (22 June).
“The winner must surely be the
(eventually magnificent) Hubble
Space Telescope,” writes Herman
D’Hondt. At launch our orbiting
eye on the cosmos cost around
$5 billion, but proved unusable
thanks to a badly polished mirror.
“Adding mirror repair and other
fixes brings us to a total cost
estimated at about $10 billion,”
says Herman. Any advance?
Hungry for love
The course of true love never did run
smooth, but if your date is spooning
chocolate pudding into your mouth,
you are probably on the right path.
So say Colin Hendrie and Isolde
Shirley at the University of Leeds,
UK. They have been watching reality
TV show First Dates, in which lonely
hearts are filmed meeting for the
first time in a restaurant. Their goal?
To see whether “courtship feeding”
is a sign that love is blossoming.
In their study published in the
journal Appetite, they reveal that of
792 dinner dates, participants fed
each other on 58 occasions. Women
most often shared their food,
typically a chocolate dessert. Of
those couples who participated in
courtship feeding, a mighty 93 per
cent said they would be willing to go
on a second date – compared with
just 43 per cent of plate-hoggers.
So now we know: the way to the
heart really is via the stomach. ❚
Got a story for Feedback?
Send it to New Scientist, 25 Bedford Street,
London WC2E 9ES or you can email us at
[email protected]
13 July 2019 | New Scientist | 53
The back pages Almost the last word
Do some human peoples
have better eyesight
than others?
Clucking dinosaurs
Tony Holkham
Blaenffos, Pembrokeshire, UK
The same question occurred to me
when I first saw Jurassic Park. Why
would a stealth predator roar?
T. rex was a carnivore, and
carnivores are usually only vocal
when establishing territory or
seeking a mate. Advertising their
presence when hunting wouldn’t
be smart. The same goes for birds,
which evolved from dinosaurs.
Mike Follows
Sutton Coldfield,
West Midlands, UK
There is no way to be sure what
T. rex sounded like because the
soft tissues of its voice box
haven’t been fossilised.
The roar of the T. rex in Jurassic
Park was created by combining
sounds made by a baby elephant,
alligator and tiger. But dinosaurs
would have used sound not to
frighten prey but to communicate.
Birds and crocodilians are the
dinosaurs’ nearest living relatives.
Julia Clarke at the University of
Texas has combined the booming
cry of the Eurasian bittern
(Botaurus stellaris) with sounds
made by Chinese alligators
(Alligator sinensis) to make a
fearsome low-frequency rumble
ideal for long-distance calling.
The fossilised ear cavities of T. rex
suggest they were sensitive to
low-frequency sound.
Or maybe dinosaurs didn’t have
vocal organs and made vibrations
in resonating chambers. This
would have allowed them to make
noises with their mouths closed,
as birds and reptiles do.
Peter Jones
Wolfenbüttel, Germany
Those interested should check out
the “Jurassic Squawk” episode of
54 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
When a Tyrannosaurus rex or other
carnivorous dinosaur is depicted on
screen, it roars like a carnivorous
mammal. But birds developed
from dinosaurs, so could they have
screeched or called like the modern
cassowary, or made no noise at all?
This week’s new questions
Far-sighted On a safari holiday in Kenya, I was stunned
by our local guide’s ability to see wildlife at a great distance
and spot things that I could barely see with binoculars. Does
visual acuity vary between human peoples? John Wilkinson,
Diss, Norfolk, UK
Food fatigue I often feel tired after a large meal and I am
told it is because blood “rushes to the stomach to help with
digestion”. Is this actually what happens? How can the body
regulate that? Evan Slater, London, UK
BBC Radio 4 series The Curious
Cases of Rutherford & Fry, from
May 2019. T. rex may not have
had a larynx or had a mouth
cavity suitable for vocalisation. Its
branch of dinosaurs evolved into
birds, which use a different organ,
the syrinx, to make sounds, but
this developed later. Our best
guess, based on closed-mouth
vocalisation similar to modern
crocodiles, is that they made an
underwhelming low-pitched hum.
If you turn the volume up, it does
sound a bit more threatening.
Richard Lucas
Camberley, Surrey, UK
The only dinosaur sound we have
any confidence in is that of the
Parasaurolophus. Its bony, crested
skull held tubes connected to its
nasal passages that would have
been used to make a sound like
a trombone. Birds use a thoracic
organ called a syrinx to form their
calls. A late-age dinosaur fossil
complete with syrinx has recently
been found in Antarctica.
Hazera Forth
Bedford, UK
This is why my 10-year-old and
I cluck when a T. rex appears in
any scene of the Jurassic Park
franchise. It is hilarious.
Foam over
When I drain a can of chickpeas,
the liquid forms a soapy foam.
What causes this, and if it is
related to soap, could it be used
as an eco-friendly replacement?
Isabella Van Damme
Arborfield, Berkshire, UK
The foaming ability of chickpea
water, often referred to as
aquafaba, makes it a suitable
vegan replacement for egg white.
Proteins and other compounds
seep out of the chickpeas during
cooking. Aquafaba’s foaming
capacity correlates with the
water’s protein content. Proteins
can stabilise air bubbles in foam
by forming a film over them, as
happens with whipped egg whites
and milk foams. The proteins also
impart gelling properties and
stabilise oil-water emulsions.
And the liquid contains
saponins, another group of
compounds able to stabilise
bubbles. The cooking water of all
pulses shows these properties to
some extent, but chickpea water
appears to be one of the best and
has a range of applications in food.
David Muir
Edinburgh, UK
Many plant materials contain
long molecules such as lipids,
proteins and carbohydrates,
which may behave as surfactants,
or surface-active agents. These
lower the surface tension of
water and can act as emulsifiers
and foaming agents. Soap and
detergent are also surfactants.
The viscous liquid left
after beans and peas have been
cooked, as well as in tins of such
legumes, is called aquafaba, which
translates as bean-water. It can be
used as an eco-friendly handwash,
since it probably ends up going
down the drain anyway. As a vegan
replacement for egg whites, it can
be used to make foods like ice
cream and marshmallows.
Don Taylor
Sydney, Australia
Aquafaba can be used to make
meringues. It may also be used
in other dishes that require
egg whites, such as fettucine
carbonara. Egg replacement
would be at the rate of
60 millilitres to 1 egg. ❚
Want to send us a question or answer?
Email us at [email protected]
Questions should be about everyday science phenomena
Full terms and conditions at
The back pages Me and my telescope
Sue Black has done a lot since leaving school
at 16, including leading the campaign to save
Bletchley Park. She talks empowerment,
technology and knitting before it was cool
First up, do you have a telescope?
As a child, what did you want
to do when you grew up?
Drive a big red London bus.
Explain what you do
in one easy paragraph.
I am a professor of computer science
and technology evangelist at Durham
University, founder of social enterprise
#techmums and Women’s Equality Party
candidate for London Mayor in 2020.
What does a typical day involve?
Some of the things I did in one week recently are:
I interviewed candidates for #techmums CEO,
went to a #techmums graduation in Leeds where
I met 45 wonderful women and heard their
stories, gave a talk for a UK government
conference about technology and had a
TechUP Women meeting at Durham University.
If you could send a message back to
yourself as a kid, what would you say?
Don’t listen to the haters. You are amazing
and can do so many incredible things with
your life, just get out there and have a go!
What’s the best piece of
advice anyone ever gave you?
Trust your gut instincts.
If you could have a long conversation
with any scientist, living or dead,
who would it be?
Ada Lovelace. I would love to tell her how
groundbreaking her work was and find out
how she managed to be so far ahead of her time.
It is so tragic that she died at just 36 years old.
What’s the best thing you’ve read
or seen in the last 12 months?
Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez.
What do you love most about what you do?
Do you have an unusual hobby, and
if so, please will you tell us about it?
I love technology and how it can empower people
to change the world for the better. I love the
people I meet, the projects I am working on
and the people I work with.
I have been teased my whole life for knitting
and crocheting clothes, until recently, when it
became trendy. I loved making clothes for my
kids and now my grandchildren.
Were you good at science at school?
Pretty average, I think. I loved chemistry but was
persuaded to take home economics instead.
I hated the subject and failed it. My physics
teacher used to take the piss out of me in front of
the class, which put me off physics completely.
Sum up your life in a one-sentence
elevator pitch…
If I can do it, so can you.
What’s the most exciting thing
you’re working on right now?
I am so excited about the new programme we
have put together, called TechUP Women, which
will retrain 100 women into tech careers this year.
At #techmums, we are working towards creating
1 million #techmums by 2020. I love igniting
potential in people and seeing them change
their lives for the better.
56 | New Scientist | 13 July 2019
How useful will your skills
be after the apocalypse?
I am quite practical and good at problem solving
in difficult circumstances, so hopefully my skills
would be pretty useful.
OK, one last thing: tell us something
that will blow our minds…
I left school at 16, was a single parent in a refuge at
25 with three children, went back to education at
26, got a degree in computing, a PhD in software
engineering, ran the campaign to save Bletchley
Park, got an OBE in 2016 and am now living the
dream as a professor of computer science. ❚
Sue Black is a professor of computer science
and technology evangelist at Durham University,
UK, and author of Saving Bletchley Park (Unbound)
“My physics
teacher used to
take the piss out
of me in front of
the class. That
put me off
k3 nights at 4-star Crowne Plaza
Hotel just minutes from the festival
k4 day All-Access festival ticket
includes entry to all the stages, the
Main Stage Hospitality Lounge and
fast-track access
kGala dinner hosted by the
New Scientist editor Emily Wilson
with two exclusive speakers:
Andy Smith
The British Antarctic Survey
Steve Haake
The Advance Wellbeing Research Centre
Sheffield Hallam University
Science and History of the
Docklands guided tour
New Scientist Live
Hotel+ experience
10-13 October 2019
The hassle-free premium experience.
Stay close by with like-minded guests and
attend an exclusive gala dinner
discounted price:
Approx $825* per guest
If you have already bought a
ticket the Earlybird price for the
rest of the package is approx $570
*Based on two people sharing