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New scientist 23 07

FERTILE OR FUTILE?
Myths and truths
about getting pregnant

WOBBLING STAR
Planet Nine pushed
our sun off its axis

EBOLA EYEWITNESS
The man who discovered
the world’s deadliest virus
WEEKLY July 23 -29, 2016

POKÉMON GO AWAY! Is anywhere out of bounds for augmented reality?

WE WANT OUR
INTERNET BACK!
The grassroots fight to regain control
and what it means for you

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Science and technology news
www.newscientist.com
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NO GREAT SHAKES How to stop an earthquake in its tracks

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CONTENTS

Volume 231 No 3083

This issue online
newscientist.com/issue/3083

Leader

News

5

8

News

Reversing the
menopause

6

UPFRONT
Bald eagles starving in Florida. SpaceX
sends DNA analyser to ISS. GM mozzies
beating dengue. New World Heritage sites
8 THIS WEEK
Planet Nine tilted the sun. Your grandad
made you fat. Tracking Stone-Age Britons
on the beach. How to find fake nukes
14 IN BRIEF
Kiss of death activates ant killer squad.
Ducklings dabble in abstract thought.
Pulsar swoosh. Self-folding graphene

PETER DAZELEY/GETTY

Breakthrough claims
to make older women
fertile again

Maybe baby... doctors and fertility clinics
often contradict each other. Who to trust?

On the cover

Analysis

26

30 Fertile or futile?
Busting pregnancy myths
10 Wobbling star
Planet Nine pushed our
sun off its axis
38 Ebola eyewitness
The man who discovered
the world’s deadliest virus
22 Pokémon Go away
Bounds of virtual reality
34 No great shakes
Stop a quake in its tracks

We want our
internet back!
The grassroots fight
to regain control

Cover image
Ahoy There Studio

16 Psychiatry’s last taboo Should those with
unbearable mental illness be allowed to die?
18 COMMENT
Human evolution at an end? Far from it.
Decimating biodiversity should worry us all
19 INSIGHT
Tackle police prejudice with small steps

Technology
20 Video games to help troops handle battle.
Meeting Hubo, the world’s most advanced
robot. Pokémon Go and the limits of VR

Aperture
24 Storks at all-you-can-eat buffet

Features

Features

34

26 We want our internet back! (see above
left)
30 Fertile or futile? Myths and truths about
getting pregnant
34 No great shakes (see left)
38 PEOPLE
Peter Piot, the man who discovered Ebola

How to stop an
earthquake in
its tracks

TED SOQUI/CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES

No great
shakes

Culture
42 Wild at heart When tech gets too complex
to understand, time to copy field biologists
43 All lit up Finland’s starry art knows its limits
44 Red roads Science and the counterculture

Coming next week…
You are junk
It’s not our genes that make us human

Regulars
52 LETTERS Neo-Luddites versus AI
56 FEEDBACK Get a job, why don’t you...
57 THE LAST WORD Learn to like your voice

Conquering the deep
The new golden age of ocean exploration

23 July 2016 | NewScientist | 3



PETER CADE/GETTY

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One born every minute
Who should we believe when it comes to fertility?
HOW old is too old to have a baby? more alternatives. Egg freezing,
For many women in their 30s
for instance, allows women to
and 40s, that question nags away
squirrel away eggs from their
at them as they try to strike a
years of peak fertility and hence
balance between their career,
defer IVF without worrying about
their finances and their desire
declining egg quality.
to start a family.
Meanwhile, science keeps on
If you ask the medical
pushing the boundaries of the
profession for an answer, the
possible. As we report this week,
message is clear: don’t delay. Get
researchers at a fertility clinic in
pregnant in your 20s if possible,
Greece claim to have rejuvenated
when female fertility is thought
the ovaries of post-menopausal
to peak. Any later and you face
women, enabling them to
the prospect of infertility, or
produce viable eggs once more.
health problems associated with
If the technique works – which is
older pregnancy (see page 30).
However, the real world seems “Women starting families
in their 50s may come to
to be ignoring that advice. In
be seen as unremarkable,
England and Wales, the mean
but not routine”
age for a woman to give birth has
been rising since the mid 1970s
a big if at the moment – it would
and is now over 30. Women in
potentially enable women of any
their 40s have more babies than
age to have children (see page 8).
those under 20, and the highest
That is way in the future, but it
number of births per capita is
is clear that the direction of travel
among women aged 30 to 34.
is towards older motherhood.
These demographic shifts
Even if regeneration fails, egg
are driven largely by social
and embryo freezing could open
and economic trends: the
the door to post-menopausal
increasing numbers of women
pregnancy. Women could freeze
in professional occupations, for
eggs in their 20s and use them
example, and the spiralling cost
in their 50s, for example.
of buying a home. But IVF has
This isn’t an issue yet. But
also played a big part, giving
never say never. A small number
couples the option of delaying
of children are already born to
in the knowledge that there is
mothers over 50 every year, by
a plan B – albeit a risky one.
IVF using donated eggs. If there
Couples will soon have even

was a way for older women to use
their own eggs to have genetically
related children, demand could
increase.
Assuming life expectancy
continues to rise, the general
health of the population carries
on improving and the twin
pressures of career and home
ownership keep moving in the
same direction, women starting
families in their 50s might come
to be seen as fairly unremarkable.
But it won’t become routine. Most
IVF cycles don’t result in the birth
of a child, whether using fresh or
frozen eggs.
For the foreseeable future,
then, couples will continue to
face tough choices. They aren’t
helped by inconsistent messages
emanating from doctors on the
one hand and fertility clinics on
the other – who are often the same
people wearing different hats.
Faced with this mismatch, it
helps to remember that much of
the fertility industry is a profitmaking business that has been
criticised by academics for
making excessive promises and
offering techniques that have
never been properly validated.
Of course, choosing when to have
a child can be the most difficult
decision of a lifetime and plan B
can be the right one. But caveat
emptor. ■
23 july 2016 | NewScientist | 5


SPACE X

UPFRONT

SpaceX delivers again
THE latest bag of goodies has
been launched to the International
Space Station (ISS).
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted
off just after midnight local time on
18 July from NASA’s Kennedy Space
Center in Florida. The rocket’s first
stage returned safely to ground just
minutes later, marking SpaceX’s fifth
successful landing.
Afterwards, SpaceX boss Elon
Musk tweeted that this stage was
ready to fly again.
The uncrewed Dragon capsule
made its way to the ISS, where it was
due to arrive on Wednesday carrying
a selection of food, water and other
supplies for the station’s astronauts,
along with more exotic cargo.
The other cargo includes a
USB-stick-sized DNA sequencer

called MinION, made by UK firm Oxford
Nanopore Technologies. It is the first
DNA analyser to head into space, and
may eventually allow astronauts to
directly monitor changes to their
genetic code caused by the harsh
radiation environment in orbit.
For this first flight, astronauts
will just test that the technology
works in microgravity by analysing
the genomes of bacteria, viruses
and mice.
Also on board is a new docking port
to be attached to the outside of the
ISS. This will allow future crewed
spacecraft to dock automatically and
is designed to work with SpaceX’s
Dragon V2 and Boeing’s Starliner
capsule, both of which are expected
to make their first trips to the ISS in
the next couple of years.

–Blazing a trail–

Will Russia see Rio?
RUSSIA is facing a complete ban
from the Rio Olympic games
following a damning
investigation into doping claims
made against Russian athletes
competing at major international
events over the past five years.
The competitions included the
2012 London Olympics, the Sochi
Winter Olympics in 2014, the
2013 World University Games in
Kazan and the 2013 IAAF World
Championships in Moscow.
Media revelations about the scale
of doping first appeared in May

“Doped samples from
Russian competitors were
swapped through a mouse
hole drilled in the wall”
based on evidence from Grigory
Rodchenkov, former director of
the lab in Moscow where athletes’
samples were handled, which was
accredited by the World AntiDoping Agency. He is now in
hiding in the US.
The investigation whose results
were released this week was
launched in the wake of
6 | NewScientist | 23 July 2016

Rodchenkov’s allegations.
Authored by Canadian law
professor Richard McLaren, it
claims that the Russian Sports
Ministry devised complex systems
to prevent urine samples from
testing positive and to secretly
administer cocktails of steroids
to athletes prior to competitions.
The most damning findings
involved a scam in the testing labs
at the Sochi Olympics – and with
full involvement of the FSB, the
state security service – which used
a mouse hole drilled in the wall
of the laboratory to swap doped
samples of Russian competitors
for clean ones. Russia went on to
claim 33 medals in Sochi.
The International Olympic
Committee, which met on
Tuesday to discuss the revelations,
expressed its dismay at the
findings. “They show a shocking
and unprecedented attack on the
integrity of sport and on the
Olympic Games,” said IOC
president Thomas Bach in a
statement. “Therefore, the IOC
will not hesitate to take the
toughest sanctions available
against any individual or
organisation implicated.”

Mozzies cut dengue
GENETICALLY modified
mosquitoes really do seem to
reduce disease. That’s the finding
of a trial in Piracicaba, Brazil,
involving the release of male
Aedes mosquitoes modified to
produce non-viable offspring.
Just by eliminating standing
water where mosquitoes breed,
Piracicaba halved the incidence of
dengue during the 2015-16 dengue
season, compared with the
previous year. But in areas where
the mosquitoes were released

too, cases of dengue fell by more
than 90 per cent.
The result matters as regulators
want evidence that this method
cuts disease, not just wild
mosquito numbers. This small
trial doesn’t provide the rigorous
evidence that epidemiologists
need, but it demonstrates
potential, says Hadyn Parry, chief
executive of Oxitec, the UK firm
that developed the mosquitoes.
The US Food and Drug
Administration is considering
whether to approve use of
these insects.

Bald eagles go hungry in Florida
IT’S short rations for America’s iconic
raptors. Eagles at Florida Bay are
feeding their young less than twice
a day on average, so the chicks get
much less food than those elsewhere.
Matthew Hanson and John
Baldwin at Florida Atlantic University
made the discovery by installing
cameras at four bald eagle nests in
Florida Bay. “Florida has always
historically been a stronghold for
the species,” says Bryan Watts at
the College of William & Mary in

Williamsburg, Virginia. So why
are bald eagles there in decline?
A collapsing ecosystem may
be to blame in the bay. In recent
decades, high salt levels have killed
off sea grasses, releasing sediments
that triggered algal blooms, which
in turn killed fish that eagles eat.
Development in the Everglades
may have led to these problems by
disrupting the flow of fresh water
into the bay (Southeastern
Naturalist, doi.org/bmqk).


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

Shooting for Mars
NASA wants an orbiter worthy
of human missions to Mars. The
agency has given contracts to five
engineering companies – Boeing,
Lockheed Martin, Northrop
Grumman, Orbital ATK and Space

© OCTAVIO ABURTO

60 SECONDS

Cluck off
Don’t want to get bitten? Hang
out with a hen. Malaria-carrying
mosquitoes seem to avoid the odour
of chickens, according to fresh
research. Isolating the compounds
involved may lead to new ways
of repelling the life-threatening
pests (Malaria, DOI: 10.1186/
s12936-016-1386-3).

“Next-gen orbiters will rely
on harnessing the sun’s
energy to accelerate ions,
propelling the craft”

Far out

JAMIE FELTON/GETTY

Systems Loral – to demonstrate
what kind of spacecraft each one
can build for a potential mission
in the 2020s.
Today’s Mars orbiters are vital
for relaying data from rovers back Nature sites listed
to Earth. To support a human
EIGHT natural sites around the
mission, the next generation will
world have been added to
need to be superior in terms of
UNESCO’s World Heritage list,
propulsion, imaging capabilities
celebrating places of outstanding
and communication.
cultural or natural value. The sites
Solar-electric propulsion will
include sandstone canyons and
be key to their design. Already in
valleys in Chad, forests sheltering
use in Earth-orbiting satellites,
leopards and Asiatic black bears in
it works by harnessing the sun’s
China, and wetlands in Iraq.
energy to accelerate ions,
The latest additions bring the
propelling the craft.
total number of UNESCO sites to
Future orbiters must be able
1052. Although they may feature
to fly close to the Martian surface
historically significant
to get high-resolution pictures
of good landing sites. They will
“It’s going to make
also boast high-fidelity
conservation easier and
communication systems to
it’s going to be easier to
cooperate with a ground crew.
mitigate threats to areas”
NASA would also like to see
orbiters that can return to Earth
architecture or “exceptional
with Martian samples sent up by
natural beauty”, many are in
capsule from a planned rover.
danger of degradation, for
example, from the effects of
climate change.
Listing an area helps
governments and NGOs preserve
it, says Juan Bezaury-Creel at
the Nature Conservancy in
Arlington, Virginia.
One of the newly designated
sites is the Archipiélago de
Revillagigedo in Mexico, pictured
above. Each of its four islands in
the eastern Pacific is the tip of an
underwater volcano.
The surrounding waters host
whales and sharks that will now be
–Emblematic but failing to thrive– protected, says Bezaury-Creel. “It’s

–Better protected, in principle–

going to make conservation
easier, and it’s going to be easier to
mitigate threats that come to the
area,” he says.
Richard Thomas of Mistaken
Point Ecological Reserve in
Newfoundland, Canada, another
of the newly listed sites, says the
designation will boost tourism
and may be an economic “shot in
the arm” for the region.

Fix the ozone fix
SAVING the ozone layer has
inadvertently warmed our
planet – but the error is about
to be fixed.
When nations signed the
Montreal Protocol in 1987, the
plan was to save the ozone layer
by banning ozone-eating CFCs in
aerosols, refrigerators and airconditioning units. Ozonefriendly HFCs were seen as a great
substitute. But HFCs are potent
greenhouse gases, and 30 years
later their manufacture is rising
globally by 7 per cent each year.
Last November in Dubai,
signatories to the Montreal
Protocol agreed in principle to
amend the agreement in order to
outlaw HFCs – better alternatives
now exist. At a meeting in Vienna,
Austria, this week, they will begin
the task of setting targets and
timetables for doing that. The
hope is that they will eventually
be able to phase them out.

South Africa’s new MeerKAT radio
telescope has discovered more than
1300 galaxies in a tiny patch of sky
where we’d only spotted 70 before.
The telescope is only at a quarter of
its eventual capacity, with 16 of 64
dishes operational.

Zika sex
The Zika virus seems to have passed
from a woman to a man via sex.
This is the first time this has been
reported (MMWR, doi.org/bmqg).
The woman had unprotected sex
just after she returned to New York
from an affected country. Earlier
cases of sexual transmission
involved men infecting women.

Traffic light party
Fireflies’ flash colours harmonise
with their habitats. Males in greener,
more vegetated habitats evolved
yellower flashes to contrast with
ambient light reflected from
vegetation. Females have a different
strategy: because they broadcast
while sitting on leaves, they use
greener flashes that reflect better
off leaf surfaces to boost their signal
(Evolution, doi.org/bmn4).

Cuckoo karma
Cuckoos that take a shortcut over
Spain are more likely to die than
those opting for a longer route over
the Balkans. This is the first time a
population decline in the common
cuckoo has been linked to its choice
of migration route. Drought at
stopover sites in Spain may be to
blame for higher death rates over
the Western route (Nature
Communications, doi.org/bmqq).

23 July 2016 | NewScientist | 7


THIS WEEK

Reversing the menopause
MENOPAUSE need not be the end
number steadily dwindles, with
of fertility. A team claims to have
fertility thought to peak in the
found a way to rejuvenate postearly 20s. Around the age of 50,
menopausal ovaries, enabling
which is when menopause
them to release fertile eggs, New
normally occurs, the ovaries stop
Scientist can reveal.
releasing eggs – but most women
The team says its technique has are already largely infertile by
restarted periods in menopausal
this point, as ovulation becomes
women, including one who had
more infrequent in the run-up.
not menstruated in five years.
The menopause comes all-tooIf the results hold up to wider
soon for many women, says
scrutiny, the technique may
Sfakianoudis.
boost declining fertility in older
The age of motherhood is
women, allow women with early
creeping up, and more women are
menopause to get pregnant, and
having children in their 40s than
help stave off the detrimental
ever before (see graph, below). But
health effects of menopause.
as more women delay pregnancy,
“It offers a window of hope
“It offers hope that
that menopausal women will
menopausal women will be
be able to get pregnant using
able to get pregnant using
their own genetic material,”
their own genetic material”
says Konstantinos Sfakianoudis,
a gynaecologist at the Greek
fertility clinic Genesis Athens.
many find themselves struggling
“It is potentially quite exciting,” to get pregnant. Women who
says Roger Sturmey at Hull York
hope to conceive later in life are
Medical School in the UK. “But it
increasingly turning to IVF and
also opens up ethical questions
egg freezing, but neither are
over what the upper age limit of
a reliable back-up option (see
mothers should be.”
“The pregnancy pause”, page 30).
Women are thought to be
The menopause also comes
born with all their eggs. Between
early – before the age of 40 – for
puberty and the menopause, this
around 1 per cent of women,

Older mothers
The percentage of women giving birth in England and Wales who are
40 or older has quadrupled since 1980

4.2
3.8
3.4
2.5

8 | NewScientist | 23 July 2016

20
15

20
10

20
05

20
00

19
95

1.4

19
90

19
85

19
80

1.1

SOURCE: ONS.GOV.UK

1.7
1.0

either because of a medical
condition or certain cancer
treatments, for example.
To turn back the fertility clock
for women who have experienced
early menopause, Sfakianoudis
and his colleagues have turned to
a blood treatment that is used to
help wounds heal faster.
Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) is
made by centrifuging a sample
of a person’s blood to isolate
growth factors – molecules that
trigger the growth of tissue and
blood vessels. It is widely used
to speed the repair of damaged
bones and muscles, although
its effectiveness is unclear.
The treatment may work by
stimulating tissue regeneration.
Sfakianoudis’s team has found
that PRP also seems to rejuvenate
older ovaries, and presented some
of their results at the European
Society of Human Reproduction
and Embryology annual meeting
in Helsinki, Finland, this month.
When they injected PRP into the
ovaries of menopausal women,
they say it restarted their
menstrual cycles, and enabled
them to collect and fertilise the
eggs that were released.
“I had a patient whose
menopause had established five
years ago, at the age of 40,” says
Sfakianoudis. Six months after
the team injected PRP into her
ovaries, she experienced her
first period since menopause.
Sfakianoudis’s team has since
been able to collect three eggs
from this woman. The researchers
say they have successfully
fertilised two using her husband’s
sperm. These embryos are now
on ice – the team is waiting until
there are at least three before
implanting some in her uterus.
The team isn’t sure how this

PETER DAZELEY/GETTY

A blood treatment seems to restore periods and fertility to menopausal
women. Is it too good to be true, asks Jessica Hamzelou

technique works, but it may be
that the PRP stimulates stem cells.
Some research suggests a small
number of stem cells continue
making new eggs throughout a
woman’s life, but we don’t know
much about these yet. It’s possible
that growth factors encourage
such stem cells to regenerate
tissue and produce ovulation
hormones. “It’s biologically
plausible,” says Sturmey.

Fertilised eggs
Sfakianoudis’s team says it has
given PRP in this way to around
30 women between the ages of 46
and 49, all of whom want to have
children. The researchers say they
have managed to isolate and
fertilise eggs from most of them.
“It seems to work in about twothirds of cases,” says Sfakianoudis.
“We see changes in biochemical
patterns, a restoration of menses,
and egg recruitment and


In this section
■ Planet Nine tilted the sun, page 10
■ Psychiatry’s last taboo, page 16
■ Pokémon Go and the limits of VR, page 22

an alternative way to boost the
supply of youthful hormones,
delaying menopause symptoms.
However, Sfakianoudis’s team
hasn’t yet published any of its
findings. “We need larger studies
before we can know for sure how
effective the treatment is,” says
Sfakianoudis.
Some have raised concerns
about the safety and efficacy of
the procedure, saying the team
should have tested the approach
in animals first. “This experiment

fertilisation.” His team has yet
to implant any embryos in postmenopausal women, but hopes
to do so in the coming months.
PRP has already been helpful
for pregnancy in another group
of women, says Sfakianoudis.
Around 10 per cent of women
who seek fertility treatment at his
clinic have a uterus that embryos
find difficult to attach to –
whether due to cysts, scarring
from miscarriages or having a
thin uterine lining. “They are
the most difficult to treat,” says
Sfakianoudis.
But after injecting PRP into the
uteruses of six women who had
had multiple miscarriages and
failed IVF attempts, three became
pregnant through IVF. “They are
now in their second trimester,”
says Sfakianoudis.
Fertility aside, the technique
could also be desirable for women
who aren’t trying to conceive. The
hormonal changes that trigger

STEVE GSCHMEISSNER/SPL

“One woman had been in
menopause for 5 years. Six
months after treatment,
she had a period”
would not have been allowed to
take place in the UK,”says Sturmey.
“The researchers need to do some
more work to make sure that the
resulting eggs are OK,” says Adam
Balen at the British Fertility
Society.
To know if the technique
really does improve fertility, the
team will also need to carry out
–Never too old?– randomised trials, in which a
control group isn’t given PRP.
menopause can also make the
Virginia Bolton, an
heart, skin and bones more
embryologist at Guy’s and St
vulnerable to ageing and disease,
Thomas’ Hospital in London, is
while hot flushes can be very
also sceptical. “It is dangerous
unpleasant. Many women are
to get excited about something
reluctant to take hormone
before you have sufficient
replacement therapy to reduce
evidence it works,” she says. New
these because of its link with
techniques often find their way
breast cancer. Rejuvenating the
into the fertility clinic without
ovaries with PRP could provide
strong evidence, thanks to huge
demand from people who are
often willing to spend their life
savings to have a child, she says.
If the technique does hold
up under further investigation,
it could raise ethical questions
over the upper age limits of
pregnancy – and whether there
should be any. “I lay awake last
night turning this over in my
mind,” says Sturmey. “Where
would the line be drawn?”
Health issues like gestational
diabetes, pre-eclampsia and
miscarriage are all more common
in older women. “It would require
–More eggs, please– a big debate,” says Sturmey. ■

SPERM HOME TEST KIT
How are the little swimmers doing?
Low sperm counts or poor sperm
quality are behind around a third of
cases of couples who can’t conceive.
A visit to a clinic for a test can be
awkward, but a smartphone-based
system lets men determine whether
that’s necessary by checking their
fertility at home.
Men often find it embarrassing to
give a semen sample at a clinic, says
Yoshitomo Kobori at the Dokkyo
Medical University Koshigaya
Hospital in Japan. So Kobori devised
an alternative. “I thought a
smartphone microscope could be
an easy way to look at problems
with male fertility,” he says.
Kobori and his colleagues came
up with a lens less than a millimetre
thick that can be slotted into a
plastic “jacket”. Clipped on to
the camera of a smartphone, it
magnifies an image by 555 times –
perfect for looking at sperm.
To do a home test, a man would
apply a small amount of semen to
a plastic sheet around five minutes
after ejaculation and press it against
the microscope.

WATCH THEM SWIM
The phone’s camera can then take
a 3-second video clip of the sperm.
When viewed enlarged on a
computer screen, it is easy for
someone to count the total number
of sperm and the number that are
moving – key indicators of fertility.
Kobori says the system works as
well as the software used in fertility
clinics. When the team ran 50
samples through both systems,
they got almost identical results.
The work was presented at the
European Society of Human
Reproduction and Embryology
meeting in Helsinki this month.
The system can’t assess the
ability of sperm to fertilise an egg.
“This method is only the simple
version of semen analysis,” says
Kobori. But that could be enough for
men to identify potential fertility
problems, and decide whether to
seek help from a doctor.

23 July 2016 | NewScientist | 9


KEITH LADZINSKI/GETTY

THIS WEEK

Obesity is
passed on down
generations

Planet Nine antics
led to sun’s odd tilt
Rebecca Boyle

all the other planets’ orbits.
Earlier this year, Michael Brown
and Konstantin Batygin at the
California Institute of Technology
in Pasadena argued that this
Planet Nine could be responsible
for some of the erratic
movements of icy worlds in the
outer solar system. With that
planet plugged in to our models,
the machinations of the heavens
begin to make more sense.
Now the idea can be extended
to the orbit of all the planets, says
Elizabeth Bailey, also at Caltech,

A JEALOUS Planet Nine may have
shoved its siblings for attention.
If a massive ninth planet exists in
our solar system, it might explain
why the planets are out of line
with the sun.
The eight major planets still
circle the sun in the original plane
of their birth. The sun rotates on
its own axis, but surprisingly, that
spin is tilted: the axis lies at an
angle of 6 degrees relative to a
line perpendicular to the plane
of the planets.
“If the sun captured Planet
There are a few theories to
explain this jaunty slant, including Nine early on, its gravity
could have realigned the
the temporary tug of a passing
planets’ orbital plane”
star aeons ago, or interactions
between the magnetic fields of the
sun and the primordial dusty disc who did the work together with
that formed the solar system. But Brown and Batygin (arxiv.org/
it is hard to account for why the
abs/1607.03963v1).
sun’s spin is aligned the way it is
“Because we think Planet Nine
relative to the planets.
has a significant inclination, if it
Two teams of astronomers
exists, then that means it would
have just announced a new
tilt things,” Bailey says, and by the
explanation: a hypothetical
just right amount. “It’s one puzzle
massive planet in the outer solar
piece that seems to fit together,
system could be interfering with
and it really seems to be in support
10 | NewScientist | 23 July 2016

BLAME grandpa if you get fat
eating junk food. It seems that the
grandsons of pudgy male mice are
more susceptible to the health effects
of a bad diet, even if their fathers are
lean and healthy.
Last year, a study found thousands
of epigenetic modifications to DNA in
the sperm of obese men, as well as
differing amounts of short pieces of
RNA, when compared with lean men’s
sperm. Epigenetic changes like these
don’t alter the code of DNA, but may
–All askew in the heavens– affect how active particular genes are.
Now Catherine Suter at Victor
Chang Cardiac Research Institute in
of the Planet Nine hypothesis.”
The planet would have between Sydney and her colleagues have
investigated the longer-term effects
5 and 20 times Earth’s mass and
of paternal obesity by mating obese
be in a wildly eccentric orbit,
male mice with lean females.
reaching 250 times the sun-Earth
They found that, unlike the
distance at its farthest point.
offspring of lean males, both the
That elongated trajectory has led
sons and grandsons of obese ones
some to suggest that it was once
were more likely to show the early
an exoplanet and was kidnapped
signs of fatty liver disease and
by the sun.
diabetes when given a junk-food diet
If that happened early enough,
(Molecular Metabolism, doi.org/
then its gravitational influence
bmn3). The same effect wasn’t seen
since the solar system was born
in daughters or granddaughters.
would be enough to pull the
Even when the sons of obese males
planets’ orbital plane out of
were fed a healthy diet and kept at a
alignment with the sun, Bailey
normal weight, their own sons still
says. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and
had a greater tendency to develop
Neptune would move as one, so
obesity-related conditions when
Planet Nine would not be able to
exposed to a junk diet.
shift them individually like
However, the effect didn’t seem
pinballs. Instead, the entire solar
to be passed on to great-grandsons.
system would tilt as a whole.
Planet Nine’s tilt, not its mass, is “This is good news because it
key, says Alessandro Morbidelli at suggests that the cycle of obesity
can be broken,” says Suter.
Côte d’Azur Observatory in Nice,
As a result, she suggests that
France, who has independently
junk-food susceptibility is passed on by
come to a similar conclusion
epigenetics. Her team’s research hints
(arxiv.org/abs/1607.05111). If it
that small RNA pieces in the sperm
were a question of mass, Jupiter
could be to blame, possibly influencing
would be the prime suspect.
how a male embryo develops.
“What is important is that the
Such studies underscore the
perturbing planet is off-plane.
importance of men’s health at the time
Jupiter cannot cause its own tilt,”
of conception, says Suter. “A baby’s
he says.
The sun’s tilt doesn’t prove that health has long been considered the
mother’s responsibility, but little
Planet Nine exists, however. That
attention has been paid to the father’s
would require seeing it with a
health.” Alice Klein ■
telescope. ■


INTRODUCING THE SECOND IN A NEW SERIES
OF WHITE PAPERS FROM NEW SCIENTIST
What’s the future of business?
We at New Scientist decided to take a look at how three of the key
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expectations.
The author of our second GameChangers report in the series is
Steven Cherry, who for 15 years covered the work sector for IEEE
Spectrum, and now directs TTI/Vanguard, a members-only forum
that explores the impact and implications of future technologies for
senior business leaders.
In his report, Cherry examines the arguments for and against the
idea that automation will ultimately outsource every human job,
and explores the paradoxes inherent in both. If cognitively complex
jobs are the only ones that are safe, why is there still such high
demand for cashiers? If automation generates new jobs, why is GDP
slowing? And when can you expect the robots to take your job? To
find out, register to download your free copy of GameChangers:
Automation and Artificial Intelligence today.

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Editor, GameChangers

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steven Cherry is the Director of TTI/Vanguard, a membership forum based in
New York that explores future technologies. Previously he was a journalist and
editor at IEEE Spectrum, the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics
Engineers. Prior to that he was an editor at the Association for Computing
Machinery (ACM). He founded and co-hosts the award-winning podcast series,
Techwise Conversations, which covers technology news, careers and education,
and the engineering lifestyle.

GAME
CHANGERS
AUTOMATION
AND ARTIFICIAL
INTELLIGENCE
IN THIS EXCLUSIVE
NEW REPORT FIND OUT:

] Why every technological breakthrough
takes twice as long as we expected, but
we’re still not prepared for its arrival
]Why GDP is an increasingly limited tool
for measuring productivity, and what that
means for jobs and automation
] Which jobs might be safe –
and which won’t


THIS WEEK
FIELD NOTES Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, UK

Stone-Age paths
revealed by tides
footprints of humans and animals,
Britain’s first lifeboat station and a
40-metre-deep Bronze-Age shaft.
Sherman and his colleague
Megan Clement, based in York, train
volunteers and act as a response
team when something crops up – as
it did here on Cleethorpes seafront.

IT LOOKS like a long way to the
prehistoric dig site, and there’s a lot
of slippery mud separating me from it.
But I have more to worry about than
face-planting into the estuary. “We
actually need to give you the safety
talk,” says Andy Sherman, an
archaeologist with the Museum of
London Archaeology.
As we stand in a battering wind
looking out at the muddy beach at
Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire, he tells
me there are at least three ways to get
killed here: walking on an unexploded
bomb, stepping into quicksand or
ignoring the tide timetable. The sea
sweeps in behind the dig, cutting off
anyone foolhardy enough to venture
out at the wrong moment.
So why are we here? Well, coastal
archaeology has an urgency you
get nowhere else. The sea reveals
whatever our ancestors left in the
mud with no warning, and then, just
as quickly, can wash it away forever.
That’s why the Museum of London
Archaeology began its CITiZAN project,
which teaches ordinary people how
to keep an eye out for interesting
artefacts. The project’s finds include

Light trick foils
fake nuclear
warheads
THERE’S a new way to identify
fake nuclear warheads, without
revealing what’s inside.
The technique offers a way out
of a tricky catch-22: to comply with
nuclear arms reduction treaties,
inspectors need to scrutinise
warheads to verify that real
missiles, not decoys, are being
disarmed. The US and Russia alone
12 | NewScientist | 23 July 2016

CITIZAN/MOLA

Joshua Howgego

was something else, too: running
straight through the forest was a
path that shouldn’t be there. That is,
if you subscribe to the conventional
idea that Stone-Age people were
uncultured nomads, eking out a
subsistence living in the wild.
It’s clear that is not the case – take
Stonehenge, for instance. But there
is sparse evidence to the contrary,
Sherman says, because Neolithic
people had an oral tradition and left
behind few artefacts.
That makes the trackway a valuable
discovery. “This is the best thing we’ve
found,” says Clement of the CITiZAN
project. It’s not much to look at – just a
few metres of rough strips of intensely
black wood, cresting out of the peat.
But the strips have been arranged
carefully, a bit like a wooden boardwalk.
Sherman sees it as evidence that the
Neolithic people who made it were
organised. “This isn’t just a path, it’s a
wide track, which means they were
taking the time to grow the wood and
maintain it,” he says. “It would have
been a lot of effort.”
Sherman and Clement think this
section of the trackway will be washed
away by tides within two years. But
as the peat is eroded further, more
of the track should be revealed.
During the Stone Age, this section
of land would have been nowhere
near the coast. As I stand there
with the mud squelching over my
wellingtons, I wonder if we’ll eventually
–It’s a Stone-Age highway– be able to work out where it went. ■

I put on two fleeces, a coat, two
pairs of socks and wellington boots
and stick tight behind Clement and
Sherman as they pick their way
through the shin-deep mud.
The residents of Cleethorpes knew
there was something out here – the
strange black objects that I can now
see sticking out of the mud were a
giveaway. When Clement and Sherman
got wind of the rumours last spring,
they went to investigate.
They found that the black shapes
were the petrified tree trunks of
a 4300-year-old forest. But there

have thousands of nukes slated
elements, right down to their
for dismantlement between
isotopes. A hoax warhead won’t
them. But to protect state secrets,
pass the test.
governments won’t allow tests
But that’s only half the trick.
that reveal a bomb’s blueprint.
To preserve secrecy, instead of
R. Scott Kemp at MIT and his
detecting the light passing
colleagues used computer
through the warhead directly, the
simulations to show that shining
team focused it onto a foil – a slice
a particular beam of light through of material made of the same
a warhead can scrutinise its
elements as a bomb. The foil
innards. The light makes the
absorbs some of the light, and
nuclei of the warhead’s atoms
“To protect state secrets,
vibrate, then relax, releasing
governments won’t allow
photons. The wavelength of
examinations that reveal
the released light allows us
a bomb’s blueprint”
to determine the warhead’s

the rest is reflected onto detectors
that measure its wavelengths. The
foil’s exact make-up is kept secret
from the inspectors. But they can
compare their results to the scan
of a confirmed missile, to prove
that the weapon isn’t a fake (PNAS,
doi.org/bmqh).
“They’re taking a very big step
in the right direction,” says Glen
Warren at the Pacific Northwest
National Laboratory in Richland,
Washington – but he worries that
too many measurements could
still give the warheads’ contents
away. Emily Benson ■


EXPLORE THE
QUANTUM
WORLD
From parallel universes to photosynthesis, entanglement
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%X\\RXUFRS\IURPDOOJRRGPDJD]LQHUHWDLOHUVRUGLJLWDOO\
)LQGRXWPRUHDWnewscientist.com/TheCollection


CHRIS WHITTIER

IN BRIEF

Baby stars grow by
bursting bubbles

Gorillas are one up in an arms
race against trickster plant
FOOL me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… Well,
it looks like gorillas don’t get fooled twice, at least not
by a cheating plant.
The fruit on the Pentadiplandra brazzeana plant is
packed with a protein called brazzein, which mimics the
taste of high-energy sugary fruits but is less resourceintensive for the plant to make.
Brenda Bradley, an anthropologist at the George
Washington University in Washington DC, thinks the
plant is probably producing cheap, sweet proteins to
“trick” primates into eating the low-calorie berries and

dispersing their seeds. It seems to work, she says, seeing
as the berries are sought by primate species. But now,
Bradley claims, one ape is fighting back: gorillas seem to
have lost the ability to taste brazzein, which Bradley thinks
has evolved as part of an arms race against the plant.
Her team analysed the DNA sequence of the gene
TAS1R3, which codes for a sweet taste receptor, in 51
primate species, including humans. They found that only
the gorilla has two mutations that seem to prevent them
from detecting the sweetness of brazzein (American
Journal of Physical Anthropology, doi.org/bmk7).
Monkeys and bonobos have taste receptors primed to
find the protein sweet, says Bradley. “But gorillas – who
are not known to eat the plant – have species-specific
mutations that likely prevent the false signal.”

Continuous light weakens bones
TOO much light is bad for your
health. So suggests research in
mice, which found that six
months of continuous lighting
led to a range of health problems.
In the experiment, 134 mice
experienced no dark for half a
year. By the end, they had lost
about half their strength, some
parts of their bones were thinner
and they showed signs of
increased inflammation usually
14 | NewScientist | 23 July 2016

associated with stress or infection.
These effects may be connected
to the disruption of the animals’
internal clocks (Current Biology,
DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.05.038).
The findings are worrying for
people who experience prolonged
light exposure – such as shift
workers and hospital patients –
but fortunately, some of the
effects seem to be reversible.
Johanna Meijer of Leiden

University Medical Center in
the Netherlands and her team
found that the mice – and their
disrupted circadian rhythms –
recovered when dark night-times
were restored. “The clock
recovered near instantaneously,”
says Meijer, while muscles
and bones recovered in about
two weeks.
However, the findings may not
directly apply to humans. Mice
are nocturnal, so may suffer more
than us from a lack of darkness.

THE same physics that makes
mushroom clouds might build
the universe’s most massive stars.
According to simple equations,
a star shouldn’t be able to grow to
more than 20 times the mass of
the sun – the radiation it emits
should hold back gas arriving late
in the process and stop it adding
mass. But we see baby stars that
are 150 times the sun’s mass.
Now, a simulation shows the
most complete account yet of one
way stars can suck in more gas.
As radiation rises from the star, it
inflates bubbles that push against
the surrounding gas, holding that
material at bay.
Anna Rosen at the University
of California, Santa Cruz, and
colleagues show that those
bubbles can pop, letting tendrils
of gas drift down towards the
star (arxiv.org/abs/1607.03117).
A similar process is responsible
for mushroom clouds around
nuclear explosions.

Kiss of death marks
ants for kill squad
PAINT a target on his back.
Instead of dispatching their
young competitors directly,
adult male ants smear them with
bodily fluids, leaving them with
a bullseye marking them for
assassination by worker ants.
Most ants seek out mates from
other colonies, but ants in the
genus Cardiocondyla breed within
their nests. By staying at home,
males vie with one another for a
chance to reproduce; so they give
young rivals the kiss of death
before they are big enough to
fight back (Entomological Science,
doi.org/bmmb).
“They let the workers do the
dirty job of finishing off all the
rivals,” says Jürgen Heinze at
the University of Regensburg,
Germany.


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DOMHNALL MALONE

GIVE graphene a diamond and you’ll
get a flower in return. Poking a
sheet of atom-thick graphene with
a diamond tool prompts tiny ribbons
to peel away from the surface, like
flower petals opening.
“I don’t think anyone ever
expected it,” says Graham Cross
at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.
Graphene sheets, which are
made of a single layer of carbon
atoms, are both super-strong and
highly flexible. Other teams have
folded graphene into origami
shapes using chemical reactions,
and made tiny tools.
Cross and his colleagues
accidentally discovered graphene’s
hidden talent while trying to
measure its friction by piercing it.
Once their diamond tip punctured
the sheet, the energy from ambient
heat kept the ribbons tearing into a
tapered strip – a process that took
less than a minute.
By changing the initial width of
the tear, the researchers could
control the length of the ribbons,
which tended to grow to five times
their initial width (Nature, DOI:
bmqd).
Graphene’s self-folding ability
could help make better electronics,
says Cross. By setting off ribbon
formation in careful patterns, the
sheets could be turned into sensors
and even transistors, allowing for
nanoscale electronics.

Pulsars feel swoosh as companions whizz past
TWO strange celestial bodies
might have the clingiest friends in
the cosmos. If a pair of pulsars are
orbited by very dense objects once
every few minutes, that might
explain a strange repeating
pattern interrupting the stars’
radio signals.
Pulsars, aka spinning neutron
stars, normally emit radio pulses
like clockwork. But Joanna Rankin
at the University of Vermont in
Burlington noticed another
pattern she calls a “swoosh”,
when signals from certain pulsars
arrived sooner than expected.

Minutes later, the signal drifted
back to normal. Further
observations showed these
swooshes sometimes repeat.
Now, a study led by Rankin’s
student Haley Wahl suggests
companion objects orbiting the
pulsars at close range could
trigger the swoosh.
These unseen neighbours, if
they exist, must orbit the pulsars
at breakneck speed once every few
minutes – a shorter orbital period
than for any known pair of objects
in the universe, says Rankin. By
passing through the pulsar’s

magnetic field at such a rapid
pace, these companions could
create the swoosh by disrupting
the radio signal we see (arxiv.org/
abs/1607.01737v1).
Such a companion must be
something special, though, like
a small black hole or a hunk of
white-dwarf matter. Most
ordinary objects would be ripped
to shreds by the pulsar’s gravity.
“It has to be something
incredibly dense to stay together,”
says Rankin. “Even a rock of
normal material couldn’t do
anything but turn into dust.”
ATLANTIDE PHOTOTRAVEL/GETTY

Graphene unfolds
into nano-flowers

Ducklings dabble in
abstract thought
THERE once was a brainy duckling.
It could remember whether the
shapes or colours it saw just after
hatching were the same as each
other or different.
This feat surprised University
of Oxford researchers, who
initially doubted that ducklings
could grasp complex concepts
such as “same” and “different”.
The fact that they could do so
suggests that the ability to think
in an abstract way may be more
common in nature than we might
expect, and not just restricted to
humans and a handful of animals
with big brains.
Ducklings instinctively follow
the first things they see, usually
a mother and siblings. So Alex
Kacelnik and Antone Martinho
presented them with a pair of
objects that were either the
same or different in shape and
colour. Later, they offered the
ducklings the choice of following
combinations of “same”
or “different” objects.
Of the 113 ducklings in the
experiment, 77 trailed the
colour or shape pairing that
corresponded to the combination
of “same” or “different” they
were primed with after hatching
(Science, doi.org/bmk9).

Perfect harmony? It’s a matter of taste
THERE’S no such thing as a
nasty-sounding chord: it all
depends on what you’re used to.
The ancient Greeks discovered
that musical harmony seems to be
rooted in mathematics, and today we
know that many cultures worldwide
use mathematically neat chords.
But Josh McDermott at the
Massachusetts Institute of
Technology and his team have
evidence that a preference for
mathematically simple harmonies is
not innate. They played “consonant”
note combinations – such as perfect
fifths – and dissonant combinations,

which are not so mathematically
simple and sound harsher to Western
ears, to 160 people from the US and
Bolivia, and asked them to rate how
pleasant each one sounded.
The participants from the US
found consonant combinations
more pleasant than dissonant ones.
But people who belonged to the
Tsimane – a native Amazonian
society in Bolivia – showed no such
preference (Nature, doi.org/bmk3).
“The preference for consonance
over dissonance varied roughly in
line with the degree of exposure to
Western music,” says McDermott.

23 July 2016 | NewScientist | 15


ANALYSIS MENTAL HEALTH

Psychiatry’s last taboo
Assisted suicide for those who are not terminally ill is a complex issue, says Clare Wilson
campaign group Dignity in Dying.
Wootton points out that a 2007
independent survey found that
80 per cent of people supported
assisted dying for the terminally
ill, but only 43 per cent did for
those who are not terminally ill.
“If we see depression as an OK
reason to help someone kill
themselves, then why bother to
put rails on bridges for suicide
prevention?” says Drake.

TROELS GRAUGAARD/GETTY

Not taken lightly

LIKE many psychiatrists, Paulan
Stärcke sometimes sees patients in
such mental torment that they
have tried to kill themselves. Where
Stärcke differs is that occasionally,
after much discussion with the
patient, their family and other
doctors, she helps them to do it.
Stärcke prepares a lethal dose
of barbiturate sedatives, either in
the form of an injection or a
medicine that can be drunk. She
sits with her patient as they die
and, at the end, certifies their
death. She considers this her
final professional duty to them.
Stärcke practises in the
Netherlands, one of three
countries – along with Belgium
and Switzerland – that permit
16 | NewScientist | 23 July 2016

Stärcke says that accepting
assisted suicide for psychiatric
reasons in principle does not
mean that logically we should
cease all suicide prevention
efforts, because only a minority of
requests are granted. For instance,
in 2012 to 2013, only six out of
121 requests from people with a
psychological condition were
granted at the clinic where Stärcke
works. At a Belgian psychiatric
hospital, they granted 48 out of
100 requests, although only
35 people completed the act.
–Ethical minefieldThe decision is never taken
lightly. Psychiatrists must believe
there is a long-standing movement the person is mentally competent,
assisted suicide for non-terminal
to legalise assisted dying, although has had a long-standing wish to
illnesses that are causing
a high-profile bill was rejected by
unbearable suffering, which has
die and that there is no prospect
MPs last September. In the US,
been taken to include mental
of treatment. Typically they
such legislation is being
suffering. For many, this is a
have more than one psychiatric
considered by individual states,
step too far.
diagnosis, which may include
with five currently allowing it and depression and a personality
“This is not compassion –
a campaign to expand it to the rest. disorder.
it’s abandonment,” says Stephen
In the main, the UK and US
Drake of the US group Not Dead
“The suffering from a
Yet, which opposes assisted suicide. campaigners steer clear of any
psychiatric illness can be as
So how do doctors navigate
suggestion they want assisted
unbearable as the suffering from
this ethical minefield? Is mental
suicide approved for people who
a physical illness,” says Stärcke.
illness any less justifiable as a
are not terminally ill. “This is
But even so, and despite growing
reason for assisted suicide? Or is
where the public draws the line,”
campaigns for mental illnesses to
it a slippery slope?
says Sarah Wootton of the UK
be taken as seriously as physical
Switzerland was the first
ones, there remain some
country to permit assisted suicide, “The mind is a black box.
important differences between
We still don’t know enough psychiatry and other areas of
in 1942, and since then has been
to be able to say how a
joined by several other countries,
medicine that colour the debate.
condition will progress”
most recently Canada. In the UK
Unlike with most physical


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illnesses, there are no blood tests
or brain scans that can give
someone a definitive diagnosis
of a psychiatric problem. Also,
people with mental illnesses are
frequently given different
diagnoses at different points in
their life, and no one knows if that
means their first diagnosis was
wrong or their condition has
genuinely changed.
If someone is dying from cancer
or heart failure, their doctor can
make a reasonable prediction
about the course their illness will
take and roughly how long they
will live. Many people who go to
Dignitas, the Swiss organisation
for assisted dying, do so because
they have a degenerative
condition that they know will
leave them physically helpless.
By comparison, the mind is a
black box. We still don’t know
enough to be able to say how a
condition will progress.
The US government-funded
National Institutes of Health has
said that the whole system of
classifying mental illness is
flawed and needs to be based
more on neuroscience. It has
launched a major research effort
to base diagnosis and treatments
on the underlying problems at the
levels of genes, neurotransmitters
and brain circuits.
This project might lead to more
insights about who is likely to
recover from mental illness and
who isn’t, but it is many years
from bearing fruit. For now,
psychiatrists can only grant
requests of assisted suicide for
patients who have been at rock
bottom for years, or more usually
decades, and have exhausted all
potential remedies, such as
antidepressants and
electroconvulsive therapy.
Stärcke argues that the fact
someone is not terminally ill
means their situation could be
seen as even worse than if they
had just weeks to live. “The
unendingness can be unbearable,”
she says.
Dignitas says that for some
people, just having the option of

Reasons for not-living
Psychiatric conditions were the least-reported reason for euthanasia
or assisted suicide in the Netherlands in 2015
Cancer

4000

Other diseases

417

Nervous system disorders
Cardiovascular diseases

311
233

Lung diseases

207

Age-related diseases

183

Dementia
Psychiatric conditions

109
56
SOURCE: EUTHANASIECOMMISS E.NL

assisted suicide can help, even to
Along with religious groups,
the extent that they may choose
disability rights activists are the
not to take it. “It may sound
main campaigners against
paradoxical: in order to prevent
euthanasia and assisted suicide,
suicide attempts, one needs to say whether for those with mental or
‘yes’ to suicide,” the organisation
physical suffering. They believe
said last year in evidence to an
that legalising assisted dying
Australian inquiry into end-of“We are many years away
life choices.
from better understanding
If the patient does go ahead,
who is likely to recover
this is still preferable to most
from mental illness”
methods of suicide, says Stärcke.
“There’s a huge difference
between this and a violent, lonely, sends a message to people who
unplanned death,” she says.
are disabled, sick or elderly that
But Drake dismisses that
their lives are worthless, and they
argument as society being selfish. see people with psychiatric
“They’re talking about the mess.
illnesses as another such group
If we’re going to have suicide, let’s whose rights they must protect.
have it neat and tidy,” he says.
“If help is helping someone to die,

“It was inevitable”
A father whose daughter was granted her request
to die says it was the right decision for her
“IT WAS inevitable that she was going
to end her life – this was the best way.”
So says the father of Ellen, a Dutch
woman in her 30s, who was recently
granted her request for physicianassisted dying.
Ellen had several complex
psychiatric problems including a
personality disorder, depression and
post-traumatic stress disorder, after
being raped when she was 10. “She
was very unhappy,” says her father.
Ellen frequently cut herself and
made her first suicide attempt at 20.
There were so many others over the

years her father lost count. Several
times the police had to bring her home
after she had been spotted about to
attempt suicide.
Her father lived in dread, expecting
the police to knock on the door and
say she had finally done it. By the
time Ellen sought assisted suicide,
she had tried every treatment:
talking therapies, antidepressants,
electroconvulsive therapy. Nothing
helped long term.
Ellen chose to die at her family
home, with her parents and brother
and sister present. A doctor brought a

I don’t see that as help,” says
Dennis Queen of the UK branch
of Not Dead Yet. “For us, this is
about human rights.”
Even in the Netherlands, a
country with broadly liberal
attitudes, two-thirds of doctors
have difficulty accepting assisted
suicide for psychiatric reasons.
Stärcke works for a clinic called End
of Life, in The Hague, that provides
second opinions for people whose
request has been denied by their
doctor or psychiatrist.
Stärcke understands that some
of her colleagues do not feel
comfortable agreeing to requests
of assisted suicide for psychiatric
reasons, but calls for them to
make their views clear to patients.
If doctors aren’t transparent then
patients may make a request and
submit to a lengthy assessment
process, only to be turned down at
the end because their doctor
objects on moral grounds.
“Some psychiatrists would
rather not think about this because
they’re only human after all,” she
says. “What I do scares people.” ■
* Need a listening ear? UK
Samaritans: 08457 90 90 90
(samaritans.org). Visit bit.ly/
SuicideHelplines for hotlines
and websites for other countries.

drink containing barbiturates; she
drank it without hesitation, and the
family waited in silence until it took
effect. Within 5 minutes, Ellen was
unconscious. Within 20 she stopped
breathing.
Beforehand, her brother could not
help hoping that she would change
her mind – her father felt differently.
He expected that if she didn’t go
through with it, she would simply
attempt suicide by other means in
the following days. “It was very sad.
But we all agreed it was the right thing
for her. “ he says.
“I was so happy that the suffering
was over for her and we had a real
goodbye. It was the most acceptable
outcome in these difficult
circumstances. And we were happy
we could support her in her last
moments,” he says.
23 July 2016 | NewScientist | 17


COMMENT

Still evolving
The idea that modern humans have transcended the influence
of natural selection is crumbling, says John Hawks
NOT so long ago there was a
consensus on recent human
evolution, or the lack of it. The
belief was that culture had
elevated our species above
Darwin’s “hostile forces of
nature”, stopping natural
selection in its tracks 50,000
years ago. Today that view is
increasingly questioned.
Those who say selection has
ceased point to big gains in life
expectancy. However, to pass
on genes, people must not
only survive, but reproduce.
Differences in reproduction
are differences in fitness, in
the evolutionary sense.
This idea underpins a new
study by Jonathan Beauchamp
at Harvard University, looking
at genetic variants associated
with traits including educational
attainment (PNAS, doi.org/bmnn).
It suggests that natural selection
has been at work on US citizens

in the 20th century.
Beauchamp tapped into the
20,000-person-strong US Health
and Retirement Study, which
includes genetic information.
Looking at people born between
1931 and 1953, he found that in
men and women, educational
attainment was correlated with
having fewer children.
That much may seem obvious.
For a century, Americans have
foregone family size and early
child-rearing for more education –
part of what is known as the
demographic transition. What’s
new here is the link to genetics.
Educational attainment is not
strongly heritable, with genes
accounting for perhaps no more
than 20 per cent of the variation
in attainment. But Beauchamp
found that gene variants
predictive of attainment were
nearly as strongly predictive of
reduced reproduction.

Be afraid...
Alarm bells ring when we bust a global limit for
safe biodiversity loss, says Georgina Mace
AS EARTH’S population grows,
so too does our use of the land,
converted from its natural,
pre-human state to farms,
roads, quarries and more, with
an inevitable loss of species.
At what point does this threaten
the sustainability of society?
Scientists have speculated
about this for decades, but finally
18 | NewScientist | 23 July 2016

result of human impact, and
relate them to a revised planetary
biosphere boundary proposed
last year. It turns out that 10 per
cent of native species have gone
from over 58 per cent of all land.
Why worry about species loss?
There are moral and aesthetic
reasons, but here the focus
was species’ functional role –
sustaining plant growth rates,
for example, or nutrient cycling
and decomposition.
We know that many of these

it is possible to start answering
that question. A major study
published last week shed much
needed light on how we are doing
(Science, doi.org/10/bmnr). The
outcome should worry us all.
It analysed more than 2 million “The planetary boundary
records on around 39,000 species. may not be perfect… but
Researchers were able to work out we should still worry about
breaching it so widely”
changes at the local scale as a

roles are best maintained with
greater diversity of species, and
the global extinction rate is
estimated to be at least 100-fold
that of prehuman times. These
metrics underpinned the first
biodiversity boundary set in 2009.
That was revised last year to
reflect several factors: that the
global extinction rate does not
translate straightforwardly to the
local scale (it is local diversity that
is important), and that variety of
functional types of species may be
more vital than the total number.
How definitive is the new
snapshot? The findings are
slightly improved if non-native
species are included, while a less


For more opinion articles, visit newscientist.com/opinion

John Hawks is a professor of
anthropology at the University
of Wisconsin-Madison

precautionary approach suggests
biodiversity could dip more than
10 per cent before being unsafe.
On the other hand, the
situation may be worse, as some
of the most vital ecosystem
functions are in biomes where
data is sparse but sensitivity to
species loss may be very high,
such as tundra.
Clearly, we need to refine this
planetary boundary. But even if
it is not perfect, it is all we have,
and we should worry deeply
about breaching it so widely. ■
Georgina Mace is professor of
biodiversity and ecosystems at
University College London

INSIGHT Police shootings

LAURA BUCKMAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

He concluded that natural
selection was at work on those
variants, albeit slowly. Its impact
is equal to a decline in attainment
amounting to a month and a half
less school per generation, and is
swamped by other factors driving
up attainment at the same time.
Of course, Beauchamp’s study
only covers a limited sample of US
citizens. In addition, participants
could be women aged 45 or men
in their early 50s, which seems
too young to judge lifetime
reproduction. It’s also possible
that the number of grandchildren
or great-grandchildren is a better
measure of fitness.
However, it is not outlandish
to imagine that natural selection
may still be acting in this way,
given the pace of change. In 1940,
only a quarter of adults born in
the US finished high school. By
2000, this was nearly 90 per cent.
Our distant ancestors never
knew environments where it
made sense to delay reproduction
to reap the rewards of an
extended education. Education
policy may be doing more than
shaping tomorrow’s workforce.
It may be shaping the course of
our evolution. ■

–Protests are sweeping the US–

Smarterinterviewsmay
reduceracialtension
Conor Gearin

officers as a result. Too often, police
officers are sent out with insufficient
information.
The problem starts when
dispatchers don’t ask witnesses the
best questions, says Vickie Mays at
the University of California in Los
Angeles (UCLA). “We’re not priming
people to look for anything beyond
saying what the person’s skin colour is.”
People who have just seen a crime
don’t always know which details are
relevant. So asking closed questions
like: “Did the suspect have light or dark
skin?” doesn’t yield useful information.
It may even play a role in racial

THE US is boiling over. Protests are
sweeping the country after the latest
in a string of police shootings of black
men: Philando Castile in Minnesota
and Alton Sterling in Louisiana. Shortly
after, a sniper killed five police officers
in Dallas, reportedly telling police he
was targeting white officers. Three
more officers were killed in Baton
Rouge this week. In the wake of these
tragedies, debates are raging about
racial profiling and police brutality.
These huge, systemic problems
will require sweeping changes. But
there are smaller measures that, while
“We’re not priming people
they won’t stop the shooting, might
to look for anything
over time have far-reaching effects.
For example, why was Castile pulled beyond saying what the
person’s skin colour is”
over in the first place? According to
audio from the officer’s call to the
dispatcher, the description he had
profiling. According to a 2013 study by
been given was to look for a robbery
the US Department of Justice, police
suspect with a “wide-set nose”.
are 31 per cent more likely to stop
Much ink has been spilled over the
black drivers than white drivers and
role of police training and the extent
more than twice as likely to search
to which it affects behaviour and
them. Republican senator Tim Scott
attitudes. Less visible is the role of
recently described being pulled over
the person answering the phone
seven times in one year.
to emergency calls and dispatching
“What did the suspect look like?” can

elicit better information. Dispatchers
could follow up by asking witnesses to
focus on more specific characteristics –
speech patterns, jewellery, tattoos –
to give patrolling cops more to go on.
This open-question technique
forms part of a strategy called the
cognitive interview, pioneered by
Edward Geiselman also at UCLA.
Other tricks include asking the
witness to describe the scene first in
chronological order, then backwards,
which can trigger further recollections.
Geiselman and colleagues described
the technique in 1984. Field tests
showed that it held up: detectives using
cognitive interviews in Florida in 1989
and England in 1996 elicited 63 per
cent and 55 per cent more information
from witnesses, respectively.
But this method has limitations –
it may be difficult with an agitated
emergency caller on the line, and
some aspects are time consuming.
Still, elements of the technique
could help. Dispatchers could be
trained to talk to callers in a way
designed to calm them and prime
them for more accurate recall.
No one has yet studied whether
the cognitive interview can specifically
rein in racial profiling. Still, anything
that provides better information can
hopefully help lessen the effects of
institutional racism. Better interviews
won’t stop people dying, but if
institutional racism arises one decision
at a time, perhaps it is vulnerable to
death by a thousand cuts. ■
23 July 2016 | NewScientist | 19


ILAN WALD, TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY

TECHNOLOGY
Walter Reed Army Institute of
Research – the US Department
of Defense’s largest biomedical
research facility – and the US
National Institutes of Health.
They then asked 719 Israeli
soldiers to play the game in four,
10-minute sessions, as part of an
advanced training programme.
In July 2014, 14 months later, the
same troops were involved in
the Israel-Gaza conflict. The team
measured symptoms of PTSD
in the four months following
combat. They found that after
50 days of intense fighting, only
2.6 per cent of the soldiers who
had played the game developed
PTSD compared with 7.8 per cent
of their peers (Psychological
Medicine, doi.org/bmk6).

–Zoning in–

Brain training for troops
Soldiers in Israel will soon be playing a brain-training game to prevent
PTSD as part of their combat training, says Oded Carmeli
THE Israeli army has announced
not the first time a game has
that by the end of the year all
been shown to tackle PTSD.
new infantry soldiers will play
A 2015 study showed that playing
a computer game designed to
Tetris after a traumatic experience
prevent post-traumatic stress
could prevent the onset of
disorder. The US military is also
flashbacks. But the new game
reported to be testing the game.
seems to work differently.
Blocking out the details of a
The game itself is simple.
traumatic event is thought to be
Players must press a key whenever
one of the causes of PTSD. The
game is designed to train soldiers “Soldiers who did not pay
attention to threats on a
not to do this.
computer screen were at
“On a psychological level,
greater risk of PTSD”
a soldier that does not process
threats in real time is more likely
to develop PTSD later on in life,”
a dot appears on the screen next
says Yair Bar-Haim at Tel Aviv
to one of two images. One of the
University. “Flashbacks,
images is always threatening –
overstimulation and an attempt
angry faces and negative words
to avoid anything that resembles
like “explosions” and “wounded”–
the traumatic experience are all
and the other neutral.
results of the inability to properly
The game is based on previous
process events as they unfold.”
work by Colin MacLeod at the
The roll-out is based on the
University of Western Australia,
game’s success in a small trial. It’s who was one of the first to use
20 | NewScientist | 23 July 2016

such a game to test for attentional
biases in people with anxiety
disorders. People react more
quickly to dots that appear next
to images they are already looking
at, he says. So, if someone is
slower at responding to dots near
threatening images, it suggests
they are avoiding them.
Bar-Haim adds a twist. Rather
than testing for bias against
threatening images, his game
trains soldiers to focus on them.
That’s because preliminary
work in 2008, which tracked
infantry soldiers from basic
training to deployment, “found
that soldiers who did not pay
attention to potential threats on
a computer screen were at greater
risk of developing PTSD after
actual combat”, Bar-Haim says.
To develop the technique, BarHaim teamed up with the Israel
Defense Forces’ Medical Corps, the

No boosters
That a single round of training
showed an effect after 14 months
is surprising, says Bar-Haim.
“Given the nature of the training
we thought it might be necessary
to provide booster sessions
imminently prior to combat,”
he says. “However, the effects are
deep and basic.”
Bar-Haim says that the training
procedure targets a very specific
neuro-functional system involved
in threat monitoring – and that
neuroimaging shows that such
training, even if brief, can induce
changes in both brain structure
and function. “More research is
needed to elucidate the
underlying mechanisms of
change in our preventative
intervention,” he says.
MacLeod thinks the results are
exciting. The value of such
cognitive training could extend
across a wide range of situations
where people are exposed to
traumatic events, he says.
However, there may be longterm consequences of
heightening a person’s attention
to threats, he warns – especially
when soldiers return to civilian
life. “Perhaps the training should
be reversed once deployment has
been completed.” ■


SIRI STAFFORD/GETTY

For more technology stories, visit newscientist.com/technology

FIELD NOTES Daejeon, South Korea

House-training Hubo
What’s next for the winner of the world’s toughest robot challenge?
At an event like the DARPA Robotics
Challenge, teams of engineers spent
days preparing their robots just to get
them to function for a few minutes.
Oh wants Hubo to be different.
He has been tweaking it continuously,
making it more reliable. He has written
accessible instruction manuals. And he
has addressed the problem of storage:

Hal Hodson

HAL HODSON

THE last time I saw Hubo, it was
zipping around an assault course on
wheeled knees and hacking through
walls with a saw. Today, its 80
kilograms hang lifeless from a bright
yellow gantry, arms limp by its sides.
It’s been a year since Hubo won
the DARPA Robotics Challenge – the
“Unlike other robot
hardest robotics competition ever
demos, I’m standing right
staged – and I’ve come to the Korean
next to Hubo. There is no
Institute for the Advancement of
safety harness”
Science and Technology to catch up
with Hubo and its creator Jun-Ho Oh.
Oh has been busy, getting his lifeHubo can be taken apart into five
size humanoid robot ready for an even pieces and packed away into suitcases.
tougher challenge: making the leap
Some of Oh’s team winch Hubo
from assault course to your home.
down from the gantry and switch it
An unassuming single-storey
on. They guide its feet to the floor and,
construction, Building N9, houses one with the click of a mouse, instruct it to
of the most advanced robotics labs in
the world. Inside, there are monitors
everywhere, buckets filled with bolts,
and reams of cabling. In a side room,
Hubo clones stand around in varying
stages of completion. Some are just
legs, wires and metal joints poking
out of robot hips.
Since winning the competition,
Oh’s spin-off company Rainbow Robots
has been churning out Hubos for the
international market. Most recently,
it has shipped four to labs in the US.
Now the company is working on
consumer robots, including domestic
and medical models. And this means
making Hubo simple enough for
anyone to operate.
Robots like Big Dog, made by US
firm Boston Dynamics, create buzz.
They are flashy, scary and look good
in promo videos. “These days there
are many fancy robots,” says Oh. “But
can they be used by normal people,
without a team of engineers?”
Typically not. Robots are still
specialist playthings. They go wrong
often and need debugging constantly.

walk over a path strewn with rubble.
Hubo walks slowly and steadily, like a
human would if their life depended
on stepping in exactly the right spot.
Then Oh hands me a thick beam
of wood as long as my leg. “Hold that
right at the end,” he says. “It’s difficult,
isn’t it?” I pass the beam to Hubo,
who grasps it at the other end, then
twists its wrist through 360 inhuman
degrees, wielding the wood like a
sword. “He’s strong,” says Oh.
Unlike other robot demos I’ve seen,
I’m standing right next to Hubo. There
is no safety harness. Such is Oh’s
confidence in Hubo’s reliability.
Oh chuckles as I grasp Hubo’s
outstretched manipulator and shake
it. In years of writing about robots,
this is the first time I have ever
properly met one. ■

–No laughing matter–

Hundreds of skulls
sold on eBay for
up to $5500

HERE’S a heads-up: don’t shop for
skulls on eBay. Over seven months,
a team at the Louisiana Department of
Justice in Baton Rouge tracked human
skulls being advertised on the site and
found that 237 people listed 454
skulls, with opening bids ranging from
one cent to $5500. Following the
release of their findings, eBay has
banned sales of all human body parts
except hair.
It’s hard to tell where the skulls
were sourced. Not all were donated
to science, the team suspects –
some are probably archaeological
specimens or from forensic
investigations, for example.
Tanya Marsh at Wake Forest
University in Winston Salem, North
Carolina, thinks that many could have
originated from India and China.
Although both countries have now
banned the export of human remains,
Marsh suspects that many imported
skeletons could still be on the US
market. “We should have strong moral
problems with that,” she says, as it’s
not clear how old each skeleton is and
a visual inspection can’t reveal much
either. “It’s possible that some of them
are disinterred human remains.”
A US law bans the sale of Native
American remains, but there is no
other federal restriction on the sale
of human skulls online. Tightening
up the law might not help as it could
divert the trade to less visible
–Meet the robot champion– locations on the web. Conor Gearin ■
23 July 2016 | NewScientist | 21


ONE PER CENT

TECHNOLOGY

Help, my yard’s a Pokéstop
Pokémon Go‘s success raises tricky questions, says Aviva Rutkin

22 | NewScientist | 23 July 2016

as the Auschwitz-Birkenau
and the author of Augmented
Memorial and Museum, and the
Reality Law, Privacy and Ethics.
Holocaust Memorial Museum in
“Digital objects aren’t really
Washington DC.
there,” he says. “You might see
“We do not consider playing
Pokémon on your little screen
‘Pokémon Go’ to be appropriate
portrayed as if they’re in the
decorum on the grounds of ANC.
middle of a street or in the
We ask all visitors to refrain from
middle of a park, but all you’re
such activity,” tweeted the
seeing is data that’s stored in a
Arlington National Cemetery, a
server somewhere, displayed
US military cemetery in Virginia.
on your phone.”
The game has brought to the
Instead, displeased parties
fore a number of once-speculative might find more success focusing
questions about augmented
“Past court cases have
reality. Past court cases have
debated the physical
debated the physical boundaries
boundaries of property –
of property, from the air above to
the dirt below – what about digital what about digital ones?”
boundaries?
You do not have a right to any
on the impact the game has in the
of the virtual space in and around physical world. Repeated visitors
your home, says Brian Wassom, a
can cause a nuisance, interfering
commercial litigator in Michigan
with the owner’s right to enjoy
their property and perhaps giving
them the grounds for a lawsuit.
And trespassers are still liable
to be arrested, even if they just
clambered into your backyard to
get a little closer to a rare snorlax.
In addition, there’s a potential
case for negligence if a company
doesn’t act on a problem that their
augmented reality game has
created, says Emily McReynolds,
programme director of the Tech
Policy Lab at the University of
Washington. Designers might take
a hint from virtual message board
Yik Yak. After numerous bullying
incidents, it put up “geofences” to
block access in and around schools.
“I think in cases like this,
lawsuits are very likely,” she says.
“The question is whether or not
they would be successful.”
Niantic, the software company
behind Pokémon Go, has already
proven responsive to concerns,
she adds, and it’s in the best
interests of the firm to work out
issues ahead of time rather than
–A wild tram appeared!– see them go to court. ■

Wireless wounds
Now that cut on your arm has
a voice. A new thread has been
developed for stitching wounds
that can relay data to doctors
about the state of an injury.
The thread can gather pressure,
stress, strain and temperature
information to create a picture of
how a wound is healing. Its
developers, at Tufts University in
Boston, tested it on rats, beaming
data wirelessly to a computer
or phone.

20
The average number of
messages sent before a
phone number is exchanged
between people on online
dating apps

Safety overseas
Microsoft does not have to hand
over data held on servers in
Ireland in response to search
warrants from US authorities.
The ruling, made at the Court of
Appeals for the Second Circuit in
New York, is a big moment for
the application of privacy rights
under the rules of the country
where personal data resides,
limiting the reach of government
data collection.

C.LYTTLE/FUSE/GETTY

MUHAMMED ENES YILDIRIM/ANADOLU AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES

GOTTA catch ‘em all – but not
in my backyard.
Since Pokémon Go’s release on
6 July, the augmented reality app
has become a smash hit. Players
walk around hunting for hidden
monsters superimposed on the
world around them, and visiting
real-life locations tagged as stops
or gyms in the game. So far, it has
been downloaded an estimated
15 million times.
But all this enthusiasm has led
to more than a few uncomfortable
interactions in the real world.
A police station in Australia asked
people to stop coming in to visit a
Pokéstop – a place where free items
can be found. Homeowners have
had players loitering outside their
property day and night. Others
were aghast when Pokémon began
showing up at sensitive sites such


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