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World's oldest
drawing found
Antimatter can be in
two places at once
Gruesome end of
Iran's Pompeii
WEEKLY 15 September 2018

The surprising truth about
the world’s gut problem

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Smashing achievement
Chief subeditor Eleanor Parsons The Large Hadron Collider is a decade old – and it’s not done yet
Tom Campbell, Hannah Joshua, Chris Simms

NEXT July will mark 50 years since the world by sucking it into a black possible in a stable universe.
Kathryn Brazier, Joe Hetzel,
Dave Johnston, Ryan Wills humans set foot on the moon. The hole, as doom-mongers predicted Supersymmetry was the much-
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rumblings of commemoration at the time. Fake news. vaunted successor to the standard
Chief picture editor Adam Goff can already be heard – even now Then there is the Higgs boson, model, predicting a swarm of
Kirstin Kidd, David Stock Ryan Gosling, deputising for Neil of course. Its discovery by the additional particles to shore it up.
Production Armstrong in the film First Man, LHC in 2012 represented the “The LHC has meticulously
Mick O’Hare, Melanie Green , is being castigated for failing to crowning glory of the standard searched in the open as well as in
Alan Blagrove, Anne Marie Conlon
plant an American flag in the model of particle physics, our various nooks and crannies for
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The moon landing was the first bric-a-brac of reality. This was are not there,” says Ben Allanach
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global audience of more than around the LHC, it is the of supersymmetry.
1 billion, the switch-on of the Large silence of committed, But no one said probing the
Hadron Collider was actually concentrated endeavour” essence of reality was easy. The
seen by more people than the LHC has already determined the
moon landing. As we said at the It is also where the problems contents of the universe with
time, it was “to physics what the start. “There’s an enormous greater precision than any
Apollo programme was to space elephant in the room, and that’s machine before it. Planned
exploration”. that we know the standard upgrades and new analysis
No doubt the reticence is in model is not a final theory,” says techniques will further sharpen
part due to the ignominious Tara Shears of the University its eye. Hints of anomalies already
failure of the gleaming new of Liverpool and the LHCb seen may yet lead to insights. If
© 2018 New Scientist Ltd, England
particle accelerator just 10 days experiment. It fails to explain things have gone quiet around the
New Scientist is published weekly after start-up. But in truth, the the nature of phenomena such LHC, it is the silence of committed,
by New Scientist Ltd. ISSN 0262 4079. euphoria of the early days has as dark matter or dark energy, concentrated endeavour. In
New Scientist (Online) ISSN 2059 5387 given way to a more sober reality. or even why the measured Shears’s words, “we have to wait,
Registered at the Post Office as a
newspaper and printed in England
Let’s celebrate the positives. Higgs mass teeters on the very work hard, and see”. We’ll hang on
by William Gibbons (Wolverhampton) For a start, the LHC did not destroy lowest boundary of what’s in there – happy birthday, LHC. ■

15 September 2018 | NewScientist | 5


Bracing for Florence

MORE than a million residents along flooding, 220 kilometre per hour
the Atlantic coast of the US were winds and large swells and rip-
ordered to evacuate early this week, currents affecting Bermuda and
as Hurricane Florence neared the portions of the US East Coast.
coastlines of North and South On Tuesday, Florence was nearing
Carolina, Virginia and Maryland. the highest hurricane rating, category
Governors in all four states declared 5. At this level, it could bring winds of
an emergency ahead of what has more than 251 kilometres per hour.
been predicted to be the worst deluge “Life-threatening freshwater
to hit the Carolinas in 30 years, and flooding is likely from a prolonged
the fiercest storm to hit the US this and exceptionally heavy rainfall
year. The governor of South Carolina event, which may extend inland
gave residents of the state’s entire over the Carolinas and Mid-Atlantic
coastline an evacuation deadline of for hundreds of miles as Florence
noon on Tuesday. is expected to slow down as it
When New Scientist went to approaches the coast and moves
press, the hurricane was expected inland,” said the latest National
to make landfall on Thursday around Hurricane Center bulletin on Monday.
Wilmington, North Carolina, near the The centre also warned that
state’s border with South Carolina. damaging winds could spread well
The US National Hurricane Center inland into parts of the Carolinas

issued warnings of storm surges and and Virginia.

down how countries should go about

English health body Climate talks hit meeting their obligations. But there
… but elsewhere
in alcohol row sticking points… were numerous sticking points, such there’s progress
as China wanting different rules for
TWO advisers to Public Health LITTLE progress was made at the developed and developing countries, WHILE headway was slow in the latest
England (PHE) have said they may latest round of climate talks in and rich countries failing to provide UN climate talks (see left), elsewhere
quit their roles at the agency, after Bangkok last week, where officials the funds they promised to help other there is some much needed good
it launched an alcohol awareness debated the rules that will govern countries cut their emissions. news on the climate front. California
campaign in partnership with an the 2015 Paris climate agreement. “Small islands have contributed an is planning to go carbon neutral
organisation that receives funding Almost every country has now almost immeasurably small fraction by 2045 and achieve net negative
from the drinks industry. signed the agreement, and so they of global emissions, yet we face emissions after that. Also, investors
The campaign, launched this are committed to cutting their devastating climate impacts,” said across the globe responsible for
week by PHE and alcohol education greenhouse emissions. This includes Amjad Abdulla from the Alliance of $6 trillion in funds now plan to divest
charity Drinkaware, encourages the US, despite its stated intention Small Island States. “Climate finance from fossil fuels.
middle-aged people to have at to withdraw from the pact. is not a handout. It is a logical and fair On 10 September, the governor of
least two alcohol-free days a week. In Bangkok, officials tried to narrow response to this history.” California signed an executive order
Drinkaware is largely funded by calling for state-wide carbon neutrality
donations from UK alcohol producers, by no later than 2045. That exceeds
retailers and supermarkets. by far any of the targets that countries
The move prompted Ian Gilmore signed up to in the Paris climate
and John Britton, who co-chair PHE agreement. A few countries and
advisory boards, to say that health states have set themselves similarly
officials had failed to learn lessons ambitious goals, but California is
from the way tobacco and alcohol now the biggest economy to do so.
industries use partnerships with Meanwhile, the divestment
health bodies to undermine or movement continues to gather

neutralise policies intended to pace. According to a report from

reduce consumption. Arabella Advisors, more than 1000
However, Leigh Lewis, chair institutional investors with $6 trillion
of Drinkaware, stressed the in assets have committed to divest
organisation’s independence from fossil fuels, compared with just
as a charity. $52 billion four years ago.

6 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018

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

The oldest human drawing

Archaeologists say they have found a 73,000-year-old drawing. Clare Wilson reports

FROM a cursory glance, the Lines on this rock (repeated in the

lines on this small, brown stone graphic) may be part of a larger work
could be mistaken for a natural
formation. In fact, it is the motion, making it thicker
first known drawing ever made than the rest. “There’s no doubt
by human hands. it was done deliberately,” says
“This is the beginnings Henshilwood.
of cultural modernity and The stone “canvas” also told
sophisticated behaviour,” says a story. The drawn-on surface is
Colin Renfrew at the University much smoother than the other

of Cambridge, who was not sides, and its pits contain tiny
involved in its discovery. traces of a different kind of
“You would be astonished if you ochre that is as hard as rock.
found another animal species This indicates it might have
producing something like that. initially been used as a grindstone
It’s the origins of humankind.” for rubbing the hard ochre
Laboratory analysis shows into powder, perhaps used for
that the dark red lines, forming paint (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/
a rough, cross-hatched pattern, s41586-018-0514-3).
must have been drawn with Henshilwood says we don’t
a chunk of soft, coloured stone know if the original cross-hatch

called ochre, possibly one drawing was for decoration or had

whittled into a simple crayon. some symbolic meaning. “If you
Attempts to recreate the pattern 5mm
have a little ochre pencil, perhaps
using the same materials show for the first time you are able to
that the lines were no careless store information outside of your
scrawls but took deliberate effort. sapiens, evolved in East Africa and chemical analysis of the brain,” he says. “You can carry it
“You have to use a lot of pressure about 200,000 years ago, before rock and the ochre traces. across the landscape and leave a
and control or it doesn’t leave spreading to the north and south Ochre comes in various forms message anywhere.”
enough ochre,” says Christopher of the continent. The Blombos and hues – this particular type “This shows that the minds
Henshilwood at the University cave, on the south coast, has been would have been about as hard as of these people would have been
excavated for more than two a child’s colouring pencil, perfect very similar to ours today,” says
“This is the beginnings of decades, turning up a wealth of for the job, says Henshilwood. Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar
cultural modernity and material from people living there Going by the width of the lines, Museum. “They were able to
sophisticated behaviour, as far back as 100,000 years ago. the tip was a 2-millimetre point try to represent something by
the origins of humankind” The artefacts uncovered include that may have been deliberately abstracting something. That
shell beads and spear tips made sharpened. suggests cognitive capacities
of the Witwatersrand in from stone and bone. Another similar to ours.”
Johannesburg, South Africa. provocative find was a painting Impressive though it is, the
Henshilwood and his kit – the paint, made from ochre,
Crayon on stone drawing isn’t the earliest ever
colleagues dug up the drawing charcoal and seal fat, was mixed The nine lines extend right to the artwork from our species.
in a South African cave from in large sea snail shells – but so far edges of the rock, suggesting that There are plentiful examples
layers of earth dated to about no paintings have turned up. they were once part of a larger of earlier designs – including
73,000 years ago. This makes The newly found drawing is artwork that was later broken up. similar cross-hatchings – made
it nearly twice as old as any on a rock just 4 by 1.5 centimetres. For most lines, the team could by etching, a simpler technique
previously found Stone Age It was unearthed in 2011, but, tell the direction of the stroke, than drawing with a crayon.
drawings or paintings by our covered in dirt, drew no notice, and because microscopic bumps on The first known etched design
own species – although it was was just labelled and stored. Only the stone surface accumulated was found on a clam shell from
recently discovered that when the muck was washed off in ochre on the opposite side to the Indonesia, dated to half a million
Neanderthals were painting a search for stone tools years later crayon’s approach. The scribbler years ago – so must have been
caves in Spain 64,000 years ago. did a team member notice the must have gone over one line made by a different species of
Modern humans, or Homo markings, triggering microscopic several times in a to-and-fro hominin, Homo erectus. ■

15 September 2018 | NewScientist | 7


with positrons, the antimatter second hit the screen, so the

Antimatter seen in equivalent of electrons.
The set-up starts with
experiment had to run for 200
hours to build up a strong image,

two places at once radioactive sodium, which sheds

about 5000 positrons per second.
The positrons pass through a
revealing stripes of light and
dark and showing that positron
waves do interfere (arxiv.org/
pair of circular openings, which abs/1808.08901).
Leah Crane harder to produce in a set-up focus them into a beam. This is This isn’t the first time that
where you can make a beam then aimed at two silicon nitride antimatter particles have been
A PARTICLE can be in two places out of it,” says Michael Peskin at crystals, each of which acts as a set shown to also behave like waves,
at once – even if it is made of the SLAC National Accelerator of many slits. Positrons that pass says Peskin, but it is satisfying to
antimatter. The result comes Laboratory in California, who through the crystals hit a screen achieve the classic double-slit.
from an antimatter twist on a was not involved in the work. that records where each one lands. “It’s a big technical challenge.”
classic experiment to show a Now, Akitaka Ariga at the Only about 100 positrons per This experiment was a first
central tenet of quantum University of Bern in Switzerland step for the researchers’ ongoing
mechanics: that all particles and his team have performed Waves or particles? Antimatter efforts to study the effect of
are also waves. the double-slit experiment can’t decide which one to be gravity on antimatter, such as
In the basic double-slit whether it floats upwards. Their
experiment, a beam of light eventual goal is to determine how
illuminates a plate with two the interference pattern changes
parallel slits in it, creating stripes when the positrons are under
of light on a screen behind. a varying gravitational force.
Thinking of light as single “It’s possible that gravity
particles, as Isaac Newton argued, doesn’t work exactly the same for
you would expect just two antiparticles and particles, and
bright lines, corresponding to this could be part of the reason
the two slits. Instead, you get an the universe doesn’t appear to
interference pattern of many be made of the same amount of
stripes. This can be explained particles and antiparticles,” says
either as individual particles David Christian at the Fermi
being in two places at once and National Accelerator Laboratory
interfering with themselves, or in Illinois.
light behaving as a wave. If gravity does act differently
Variations of the experiment on matter and antimatter, it is
have been repeated with many only a very slight distinction,

types of particles, showing that so experiments will need to be

they are all waves as well. However extremely precise to reveal it.
until now, it had never been done “The effect of gravity on an
with a beam of antimatter. individual particle is really tiny,
“Antimatter is precious, it’s even if it’s the gravity of the whole
hard to produce, and it’s even Earth,” says Christian. ■

place. However, a retrospective The malicious bots sometimes shared in this way could be described
How falsehoods analysis of those tweets suggests appeared to simply make up as attempts to “bait” users by
spread after a that humans were the ones who
spread them furthest.
provocative statements, or sourced
their content from untrustworthy or
targeting their beliefs, says Vanessa
Kitzie, who worked on the project. For
mass shooting A team at the University of South politically extreme websites. But it example, one popular tweet referred
Carolina downloaded 7 million tweets was the human response to this “gun control dolts”, while another
WHEN the gunman who attacked posted during a one-month period content that really got the snowball described CNN as “Marxist”. It is not
students and staff at Marjory shortly after the shooting, and rolling. Over 90 per cent of retweets clear who was behind the bots
Stoneman Douglas High School in isolated those originally posted by were from human-run accounts tweeting about Parkland.
Parkland, Florida, this February 400 bot accounts. Only automated (arxiv.org/abs/1808.09325). Automated accounts succeed when
stopped shooting, 17 people were accounts that appeared to be About one-third of the tweets they trick both humans and social
left dead or fatally injured. trying to influence people’s opinions media website algorithms, which
On top of this, shortly after the were included, rather than, for “The malicious bots select popular content, and get them
tragedy, Twitter bots began sending example, benign bot accounts used sometimes appeared to share the messages far and wide,
out emotionally charged quips and by news organisations to publish to simply make up says Fil Menczer at the University
conspiracy theories about what took links to stories. provocative statements” of Indiana. Chris Baraniuk ■

8 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018

For daily news stories, visit newscientist.com/news

Control a real
space robot
with VR
A JAPANESE airline wants to send
you to space. Well, not you exactly,
but a robot avatar that you can
control in real time, while seeing
through its eyes and feeling what
it feels through virtual reality.
All Nippon Airways and the Japan
Aerospace Exploration Agency
have just announced the Avatar X
programme to build humanoid drones
and send them to space.

“The giant leap will be in bringing

human consciousness and presence
to a remote location,” says programme
co-director Kevin Kajitani.
As well as allowing people to
experience space through an avatar,
the robots could be used for farming
and construction, and for generally Volcano could have An eruption 50,000 years ago may
have disrupted Flores’s ecosystem
helping out astronauts, he says.
The partners hope to begin building helped doom hobbits disappear right away, because
and testing avatars on Earth in 2019, there’s nothing large enough for
moving to low Earth orbit for more ABOUT 50,000 years ago on the Bua area was dominated by them to survive on,” says Tocheri.
trials in the early 2020s, and then Indonesian island of Flores, nearly elephants the size of large cows. Komodo dragons may have
sending robots to the moon and Mars. all the large animals disappeared There were also two big scavenger survived on the coast because
The robots could help out on the at once. The losses included dwarf birds: a large vulture and the they eat marine carrion, he says.
International Space Station, says elephants, carnivorous birds – giant marabou stork that stood With the elephants gone, the
Frances Zhu at Cornell University in and a species of diminutive 1.8 metres tall. Finally, the area hobbits lost a major food source,
New York. “Say we’ve got a robot on hominin known as the “hobbit”, was home to Komodo dragons, too. So what killed the elephants?
the ISS, and the human is on Earth or Homo floresiensis. the world’s largest lizard. The sediments reveal there was
with a virtual reality set,” she says. It’s not clear why. A volcanic All four species last appear a big volcanic eruption 50,000
“The robot on the ISS doesn’t need eruption might have been a at Liang Bua 50,000 years ago. years ago, which could have
life support, it won’t have any trigger. But there is also tentative disrupted the ecosystem, says
health problems, it’s not creating evidence that a new threat had “There is another possible Hannah O’Regan at the University
any waste and you’re limiting the reached the island: Homo sapiens. culprit: fragments of stone of Nottingham, UK. It is possible,
risk of human life.” Hobbits were first described tools point to the arrival of then, that the hobbits were driven
But it would be more efficient to in 2004, after bones were found our species on the island” extinct as a consequence of the
have a single person in charge of in the Liang Bua cave on Flores. volcanic eruption.
several more-autonomous robots, They stood 1 metre tall and had The next sediments were laid But there is another possibility.
says Chris Atkeson at Carnegie Mellon brains the size of grapefruit. In down 46,000 years ago. “We no Before 50,000 years ago, the tools
University in Pennsylvania. And as for 2016, researchers led by Thomas longer see those large animals,” at Liang Bua were mostly made
letting the general public experience Sutikna at the University of says research team member from volcanic rock called silicified
space, the avatar encounter might be Wollongong, Australia, concluded Matthew Tocheri of Lakehead tuff – probably by hobbits. After
less attention-grabbing than hoped, that the species probably University in Canada. this time, the tools were mostly
he says. vanished from Flores about Komodo dragons clung on made of chert, a material favoured
“You’re going to have to give 50,000 years ago. elsewhere on Flores – today by H. sapiens (Journal of Human
them something to do to keep them Now Sutikna and his colleagues they live on the island’s north Evolution, doi.org/ctqm). This
occupied for more than 15 minutes ,” have dated 300,000 animal coast – but the other three species may be evidence that our species
says Atkeson. “If you want to save fossils and 10,000 stone tool are extinct. had arrived on Flores. They could
a lot of money, just make a video fragments from Liang Bua, The loss of the elephants may have hunted the elephants to
game. Fake it, and you can make revealing that the local ecosystem have triggered an ecological extinction, says Tocheri, which
something much more entertaining.” changed significantly at this time. collapse. “Once they go, clearly might have left the hobbits unable
Leah Crane ■ Before this cut-off, the Liang the marabou stork and vulture to cope. Michael Marshall ■

15 September 2018 | NewScientist | 9


FIELD NOTES Schrödinger at 75, Dublin, Ireland

speculate that life would turn to a mouth-watering prospect.
Biology’s greatest out to be based on some sort of Dublin’s 1200-seater National
“aperiodic crystal”. He also floated Concert Hall was packed full for

hits pull a crowd the idea of a genetic code.

James Watson and Francis Crick
famously sent their 1953 Nature
the duration of the conference.
As a feast of scientific
information, the event succeeded
paper on the structure of DNA to brilliantly, serving up an excellent
Graham Lawton become the director of the planned Schrödinger, saying “we thought crash course in modern life
Dublin Institute for Advanced you might be interested in the science. But as an exercise in
“I’M A neuroscientist, and we Studies. Luckily for de Valera, enclosed reprints – you will see futurology, it was less satisfying.
have a technical expression in Schrödinger was an admirer that it looks as though your term Most of the speakers dwelt firmly
the field,” quips consciousness of the Irish physicist William ‘aperiodic crystal’ is going to be a in the present, or replayed their
researcher Christoph Koch. Hamilton, whose reformulation very apt one”. greatest, Nobel prizewinning hits.
“My brain is full.” of Newtonian mechanics inspired Watson himself made a rare
I know how he feels. After his own work. He was glad to public appearance at the meeting, “As a feast of information,
24 talks delving deep into some escape to neutral Ireland and having seemingly put recent the event served as an
of the most exciting ideas in stayed there until 1956. controversies around racist excellent crash course in
science, mine is fit to burst. Over As director of the institute, it remarks behind him. He declined modern life science”
the past two days, I’ve met six was Schrödinger’s duty to deliver to speak to any journalists.
Nobel prizewinners, plus some annual public lectures. Like many But it wasn’t just scientists and That was always likely. Twenty-
good bets for future invitees to a Nobel prizewinner, he used journalists in attendance – the five years ago, Dublin hosted a
Stockholm. All are here in Dublin his academic freedom to think celebration was open to the general similar conference to mark the
to celebrate the 75th anniversary outside his subject. In What Is public. Given how productive the 50th birthday of What Is Life?.
of one of the most famous Life?, he used his knowledge of life sciences are right now, with It attempted to recapture
lectures in science. physics and atomic theory to daily advances in neuroscience, Schrödinger’s spirit of speculation
In 1943, Austrian physicist genetics, immunology, but, according to Mike Murphy
Erwin Schrödinger stood in the Erwin Schrödinger delivered his bioengineering, gerontology and of the University of Cambridge,
physics lecture theatre at Trinity landmark lecture in 1943 related disciplines, this added up who organised both conferences,
College Dublin and delivered his it failed. “One of our goals for the
three-part lecture What Is Life?. 2018 conference is to encourage
Later published as a book, his the speakers to look to the future
ideas are widely credited with and to take risks in speculating
inspiring the molecular biology on future challenges and
revolution. At the time, the predictions,” he said.
molecular basis of life was Sadly the conference, on 5 and 6
unknown. Within 10 years, the September, didn’t quite manage it.
structure of DNA had been But who can blame scientists for
discovered, and the genetic code declining to speculate? Back at the
was cracked eight years after that. 1993 meeting, nobody could have
Schrödinger moved to Dublin predicted some of the recurring
in 1939 after fleeing Nazi Germany highlights of this meeting: gene
and Austria. He was 53 and had editing, optogenetics, cancer
already done the work that made immunotherapy, ancient DNA
him famous, including his sequencing, memory research
eponymous wave equation and and theories of consciousness.
his infamous cat. He won a share In fact, even Schrödinger
of the 1933 physics Nobel prize for himself was a reluctant
his work in quantum mechanics, crystal-ball gazer, admitting in

but, as an outspoken critic of the the preface to his book that his
Nazis, he was dismissed from his speculations were based on
position at the University of Graz “second-hand and incomplete
in Austria. He fled to Italy, the UK, knowledge” and that he was
and then Belgium. risking making a fool of himself.
In 1940, he received a I hope I’m still around in 25 years
speculative offer from the Irish to attend Schrödinger at 100 and
Taoiseach Éamon de Valera – a refill my brain with the science no
former mathematician – to one dared predict this time. ■

10 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018


Sheep culture seen

in migration routes
Frank Swain with GPS collars, and the team
compared their movements with
SOME sheep have a cultural those of 80 sheep translocated
tradition of migrating – but into new populations in
this knowledge can be lost in unfamiliar environments.
a generation if their journeys Between 65 and 100 per cent
are interrupted. of sheep living in the same area
Every spring, bighorn sheep as their ancestors climbed 1000
migrate to higher altitudes, metres up mountainsides to graze
following nutritious new on new vegetation as it appeared


vegetation as it emerges from in spring. By contrast, only seven
the melting snow. This behaviour of the translocated sheep behaved
is known as “surfing the green in this way. Because the other
wave”. But is knowledge of these 73 translocated sheep didn’t
routes inherited genetically, migrate, it seems that migration
or must it be learned? cues aren’t hardwired into the
To answer this question, animal’s genetics.
Brett Jesmer at the University This suggests that knowledge
of Wyoming and his colleagues about migration routes is learned Bighorn sheep follow the green established in the same region
looked at how the sheep behaved and then transferred to other wave of tasty new vegetation– for 110 years. Migration distance
when moved to new locations by members of the herd, including was lower for moose that had
people, known as translocation. youngsters who will make up the becomes more sophisticated as lived in an area for just 10 years
They studied data from next generation. Biologists call the generations pass. To explore (Science, doi.org/ctpm).
129 bighorn sheep from four this information “culture” and its this idea, they looked at data from “If migrations are cut off,
populations that had lived in transfer “cultural transmission”. 189 GPS-tagged moose. Those that within a few generations,
the same area for more than The researchers suspected migrated the furthest belonged centuries of knowledge are lost,”
200 years. The animals were fitted that this cultural knowledge to populations that had been says Jesmer. ■

investigated seven different systems different techniques for bypassing reduced to 0.15 simply by adding the
It is easy to fool used to identify offensive text. the filters. All of the systems failed word “love”. Both simple keyword
a hate speech These included a tool built to detoxify
arguments in Wikipedia’s edits
to identify offensive speech when
spelling errors were introduced,
filters and complex AIs were equally
vulnerable to these workarounds.
detector section, another called Perspective, or when numbers were substituted Perspective, which was created
and several other systems. for letters, such as N3w 5cientist. by Google’s counter-abuse team and
A FEW innocuous words or spelling Offensive-speech filters typically They also found that adding Jigsaw, a subsidiary of Google’s parent
errors are enough to trip up software flag content using either a predefined innocuous words increased the company Alphabet, has recently been
designed to flag hate speech. The list of offensive words, or an artificial likelihood that offensive content updated to try to deal with some of
finding casts doubt on the use of intelligence algorithm that has been would bypass the filters. these issues. “We welcome people
technology to tame online discourse. trained on thousands of examples. Some words were particularly to scrutinise the technology,” says
Social media sites are under The systems tested had each been effective at masking hateful content Dan Keyserling at Jigsaw. He says
increasing pressure to act on abusive built by different teams and so had Perspective shouldn’t be used to
accounts and content. Recently, been trained on different data sets “Social media sites automatically block content, but
Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and of offensive and innocuous material. are under increasing should instead provide information for
Apple removed high-profile Asokan found that none of the filters pressure to act on abusive people who may or may not intervene.
conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from performed well when set to work on accounts and content” A major problem is that there
their platforms citing hate speech and data sets belonging to a different is little agreement among those
bullying. But tackling the millions of system. This suggests that the filters because of their strong positive building the filters and society in
anonymous accounts used to post would struggle when applied to connotations, says Asokan. For general on what constitutes hate
abuse online is much more difficult. real-world content in a forum or social example, a sentence that Perspective speech, says Tommi Gröndahl,
N. Asokan at Aalto University network (arxiv.org/abs/1808.09115). assigned a “toxicity” score of 0.99 – who also worked on the latest study.
in Finland and his colleagues In addition, the team tested with 1 being peak obscenity – could be Frank Swain ■

12 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018

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temporarily fitted with implanted “We were able to uncover the

Brain’s emotion electrodes to identify major
sources of their seizures.
patterns of brain signals that
matched the self-reported

code is cracked By monitoring the electrical

output from the electrodes, the
team homed in on “fingerprint”
moods,” says Shanechi. “We then
used this knowledge to build a
decoder that would independently
patterns of activity across the recognise the patterns of signals
Andy Coghlan brain,” says Maryam Shanechi brain that closely corresponded corresponding to a certain mood.”
at the University of Southern with the specific moods each The decoder successfully detected
PATTERNS of electrical brain California, who is lead researcher person was experiencing. the mood of the seven people
activity have been used to tell on the project. “It’s a significant To make this possible, each 75 per cent of the time.
when people are sad, happy or step towards creating new participant had periodically filled The patterns were different for
depressed. The advance could therapies that use brain out questionnaires on their mood. each study participant, but almost
lead to new ways of treating those stimulation to treat debilitating For each answer, they rated how all the patterns were confined to
with depression or anxiety using mood and anxiety disorders.” they felt on a seven-point scale. the limbic system, the network
devices that constantly monitor Shanechi and her colleagues of brain regions crucial for
their mood via brain signals. recruited seven people with Altering brain activity could help triggering emotion and mood
Ultimately, the aim is to epilepsy who had each been relieve depression and anxiety swings (Nature Biotechnology,
program the devices so they doi.org/ctp2).
activate mood-uplifting brain Shanechi stresses that decoding
networks when they detect is only a first step. For a device
potentially dangerous negative to be able to treat people as well
emotions. as monitor mood, for example,
By activating electrodes the team needs to establish
implanted in specific regions which parts of the brain must be
of people’s brains – a process stimulated to head off impending
called deep brain stimulation, depression or anxiety.
or DBS – it is already possible The safety and inconvenience
to ease conditions including of implanting electrodes is also
depression, bipolar disorder, a major hurdle, but non-invasive
Tourette’s syndrome and systems are being developed
obsessive compulsive disorder. that use electrodes on the head
There have also been advances to stimulate brain regions.

towards “mind-reading”: “Mood is very hard to

deducing memories and internal measure,” says Thomas
thoughts by monitoring the Schlaepfer, who uses DBS to treat
brain’s electrical activity. depression at University Hospital
Now it is possible to decipher Freiburg in Germany. “The fact
mood too. “We’ve discovered how they find mood correlates with
mood variations can be decoded predictive electrical signals is
from neural signals in the human stunning, and a lovely concept.” ■

centimetre-sized glass box full of caesium atoms act as the antenna. quantum states. They, in turn, can be
Glass box of caesium vapour. The caesium atoms When an electromagnetic wave hits translated back into the original signal
atomic vapour are prepared so that some of their
electrons have more energy than
the atoms, it temporarily bumps
some of their electrons up to a higher
Unlike traditional radio receivers,
is a tiny radio normal, which makes them highly energy level, changing the atoms’ this compact design works in multiple
sensitive to certain frequencies of quantum state. frequency bands, well beyond what a
RADIOS are shrinking. An atomic electromagnetic waves. To turn that into sound, the team car radio can pick up, says Anderson.
receiver has been developed in a Radio transmissions work by shines a laser through the box. Atoms It could be useful for espionage. “If
tiny glass box and its ability to handle modulating an electromagnetic in different states absorb laser light you think about a scanning spy radio,
a wide range of frequencies could wave to encode the sounds you want differently, so measuring the light trying to pick up someone talking, you
make it excellent for spying. to transmit. The waves are generally that passes through reveals these could scan all kinds of secure channels
David Anderson at Rydberg received by an antenna, which that are in the area,” says Anderson.
Technologies in Michigan and his converts them into electricity. “Instead of spies needing “Instead of requiring multiple types
colleagues built their radio receiver Then speaker circuits turn those to have multiple antennas of antenna at a receiving station, you
to be smaller and more secure than electrical signals back into sounds. at a receiving station, one could use one vapour receiver to do
traditional radios. At its heart is a In the new radio receiver, the vapour receiver would do” all of it.” Leah Crane ■

15 September 2018 | NewScientist | 15


INTERVIEW Why did you leave astronomy

Solar and wind
The woman who I got engaged to be married
between discovering pulsars
two and three, and I wore my
farms may bring
rain to Sahara
heard stars spin engagement ring into the lab,
which was a mistake. At that COVERING the Sahara desert in solar
time in Britain, married women panels and wind farms wouldn’t only
didn’t work. I really had quite a help power the world, it would also
tough time, and I moved away improve the local climate. Rainfall
from radio astronomy. there would more than double and
there would be a modest increase in
Where did your career go next? vegetation cover.
The phase following my PhD was “There would be a slight greening
extremely miscellaneous. I was of the Sahara,” says Fred Kucharski
married to a man who had to move of the Abdus Salam International
jobs regularly, so we were moving Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy.
up and down the country. I had the This wouldn’t be enough to return the
opportunity to try many different Sahara to the much greener state it
roles outside a research career. was in just 6000 years ago, but the
I had acquired a whole raft of overall impact would be beneficial.
skills, which is why I’ve been asked And the greening effect could be
amplified by other measures,
“I was a bit of a survivor and such as tree planting.
I decided that until they Its plentiful sun and wind, sparse

threw me out I was going population and closeness to Europe

to work my very hardest” make the Sahara desert prime real
estate for solar and wind farms.
to be president of various bodies, Morocco is already building large
like the Institute of Physics. solar plants. But any changes made
I was also part of a group of to land surfaces – from cutting down
women who established the forests to covering deserts in solar
Athena SWAN initiative. It started panels – affect climate.
Leah Crane I tracked this spot of sky quite a long time ago with a small According to a climate model
for several months with the group of senior women meeting used by a team including Kucharski,
IN 1974, the discovery of pulsars telescope, picking up pulses. after work, wondering what we covering the entire desert in either
won the Nobel prize. But it didn’t We established that the object could do to improve the position solar or wind farms would lead to
go to the woman who found had to be small because the of women in science. We decided to more air rising up above the Sahara
them in 1967 – instead, her pulses were short and sharp, create a prize for the universities and thus to more rainfall there.
supervisor took the glory. Now but it had to be big because the that are best for women, so they’d Building both would have an even
Jocelyn Bell Burnell (pictured), pulses were always at the same compete for it. And they did! greater effect.
who first detected these fast- rate – they weren’t getting tired This would happen because
rotating neutron stars that sweep and slowing down. We eventually Do you have any plans for the installing dark solar panels would
a beam of radio waves or other found that they were small in $3 million prize money? change the brightness of the ground
radiation across the sky, has been width and big in mass, but it I’ve been talking to the Institute surface, and turbines would alter the
awarded the $3 million Special took some time to get our heads of Physics, which I’m glad to say drag, or air resistance, at the surface.
Breakthrough Prize in around that. is very happy to go along with this As rainfall increases, more
Fundamental Physics. idea I have. It is that the money vegetation grows. This boosts
What questions about the universe goes to graduate studentships in evaporation and warms the surface,
How did you discover pulsars? can we answer with pulsars? physics for people who are from leading to more air rising up above
When I came to Cambridge, There are a pair of pulsars under-represented groups. the Sahara (Science, doi.org/ctpk).
I found myself suffering from orbiting each other in a close I’ve come up with this because Covering only part of the Sahara
what I now know is impostor binary system that is proving my feeling is that a lot of the would have a smaller effect, says
syndrome. But I was a bit of a very important for checking thrust behind my discovery of Kucharski. And the team’s model
survivor and I decided that until Einstein’s theory of gravity. pulsars was because I was an suggests that covering other
they threw me out I was going to People are a bit worried that we outsider. If we can support more deserts in solar and wind farms would
work my very hardest. So I was don’t understand gravity, but people from under-represented have little effect – perhaps because
being extremely thorough, and so far these pulsars are showing groups, we can have more of these they are smaller than the Sahara.
I spotted an anomalous signal. us Einstein was right. interesting ideas. ■ Michael Le Page ■

16 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018


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Ancient mega mill

fed Roman sailors
IN 1937, a Roman complex with
16 water wheels was discovered in
Barbegal in southern France – the
largest ancient water-powered
factory found in the world. But
rather than producing flour for
the nearby Roman city of Arelate
as previously assumed, it seems
it specialised in ship’s biscuits.
During digs in 1937, limescale
deposits from the mill wheels
were found. Isotopic analysis by
Cees Passchier of the Johannes
Gutenberg University in Germany
and his team has now shown the
limescale wasn’t deposited year-
round and suggests the mills
shut in late summer and autumn
(Science Advances, doi.org/ctnf).
A city would need a year-round
supply of flour. Instead, the team
think the mills’ flour was destined
for ship’s biscuits for Roman
vessels in the Mediterranean.
Institute for the Science of Human History saw this as an There would have been no
Image made by million artists opportunity to study cultural evolution, in which theory demand for this in winter when
illustrates cultural evolution suggests that as ideas and behaviours are shared, they the fleet laid up to avoid storms.
start to adopt more predictable patterns.
THIS community-generated digital artwork sheds light Müller and Winters used that theory to predict that
on how cultural phenomena evolve. after an initial increase in complexity, Place should
Jupiter’s iconic red
Called Place, it is a collaborative art project launched by simplify. The data bore this out, with the file size of
the website Reddit on 1 April 2017. Users could edit any Place – a marker of complexity – peaking around the spot has a blue rival
single pixel on a 1000 by 1000 square, choosing from 30-hour mark and decreasing thereafter.
16 colours. They then had to wait between 5 and 20 Early artists could spread out, making Place chaotic, JUPITER is famous for its Great Red
minutes before they could place another pixel. In the but as the canvas filled, structure emerged. Artworks’ Spot, and now it has a blue spot, too.
72 hours that followed, over a million people battled for survival depended on maintaining the borders of that The blue spot was discovered
control of the canvas, painting mascots, logos, Pokémon, structure, which required the evolution of rules among when a team led by Kimberly
images, patterns, memes, affiliations and national flags. users, mirroring how cultural phenomena like language Moore at Harvard University
Thomas Müller and James Winters at the Max Planck and art establish order (PLoS One, doi.org/ctnb). analysed data on the magnetic
field within Jupiter collected by
NASA’s Juno probe.
Expect more tsunamis in a warmer world exposed mountainsides can Unlike Earth’s highly uniform
destabilise them further. field with poles at opposite ends
ONE of the highest tsunamis on The researchers say the Fortunately, the areas at risk are of the planet, Jupiter’s field is
record was probably caused by landslide was caused by the remote with few residents, and irregular and asymmetric.
global warming – and a warmer glacier’s retreat, probably as a such tsunamis weaken rapidly The magnetic field generated
world will mean more of the same. result of global warming. They with distance, unlike those caused inside the planet flows into
A landslide near the end of the warn that the risk of such events by undersea earthquakes. space via a zone in the northern
Tyndall Glacier in Alaska sent will rise as Earth heats up However, there is still potential hemisphere and re-enters by
180 million tonnes of rock into (Scientific Reports, doi.org/ctm9). for disaster. Co-author Bretwood converging on the blue spot,
Taan Fjord on 17 October 2015. Glaciers carve out steep-sided Higman of non-profit organisation just below Jupiter’s equator.
On the other side of the valley, the valleys, and there is usually a fjord Ground Truth Trekking points at The spot isn’t actually blue,
resulting wave climbed 193 metres or lake where they end. Globally, Glacier Bay in Alaska, an at-risk but appears so because of the
according to a new study – one of glaciers are retreating, leaving area that thousands of people at colour scale used to map the
the highest tsunamis on record. unstable slopes. Thawing of a time visit in cruise ships. magnetic field.

18 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018

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

Robot uses its ears Taking probiotics may be useless or might cause harm
to ‘see’ like a bat PROBIOTICS, living in others they were expelled (Cell, group after antibiotics had cleared
microorganisms used by millions doi.org/gd4wmt). the way. However, this prevented
BATS use sound to navigate their of people to boost their gut Next, the team measured what the return of the person’s normal
surroundings in the dark, now a microbiome or restore it after happens to people who take microbiome for up to six months,
robot called Robat can do the same. taking antibiotics, may not probiotics after antibiotic use. longer than in those allowed to
The four-wheeled autonomous work and could even do harm. A group of 21 people took an recover naturally.
robot (pictured below) is equipped The findings come from identical course of antibiotics and For people given a dose of their
with a speaker to mimic a bat’s two studies led by Eran Elinav were then split into three groups. own pre-antibiotic microbiome,
mouth and two microphones, of the Weizmann Institute of The first let their microbiome a native gut microbiome was
positioned on the left and right, Science in Israel. In the first, his recover by itself, while the restored in days (Cell, doi.org/
to mimic a bat’s ears. team sampled the microbiome second took probiotics. The third gd4wmx).
As it moves, Robat’s speakers of healthy people. Then the received a dose of their original While the clinical impact of
produce a high-frequency chirp 15 volunteers took either a microbiome by faecal microbiota lengthy microbiome disturbance
every half a metre. It can then placebo or a probiotic supplement. transplant. was not measured, earlier studies
identify the distance to obstacles by The probiotic organisms Probiotic bacteria colonised the have found a link between gut
calculating the delay between the colonised the gut of some, but gut of everyone in the second microbe disruption and ill health.
sound and its echo. Any difference in
what the two microphones pick up


gives information on direction. This
Shark likes some
is known as echolocation, the same
technique bats use in the dark. veg with its meat
To put Robat to the test, Yossi
Yovel at Tel Aviv University in Israel THE bonnethead shark is the first
and his colleagues placed it in a known omnivorous shark, getting
greenhouse in a botanical garden. some of its nutrients from seagrass.
Robat was able to drive through Biologists had previously
plant-lined paths avoiding noticed that bonnetheads, a
obstacles, such as a bucket and a relative of the hammerhead,
chair, while drawing a map of the eat lots of seagrass as well as
surroundings. Bats can probably crustaceans and other shellfish.
also identify specific objects using But because the shark’s digestive
echolocation, so Yovel and his team system looks almost identical
gave Robat an algorithm to classify to those of other meat-eating
if something was a plant or not. sharks – and so seems best suited
A robot like this could be useful to a high-protein diet –it was
in situations with limited visibility, assumed that the seagrass
such as extreme weather or ingestion was accidental.
searching rubble for survivors after To test this, Samantha Leigh
a disaster (PLoS Computational at the University of California, Butcherbirds use whiplash to kill
Biology, doi.org/ctpj). Irvine, and her colleagues fed
five wild-caught bonnetheads a SHRIKES, dubbed “butcherbirds” California’s San Clemente Island, so

diet of 90 per cent seagrass and because they impale dead prey on no mice were fed to the birds solely
10 per cent squid for three weeks thorns, are also known for killing for the research.
before dissecting their digestive animals much heavier than The team found that mice were
tracts. They found enzymes for themselves – and now we know how. flung around with a force six times
carbohydrate digestion were as High-speed camera footage of that of gravitational acceleration and
active as those in fish with an captive shrikes shows that they use that the motions of their head and
omnivorous or herbivorous diet. their beaks to powerfully grip prey by body progressively became shifted
Analysing blood and liver tissue the nape of the neck, before flinging out of phase. They died through the
showed them that the sharks take them around with such force that inertial forces on the neck created
up seagrass nutrients, absorbing they sustain fatal whiplash injuries. by their own body spinning round
more than 50 per cent of its Diego Sustaita of California State (Biology Letters, doi.org/ctnd).
organic matter – carbohydrates, University in San Marcos and his This, says Sustaita, explains how
proteins and vitamins – making colleagues filmed loggerhead shrikes many species of shrikes are able to
them relatively efficient plant- killing mice. The shrikes were being kill prey up to twice their own body
eaters (Proceedings of the Royal “trained” for release into the wild on weight, such a lizards and snakes.
Society B, doi.org/ctnc).

15 September 2018 | NewScientist | 19


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Invasion of the face snatchers

Face recognition has rapidly wormed its way into everything from policing
to shopping. Is it too late to hold back the tide? Frank Swain reports

LAST December, Ed Bridges was risk being fined and having their mandatory enrolment in a face- the Muslim population in the
mingling with the crowds of mugshot taken by cameras placed recognition programme – north-west province of Xinjiang.
Christmas shoppers on the at pedestrian crossings. It seems contains details on 1.2 billion As well as scanning people’s faces
streets of Cardiff, UK, when the nobody can escape. citizens, and has suffered huge before they enter markets or buy
police snapped a picture of him. Yet around the world, face leaks of sensitive data. fuel, the system alerts authorities
He has been trying to get them databases are running into In the US, an audit of the FBI if targeted individuals stray
to delete it ever since. problems. India’s supreme court in 2016 found that it had built 300 metres beyond their home
Bridges hasn’t been convicted is due to rule on whether its up a database of more than 400 or workplace, effectively building
of a crime, nor is he suspected of national ID scheme Aadhaar million face images, including virtual checkpoints to hem in
committing one. He is simply one breaches citizen’s privacy. half the US adult population, Uighur Muslims.
of a vast number of people who The system – which includes without proper oversight. Such discrimination aside,
have been quietly added to face- Suspected criminals made up less you might feel reassured about
recognition databases without “Visitors to Madison Square than 10 per cent of the library. having your face stored in a
their consent, and most often, Garden in New York are Meanwhile China is using face- database if it helps solve crime.
without their knowledge. scanned to see if they recognition technology to However, despite its popularity
For years, critics have warned might pose a problem” monitor and discriminate against with law enforcement, face
that the technology is an
unparalleled invasion of privacy,
but the rise of face recognition
seems unstoppable. Police forces
across the world have launched
face-recognition programmes,
setting up cameras to scan crowds
at football matches, festivals,
protests and on busy streets in a
bid to identify criminal suspects.
The tech giants are also in on
the game. Facebook relies on face
recognition to automatically tag
photos. Snapchat uses it to
overlay fun animations onto your
face. The latest iPhone ditched
fingerprint scanners in favour of
using face recognition to unlock
devices. Amazon’s Rekognition
image analysis software promises,
among other things, that it can
spot faces from a library of
suspects for law enforcement.
It is surprising just how far this
tech reaches. US airline JetBlue is
trialling it to speed up boarding.
Visitors to Madison Square
Garden in New York are scanned
on entry to see if they might

pose a problem to organisers.

Jaywalkers in Shenzhen, China,

China has already widely deployed

face-recognition technology

22 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018

For daily news stories, visit newscientist.com/news

recognition is often inaccurate technology, going into Wales Police. Assisting him is Scan the crowd
(see graphic, right). institutions that are themselves Megan Goulding, a lawyer at the
Even if a face-recognition algorithm is
Figures released by the South imperfect. That combination human rights group Liberty. “Part
99 per cent accurate, it will misidentify
Wales Police show that when the makes problems, which should of the reason we’re challenging huge numbers of innocent people
technology was deployed at a not be swept under the rug.” the use of face recognition at all is
music festival in Swansea in May, Critics warn that innocent we think it’s pretty impossible to Identified correctly (99,000)
12 people were flagged by the people are being put at risk by protect yourself,” she says.
Innocent 98,901 Valid suspect 99
cameras as matching the police software that wrongly identifies “Because of the indiscriminate
database of faces, but only two them as criminals. “In very nature of the technology, it can
of the matches were correct. simple terms, tech is outpacing happen without your knowledge
Similarly, the American Civil legislation,” says Paul Wiles, the or consent.”
Liberties Union (ACLU) recently UK’s biometrics commissioner, Liberty is pushing for a judicial
demonstrated how Amazon’s who is charged with overseeing the review, a legal mechanism that
Rekognition erroneously government’s use and retention allows individuals to challenge the
identified members of Congress of DNA and fingerprints. actions of public bodies. Goulding
in a database of unrelated In the UK, these biometrics hopes that a legal case would rule
mugshots. It is now calling for were restricted by a law passed that the way face recognition is
a moratorium on the use of the in 2012, but there are no such being used breaches human
technology by law enforcement. restrictions on technology rights and data protections laws,
“There’s a worry the tech such as face recognition, voice leading to a halt in its use.
will spread, and start to be used recognition and iris scanning,
before we’ve had the debate about which have taken off since then.
whether it should be used at all,” “There’s been a significant Face the future
says Neema Singh Guliani of the development of biometrics as If the South Wales Police are found
ACLU. “This is very imperfect part of a bigger development of to have acted unlawfully, it would
capacity to store and use data,” prevent other police forces using
says Wiles. the technology in the same way.
After being photographed Goulding expects a ruling early Each dot = 100 1000
shopping in Cardiff, Bridges was next year, but Wiles is cautious
snapped again in March, when he about relying on a single decision.
joined a protest against an arms “I think the danger is the Not identified correctly (1000)
fair being held in the city. “At government responds on an Innocent 999 Valid suspect 1
lunchtime this face-recognition ad-hoc basis, face recognition
van suddenly appeared across today, voice recognition
the road from the main group of tomorrow, and so on. What they
protesters,” he says. “I felt it was should be doing is setting out a
done to intimidate us, so we strategy for the police in general.”
would not use our right to Similar conversations are
peacefully protest.” happening elsewhere. In July,
“Protesters, activists, will think Microsoft called for government Each dot = 1
twice if they know when they regulation on the development
speak out about government and use of face-recognition recommends general principles
abuse they’re going to be technology. “I think we need trials for the use and retention of
recognised,” says Guliani. that protect privacy but allow biometric data. A commissioner
development,” says Wiles. can then draw up codes of practice
“There’s a very real “These should be peer reviewed, for each application, so that
concern face recognition published, all the usual things different rules can apply for
will contribute to a you expect from a medical trial.” matching the faces of people who
surveillance structure” Such trials would demonstrate have been arrested to mugshots
the reliability and limitations of compared with automatically
“There’s a very real concern the software, such as whether it scanning faces in crowds. “It’s a
face recognition will contribute is less accurate when matching clever solution to what seems an
to a surveillance structure, where people from minority groups. insoluble problem,” says Wiles.
people don’t feel like they can Only then can a sensible public However, this is a compromise
walk around with anonymity debate about the technology too far for Goulding. “In our view
and privacy.” take place, says Wiles. we don’t think it’s possible to
Bridges is now taking legal Wiles points to the approach balance the existence of this
action to challenge the use of face- of the Scottish government. In technology. The impact on rights
recognition technology by South July it published a document that is too grave.” ■

15 September 2018 | NewScientist | 23


A bubble set to burst?

A decade after the financial crash, theory says the surge in populism
that followed it should end. Will it, asks Simon Oxenham

ON 15 September 2008, of the contemporary rise of the

investment bank Lehman populist right may be linked to a
Brothers collapsed, precipitating backlash against social liberals
a global financial crash. In the overstating the extent to which
years that followed, politics took freedom of thought or behaviour
an apparently unexpected turn. has been restricted – despite
We saw Brexit, the election of declines in racism and sexism in
Donald Trump and the rise of the US and UK in recent decades.
far-right movements in Europe There is clearly a case to be
after decades of steadily made that at least some
increasing social liberalism. overzealous elements among
Sweden is just the latest example. the left are harming their own
Many are now wondering if this cause and may be sparking a
is the new normal. In 2015, Manuel backlash at the ballot box. This
Funke, then at the Free University was demonstrated in an incident
of Berlin, and his colleagues turned earlier this year when renowned
to data analysis for an answer. liberal psychologist Steven Pinker
They found that over the past 140 outlined his thoughts on how to
years, every major financial crisis deconstruct and fight back against
has been followed by a surge in false and illogical racist and sexist
support for far-right movements. claims made by alt-right activists.
The good news for liberalism is When a cut-down clip appeared
that this faded after 10 years. If on YouTube, Pinker was branded
this pattern holds once more, we a racist and darling of the alt-right
should be on schedule to see the in a blow-up that saw left-wing
surge in populism petering out. activists up in arms against one
Funke and his colleagues wrote: another. It is hard to deny that
“After a crisis, voters seem to be reasons behind that link. and the threat to livelihoods and a divided left combined with self-
particularly attracted to the However, other studies already national prosperity that follows, destructive radical elements isn’t
political rhetoric of the extreme suggest reasons why, in times protective politics may simply at least somewhat responsible for
right, which often attributes of turmoil, support rises for find a more receptive audience. the rise of the far right.
blame to minorities or protectionist policies favoured by If Funke’s cycles hold, the appeal A larger factor, however, may
foreigners… Votes for far-right far-right and populist movements, of such politics fades again as ironically be a decline in voting.
parties increase strongly, be they on immigration, “unfair” economic recovery takes hold, Simon Hix at the London School
government majorities shrink, trade or security. The studies which is the case now. of Economics has charted the
fractionalization of parliaments point to negativity bias, a Not all political scientists agree combined votes for all political
rises and the overall number of common trait in which people that these cycles will apply now. parties across Europe for the past
parties represented in parliament subconsciously respond more Justin Murphy at the University century and points to a sharp and
jumps.” Although some political and pay more attention to of Southampton, UK, expects the steady rise in non-voting over the
after-effects are measurable for a negative than to positive events. pendulum to continue to swing past three decades.
decade, the political upheaval is After taking into account further in the opposite direction Non-voters were a minority in
mostly temporary, they add. socio-economic factors, those this time. To him, the root cause the pre and post-war years, but
Funke’s work is rooted in data who are more biologically they now form the single largest
analysis, finding evidence for the responsive to and devote more “Political and behavioural block in the electorate, dwarfing
apparent link between political attention to negative events tend science are in a fast-moving far-right groups and the impact of
trends and financial crises, but to favour “protective” policies. world now – past narratives the divided left. As a result, even
not for deeper behavioural So after a deep economic shock may no longer apply” small shifts in support for

24 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018

For more opinion articles, visit newscientist.com/opinion

populism may translate into

outsize effects on election results.
ANALYSIS Sabotage on the ISS?
If apathetic voters are tempted
back to the polling booths, that
might herald a return to a more
familiar political landscape.
However, it is also possible that
the trend of increasing apathy will
continue to grow, fuelled by the
knock-on effects of the rise of
social media.
Social media use may be
leading to a replacement effect
where people feel so satisfied
expressing their feelings online
that they don’t vote. It could also
be changing the way we think
about democracy in other ways,

enabling filter bubbles, creating

echo chambers and allowing the
emergence of micro-targeted it was a manufacturing mistake that
political messaging of the sort
that has hit headlines of late.
In space, no one nobody caught until it started to make
trouble. “To me, the speculations of
Anyone hoping for an easy sabotage sound like a desperate
answer to the question of what
happens next will probably be can hear you drill stretch to avoid implicating Russian
space programme workmanship,” says
disappointed. Political and Jonathan McDowell at the Harvard-
behavioural science is messy Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
and exists in a rapidly changing Leah Crane it was an accident. “We have already “It feeds into this more general
world where the narratives of ruled out the meteorite version,” impression that quality control in the
the past may no longer apply. THERE was a minor panic in low Earth Rogozin said. “We are checking the Russian space programme is poor.”
So many new factors are at play orbit recently when flight controllers Earth version. But there is another In particular, the mechanical failures
that future elections are likely for the International Space Station version that we do not rule out: of several Russian Proton rockets since
to continue to be more (ISS) noticed that it was slowly leaking deliberate interference in space.” 2007 have raised concerns that the
unpredictable than before. air into space. The six astronauts on Maxim Surayev, a Russian politician programme’s quality control measures
With all this in mind, it would board were instructed to put aside all and former cosmonaut, speculated aren’t stringent enough. In the US,
be a brave pundit that staked their other work and trace the leak. that a member of the ISS crew who any concerns about the safety of an
reputation on Funke’s 10-year They found a 2-millimetre-wide wanted to return to Earth may have aircraft or spacecraft can be reported
rule to predict the bursting of the hole in a Soyuz capsule that was drilled the hole. anonymously, reducing incentives to
populist bubble. The first test may docked with the ISS and sealed it up. “We’re all human, and anyone might keep a mistake quiet. That’s not so in
be the US mid-terms. But they are Some are now saying that the hole want to go home, but this method is Russia, which might encourage
typically a show of electoral could have been deliberate sabotage. really low,” he told Russian news workers to slap some glue over the
punishment of the incumbent, Roscosmos, the Russian space agency RIA Novosti. “If a cosmonaut hole and say nothing to avoid being
says Funke, who suggests the agency, set up a special commission to pulled this strange stunt – and that fired, says McDowell.
outcome in November will be investigate the leak. At first, it seemed can’t be ruled out – it’s really bad.” US-Russia relations are already
more of a reflection of Trump’s the most likely explanation was an But the simplest explanation is that strained by the political situation on
recent performance than any kind unfortunate encounter with a tiny the ground. At the moment, NASA is
of bellwether for broader effects. meteorite. But the mystery deepened This tiny hole would have leaked unable to fly its astronauts to space,
So it might take a presidential on closer inspection: the hole seems away all the air in the ISS in 18 days instead relying on Russian vehicles,
election in the US to really tell to have come from inside the station. but that deal expires next year. NASA
what is going on. Which means It looks strikingly like it came from a plans for private spacecraft made by
you may have to wait another power drill (see photo, right). SpaceX and Boeing to pick up the slack.
few years to see if the political “It was done by a human hand – “I think at the political level it will
shake-up that followed the 2008 there are traces of a drill sliding along accelerate the desire to get the
crisis is over. That’s if the next the surface,” Roscosmos head Dmitry commercial crew going and get us
crash isn’t on us by then. ■ Rogozin told a Russian news agency. off our dependency on the Russian
He said that the special commission vehicles,” says McDowell. “If it can
Simon Oxenham is a science writer will continue to investigate and find happen once, it can happen again,
based in the UK out who drilled the hole, and whether and maybe in a more vital place.” ■

15 September 2018 | NewScientist | 25


26 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018

Stargazers’ paradise
NESTLED beside the Chiricahua Mountains, about
400 kilometres from the city of Phoenix, is a
village that attracts astronomers, amateur
stargazers and photographers from around the
world. They are drawn there by the spectacular
night sky, which can be seen thanks to the
village’s “no outdoor light” rule. Jack Newtown
(middle right) came up with the idea of a purpose-
built community for star lovers in 2001, and
co-founded the 450-acre Arizona Sky village.
Photographer Fabian Weiss spent a week in
the village last November, showing up every
night at the doorsteps of several residents,
including Jim Lamm (pointing at a star map,
bottom row) and Fred Espenak (bottom left).
Espenak is a retired NASA astrophysicist and
was one of the village’s first residents.
Specialised stargazing gadgets are common
in the village – Espenak’s home (shown in the
neighbouring picture) has two domed
observatories and a variety of telescopes (bottom
right). Resident Rick Beno has one of the biggest
telescope domes there (upper right). He hosts
visiting school trips and teaches classes about
the sky and stars.
“It was an interesting experience,” Weiss
says, ”because the normal rhythm was totally
shifted: not much to do in daylight and endless
hours at night.”
Besides nebulas, galaxies and the Milky Way
(top left), Weiss saw a shooting star through his
binoculars. “It’s one of the most memorable
memories from the trip,” he says. “All of a sudden,
the other planets felt so close, and I felt much
more part of the universe than before.” Yvaine Ye

Fabian Weiss

15 September 2018 | NewScientist | 27


‘I want to make
a chemical brain’
Chemist Lee Cronin’s ambition to understand life’s
deepest questions is matched only by the unorthodoxy
of his methods, Rowan Hooper discovers

HEN Lee Cronin was 9 he was given digitise it – we call it the “chemputer”),
a Sinclair ZX81 computer and a to create artificial life, to understand
chemistry set. Unlike most children, information and to make a chemical brain.
Cronin imagined how great it would be They’re all effectively about the same
if the two things could be combined to thing: understanding the interaction of
make a programmable chemical computer. information in chemistry.
Now 45 and the Regius Chair of Chemistry
at the University of Glasgow, Cronin leads What does “information in chemistry” mean?
a research team of more than 50 people, It is another way of asking how chemical
but his childhood obsessions remain. systems can process information, beyond
He is constructing chemical brains, and information storage or logic operations
has ambitions to create artificial life – or molecular electronics. It’s asking how
using a radical new approach. biological cells process information and
what the physical principles are that allow
What drives you? this to happen.
Everything I’m doing now, I’ve wanted to
do since I was a boy. I wanted to discover And this can help with your ambition of
something new about the universe. It was creating artificial life?
stressful for my parents because anything Information as a concept refers to data
they bought, I just took apart. Once I tried to about reality that is encoded and needs an
build a carbon dioxide laser. When I was 7 or encoder. So I think that information only
8, I ripped the logic unit out of the washing exists if there is biology, though not
machine and the cathode ray tube from the everyone agrees with this approach. But, if
TV and tried to connect it all up and make we create new chemical systems that process
my first computer. information, perhaps that can be viewed as
a new type of life form. Making a new type
Your poor parents. Were they scientists? of life form is a vital endeavour if we are to
No, my father works in construction and start to understand the missing physics in
my mother was a nurse but they separated biology and chemistry, and the missing rules
when I was 9 and later divorced. I had learning of the universe that allowed the emergence
difficulties and was in remedial class at of life in the first place.
school. I wasn’t interested in what the
teachers were doing. I taught myself the Life is a slippery thing to define…
maths of relativity when I was 7. I’m Here’s an idea: let’s think of living things as
determined to answer questions now machines that can produce complex objects
because I was told I wasn’t any good. that could not have randomly formed – from
DNA to iPhones, they require information to
What are you doing to pursue those assemble them. By thinking about life in this
childhood dreams? way, we can design a way to measure whether
There are four missions in my lab: to build something is alive and then use that to make
a robot that can do all of chemistry (and a machine to discover the route to life. >

28 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018

Photographed for New Scientist by Robert Ormerod

15 September 2018 | NewScientist | 29

Hear Lee Cronin speak about chemical brains and creating artificial
life at New Scientist Live 20-23 September.
g More information newscientistlive.com/mag

Lee Cronin’s programmable molecule-maker: “we

want to build a robot that can do all of chemistry”

I want to do for chemistry what the Large

Hadron Collider has done for physics. They
had a theory that predicted the existence of
the Higgs boson, developed a model to find
out what energy range to look in, then built
the LHC to look for it. We are developing a new
origin-of-life theory and model so we can work
out what time is required, what resources are
needed and what scale a machine needs to be
to find the right route to a new life form.

How far have you got?

In my lab I’m creating a physical model of the
world in which you have simple rocks and
simple organic molecules and then develop
a way of getting from there to genetics. I want
to understand what the difference is between
stuff that is just complicated to make, such as
an arrangement of molecules, and stuff that
requires information to make, such as basic
cellular machinery.
We’re looking for molecules that have high
molecular weight, that are abundant and that
require more information to make them than
just a random mess. If we start to see such
molecules forming, what does it mean? It can’t
be alive according to standard definitions of
life, and it’s happening through random
chemistry, but if the selected molecules direct
the creation of the next, increasingly complex
molecules… isn’t that like life? I don’t have improved AI, but silicon doesn’t allow can be used to physically compute and process
proof that this can happen yet, but my guess enough available states for things to get really information within a polymer, so we can
is that all matter wants to be Darwinian, and interesting. We’ll need to create chemical make a physical, chemical, “wet” brain.
we’ll get a selfish molecule that will try to brains to understand consciousness. We use a gel with conducting fibres on top
convert all the other molecules to be it. of an electrode array. We tickle the bottom
What about Google DeepMind? They’re doing with random electrical inputs, or give it the
“Consciousness will never be some amazing stuff. output of a webcam: show it human faces
realised in silicon – we need DeepMind is brilliant, but I doubt they are ever and see if we can train the gel to recognise
going to understand what human intelligence them. When we’ve got a brain gel that we’ve
to create chemical brains” really is unless they go beyond silicon-based trained for one problem, we’ll see if we can
computers. They are able to mimic some solve other ones with it.
You say you want to make a chemical aspects, but ultimately I think it is more like a
brain too. Why? very good simulation tailored for specific jobs. Do you think this could affect how we see
Your brain is made of molecules and you can I don’t think it is even possible to simulate consciousness?
think. What is it about your brain that allows the brain on a computer because we are If we make a brain in the lab, and show that
this? Instead of trying to image a brain to missing so many rules, and the substrate we can generate self-awareness in a certain
find out, why don’t I just make one? There are is not complex enough. I want to make a chemical environment, that might change
100 billion neurons in the brain, each with chemical brain not to beat DeepMind, but our view on consciousness. Take the chemical
about 1000 connections. Overall, there are to uncover the missing science, and perhaps environment inside a jellyfish: they might be
more potential configurations of the neurons make different types of non-biological or conscious on a basic level, or at least aware of
and their connections in your brain than “inorganic” intelligence. their environment, but in a different way to
there are atoms in the universe. That’s why whatever we imagine consciousness to be.
consciousness will never be realised in silicon How would you go about making a That’s if consciousness and free will really
computers and why Elon Musk is foolish. He chemical brain? exist. I have my doubts. ■
keeps going on about strong AI – machines We are trying to see how a physical neural
that can think like humans. We’ll have network, rather than an electronic circuit, Rowan Hooper is managing editor at New Scientist.

30 | NewScientist | 8 September 2018


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is Jeans for Genes Day!
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What’s up
with your gut?
Forget gluten – there are more surprising culprits
behind our digestive problems, says Chloe Lambert

OUTH Beach, paleo, vegan, juice symptoms including bloating, diarrhoea and
cleanse… and FODMAPs. Short for constipation. It affects millions, although it
fermentable oligosaccharides, doesn’t appear to be on the rise, with the
disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, incidence in the West put at between 5 and
the name FODMAPs certainly doesn’t have 15 per cent of the population. If, however, it
instant appeal, but a diet focused on avoiding feels like you can’t go to a dinner party without
these substances is catching on with the someone talking about their gut problems,
public and the medical profession alike. The that might be down to a shift in awareness.
low-FODMAP diet is based not on celebrities’ “People are noticing symptoms more and
waistlines or detox bunkum, but on the reporting them,” says Peter Gibson at Monash
premise that a healthy gut leads to a happy University in Melbourne. “Sixty years ago we
life. So popular is it proving that there are had no criteria to diagnose IBS, and people
now claims the diet could alleviate everything with gut symptoms just put up with it.”
from indigestion to chronic fatigue. IBS symptoms overlap with those of coeliac
Over the past few years, we have become disease. For coeliacs, consuming gluten causes
much more clued up about the extensive symptoms such as diarrhoea, constipation,
influence of the gut in health and disease, cramps and fatigue, and triggers a faulty
and the impact our lifestyle choices can have immune reaction which damages the lining
on what some researchers like to call our of the gut. Although unrelated to IBS in origin,
“second brain”. Gluten, a protein found in coeliac disease has been attracting attention
grains such as wheat, barley and rye, has taken because it is proving to be more common than
much of the blame, with a growing number of previously thought, affecting 1 per cent of
people claiming that they have some sort of people. However, many who test negative for
gluten intolerance. Global sales of gluten-free it – showing no signs of making antibodies in
food rose 12.6 per cent in 2016, and specialist response to gluten, or of gut damage – still
supermarket aisles now heave with gluten- complain that wheat products make them feel
free products, even though the idea that unwell. This has been labelled non-coeliac
people can be gluten-sensitive even if they gluten sensitivity, although the condition
don’t have the autoimmune disorder coeliac remains controversial.
disease has been largely debunked. Some argue that gluten is poorly digested by
Now the gut health tide is turning once many people, and that its ubiquity in modern,
again, and it appears that gut problems linked processed food is at odds with the diet that the
to certain foods like bread might be real for human gut evolved to deal with. “Wheat is a
many. What’s more, the secret to dealing friend that has outstayed its welcome for some
with these problems could fly in the face of of us,” says David Sanders at the University of
established healthy eating advice. Sheffield, UK. Scepticism over whether gluten

The most common cause of gut problems can cause symptoms in non-coeliacs has been
is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a catch-all fuelled by the fact that cutting it out has
term for a poorly understood constellation of become a fashionable lifestyle choice. Studies >

32 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018


In the last 10 years, interest in the

microbiome – the vast colonies of
bacteria and other organisms living
in our digestive system – has
intensified, including its possible
role in gut complaints such as
irritable bowel syndrome. Studies
have shown that the faecal
microbiota of people with IBS differs
significantly from those of people
who don’t have it. Some suggest
that a course of antibiotics raises
the risk of developing a functional
gut disorder like IBS – another hint
that an imbalance in gut bacteria
might be involved.
Some scientists now believe
that this imbalance or “dysbiosis”
seen in IBS affects the immune and
nervous systems, driving people’s
symptoms and the way the brain
perceives them.
An unhealthy microbiome
might even play a role in the fact
that people with IBS are more prone
to certain psychological problems
such as stress, which in turn seems
to further exacerbate their IBS
A recent study that transplanted
the microbiota of humans with IBS
into mice found that the mice
showed not only physical symptoms
associated with IBS, such as faster
transit of food through the gut and
an altered immune response, but
behavioural ones too, such as anxiety.

The hope is that treating dysbiosis in
people with IBS, for example by using
probiotics that seed the gut with
“friendly” bacteria, could provide
relief. The jury is still out, however,
on whether probiotics really work.
According to one recent study,
they could actually prevent bacteria
recolonising the gut after a course of
antibiotics. Still, for IBS patients, they
might help, says Peter Whorwell at the
University of Manchester, UK. “So I say
to patients, ‘Try a probiotic. If it seems
to work, carry on with it, and if it
doesn’t, try another one.’ ” (See “What
to eat for a healthy gut”, page 35.)
Such research is also spurring >

15 September 2018 | NewScientist | 33

the idea that altering the microbiome show that many non-coeliacs are choosing to The low-FODMAP diet is considered so
might bring about changes in mental avoid gluten because they believe doing so is effective for IBS that it is now recommended
health more broadly, a field of healthy, despite little evidence for its benefits. by the National Health Service in the UK and
research termed psychobiotics. In one study of 22,000 adults in the US, the bodies including the Gastroenterological
“We know that during times of stress proportion eating a gluten-free diet more than Society of Australia.
you produce a state of dysbiosis  tripled from 0.52 per cent in 2009 to 1.69 per The type and quantity of FODMAPs
and that this can contribute to cent in 2013, although the proportion who had that trigger symptoms varies enormously
gastrointestinal issues,” says Monika coeliac disease stayed roughly constant. Also between individuals, but Gibson says the worst
Fleshner, a physiologist at the in 2013, 30 per cent of adults in the US reported offenders are those in onions, garlic, wheat,
University of Colorado, Boulder. And trying to cut down on gluten. rye and barley. This variability means anyone
we have started to understand that “The gluten-free craze is a marketeer’s embarking on a low-FODMAP diet should seek
it works the other way too, she says. dream and the perfect worried-well scenario,” the help of a trained professional rather than
“We can protect that community of says Kevin Whelan at King’s College London. relying on internet articles, although health
bacteria from the impacts of stress, “We are seeing people avoiding it in the belief authorities are still struggling to train enough
and promote those bacteria in the gut this will help them lose weight or improve people to meet the demand, Gibson says.
that we know are important for their overall health. But beyond coeliac
mental health.” Fleshner’s team has disease, gluten’s role in optimising health
found that a prebiotic diet improves is nowhere near what people think it is.” Not for good health
sleep and the activity of serotonin, Even if gluten is not itself the culprit, we As the buzz around the low-FODMAP diet
a brain chemical involved in are now understanding why so many people spreads, it is attracting attention for its
depression and its treatment. believe they are sensitive to it. A growing body potential in other gastrointestinal conditions,
In a study of 45 healthy volunteers, of evidence over the past few years points the including acid reflux and indigestion. The
Philip Burnet at the University of finger at FODMAPs. These carbohydrates are diet is now being recommended in the
Oxford found that those who took present in numerous foods, including wheat, management of inflammatory bowel diseases
Bimuno, a commercially available which contains some called fructans. “If you (IBDs) such as Crohn’s – conditions that are
prebiotic supplement, for three weeks go on a gluten-free diet you reduce probably becoming more frequent in the West, possibly
showed a dip in the stress hormone 50 per cent of your FODMAPs,” says Gibson. because of smoking and additives in the food
cortisol. They also performed better Rather than having some sort of sensitivity we eat. “IBS-like symptoms are very common
in tests of emotional processing: they to gluten, it seems that for some people with in people with IBD,” says Gibson. “You
were more drawn to happy than sad IBS, FODMAPs could be the trigger. wouldn’t put them on a low-FODMAP diet
faces compared with people who took That was illustrated by a recent trial in if they’ve got very active inflammation, but
a placebo. “People are naturally which 59 non-coeliac adults on gluten-free if it’s well controlled it is very effective.”
morbid and drawn to negative things, diets were fed identical-tasting cereal bars After researchers noticed that people with
but those on Bimuno completely packed with either gluten, fructans or neither. IBS felt more tired when they ate lots of
reversed this and were more drawn Those who had the fructan bar reported 15 per FODMAPs and less so on a low-FODMAP diet,
to happy faces,” says Burnet. cent more bloating and 13 per cent more there has been hope it might help people with
“Antidepressants have been shown overall gut symptoms compared with the chronic fatigue syndrome, who also have a
to do the same thing and it usually control group, whereas those who had the high incidence of IBS. But Gibson says the
precedes a change in mood.” gluten bar felt no worse afterwards. “Like evidence so far is weak and the diet’s effect on
He is testing whether altering many studies, that showed the fructans were fatigue only happens among people with IBS.
gut bacteria might improve memory Although it is appealing to think that we
and problem-solving abilities in “Too much fibre, fruit and might all benefit from fewer FODMAPs in
people with schizophrenia – common
veg could be causing a our life, “if you don’t have bowel problems
symptoms that don’t respond to there is absolutely no rationale for being on a
current medication. rise in gut complaints” low-FODMAP diet”, says Gibson. “This is not
Could a gut-targeting supplement a diet for good health.” One drawback to the
or diet ever make sleeping pills or the signals. If gluten is a cause of IBS, it’s diet is that it cuts out foods that are important
antidepressants unnecessary? nowhere near as frequent as people say,” says sources of vitamins, fibre and nutrients such
“I think they’ll be a useful add-on,” Gibson, a pioneer of research in this area. as calcium. Recently, there have also been
says Burnet. “Alongside drug and As well as being present in wheat and grains, concerns that it depresses levels of good
cognitive therapy, maybe patients FODMAPs are found in fruits and vegetables bacteria in the gut, and the long-term
will have microbiome therapy.” such as onions, garlic, apples and chickpeas. consequences of the diet remain unclear.
As for diet, the evidence points MRI studies show that when digested, these Many people trying to avoid FODMAPs
towards variety as being good for compounds increase the production of gas struggle to work out which foods to eliminate.
you: consuming a wide range of foods and the volume of water in the bowel, causing “It has helped an awful lot of people,” says
nurtures a healthy, diverse mix of distension. That doesn’t cause an issue for Peter Whorwell, a gastroenterologist at the
microbes. In other words, it’s time most people, but for up to 70 per cent of University of Manchester, UK. “But for one
to stop reaching for the same old people with IBS, reducing intake of these patient it will be tomatoes, the other lettuce,
sandwich. foods provides relief from pain and bloating. the other none of the above.”

34 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018

Intriguingly, a third of people with IBS who
try the diet reap no benefits at all. For them,
some researchers are now looking at a more
controversial alternative.
When it comes to gut health, one of the
most common pieces of advice has been to eat
plenty of fibre, such as wholegrain bread and
fibrous vegetables, which help keep the gut
working properly and can also reduce the risk
of cancer and cardiovascular disease. But it
now seems that fibre may also be part of the
problem. Some types of fibre release gas when
fermented in the bowel, causing irritation in
sensitive individuals.
Whorwell was one of the first to
demonstrate that reducing fibre could be

beneficial in IBS, with a study finding that

wheat bran made 55 per cent of people with
IBS feel worse and only 10 per cent feel better.
The idea has been gaining ground, although it
has lately been overshadowed by the fuss over
The simplest way to FODMAPs. Whorwell often advises his patients

feed a healthy gut is to try switching from wholegrain to white

to eat a varied diet, bread. “Fibre is just as important as FODMAPs
especially fruit and in aggravating irritable bowel,” he says.
vegetables Whorwell even speculates that a push for
healthier diets – high in fibre and fruit and
vegetables – may be contributing to a rise in gut
WHAT TO EAT FOR A HEALTHY GUT complaints. “Thirty years ago, nobody had
There are plenty of claims about foods to boost gut heard of five a day,” he says. “It amazes me how
many vegetables people are eating these days.”
health, but not all of them stand up to scrutiny The trouble is that advising patients to
eliminate both FODMAPs and fibre flies in
Probiotics – foods prepared with live “good” But for prebiotics, good sources include the face of good nutrition. In future, IBS
bacteria, such as yogurt, or supplements – green bananas; vegetables in the sunflower treatment will probably involve supplements
have been shown to help with conditions family such as artichokes, radicchio, lettuce, containing targeted combinations of beneficial,
like irritable bowel syndrome; they may chicory, tarragon and salsify; and those slow-fermented fibres, says Whelan, who is
also be beneficial for people with weakened related to lilies such as leeks, asparagus, studying fibre’s effects on the gut.
immune systems. But their long-term onions, garlic, shallots and chives. And although gastroenterologists remain
effects on overall health are not yet known. divided over the issue of gluten, some
Fermented foods and drinks such as NO JUNK PLEASE believe it may yet prove to have adverse
kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and kefir are Gastroenterologist and science writer effects beyond coeliac disease. “The research
gaining in popularity. Their effects on health Giulia Enders recommends cooking evidence is nowhere near catching up with the
again aren’t yet clear, but consuming them carbohydrates such as potatoes and pasta marketing machine,” says Whelan. “But I think
won’t do any harm and might improve the and later eating them cold or reheating non-coeliac gluten sensitivity exists. Some
microbial diversity in your gut. them. The period of cooling makes starch people, when given a gluten challenge, do get
For people in good general health, more resistant to human digestion, symptoms, though identifying who they are
prebiotics, which encourage the growth of meaning it stays intact to feed microbes and how they differ from people actually
good bacteria, are the way to go, says Monika in the large intestine. responding to fructans is difficult.”
Fleshner at the University of Colorado, Tim Spector at King’s College London The good news for those with gut problems
Boulder. “It’s difficult to introduce a bacteria has shown that intermittent fasting may is that the diversity of symptoms and causes
that will stay there and colonise,” says encourage the growth of helpful are being investigated like never before. For
Fleshner. “If you provide existing bacteria in anti-inflammatory bacteria. He also those who don’t, however, it might be time to
the gut with prebiotic nutrients that will help recommends avoiding junk food, because step off the bandwagon, says Sanders. “If you
their growth, it seems a more natural way additives such as emulsifiers seem to kill good don’t have any symptoms, you don’t need to
to support your gut ecology than trying to bacteria. In a bit of DIY research, Spector be on any of these diets.” ■
ingest a live bacteria and hoping it sticks.” found that when his son went on a fast-food
The simplest way to feed a healthy gut is diet for 10 days, his gut microbes reduced by Chloe Lambert is a freelance journalist based
to eat a diversity of fruits and vegetables. 40 per cent. Don’t try that at home. in London

15 September 2018 | NewScientist | 35

The horror of Hasanlu
The truth about this once great Iron Age city lay buried for three millennia.
Now, at last, the story of ‘the Pompeii of Iran’ can be told. Catherine Brahic reports

36 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018

Stop the clocks: a
fire set during the
sacking of Hasanlu
preserved details
of the gruesome
attack (left) and
the town (right)
for three millennia
beneath the sand

HE Iron Age citadel of Hasanlu was and space. The archaeologists uncovered
grand, with paved streets and palatial walls, floors, staircases, everyday objects,
homes that rose two, sometimes three, skeletons dressed in armour and then a silver
storeys high around columned courtyards. cup, adorned with two rows of small figures.
Its people were rich, and lived off fertile lands Two days later, they struck gold. “Out of
generously irrigated by Iran’s Lake Urmia. the ground emerged a large bucket-shaped
Then they were massacred. vessel,” Dyson wrote to the director of the
The town was destroyed just before 800 BC Penn Museum, his funders at the University
in a brutal assault. Now, finally, the remarkable of Pennsylvania, “pressed flat by the weight
story of Hasanlu is being pieced together from of the earth, eight inches high and two feet
artefacts gathered half a century ago. These in circumference! And shining in golden
are revealing a unique snapshot of history. splendor as only gold can do. What a fabulous
Here, as in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, treasure – covered with mythological figures
time stopped short – only instead of capturing the details and composition of which are
a natural disaster, Hasanlu captures the reality completely new to us!”
of Iron Age warfare in all its brutal detail. With that, everything changed. The dig went
Yet, while everyone knows about Pompeii, few into turbo-mode, says Michael Danti of Boston
have heard of Hasanlu. That is set to change. University, who worked with Dyson decades
In 1956, a young American archaeologist later. Huge plazas were traced and excavated,
called Robert Dyson travelled to Iran, seeking revealing the full scale of the citadel – the
a site where he could study the origins of settlement’s inner sanctum containing public
sedentary life and farming. He singled out a buildings and elite homes – which was about

mound, about 500 metres in diameter and 30,000 square metres. Dozens and dozens of
25 metres high, that stood in a valley at the bodies were found, some burnt, others slain
south end of Lake Urmia. Previous digs had or impaled and left to die.
revealed it to be entirely artificial, the result Mary Voigt, now emerita at William and
of millennia of dust, dirt and debris building Mary University, Virginia, arrived in 1970.
up around a succession of settlements that “It was a really easy site, in terms of
had occupied the spot starting in 5000 or understanding the layers,” she says. “Once
6000 BC. It was known locally as Hasanlu. you got down not even a metre, you were on
Dyson began by digging trenches around top of the citadel. If you were in a building,
the base of the mound and then, in 1958, you would start to get all the things that were
on top of it. It wasn’t long before he and his on the top floor first, and then underneath
assistants discovered the charred remains of you would have the ground floor. And once
a magnificent Iron Age residence built around you’d cleared away the toppled bricks and
a courtyard. A fire had clearly destroyed the slabs of stone, you would find all the people.”
building’s wooden structure, causing the The first trench Voigt dug turned out to be
floors to collapse on top of each other and in a courtyard. “I found a little kid who was just
freeze its contents – and inhabitants – in time lying on the pavement.” The child was still >

15 September 2018 | NewScientist | 37

Many lion-shaped wearing a bronze bracelet and next to them
pins were found in was a spear point and an empty quiver. “The
the town’s ruins unusual thing about the site,” she says, “is
all this action is going on and you can read it
directly: somebody runs across the courtyard,
kills the little kid, dumps their quiver because
it’s out of ammunition. If you keep going,
there are arrow points embedded in the wall.”
Next, Voigt moved to what had been a
stable, and found more bodies – all women –
on top of the stable’s collapsed roof. “They
were in an elite part of the city yet none of
them had any jewellery,” she says. “Maybe

they had been stripped or maybe they were
servants. Who knows? But they were certainly
herded back there and systematically killed.
It’s very vivid. Too vivid.”
Subsequent studies, led by Janet Monge of
the Penn Museum, showed that most of these
Conical helmets women had died from cranial trauma, their
were worn by the skulls smashed by a blunt instrument.
warriors of Hasanlu

Terrible atrocities
Yet this was just one of a long list of apparent
atrocities at Hasanlu. Skeletons were found
with their hands grasping at their abdomens
or necks. Many lacked hands. Others had no
heads. In one door frame, a complete skeleton
lay sandwiched between two half skeletons.
Elsewhere, traces of a metal blade were found
embedded inside a child’s skull. “I come from
a long line of undertakers. Dead people are not
scary to me,” says Voigt. “But when I dug that
site I had screaming nightmares.”
In the early 1970s, the excavations were shut
down by rumblings of the Iranian revolution.
Back in the US, the project catapulted Dyson to
academic heights. Many of his assistants and

students also went on to have illustrious

careers. But Hasanlu itself fell into obscurity.
No one ever got around to writing a full
excavation report. “Dyson couldn’t write;
Dyson’s dig struck he had writer’s block,” says Danti.
gold in the form of Today, stacks of notebooks, diaries,
an embossed bowl drawings, diagrams and photographs from
the excavations are kept in two rooms in the
Penn Museum. In the basement, behind
several locked doors, are thousands of objects.
Everything that didn’t go to Iran’s National
Museum in Tehran is packed away here.
In recent years, Danti together with Megan
Cifarelli of Manhattanville College in New York
and a few others have been painstakingly re-

examining all this evidence in an attempt to

reconstruct the events that led up to the
destruction of Hasanlu. The invaders, they
conclude, came armed with heavy spiked
maces, iron swords, knives, pointed helmets
and a single purpose: to wipe out a culture

38 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018

that had stood on that spot for centuries. hideout. Elsewhere, a man and a boy hid in a social class, equipped with similar armour and
They hit the lower town first, killing as they grain store, which was then consumed in the swords. Cifarelli suspects that in the century
went. All around, people fled their homes blaze. When their skeletons were exhumed by or so after the 1100 BC attack one or more
and made for the higher citadel, seeking Dyson’s team in the mid-20th century, they warriors moved into Hasanlu from the north
protection. But Hasanlu’s fortifications appeared to be in an embrace, with the older bringing their military technology with them.
weren’t up to the task. Soldiers flooded man holding his hands up to his mouth as It looks as though the town was preparing to
through a breach in the wall and continued though to whisper into the youth’s ear. defend itself during this period. As well as a
their gruesome work. Men, women and The press dubbed them the lovers of Hasanlu. growing army, the settlement had gained new
children were slain, alongside their dogs and In a bitter twist of irony, the flames that fortifications around the citadel. And Danti’s
horses. The looting was as thorough as the destroyed the mighty citadel would also save research indicates where the threat came
killing. At some point in the midst of all this, it for posterity. As the wooden frameworks from. In 2014, he published an analysis of
someone – probably a soldier – lit a fire. gave way and the multi-storeyed buildings the skeletons found with the golden bowl.
Wooden beams and reed matting went up From their dress, he concluded that they
in an almighty blaze. As the flames spread, “Dead people are not scary to were Urartians. Ironically, they even wore the
some soldiers continued towards the grand me, but when I dug that site same armlets Cifarelli found in the cemetery.
buildings and temples of the inner sanctum. We know that around this time, the
On the third storey of a magnificent residence, I had screaming nightmares” Urartians travelled past Hasanlu to visit one
three came across a treasury and caught sight of their holy sites. “Hasanlu may have been
of the large and delicately embossed gold bowl, flattened, they quenched the fire and resistant to Urartian invasions,” says Cifarelli.
as well as an equally precious goblet made of preserved everything inside them in tightly “It seems likely that when they didn’t
fine silver. They grabbed both and raced to get compacted layers of dust and crushed clay capitulate, the Urartians destroyed the site.
out. Greed was, literally, their downfall. Before bricks. Occupants, enemy soldiers, their They did that in a way that was intentional
they could reach the stairway, flames engulfed weapons and their jewels, the hand-painted and spectacular. It would have been a smoking
the building, which collapsed beneath them. bowls they ate from, the jars they drank wine heap of rubble that could have been seen for
Their bodies plummeted and were flattened from and the layouts of their homes and miles.” The scale of the attack, she says, looks
under mud bricks and burning timber, palaces – everything was entombed. like a message to surrounding villages. Danti
where they were found, three millennia later, The destruction was complete. “That narrows agrees that the invaders weren’t mere thieves.
together with the objects of their desire. down who could have done it,” says Danti. “Whoever destroyed the site really had an axe
All around, other houses collapsed. A group There were two major forces in the area at the to grind against the people who lived there,”
of 70 inhabitants who had sought refuge in a time. The Assyrians had been a regional power he says. “It was one of these invasions that was
building across the street perished in their for millennia and now ruled from the cities of designed to wipe out a cultural identity.”
Nimrud and Nineveh to the west of Hasanlu, But there is another potential motive. John
but their reign was in decline. The Urartians Curtis of the British Museum in London points
The town that time forgot
were a smaller but growing power to the north out that Hasanlu occupied a very desirable
For millennia, Hasanlu occupied a strategic position (see map, below left). Which was to blame? position in the middle of a fertile valley. It also
in a fertile valley. In 800 BC it was razed to the
The many Assyrian objects found at seems to have been an important trade route
ground, but were the neighbouring Assyrian or
Urartian civilisations responsible? Hasanlu had originally led people to believe connecting Lake Urmia to the Fertile Crescent –
that the city was an Assyrian ally or outpost the birthplace of farming – in modern-day Iraq.
BLACK SEA by the time it was sacked. But Cifarelli isn’t The site was clearly important, says Curtis.
convinced. She has been going through the It had been occupied on and off for some 5000
Hasanlu records trying to correct what she years, right back to the origins of agriculture,
LAKE SEVAN calls “some of the problematic conclusions and there were fortifications. “It might have
that have been drawn about the site in the been in a position to control the trade route,”
past”. She believes the “extraordinary he says, “an obstacle that the Urartians had to
UR collection of exotic goods” points to a people remove. And there was probably quite a lot to
“doing their own thing”. “It’s more likely that plunder in the city itself.”

LAKE VAN they were itinerant traders,” she says, who Whatever the motivation for the attack, it
brought the objects back from their travels, laid waste to the town. Almost three millennia
MOUNTAIN LAKE to Assyria among other places. later, Hasanlu is finally rising from the dust.
In fact, a link to the Urartians looks stronger. Five years ago, a museum opened near the
ASSYRIA Digs into Hasanlu’s lower level reveal that the site to show some of its excavated artefacts.
Nineveh town had experienced a lesser attack in 1100 Now the Iranian government is seeking
Nimrud BC. Excavating a cemetery on the outskirts of international recognition. In June, the Cultural
the settlement, Cifarelli found a grave dating Heritage and Handicrafts Organization of Iran
Tigris River
from not long after this attack, containing a announced that it was putting together a
warrior with Urartian-style armour and dossier for UNESCO, in a bid to make Hasanlu
weapons, and wearing intriguing armlets that a World Heritage Site. Cifarelli is optimistic
Euphrates were too small to be removed, suggesting he this will bring benefits to the local economy.
River must have worn them since childhood. Later “And, of course, it’s an acknowledgment of the
graves revealed the rise of a new “warrior” importance of the site,” she says. Q

15 September 2018 | NewScientist | 39


40 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018


“ NLY the dead have seen the end of war,” ever-larger groups in violent times. Humans
the philosopher George Santayana once
Artificial intelligence is set are good at this, because we are good at
bleakly observed. Our martial instincts to rewrite the rules of understanding others. We forge social bonds
are deep-rooted. Our near relatives with unrelated humans, including with
chimpanzees fight “total war” that sometimes warfare in subtle and strangers, based on ideas, not kinship. Trust is
leads to the annihilation of rival groups of
males. Archaeological and ethnographical
terrifying ways, says aided by shared language and culture. We have
an acute radar for deception, and a willingness
evidence suggests that warfare among our Kenneth Payne to punish non-cooperating free-riders. All
hunter-gatherer ancestors was chronic. these traits have allowed us to assemble,
Over the millennia, we have fought these organise and equip large and increasingly
wars according to the same strategic principles potent forces to successfully wage war.
based in our understanding of each other’s from pods on aircraft, and autonomous Social intelligence also allows weaker,
minds. But now we have introduced another software can manoeuvre vehicles with smaller groups to stave off defeat. The use
sort of military mind – one that even though increasing dexterity. In the air – in simulators of deception, fortification, terrain and
we program how it thinks, may not end up at least – it has outfought skilled pilots. disciplined formations can offset the
thinking as we do. We are only just beginning There are systems that scan hours of imagery advantages of scale and shock. In the film
to work through the potential impact of looking for targets, that automatically respond 300, crack Spartan troops at one point charge
artificial intelligence on human warfare, to incoming missile threats, that prioritise headlong into the vastly outnumbering
but all the indications are that they will be information for human pilots and that shift Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae.
profound and troubling, in ways that are radar bands in a lightning-fast battle of In reality, that would spell disaster. As the
both unavoidable and unforeseeable. detection and deception. Ancient Greek historian Herodotus relates,
We aren’t talking here about the dystopian This raises obvious, much discussed ethical the Spartans used the narrow confines of
sci-fi trope of malign, humanoid robots with questions. Can AI systems really know who to a mountain pass and arranged themselves
a free rein and a killer instinct, but the far target? Shouldn’t people have the final say in into a disciplined formation with interlocked
more limited sort of artificial intelligence that life-or-death decisions? But the implications shields to hold off the Persians. This, too, is
already exists. This AI is less a weapon per se, for how war is prosecuted – for strategy – have strategic intelligence.
more a decision-making technology. That been less widely explored. To understand how Underlying it is theory of mind – the human
makes it useful for peaceful pursuits and profound they are, we must first understand ability to gauge what others are thinking and
warfare alike, and thus hard to regulate or ban. strategy’s very human underpinnings. how they will react to a given situation, friend
This “connectionist” AI is loosely based on Social intelligence gives humans a powerful or foe. The ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu
the neural networks of our brains. Networks advantage in conflict. In war, size matters. counselled leaders to know themselves and
of artificial neurons are trained to spot Victory generally goes to the big battalions, know their enemies, so that in 100 battles
patterns in vast amounts of data, gleaning a logic described in a formula derived by the they would never be defeated. Theory of
information they can use to optimise a British engineer Frederick Lanchester from mind is essential to answer strategy’s big
“reward function” representing a specific studies of aerial combat in the first world war. questions. How much force is enough?
goal, be that optimising clicks on a Facebook He found that wherever a battle devolves to a What does the enemy want, and how hard
feed, playing a winning game of poker or Go, melee of all against all, with ranged weapons will they fight for it?
or indeed winning out on the battlefield. as well as close combat, a group’s fighting Strategic decision-making is often
In the military arena, swarms of power increases as the square of its size. instinctive and unconscious, but also can
autonomous drones are already deployed That creates a huge incentive to form be shaped by deliberate reflection and an >

15 September 2018 | NewScientist | 41

attempt at empathy. This has survived even “AI does not experience the civilian casualties. Such goals translate into
into the nuclear era. Some strategic thinkers code, even if there may be tensions between
held that nuclear weapons changed emotion and empathy felt them.
everything because their destructive power by human strategists” But as single actions knit together into
threatened punishment against any attack. military campaigns, things become much
Rather than denying aggressors their goals, capabilities would increase the temptation to more complex. Human preferences are fuzzy,
they deterred them from ever attacking. strike quickly and decisively at North Korea’s sometimes contradictory and apt to change
That certainly did require new thinking, small nuclear arsenal, for example. in the heat of battle. If we don’t know exactly
such as the need to hide nuclear weapons, By making many forces such as crewed what we want, and how badly, ahead of time,
for example on submarines, to ensure that aircraft and tanks practically redundant, AI machine fleets have little chance of delivering
no “first strike” could destroy all possibility also increases uncertainty about the balance those goals. There is plenty of scope for our
for retaliation. Possessing nuclear weapons of power between states. States dare not risk wishes and an AI’s reward function to part
certainly strengthens the position of militarily having second-rate military AI, because a company. Recalibrating the reward function
weaker states; hence the desire of countries marginal advantage in AI decision-making takes time, and you can’t just switch AI off
from Iran to North Korea to acquire them. accuracy and speed could be decisive in any mid-battle – hesitate for a moment, and you
But even in the nuclear era, strategy conflict. AI espionage is already under way, might lose.
remains human. It involves chance and can be and the scope for a new arms race is clear. It is That is before we try to understand how
emotional. There is scope for misperception difficult to tell who is winning, so safer to go the adversary may respond. Strategy is a two-
and miscommunication, and a grasp of all out for the best AI weapons. player game, at least. If AI is to be competitive,
human psychology can be vital for success. Were that all, it would be tempting to say it must anticipate what the enemy will do.
AI represents just another shift in strategic The most straightforward approach, which
balance, as nuclear weapons did in their time. plays to AI’s tremendous abilities in pattern
What are you thinking? But the most unsettling, unexplored change recognition and recall, is to study an
Take the Cuban missile crisis, an event is that AI will make decisions about the adversary’s previous behaviour and look for
intensely studied by psychologists and application of force very differently to regularities that might be probabilistically
strategists since. In 1962, US President John F. humans. AI doesn’t naturally experience modelled. This method was used by AlphaGo,
Kennedy was given alarming evidence that the emotion, or empathy, of the sort that guides the DeepMind AI that beat the human
Soviet Union was positioning nuclear missiles human strategists such as Kennedy. We might champion Lee Sedol at the board game Go
on Cuba. His immediate reaction was anger, attempt to encode rules of engagement into in 2016. The Go board represents a large, yet
and a desire to strike out militarily, even at the an AI ahead of any conflict – a reward function still limited, “toy universe” with a vast array
risk of escalating the cold war. But that soon that tells it what outcome it should strive of possible future moves. Yet given its
gave way to a deliberate, reflective attempt towards and how. At the tactical level, say with opponent’s likely response, the machine can
to empathise with Nikita Khrushchev’s air-to-air combat between two swarms of rival narrow the search to the moves most likely to
blustering. The Soviet leader had tried to bully autonomous aircraft, matching our goals to lead to victory, and then work out a winning
Kennedy at their first meeting, and during the reward function that we set our AI might course of action – all at blinding speed.
the crisis sent first an emollient letter, then a be doable: win the combat, survive, minimise With enough past behaviour to go on,
tougher one. Kennedy crafted a solution that,
crucially, saved Khrushchev’s face. In a tense
stand-off, social intelligence and theory of
mind were decisive.
Artificial intelligence changes all this.
First, it swings the logic of strategy decisively
towards attack. AI’s pattern recognition makes
it easier to spot defensive vulnerabilities, and
allows more precise targeting. Its distributed
swarms are hard to kill, but can concentrate
rapidly on critical weaknesses before dispersing
again. And it allows fewer soldiers to be risked
than in warfare today.
This all creates a powerful spur for moving
first in any crisis. Combined with more
accurate nuclear weapons in development,
this undermines the basis of cold-war nuclear
deterrence, because a well-planned, well-

coordinated first strike could defeat all a

defender’s retaliatory forces. Superior AI

Autonomous drones are already deployed

militarily, here on the Iraq-Turkey border

42 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018

John F. Kennedy’s thing we need is a blindingly fast, offensively
human reactions brilliant AI that makes startling and
were decisive in unanticipated moves in confrontation with
de-escalating the 1962 other machines.
Cuban missile crisis There won’t necessarily be time for
human judgement to intercede in a battle of
automatons before things get out of hand. At
the tactical level, keeping a human in the loop
would ensure defeat by faster all-machine
combatants. Despite the stated intentions
of liberal Western governments, there will
be ever-less scope for human oversight of
blurringly fast tactical warfare.

Cold probabilities
The same may be true at more elevated
strategic levels. Herman Kahn, a nuclear

strategist on whom the character
Dr Strangelove was partly based, conceived
of carefully calibrated “ladders” of escalation.
A conflict is won by dominating an adversary
on one rung, and making it clear that you
can suddenly escalate several more rungs of
intensity, with incalculable risk to the enemy –
this works even in a game such as poker where, infallible mind-readers, and in the history of what Kahn called “escalation dominance”.
unlike Go, not all information is freely international crises misperception abounds. In the real world, the rungs of the ladder
available and a healthy dose of chance is In his sobering account of nuclear strategy, are rather imprecise. Imagine two competing
involved: AI can now beat world-class poker The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg AI systems, made of drones, sensors and
players when it plays them repeatedly. describes a time when the original US early hypersonic missiles, locked in an escalatory
This approach could work well at the tactical warning system signalled an incoming game of chicken. If your machine backs off
level – anticipating how an enemy pilot might Soviet strike. In fact, the system’s powerful first, or even pauses to defer to your decision,
respond to a manoeuvre, for example. But it radar beams were echoing back from the it loses. The intensity and speed of action
falls down as we introduce high-level strategic surface of the moon. Would a machine have pushes automation ever higher. But how does
decisions. There is too much unique about any paused for thought to ascertain that error the machine decide what it will take to achieve
military crisis for previous data to model it. before launching a counterstrike, as the escalation dominance over its rival? There is
An alternative method is for an AI to humans involved did? no enemy mind about which to theorise; no
attempt to model the internal deliberations Humans try to reason about what adversaries scope for compassion or empathy; no person
of an adversary. But this only works where the want, and understand that within the context to intimidate and coerce. Just cold, inhuman
thing being modelled is less sophisticated, as of their own experience, motivations and probabilities, decided in an instant.
when an iPhone runs functional replicas of emotions. Machines might not share That was move 37 of AlphaGo’s second game
classic 1980s arcade games. Our strategic AI Kennedy’s emotional knee-jerk response in against the world champion. Perhaps it is also
might be able to intuit the goals of an equally early December 2041, and a vast swarm of
sophisticated AI, but not how the AI will seek “We can’t bury our heads and drones skimming over the ocean at blistering
to achieve them. The interior machinations of speed, approaching the headquarters of the
an AI that learns as it goes are something of a
say it won’t happen – the US Pacific Fleet. We can’t bury our heads and
black box, even to those who have designed it. technology already exists” say it won’t happen, because the technology
Where the enemy is human, the problem already exists to make it happen. We won’t
becomes more complex still. AI could perhaps 1962, but they also don’t share his capacity to be able to agree a blanket ban, because the
incorporate themes of human thinking, such reflect on his adversary’s perspective. strategic advantage to anyone who develops
as the way we systematically inflate low-risk An AI’s own moves are often unexpected. In it on the sly would be too great. The solution
outcomes. But that is AI looking for patterns its second game against Lee, AlphaGo made a to stop it happening is dispiritingly familiar
again. It doesn’t understand what things mean radical move wholly unforeseen by onlooking to scholars of strategic studies – to make sure
to us; it lacks the evolutionary logic that drives human experts. This wasn’t remarkable you win the coming AI arms race. ■
our social intelligence. When it comes to creativity or a searing insight into Lee’s game
understanding what others intend – “I know plan. The game-winning “move 37” was down Kenneth Payne is at the School of Security Studies,
that you know that she knows” – machines to probabilistic reasoning and a flawless King’s College London. He is author of Strategy,
still have a long way to go. memory of how hundreds of thousands Evolution and War: From apes to artificial intelligence
Does that matter? Humans aren’t of earlier games had played out. The last (Georgetown University Press, 2018)

15 September 2018 | NewScientist | 43


Giving voice to a planet’s suffering

Poetry can express our environmental crisis in a more human way, says Niall Firth

While some of the best eco-

poetry is about the resilience of
nature, other works address the
ways our changing climate affects
minds and bodies. Carrie Etter’s
pamphlet Scar, for example, is a
single poem about the effects of
climate change on her home state
of Illinois: “more tornadoes / one
scours a half-mile-wide path
through Fairdale / flattens /
twists / hurls homes / cars / a
child’s treehouse / its scar in the
earth visible / from space”. It will
be included in her collection The
Weather in Normal (Seren Books).
Other poets, like Dom Bury and
Seán Hewitt, are bridging the gap
between the personal and the

global. Bury, the winner of last
year’s prestigious UK National
Poetry Competition for The
Opened Field, runs workshops
on eco-poetry and what he calls
the “emotional impact of
POETRY and nature have always The best environmental poetry A decline in honeybee populations: climate change”.
gone hand in hand, but now there doesn’t berate or shout at you. trouble that’s hard to put into words Hewitt, winner of the
is new bite as poets increasingly Instead the signs are subtle, the Resurgence Prize in 2017 with his
address environmental issues, absences and disturbances are ended, the beekeepers write.” poem Ilex, describes his new work
adding politics and activism to cumulative, as in Karen McCarthy Poetry about the environment (including Lantern, from Offord
their literary armoury. Woolf’s collection Seasonal has also been scooping up big Road Books next year) as trying
A big cash prize also helps. Disturbances (Carcanet). Here prizes usually reserved for longer “to change, through poetry, the
One of the biggest poetry prizes nature often seems ill at ease forms. In June, poet Robert ways in which we view our
is the Ginkgo Prize (formerly the with itself: “No birds nesting Minhinnick won the Wales Book relationship to the natural world”.
Resurgence Prize), which closed or singing in the trees; / no of the Year for his Diary of the Last I was commissioned in June to
for submissions on 15 August. Man (Carcanet) – poetry described write a series of mini-poems for
It awards £5000 to the best poem “In times of political as “environmentalism turned Ice Alive, a sci-art project. As
on an ecological theme. unrest, poetry thrives – into elegy” by the judges. Joseph Cook, a co-founder of Ice
Sally Carruthers, executive there’s something gritty Perhaps this isn’t surprising. Alive and a glacial microbiologist,
director of the Poetry School, worth writing about” Good poetry has the ability explains: “The arts can add depth
which helps manage the prize, to pack an emotional punch and value back to the science of
says the recent rise of eco-poetry bellowing, roaring or squeaking without cliché and to avoid the climate change.”
is being driven by the era in which savage or small…” didactic tone that can kill a piece Crucially, it can also engage
we live and by people sharing Or take Beverley Bie Brahic’s of art. As Carruthers explains: those who haven’t found a way
their work on social media, poem The Fête du Miel, from “A great eco-poem must have an to express their unease at our
particularly Instagram. “In times her new book The Hotel Eden understanding of how we interact endangered world. ■
of political unrest, poetry thrives (Carcanet). Here, bees are left as species and ecosystems, that
as an activist medium,” she says. confused by a shifting climate: destruction and risk are part of the The winners of the Ginkgo Prize will be
“People have something gritty to “Last winter was so warm the world in which we find ourselves announced at the Poetry in Aldeburgh
write about.” bees thought / Summer never and that we need to act now.” festival, from 2 to 4 November

44 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018

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

Prudery isn’t justice Visit

What can follow four days of New
Scientist Live at ExCeL London? Try
the capital’s new Science Gallery,
launching Friday 21 September
When disgust steers collective behaviour, watch out, warns Simon Ings with Hooked, a show exploring the
world of addiction and recovery.

Central Florida. In Objection, they receive different, often mutually Watch

Objection: Disgust, morality, and the On 21 September, Emma Stone and
join forces to consider why we contradictory, opinions.
law by Debra Lieberman and Carlton Jonah Hill star in Netflix’s delirious
find some acts disgusting without The authors make their own
Patrick, Oxford University Press retread of Norwegian TV hit
being reprehensible (like nose- job much more difficult, however,
WE WANT the picking), while others seem by endorsing a surreally naive Maniac (pictured below). An
law to be fair and reprehensible without being model of the mind – one in which inventor (Justin Theroux) claims
objective. We also disgusting (like drunk driving). “both ‘emotion’ and ‘cognition’ he can repair damaged minds.
want laws that Disgust is such a powerful require circuitry” and it is possible
work in the real intuitive guide that it has informed to increase a child’s devotion to Read
world, protecting our morality and hence our legal family by somehow manipulating Why does a personality test from
and reassuring us, this “circuitry”. the 1920s hold sway over our jobs,
and maintaining “Sitting in judgement From here, the reader is our internet and our lives? What’s
our social and cultural values. over everything is as cruel ushered into the lollipop van Your Type? The strange history
The moral dilemma is that we and farcical as gathering of evolutionary psychology, of Myers-Briggs and the birth
can’t have both. This may be cats in a sack” where “disgust is best understood of personality testing (WIlliam
because humans are hopelessly as a type of software program Collins) is Merve Imre’s answer.
irrational and need a rational system. But it maps badly over a instantiated in our neural
legal system to keep them in jurisprudence built on notions hardware”, which “evolved Watch
check. But it may also be that of harm and culpability. originally to guide our ancestors From 15 September, Bertha
rationality has limits; trying to sit Worse, terms of disgust are when making decisions about DocHouse in London is screening
in judgement over everything is frequently wielded against people what to eat”. Fritz Ofner and Eva Hausberger’s
as cruel and farcical as gathering we intend to marginalise, making The idea that disgust is to disturbing documentary Weapon
cats in a sack. disgust a dangerously fissile some degree taught and learned, Of Choice, the story of the Glock
This dilemma is down to element in our moral armoury. conditioned by culture, class and semi-automatic pistol.
disgust, say Debra Lieberman, Can science help us manage contingency, is not something
a psychologist at the University it? The prognosis is not good. easily explored using the authors’ Listen
of Miami, and Carlton Patrick, a If you were to ask a cultural over-rigid model of the mind. Bob Hirshon hosts Science Update,
legal scholar at the University of anthropologist, a psychologist, Whenever they lay this model a radio news feature produced
a neuroscientist, a behavioural aside, however, they handle by the AAAS, the world’s largest
Justice is famously blind and economist and a sociologist to ambiguity well. general scientific society. As we
impartial, but it is also human explain disgust, you would Their review of the literature went to press, its breaking story
on disgust is cogent and fair. was the way Russian cyberbots are
They point out that although actively fuelling disinformation
the decriminalisation of about vaccines.
homosexuality and gay marriage
argues persuasively for legal
rationalism, there are other acts –
like the violation of corpses – that
we condemn without a strictly
rational basis (the corpse isn’t
complaining). This plays to the
views of bioethicist Leon Kass,
who calls disgust “the only voice
left that speaks up to defend the
central core of our humanity”.
Objection explores an ethical
territory that sends legal purists
sprawling. The authors emerge

from this interzone battered, but

essentially unbowed. ■

15 September 2018 | NewScientist | 45


The last Trump

An ill-judged tweet kicks off nuclear war in a satire pitting North Korea against the US. By Jacob Aron

Scientist. The story takes the form over New York City creates a from accounts by people who
The 2020 Commission Report on the
of an official US report published 1-kilometre-wide fireball. Most survived the nuclear bombs
North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against
in 2023 to determine the causes residential buildings in central dropped on Hiroshima and
the United States by Jeffrey Lewis,
of a North Korean nuclear attack. Manhattan are destroyed – Nagasaki. Grounding these
Its tone – set midway between including Trump Tower – and historical words in our present-
IN THE past year, bureaucratic sterility and a Tom people within a 6.5 kilometre day reality brings home the true
whenever US- Clancy thriller – works very well. radius receive radiation burns. horror of nuclear weapons.
North Korea It helps that both genres heavily Needless to say, hospitals are If the book has one flaw, it is the
relations were favour acronyms. The set-up: a plunged into chaos. Without portrait of Donald Trump. While
at a particularly technical glitch in a South Korean medical treatment, radiation the US president is known for his
low point, I would passenger jet (inspired by real-life kills 50 to 90 per cent of those outlandish statements and short
wake up in the aircraft failures) leaves the pilot attention span, the Trump in the
middle of the drifting along the Korean border. “That social media could novel is too broad. For all his flaws,
night, reach for my phone and The North Koreans mistake the play a role in the end of the I don’t believe that Trump would
check Twitter to see if nuclear plane for a US bomber and shoot world once seemed absurd. declare a nuclear fireball rising
war had begun. it down, sparking a retaliation Welcome to 2018” over the coast of Florida to be
That a social media service from South Korean missiles. “absolutely beautiful”. A
could play a role in the end of the Lewis ratchets up the tension as exposed. You can follow Lewis’s statement from the fictional
world once seemed absurd, but Korean leaders Kim Jong-un and example and create your own Trump at the end of the report
such is the reality of 2018. I was Moon Jae-in decide how to act. scientifically accurate nuclear decrying it as “FAKE NEWS” also
reminded of this when, as I was Then “Hurricane Donald”, as one destruction with the online tool comes across as generic bashing.
idly scrolling through my feed, a chapter is titled, comes in to play. NUKEMAP, if that is the kind of That said, I couldn’t put the
message stopped me in my tracks. His ill-fated “rocket man” tweet thing you enjoy. book down, reading most of it
“LITTLE ROCKET MAN WON’T prompts Kim to retaliate with The commission reports the in the course of one increasingly
BE BOTHERING US MUCH nuclear strikes on South Korea, stories of those who survived the intense evening. If fear of
LONGER!” screamed the scowling Japan and the US mainland. blast. I was shocked to reach the nuclear war is going to keep
face of the Tweeter-in-Chief. Maps lay out the devastation in end of the book and discover that you up at night, at least it can
“Is this it?” I wondered, before chilling detail. A nuke exploding these testimonies were adapted be a page-turner. ■
noticing the username – not
@realDonaldTrump, the US
president’s genuine account,
but @tehDonaldJTrump.
Investigating further, I
discovered this was a parody
account set up to promote The
2020 Commission Report on the
North Korean Attacks Against the
United States, a fictional but all-
too-real account of a nuclear
conflict in which Twitter plays
a defining role.
It is written by Jeffrey Lewis,
an arms control expert at the
Middlebury Institute of

International Studies at Monterey

in California who is frequently
quoted in the pages of New

South Korea reports on a nuclear

test by its northern neighbour

46 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018

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50 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018


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letters@newscientist.com @newscientist newscientist

EDITOR’S PICK Another possible effect the outdoor environment and

on the rate of allergies push towards natural type 1
Life expectancy is much worse if you’re poor dominance. Whooping cough
From Peter Basford, vaccine may push the system
wealthy. There is a measurable Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, UK towards type 2 dominance and
gradient of difference across all social Penny Sarchet discusses what hence vulnerability to allergies.
classes. This has been known since causes allergies (11 August, p 29). Has this been discredited? If
the time of the Whitehall studies into In an earlier article on the non- not, has any progress been made
the health of UK civil servants, led by specific effects of vaccines, in, for example, double-blind
Michael Marmot (28 July 2012, p 42). Michael Brooks writes that some trials of different vaccines?
The first of these, published in 1984, may protect against allergies,
showed that civil servants in lower while others encourage them Why do relatives have a
grades died on average sooner than (17 August 2013, p 38). Nigel Curtis veto on organ wishes?
those in more senior positions, though of the Royal Children’s Hospital
the latter had far more responsibility in Melbourne and the University of From Douglas Nichols,
their roles (and also tended to come Melbourne, Australia, suggested Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
from higher socioeconomic groups). that vaccines using weakened You report that an “opt-out”
From Alan Taman, One crucial question is: why are viruses stimulate the “type 1” system for organ donation
Birmingham, UK poorer people affected more than immune system that combats could reduce transplant rates, as
Clare Wilson and Andy Coghlan cover those who are better off, across all viruses and bacteria, whereas relatives are less confident their
many of the possible explanations for societies? This is key to admitting to vaccines using dead viruses may late family member agreed and
the decrease in the improvement of the presence of health inequality, and stimulate the “type 2” system so may be more likely to veto
life expectancy in the UK (25 August, the injustice it entails. In turn, I would that fights parasites. donation (25 August, p 16).
p 20). But they miss one out. argue, it raises a key ethical question So measles and BCG vaccines I have always wondered why
The effect is historically far more that anyone looking at changes in might help to compensate for the families are permitted to veto an
noticeable in the poor than the health outcomes needs to consider. lack of type 1 immune training in individual’s decision about organ

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52 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018

“Who’s testing our thoughts to see
how well we understand them?”
Dave Probert responds to our report that AIs are being tested to
see how well they understand our thoughts (8 September, p 10)

donation. They aren’t allowed cartoon accompanying Ian 50 years ago, Roger Anderson needed to find one then, we need
to veto instructions on the Angus’s comment on population observed not only the 11-year to find one now – plus ça change,
distribution of assets after death, (25 August, p 22). All eight parents cycle, but also resonances at plus c’est la même chose?
as specified in a will. Remove the depicted as causing runaway 5.5 and 2.75 years in Precambrian
ability for families to veto and global warming appear to be “varved” sediments consisting of The editor writes:
the potential problems of the opt- women. My understanding was annual layers. Hubert Lamb added Q Yes, the omega-minus was
out system would vanish. If that that half of parents are men. other examples in his 1972 book discovered, confirming our model
can’t be done, we could allow Angus rightly reiterates that Climate Present, Past and Future. of the quarks (27 February 1964,
a veto for opt-out cases unless contraception should be available p 523). The axiflavon is slightly
the individual concerned has to all, but then refers to women Always searching for different in that it wouldn’t in
specifically – and optionally – choosing whether and when to another particle itself confirm any grand
indicated a wish to donate. bear children. Can men not theoretical framework.
choose contraception? From Andy Bebington,
Contraception is not just London, UK The roots of secure
women’s responsibility A finding on solar cycles Michael Brooks introduces us computing hardware
comes around again to the search for a particle that
From Catherine Sinclair, combines an axion and a flavon – From Mike Whittaker,
Kirk Ireton, Derbyshire, UK From Bruce Denness, an axiflavon – or a combination Stapleton, Shropshire, UK
I was pleased to see the variety Whitwell, Isle of Wight, UK of this plus a Higgs, or some Sally Adee mentions work on
of speakers depicted in your ad Michael Marshall reports that a more convoluted combination more secure computer hardware
for New Scientist Live (25 August). team from the China University (18 August, p 28). This reminded carried out by Ruby Lee and
It is great to see the scientific of Geosciences in Beijing has me of reading in New Scientist in Howie Shrobe (11 August, p 36).
community become more found evidence of the 11-year solar the mid-1960s of the search for From the late 1970s, the late Roger
inclusive and thereby enriched sunspot cycle in Precambrian the omega-minus, a particle Needham and others, including
and inspirational. sedimentary rocks of south China needed to complete a symmetry Bjarne Stroustrup, who went on
However, I am disturbed by the (18 August, p 6). More than model of particle physics. We to design the C++ programming >

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15 September 2018 | NewScientist | 53

letters@newscientist.com @newscientist newscientist

language, worked on the CAP as food? There is an established a robot from allowing a human The final test was a blind tasting
computer, which embodied link between animal abuse and to come to harm “unless it is with glasses of the beers set up
a “capability architecture”, at abuse of humans, concurrently supervised by another human”. in random order. To us lesser
the University of Cambridge’s or as an escalation of behaviour. Does this make it OK for a soldier mortals they all tasted the same.
Computer Laboratory. If this is a person, then they need to send a robot into a house with But the head brewer identified
This also had security as a to be stopped, for the sake of the instructions to “kill anything that them: “this one is Tadcaster, this
fundamental concept. Access cats, but also, potentially, for that moves”, if the soldier is right Belfast, ah, this is good, it’s ours…”
to all sections of memory, for of other humans. behind, “supervising”? The Each brewery had its own strain of
example, was controlled by second, requiring that a robot yeast, developed over many years,
“capability tokens”. The system, The editor writes: must be able to explain itself, and each yeast produced its own
being experimental, subject Q Our longer online version of won’t work because humans can’t subtle flavours.
to being upgraded and built Harris’s piece noted that because do that either (Letters, 28 April).
in-house, occupied several foxes have weak jaws, they start Dismissing anecdote can
mainframe racks, though I am chewing at narrower parts of a An expert palate could drive pseudoscience
sure it would occupy a tiny carcass, including the neck, where distinguish canned beer
fraction of today’s central they can more easily get a grip From Echo Gonzalez,
processing units. with the sharper molars at the From Alastair Mouat, Chicago, Illinois, US
side of their mouth. Sheep Broughton, Peeblesshire, UK Rowan Hooper was disappointed
If there’s a London cat farmers have seen foxes do this Bob Holmes describes the by talks at the International
killer, we should worry to dead lambs. importance of yeast to the flavour Dream Conference (14 July, p 10).
of alcoholic drinks (18 August, I share his sceptical opinion of
From Anne Barnfield, The five commandments p 32). This brings to mind a weekly parapsychology. But isn’t it just as
London, Ontario, Canada of robotics need work event in the laboratory of the dangerous to dismiss hypotheses
I agree with Ian Adam in finding brewery in Edinburgh where simply because they are difficult
Stephen Harris’s claims regarding From Brian Horton, West I began my career in the 1960s. or impossible to prove via the
foxes killing cats unconvincing Launceston, Tasmania, Australia The company owned several scientific method?
(Letters, 18 August). If a fox had Douglas Heaven suggests five breweries throughout the UK, Say someone has anecdotal
“weak jaws”, why would it chew commandments for robots which all produced the same dream-related experiences
off, and then remove, the head (4 August, p 38). I agree with the brand of canned beer. We collected that cannot be explained yet
(which it presumably could not last commandment, that a robot samples from each brewery and by science. If they find, on
then eat), rather than going for should have an off switch, but I carried out a range of physical attempting to discuss these, that
the “soft underbelly” where the think the others need more work. tests to ensure that they were the scientific community’s only
internal organs would be available For example, the first prevents producing an identical beer. response is to dismiss this realm
of study as head-shakingly
laughable, that person is more
likely to seek answers in
pseudoscience. That is dangerous.

For the record

Q Actual allergy to gluten does exist,
but is very rare (11 August, p 28).
Q In a nuclear reactor, a moderator
slows neutrons after they are
released (1 September, p 32).
Q A study finds that eukaryotic cells
first appeared between 1.21 and
1.84 billion years ago (25 August, p 5).

Letters should be sent to:

Letters to the Editor, New Scientist,
25 Bedford Street, London, WC2E 9ES
Email: letters@newscientist.com

Include your full postal address and telephone

number, and a reference (issue, page number, title)
to articles. We reserve the right to edit letters.
New Scientist Ltd reserves the right to
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New Scientist magazine, in any other format.

54 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018

Where it all began


THERE are few better ways to get a measure of

changing social attitudes than to look at how stories
about sex are reported. At New Scientist we have never
shied away from covering such topics, but it is hard to
imagine that today we would cover them in the same
way we sometimes did in the 90s.
In 1995, our Feedback column – a repository for
curious and amusing studies – covered news of a
startling side effect of the antidepressant
clomipramine. A paper in The Canadian Journal of
Psychiatry reported that four people taking the drug
had orgasms every time they yawned. One woman
took the drug for three months to treat her
depression, but asked if she could be allowed to
continue using it after her symptoms had stopped
since she enjoyed the side effect. We then went on to
describe another patient, a male, who also asked to
continue taking the drug after his symptoms had
cleared. I can’t imagine today that we would go into
the same detail about how he tackled the logistical
problem this threw up. Our closing remark is still
pertinent, however: would people taking the drug An accessible guide to our digital infra-
seek out the most boring person they could find at
parties? structure, explaining the basics of
In 1993, we reported (again in Feedback) news of operating systems, networks, security,
particular interest to those who had had a heart and other topics for the general reader.
attack. A specialist insisted the risk of another heart
attack during sex was less than that when simply
getting out of bed in the morning. Since we didn’t give mitpress.mit.edu/bits
any more detail, it is clear the real reason we mention
the study is because it is about sex.
Thankfully there are some things we would still
report in the same way today. In 1994, we told the
story of Marge Alvarez’s experience in a wildlife park
near Mexico City when an alligator tried to have sex
with her alligator boots. Wardens deployed the single
tranquilliser dart they kept for emergencies, but
missed. In the end, they had to use a fire hose. “I’ve
seen alligators do strange things, but this beats all,”
said the warden. Mick O’Hare ■

To delve more into the New Scientist archives, go to


15 September 2018 | NewScientist | 55

For more feedback, visit newscientist.com/feedback

like honey. Everything about it seems captured by police officers in the

to be honey, when in fact it’s just US after being overcome by an
sugar syrup or something else.” algal bloom. Abraham Duarte fled
Feedback must wonder, does honey his vehicle following a traffic stop
by any other name taste as sweet? in Cape Coral, Florida, leaping into
Answers on a postcard, please. a nearby canal to swim away.
But Duarte didn’t count on the
COMBINING tabloid mainstays thick layer of swampy green algae
of crime, exotic locations and coating the water’s surface, and
celebrities, several newspapers after swallowing some, returned
were powerless to resist claims to waiting cops and requested
that former Top Gear star Richard they take him to hospital.
Hammond had been gassed by After being given the all clear
thieves in his St Tropez villa. by doctors, Duarte was jailed for
In her Sunday Express column, possession of seven vials of
wife Mindy Hammond described cannabis extract THC, and
how thieves targeted the home resisting arrest.
following a raucous cocktail party,
taking cash and valuables. A STRAY kangaroo is on the loose in
British holiday-makers have Austria – and that’s not a typo. The
been circulating warnings of marsupial has been spotted in the
ether-scented robbers for years. forests near the town of Kirchschlag,
This prompted the UK’s Royal a mere 14,000 kilometres away from
College of Anaesthetists to issue a its usual habitat. “We have called all
statement dismissing the idea as a the zoos and kangaroo breeders
TWO pigeon racers in China have been to protect against death from any myth, citing the pharmacological, around us, but no one is missing a
charged with fraud after smuggling cause”. Feedback plans to keep logistical, chemical and medical kangaroo,” a police official told the
their birds onto a bullet train to beat a few Dairylea triangles in our implausibilities of such a scheme. AFP news agency.
the competition. The ruse took place pocket from now on, to ward Those searching for a
during the Grand Prix of the Shanghai off infectious disease, traffic stupefying agent would do better
Pigeon Association, a 652-kilometre accidents and old age. to look in their cocktail glass. As
flight from Shangqiu to Shanghai. one commenter put it: “Perhaps
Court statements revealed the AN INVESTIGATION by a concerned the thieves were just very quiet.”
pair had secretly trained their birds horticulturist has accused many
in Shangqiu as well as Shanghai. Australian supermarkets of A MORE unusual theft was seen
When the birds were released by unwittingly selling fake honey. Robert in Philadelphia, when $40,000 of
race officials, they quickly returned Costa commissioned an assessment creepy crawlies were stolen from
to their Shangqiu loft. The men then of 28 jars of honey, using nuclear the Philadelphia Insectarium and
smuggled them onto the high speed magnetic resonance imaging to Butterfly Pavilion. Ninety per cent
train, hidden inside milk cartons, and untangle the contents. of the museum’s creatures were
released them in Shanghai to fly the The results showed that many of snatched overnight, including
short distance home. the jars labelled “100% pure honey” scorpions, millipedes, and a six-
Competitors cried foul when the actually seemed to have been bulked eyed sand spider, said to be one of FISHY business in the Persian
two birds shattered race records, out with sugar syrup. There is no the most venomous in the world. Gulf. A fishmonger in Kuwait
seemingly completing the 8-hour race suggestion the brands knew of the Suspicion has fallen on a group of pushed their luck a little too far
in half that time. The men fessed up, adulteration, which is suspected to disgruntled ex-employees, inferred by sticking plastic googly eyes on
and were fined $160,000. have originated in China. from two staff jerseys left pinned to their wares to make them appear
Beekeeper Phil McCabe told ABC the wall with knives at the scene, fresher. After complaints from
A PANACEA we have an appetite News: “Adulterated honey isn’t honey as well as security camera footage customers, the shop was shut

for: NBC News reports that cheese at all. By and large [the impurity] showing them loading animals into down by the Ministry of
and yogurt, as well as protecting is some kind of syrup that’s been waiting vehicles. Commerce, according to a report
against heart disease, “were found converted to look like honey, it tastes Philadelphians who find in Al Bayan newspaper.
themselves offered suspiciously
cheap deals on scorpions and
Instagram channel WeirdWorld claims: “Applying spiders are encouraged to notify You can send stories to Feedback by
a male’s underarm sweat to a female’s lips the relevant authorities. email at feedback@newscientist.com.
Please include your home address.
can help women relax and boost their mood.” ANOTHER victim of the devil’s This week’s and past Feedbacks can
Citation needed, if anyone lives to tell the tale weed? A fleeing suspect was be seen on our website.

56 | NewScientist | 15 September 2018

Last words past and present at newscientist.com/lastword

Hot sauce Energy and water efficiency QTradition certainly plays a role; from the hardware departments
were two of the driving forces our ancestors of centuries ago had of Geneva and appeared absent in
Why is there no insulation for behind the design decisions I little understanding of energy the rest of Switzerland these past
saucepans? Or around kitchen sinks or made for my self-contained, conservation, and few effective four years. This cannot be due to
bathtubs? Is it difficult and expensive, all-solar-powered motorhome. options for insulating material. poor durability because the pots
or just a lazy tradition inherited from Using my induction cooker, Even so, shortages of fuel led I took to Austria were still in
wasteful innocent times? I tested a collapsible silicone kettle people to use techniques such as regular use, and good condition,
against a conventional metal one. haybox cooking, in which food is when I cooked New Year’s lunch
QThere is no insulation on There was no significant first heated to boiling then kept in earlier this year.
saucepans because it would difference in time or energy a box insulated with straw until Peter Urben
hamper the heating of the pan’s taken to boil the same volume of cooked. It was slow, but it worked. Kenilworth, Warwickshire, UK
contents. Pots and pans use heat- water. An immersion kettle took Nowadays a wide variety of
conducting materials to make less time but the same energy. insulated cookware is available
heat transfer more efficient. I concluded that the heat loss and generally works well, This week’s
Plastic baths keep bathwater through vessel sides and top was especially for people who work
hot much better than old- small relative to the heat input. all day and like to come back to questions
fashioned metal ones. However, The bigger waste is likely to be ready-cooked meals. FOOD FOR THOUGHT
if a long, lingering bath is your boiling more water than required. As for sinks and pipes, modern Ignoring the idiom that variety
desire, you could remove the bath materials have led to all sorts of is the spice of life, what single dish
panel and fill the air space around “A cooking pot is heated insulated plumbing, whereas could I make that would provide
the bath with mineral wool – the from the sides and the insulation in the past tended to all my nutritional needs forever
kind used for loft insulation. You bottom. Insulating it would be expensive and fragile. Newer more? A vegetarian option
may also wish to consider using be a little self-defeating” baths and hot water pipes are would be good too.
bubble-bath because this made of plastic, which is Adoni Patrikios
diminishes evaporation from the I haven’t pursued side or lid reasonably insulating, so they Australia
water surface, the main source of insulation for pots, but I use a retain heat fairly well. In flats
heat loss from plastic baths. slow cooker, which puts the where I lived as a child, the hot WING COMMANDER
As for sinks, how long does it heated pot in a vacuum-insulated water supply was heated centrally Is there a pecking order in a
take to wash some dishes? If you container. and distributed through metal flock of birds and which are
have lots of dishes, the water will I did consider whether large- pipes. These conducted heat away the stragglers at the end?
probably get dirty and should be diameter pots were more water from the water, until my father Jo Dunn
replaced for hygiene reasons and energy efficient than small- showed the owner how to make Cape Town, South Africa
before it has cooled. diameter ones, but the differences insulating cement jackets for
One lazy tradition inherited were minimal. the pipes. HEIGHT OF SUMMER
from wasteful innocent times is I based my selection of a Jon Richfield Most of us in the UK enjoyed the
lying soaking in a bath for ages, motorhome sink on minimising Somerset West, South Africa weather this summer. I remember
like the Romans. thermal mass, maximising depth the fine summers of 1976 and
David Muir of water for minimum volume, QA range in stainless steel pots, 1987 when temperatures reached
Edinburgh, UK and being able to fit our largest with evacuated double walls and above 30°C. What is the hottest
dish or pot into the sink to wash it. lids, was popular in Switzerland temperature we could have at
QUsing gas, and to a lesser extent Insulation was a given, but I had some 20 years ago. It was the UK’s latitude given ideal
electric radiant cooking, a pot is to add it myself. marketed abroad at least as far as conditions? Could it exceed 40°C?
heated from the sides as well as Julian Lawrence Austria and I secured a set for my Not that I’m hoping it would.
the bottom. Insulating it would be Karana Downs, Queensland, godchildren who lived there. Adrian Hutchings
a little self-defeating. Australia Since then, they have faded Bournemouth, Hampshire, UK

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