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hether we choose to
admit it or not, we are all
natural born deceivers.
From casual ‘white lies’ to
major deceptions, lying
is a huge part of daily life. With research
suggesting that children as young as
two are capable of spontaneous lying, it
appears that we hone this skill very early
on in our development. Page six of our
latest issue sees Naomi Stewart explore
why we may have evolved to tell porkies.
Has being deceptive actually given us an
We live in a culture where almost
half of married people get divorced.
Many of these marriages, some figures
suggest as many as one third, end because
of infidelity. On page 22, Daniel R Silva
discusses the science behind this form of
deception – why do people cheat on their
partners? Deception doesn’t just occur
within relationships though; some lies
occur on a vast scale and have far reaching
societal implications. From the MMR
vaccine scandal to fabricated stem cell
research in Korea, Anita Chandran walks
us through some of the biggest deceptions
that have occurred within the scientific
community on page 20.
Sometimes the most profound lies
are the one that we tell ourselves. Erin
Frick and Katie Haylor delve into the
science behind self-deception across
pages 26 and 27, discussing the benefits
and (potentially life-threatening) costs
of believing our own lies. Pages 10 and
11 focus on the placebo effect, and how
this form of deception could help prevent
widespread antibiotic resistance.
Deception goes far beyond the
human world. Every day, animals rely
on trickery to survive, whether utilising
camouflage to hide from predators, or
finding innovative ways to capture prey.
From patterned butterflies (page five)
to ‘kidnapping’ sea otters and cheeky
Drongo Birds (pages eight-nine), this issue
explores the weird and wonderful ways
in which animals deceive one another to
Until the next issue,
Harry and Greta
I, Science is a publication of the Science Communication Unit, Centre
for Languages, Culture and Communication, Imperial College London.
However, it is a student publication, and as such the views expressed in
I, Science do not reflect the views of the Unit, Centre or College.
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News | 4
Sarah Cowen-Rivers covers the latest news from
mosquito eradication to cutting-edge ageing research.
Lies Lies Lies | 6
Naomi Stewart explains why telling fibs may give us an
5 | Nature's smartest decEIvers
Rosemary Cafferkey investigates one of nature’s most
beautiful tricksters, the humble butterfly.
8 | TOP SIX
Cheyenne McCray introduces some of the greatest
deceivers in the animal kingdom.
The Placebo Effect | 10 12 | Forge Me Not
Sarah Cowen-Rivers and Sophie Hull explore the famed
phenomenon that has mystified scientists since its
discovery over 200 years ago.
Alexandra Cauvi explores how science and art work
together to discern masterpieces from masterful
Science Behind the Photo | 14 16 | Shkrewing Over Sick People
Photographic hoax: Angels Codina tells the story of two
famous Catalan artists.
Jamie Brown questions the ethics of the pharmaceutical
industry, and of a business model built around profiting
from the sick.
Unnatural History | 17 18 | Now you see it...
From mermaids to ape-men, natural history is cluttered
with hoaxes. Shane Morris takes a look.
We usually trust what we can see, but it turns out the
eyes are easily fooled. Samuel Lickiss investigates the
science behind optical illusions.
History of Scientific Scams | 20 22 | Let's talk about monogamy
Despite their reputation for veracity, scientists have
proved responsible for some elaborate hoaxes. Anita
Chandran examines where it all went wrong.
Monogamy: a key ingredient to a successful
relationship, or an unnatural expectation? Daniel R
'Breaker! Breaker!' | 23 24 | Speedy Science
Hilary Lamb dives into the complex world of
cryptography. How do we use technology to disguise
our most secret messages?
Olivia Philipps takes a look at the various ways our
senses deceive us.
Self-Deception: Friend or Foe? | 26 28 | Catch me if you Can!
Erin Frick illustrates the benefits of self-deception,
whilst Katie Haylor examines just how dangerous our
delusions can be.
Marianne Guenot and Cian Duggan explore how
microbes fool the immune systems of humans and
plants – only the strongest will survive...
Renovating Cold War Science | 30 31 | Reviews
Samuel Lickiss interviews Dr Colin Connolly on how
deceptive war technology gave birth to his life-saving
Our latest book and event reviews
osquitos have plagued humanity
for years, infecting us with
dengue fever, malaria, and
a multitude of other killer
diseases. In light of the declaration of the
mosquito-transmitted Zika virus as a global
emergency by the World Health Organisation,
serious questions have been raised as to whether
mosquitos should be wiped out for good. The
pesky insects have not been shown to have any
large significance in the food chain – outside
of their roles as pollinators and the occasional
meal for birds – and some researchers have
theorised that if we were to eradicate them,
another insect would likely take their place in
the food chain. However, some scientists warn
that a potentially more dangerous blood-sucker
may take its place, which could cause even
bigger problems for human health – so don’t
throw away your repellents just yet!
Illustration: Javier Devilman
Reigning In GMO’s With
ne of the arguments against
genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) is that scientists cannot
guarantee that the genes of the
modified organisms won’t spread
to different species, with potentially harmful
Sarah Cowen-Rivers covers the latest news.
Sarah Cowen-Rivers is studying for an MSc in Science Communication.
consequences. To tackle the issue, scientists at
the University of Texas have created bacteria
which can only survive if they have access to
an amino acid that is not found naturally. To do
this, they altered the genes of the bacteria which
were associated with antibiotic resistance so
that only an unnatural amino acid would ‘fit’
into a newly modified protein, necessary for the
bacteria to gain resistance. This could prevent
genetically modified bacteria and potentially
other organisms from ‘running wild’, as they
won’t be able to survive without access to
unnatural amino acids.
The Future of Language
According to Twitter
cience really does leave no stone
unturned, even when it comes
to analysing the rise of the
phrase ‘on fleek’ – which means
being perfect or ‘on point’, in case you aren’t
down with the kids. Researchers at Lancaster
University have developed a software which
scans websites for new phrases and language
in a bid to predict how the internet is changing
the way we communicate with one another.
To carry out this analysis, the team created
algorithms which chart popular words using
the research of lexicographers and then used
it to analyse 22 million words on Twitter and
Reddit. Just as a heads up, they predict that
words such as bootyful will be cyw (‘coming
your way’) – another popular word picked up by
the Netherlands have predicted a 60% global
decrease in electricity production from power
plants between the years 2040-2069. This is
due to a reduction in water availability, as well
as an increase in water temperatures, which
will have devastating consequences on hydro
and thermoelectric power generation. The
researchers suggest that before the year 2040
comes around, we must move away from coal to
more efficient gas-fired power plants, leaving us
less vulnerable to the projected effects of global
First ‘Counting’ Plant
f it wasn’t weird enough that
the Venus Flytrap plant eats
insects, researchers have now
discovered that it uses a counting
mechanism to do so accurately. The team at the
University of Würzburg, Germany, found that
the plant uses its inner hair-like structures to
pick up on electrical pulses caused by the touch
of an insect. However, it will only close its jawlike trap if it detects two electrical signals in
the space of 20 seconds. The researchers also
found that the more hairs that are stimulated
once the plant has captured its prey, the more
digestive enzymes the plant releases – a cunning
tactic used to judge how much digestive fluid is
needed based on insect size. This suggests that
the plant records how many signals have been
triggered and then forgets it after a set time,
essentially re-tuning the counting mechanism.
Tough luck, flies!
Climate Change Puts
Electricity at Risk
ust what we needed – another
negative effect of global
warming rearing its ugly head.
This time, it concerns electricity.
Researchers at Wageningen University in
utterflies might appear to be simple, ethereal insects, but don’t be fooled – they are secretly masters of disguise.
From eyespots to mimicry, the markings on butterfly wings serve important functions that range from warning of their toxicity to
attracting mates. Although butterfly markings vary vastly, the way they forge these markings is always the same. Every pattern is a
technicoloured mosaic of microscopic scales. These scales are coloured by fractured pigments, which alter the wavelength of reflected
light to produce a rainbow of iridescence.
Birds, spiders, wasps, mice, slugs and many other animals eat butterflies, so deceiving these predators is particularly important for their survival.
Hiding in plain sight
Eyespots like those of the Peacock Butterfly serve multiple functions.
In contrast, the aptly named Zebra Mosaic Butterfly’s geometric black
They can trick smaller predators like mice into thinking they are owls.
and white swirls may seem like a terrible idea for an animal trying to
They also act as decoys, encouraging birds to attack only the tips of their
disguise itself. Like the black and white ‘dazzle camouflage’ used by
wings and not their more vital body parts.
naval fleets during the Second World War, these markings break up
Birds generally attack the head first to ensure that their prey
the shape of the wing, making the size and direction of travel
doesn’t escape. Under low light conditions, the contrast on a
difficult for predators to determine. Studies have shown
butterfly’s wing markings is greater than that of
even a simple pale band of colour on darker
their eyes, so birds will attack these spots
wings creates the illusion of false boundaries.
instead. Butterflies have no feeling
This strategy is known as ‘disruptive
or circulation in their wings, which
can still fly perfectly well even
when damaged. Eyespots
effective in the early
It’s not just adult
birds are most
are experts in
actively foraging and
Caterpillars of the
are still too
cool for flight,
whilst their chrysalises
Rosemary Cafferkey investigates
one of nature’s most beautiful tricksters,
The most callous butterfly
the humble butterfly.
Instead of decoy markings,
trickster is the caterpillar of the
many butterflies use camouflage
Large Blue, which imitates the
to blend in with their surroundings.
noise made by a queen ant as
For example, the Indian Leaf Wing
well as the chemical scent of ant
Butterfly looks just like a dead leaf, complete
larvae. Upon finding a caterpillar, the
with spots of mould and worm holes. However, a
gullible ants take it back to their nest and feed it,
flutter of its wings reveals an exuberantly coloured
where the sly caterpillar scoffs ant larvae until it is
blue and orange butterfly. This contrast is an interesting example of a
ready to pupate… and you thought cuckoos were bad!
compromise in the evolutionary trade-off between natural selection
The selective pressure of predation at every stage of a butterfly’s
(avoiding being eaten) and sexual selection (finding a mate). Famous
development has rendered disguise an absolute necessity. Their
naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace used this example to support the
deceptive mechanisms have evolved over 45 million years, and are part
theory of evolution.
of the reason over 20,000 species of butterflies exist across the world
Camouflage as a leaf might seem like the ultimate act of
concealment, but the Glass Wing Butterfly has a better
Unfortunately for the wonderful butterfly, human activities are
disguise. The ‘invisible man’ of the butterfly world, this
changing the niche environments to which these adaptations are so
diminutive insect has no scales on its
finely tuned. At the current rate, it won’t be long until they’re rendered
wings, making it completely translucent
– even in captivity they are almost
impossible to spot.
Rosemary Cafferkey is studying for an MSc in Science Communication.
PhotoS: DIDIER DESCOUENS
LIES LIES LIES...
did not have sexual relations with
that woman,” then-President
Bill Clinton proclaimed on live
television. Each drawling word
was punctuated with a pause for effect, his
index finger wagging in perfect unison.
reality be beneficial?
as we know them are found.
Lying is just one of the many behaviours of
deception which are common throughout
the natural world. Four levels of increasingly
complex deceptions include:
Of course we all know now that he had had
sexual relations with that woman. Even as one of
the world’s most prominent figures at the time,
Bill Clinton told a lie. Lies can be considered as
the intention to deceive others for a perceived
benefit, and in fact, all humans lie to varying
degrees and intensities.
Programmed false appearance: Camouflage
or false markings. For example, some moths
and butterflies have wings that look like owls
eyes when they open.
The intensity of a lie can range from ‘white lies’
which are of minimal impact – and can even
be beneficial to others – to extensive, complex
manipulation like embezzlement or war crimes.
Their expression can range from spoken lies or
obfuscated truths to lies of omission, and can
also include body behaviour.
Eighteenth century German philosopher
Immanuel Kant was famously opposed to
lying in any scenario: “By a lie a man throws
away and, as it were, annihilates his dignity as
a man.” Many others have postulated that lies
are entirely detrimental to the liar, the lied-to,
and society at large, especially as it removes the
ability for consent and to make fully informed
decisions. Still, the perception of lying as
qualitatively good or bad has no firm moral
answer, and despite its taboo social nature,
it exists in all cultures throughout human
history – from the Trojan Horse of the Greeks
to the modern-day student cheating in an exam.
Lying, it appears, is part of human nature.
At the core of it, we all know why we lie – to
conceal the truth and present an alternate
scenario that we believe is somehow better.
Some surveys reveal that most people lie by
omission very frequently, and tell up to two ‘big’
lies daily. If you think about it honestly, you will
realise you have probably already done it today.
“I ran five kilometres this morning!” (we both
know it was only three and a half). But how
and why has this belief evolved? Why would
a periodic yet pervasive misrepresentation of
Programmed false behaviour: Involuntary
deception requiring external triggers. For
example, some birds feign injury to attract
attention when a predator is near their young.
This tricks the predator into moving away from
the vulnerable chicks towards the healthy adult,
that can fly away when the predator gets too
Learned false behaviour: Behaving a certain
way having learned that it elicits certain
responses. For example, some dogs fake injury
because they have learned that it invokes a
sympathetic human response. This behaviour
is reinforced by positive stimuli, typically food
Learned planned deception: Conscious
attempts to manipulate others’ beliefs and
actions. Chimpanzees and baboons do this at
a simple level whilst humans carry out learned
planned deceptions at more highly functioning
and complex levels.
The last two levels both involve what some
psychologists refer to as ‘Machiavellian’ skill
or intelligence – the capacity to think about
others’ responses when deciding how to act,
and factor those responses into your decision.
However, it is only in the fourth level where ‘lies’
Research into the evolution of lying in humans
has largely been around the spectrum and
causes of deliberately planned deception. Much
research has also focussed on the circumstances
surrounding when and why people lie, and
to what extent; it is a heterogeneous and
fascinating field of causality. The propensity
to lie is tied to factors like gender, culture,
age, and genetics, which vary widely among
the population. For example, women are less
likely to lie than men if the lie comes at a great
cost to someone else, and are more likely to lie
altruistically. They are also less likely to lie than
men for smaller economic gains, but lie just as
much when it comes to ‘big wins’. However,
regardless of gender, the closer someone feels
to another person the less likely they are to lie
overall, even for large economic gains.
The act of lying itself requires fairly complex
cognitive functions that so far only humans and
certain primates possess. Biologically speaking,
this makes sense; increased abilities to
understand and manipulate the world require
increased neural processing (to create the ‘story’
of the lie and have cognitive space to store the
memory of the lie), and are therefore only
found in organisms with the capacity for such.
Indeed, recent data show that the frequency
of deception is directly related to the size of
the neocortex – a section of the mammalian
brain that evolved relatively recently and
Naomi Stewart explains why telling fibs may give us an evolutionary edge.
which processes, amongst other things, conscious thought,
language, and reasoning.
It has been estimated that half of the lies humans
tell are to secure a greater amount of resources. By
pretending to be more friendly or in need than
they actually are, people can acquire resources,
for example, pretending to have an emergency to
scam vulnerable elderly people into handing over
money. People could also feign flirtation or flattery,
seducing potential partners – if they play their
cards right, this behaviour increases their chances
of reproduction and thus biological fitness.
Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers argued that
selection pressures actually favour ‘subtle cheaters’
over those who are cheated on, indicating that the
behaviour of lying is an inherited evolutionary trait,
not just a learned behaviour. In a later study on
identical twins, he also found that genetic
models were actually better predictors for
lying behaviour than environmental
Despite this, it has not been determined
intelligence arose in the evolution of
higher primates. Some researchers
have argued that denial and selfdeception evolved necessarily for us
to knowingly process and navigate the
complexity of the world. Researchers at New
York State University suggest that this sense of unity
as a coping strategy is really a deception or illusion,
in that it imposes perceived order. Thus, the biology of
deception has been “an important development leading
to man as a cognitive creative being.”
Therefore, though we can see and experience
the negative effects of lying, and certainly
dislike when it happens to us or when we
are discovered in the act (Bill Clinton ended
up being charged with a crime and impeached for his
infamous lie!), it is a double-edged sword in which
there are and have been many practical evolutionary
benefits. At the biological level, if lying allows you to
acquire more resources for yourself and increase
your biological fitness, you are more likely to
survive and pass on your genes - which is essential
for life on earth. Being able to manipulate your
environment and the responses and actions
of others around you through lying does seem
to favour increased abilities to prosper in and
navigate our world, even if it comes at the price of
being caught or exposed.
Moral quandaries aside, lying is not going away any
time soon. Besides, did it serve any purpose to know
what Bill was up to? Do we always want to know what
people are thinking? Could we even imagine an oversimplified, algorithmic world in which there is no
option but to always tell the truth?
It seems that perhaps the best way forward
is to understand and find practical uses
for this naturally evolved and periodically
advantageous behaviour, both as individuals
and societies. What that involves, however,
may very well continue to be up to our own
cost-benefit analyses and decisions about
what is optimally beneficial in the end. So,
maybe run all five kilometres, but
leave the concealment of infidelity
to the political elite.
Naomi Stewart is
studying for an
MSc in Science
Illustration: James Marno
Male Sea Otters
Off the coast of Southern California, male sea otters prey on the maternal instincts
of females to attain food – by ‘kidnapping’. While female otters are out scavenging
for food, leaving their young nearby, the male approaches, takes the baby and holds
it hostage. Hearing her baby’s cries, the female otter returns, food in mouth, but
the male does not let the baby go until he is given the food, at times going as far as
nearly drowning the pup. All for a morsel of food!
Praying mantises that have evolved to look like flowers in the wild invoke a
behaviour known as ‘aggressive mimicry’ – a type of camouflage that allows
predators to appear harmless to their prey. Found in the warm climates of South
Asia and Africa, a flower mantis perches motionlessly on twigs or tall plant
stems until an insect gets close enough for capture. It also uses this as a defence
mechanism when its own predators approach.
Grey squirrels use decoys to drive competitors away from their food supplies.
As squirrels are natural ‘scatter hoarders’ – storing food in various hiding spots
throughout an area rather than just one central source – they tend to bury their
food in the ground. However, if a squirrel notices another squirrel watching it, it
will only pretend to bury its nuts in that area. Even so, it goes through the entire
digging process and fills the hole with random debris. The squirrel then departs,
nuts safely in mouth, leaving the other squirrel wasting time digging in the wrong
area. Grey squirrels mostly live in the United States of America and more recently
in the United Kingdom.
IllustrationS: WENDY LING-HSUAN WANG
Cheyenne McCray introduces some of the greatest deceivers in the animal kingdom.
Monkeys in the popular tourist areas of Indonesia have developed a mechanism of
deception that is not of another animal, but of humans. In heavily populated streets
filled with food stalls, these monkeys have grasped the concept of bartering in lieu
of stealing food. Watching tourists carefully, the animal quickly approaches them,
taking their phones, or sunglasses. Not running very far out of reach, it perches
on a nearby ledge with the item in hand, waiting for the owner to approach. It
only drops the item when presented with desired ransom – usually high-protein
Found in the Americas, Burrowing Owls live underground in deep burrows
instead of in trees. In order to feed their young, female Burrowing Owls collect
mammal dung and drop it near their nests. Insects, spiders and other small
creatures are attracted to the smell of dung and migrate towards the burrows.
One by one, the owl pecks them up, feeding them to her young. She spends
most of her day collecting these vermin for her offspring.
Compared to other animals, the Drongo Bird – common to areas of South Africa –
runs more of a long-con game of deception. It does not simply deceive other animals
upon first meeting, but gains their trust beforehand. Throughout most of the year,
the Drongo acts as a ‘watch bird’ for meerkats and other species of birds. When it
sees a potential threat, it chirps a call and the animals retreat to safety, forming
a symbiotic relationship. However, during the colder months in South Africa,
when food is harder to come by, the Drongo chirps the danger call when there is
no potential threat, only to swoop down seconds later and eat the food left on the
ground. The meerkats can only be fooled so many times by this false call though, so
the Drongo can also imitate the danger-call of another meerkat to make them flee.
Cheyenne McCray is studying for an MSc in Science Communication
The Placebo Effect:
Sarah Cowen-Rivers and Sophie Hull explore the famed phenomenon that has
mystified scientists since its discovery over 200 years ago.
What is the
here is a treatment that has
the ability to relieve pain, treat
depression and even Parkinson’s
disease, among countless other
ailments. This treatment has been around
for hundreds of years, and has proved to be
consistently effective. Any idea what it is?
The placebo has been used since the 18th century
as a way of measuring how effective a new
treatment is. A pivotal aspect of clinical trials,
it allows researchers to rule out the positive
effect that taking a drug has on your mind, no
matter how chemically effective that drug is.
This has been dubbed ‘the placebo effect,’ and
has continued to baffle scientists since it was
A prominent placebo researcher, Dr. Fabrizio
Benedetti, was able to show just how peculiar
the placebo effect really is. After inducing pain in
participants for seven days whilst treating them
with morphine, Benedetti secretly switched
the pain medication to salt water. Luckily for
him, the participants’ reports of pain went
unchanged. Then things got weirder. Benedetti
didn’t want to stop there, so he gave the
participants a morphine blocker and, bizarrely,
the participants found that their pain returned,
suggesting a form of biochemical reaction to the
salt water placebo.
This story is merely one of many extraordinary
instances in which the power of the placebo
effect has been exposed. Other cases include
sham surgical treatments, where patients are
treated as if they are about to undergo major
surgery up to the first incision being made,
which is as far as the surgery goes. This has been
shown to be as effective as having a full surgical
procedure for knee problems, as well as back
and heart pains.
Though this all may sound promising, with
the placebo effect comes the ‘nocebo effect’,
where things can really get ugly. The nocebo
effect flips this already strange phenomenon
in reverse: negative symptoms that arise if the
brain expects them. One of the more extreme
cases involved a group of Hmong men dying in
their sleep after reports of nightmares, which is
thought to be due to their cultural belief in
night spirits. The nocebo effect could also
explain the increasing numbers of people
who have diagnosed themselves as gluten
intolerant, or even the outbreaks of mass
fainting which occur all over the world.
So how does the brain manage to deceive
the body? So far, researchers have
identified a series of steps that culminate
in the placebo effect. It starts before
the placebo has even been given, as the
prospect of having a treatment alone
reduces anxiety, which has a positive
effect on our ability to heal. Secondly, the
neurotransmitter dopamine – associated
with rewarding experiences such as
eating and drinking – is released when
we are in a hospital setting or have faith
in our doctor, bringing with it a host of
benefits to the body. Thirdly, humans have
been conditioned to respond positively to
medical treatments throughout our lives,
the effect of which is so strong that even
ingesting a pill or simply going to the
doctors can have the same effect as taking
medication. This includes the negative side
effects that can come with medication – hence
the existence of the nocebo effect.
With the power of the placebo effect
strengthening as modern pharmaceuticals
advance further and further, the need
to understand more about this natural
phenomenon is widely acknowledged amongst
the scientific community. Although, perhaps it
is our naivety which is the very thing keeping it
Sarah Cowen-Rivers is studying for an MSc
in Science Communication..
Answer to the
Could placebos calm the average
hypochondriac and reduce antibiotic
ne of the most urgent concerns
within modern medicine is
that of antibiotic resistance.
Although well publicised, many
fail to fully appreciate the severity of such an
imminent threat — the consequences would
be devastating. Illnesses that we today consider
trivial are likely to become increasingly difficult
to cure. With this in mind, the number of deaths
currently caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria
exceeds 700,000 worldwide – a figure that is
only expected to rise as resistance increases
A principal contributor to antibiotic resistance
has been the improper and repeated
administration of antibiotic drugs, providing
bacteria with ample exposure to develop
resistance. To decrease antibiotic resistant
bacteria from emerging further, the use of
antibiotics must be drastically limited.
However, in limiting the use of antibiotics,
many GPs have lost the favour and trust of
their patients, receiving low satisfaction
ratings as a result. An estimated 10 million
antibiotics are prescribed unnecessarily
in England alone, with a recent survey
finding that 90% of GPs felt undue
pressure to prescribe them, and that 44%
had prescribed them simply to ensure
that an unreasonable patient left their
surgery. This raises the question: might it
be more beneficial to prescribe placebo
treatments to patients who relentlessly
demand antibiotics for common, minor
Placebos and their known effects on
patients could take on a radically new
role within public healthcare systems.
Research into placebos and their effects
has consistently indicated that patients
who unknowingly receive a placebo have
a reasonable expectation that what they
have been prescribed will have a positive
effect. Therefore in theory, GPs could
prescribe placebos instead of antibiotics and
patient symptoms would improve. In the case
of viral infections, which are untreatable by
antibiotics, the infection will ordinarily clear
by the time the course of placebo ends, only
increasing the successful ‘effect’ of the placebo.
The use of placebos in these contexts could
improve patient satisfaction, since many patients
would presume that they were still receiving an
active drug. Importantly, however, such a limit
to antibiotic exposure might help with the
growing problem of antibiotic resistance.
Whilst it is fair to presume that prescribing
placebos may be beneficial for those patients
who unnecessarily demand antibiotics,
negative connotations surround their wholesale
introduction into healthcare systems. The use
of placebos could be considered unethical in
countries where healthcare is not free, notably
the United States. It is an ethical dilemma to
prescribe to those who pay for private health
care an inert substance that may not actually
relieve symptoms or improve health at all. In
terms of legality, placebos and their effects
are considered a grey area – a patient might
consider that a doctor has caused them harm
or injustice in the administration of a placebo,
albeit that this is a difficult area for lawyers to
‘prove’. The discovery of placebo use might also
potentially impair patient-doctor trust.
It is clear that methods to tackle antibiotic
resistance need to be urgently developed.
Although the introduction of placebo antibiotics
may give desired outcomes, ethically and legally
their use will come with scathing criticism.
Sophie Hull is studying for an MSc in
Forge Me not
xperts estimate that at least half
of all works of art in commercial
circulation are fake. To avoid
spending millions on frauds,
museums and private collectors call on experts
to appraise their potential purchases and make
sure they are truly what they claim to be.
One particularly talented forger, known as
Henricus Antonius Van Meegeren, has become
a folk hero in the Netherlands. Arrested
on 29 May 1945 on charges of treason and
collaboration with the Nazi party, his trial
proved full of surprises for the art world as
he saved his skin by proving he had earned
millions by selling forgeries.
TALE OF A LEGENDARY FORGER
Born 10 October 1889, Han Van Meegeren was
24 when he chose to rebel against his father’s
wishes and pursue his passion for art. He quit
his architectural studies in 1913 to focus on
drawing and painting, becoming an assistant
professor and painter soon thereafter, where
he made legitimate copies of masters’ works
bearing his own signature. Van Meegeren
despised modern painting, but admired the
17th century masters from the Dutch Golden
Age, whose style he could imitate perfectly.
Critics dismissed and belittled Van Meegeren
as a gifted technician whose talent was limited
solely to duplicates. Angry and determined to
prove them wrong, Van Meegeren embarked on
a journey of revenge. For years, he studied the
masters and designed an elaborate technique to
create 17th century paintings. In 1937, he used
predictions made by Bredius, an important art
critic at the time, to produce what would pass
as the missing link in Vermeer’s paintings – not
just a copy, but a new painting from the master
– The Christ and the Disciples at Emmaeus.
The impressive work was bought for the
equivalent of three and a half million pounds
by the Rembrandt Society. Bredius commented:
“It is a wonderful moment in the life of a
lover of art when he finds himself suddenly
confronted with a hitherto unknown
painting by a great master, untouched, on the
original canvas, and without any restoration,
just as it left the painter’s studio! And what
a picture! ...we have here – I am inclined to
say – the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer
AN ELABORATE TECHNIQUE
To craft what would pass as a genuine Vermeer,
Van Meegeren had considered every tool that
investigators had at their disposal. He studied
the Baroque style as well as the life of Vermeer,
his painting tools and palette. His perfect style
fooled art historians and passed various tests:
• Experts use their eyes (and now microscopes)
to examine brushstrokes and compare with
Van Meegeren had succeeded. The next phase
of his plan was to reveal the forgery and ridicule
the critics. However, realising how lucrative
this business was, he decided to postpone
his revenge and continue forging Vermeers,
earning over 65 million pounds in the process.
Van Meegeren shouldn’t have been caught,
but he made the mistake of conning Nazi
Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering. He sold
him a ‘Vermeer’, The Adultress, allegedly in
exchange for 400 Dutch paintings taken by
the Germans during the war. When the Allies
seized the Nazi leader’s art collection, it looked
to the world as though Van Meegeren had
sold the enemy a piece of priceless cultural
heritage. Accused of collaboration and treason,
Van Meegeren avoided the death penalty
by revealing that the painting was fake. The
consequence was a surreal trial in 1947 where,
since critics were not inclined to admit that
they had been conned, Van Meegeren had to
prove he was a forger. He demonstrated his
technique before a panel of witnesses, creating
Jesus Among the Doctors. Found guilty of
forgery, Van Meegeren died of a heart attack in
1947 before serving his two-year sentence.
Alexandra Cauvi explores how scientists, curators and art historians can work
together to discern masterpieces from masterful forgeries.
the master’s. Van Meegeren abandoned
modern brittle brushes and made his own
similar to Vermeer’s using badger hair.
century after Hal’s death – hence the easy
identification of the fake.
• Van Meegeren mixed his pigments using
17th century techniques, thus rendering
chemical analysis of the pigments useless.
• One frequent giveaway in forgeries is the use
of anachronous pigments. For example, in
his early years, Van Meegeren made a copy
of Frans Hal’s The Laughing Cavalier. He
used pigments that can be identified by
X-ray including zinc oxide and synthetic
ultramarine, which were invented one
• Van Meegeren painted on genuine 17th
century canvases, since a 20th century
canvas would not pass as Vermeer’s.
• Today, a forger would have to be careful
not to paint over anything anachronous: a
good example is that of an Albert Marquet
dated 1912 that was proven fake when
reflectography showed the presence of
another painting underneath, depicting a
greatly detailed tractor with a type of tires
created in 1930.
DRYING AND CRACKING
• An obvious difference between an ancient
and a recent painting is the presence of
cracks. As it ages, paint dries and a network
of cracks (craquelure) appears, giving
the painting a ‘fingerprint’. Nowadays,
craquelure is revealed by low angle light,
photographed, and archived as part of the
painting’s analytic data.
• Because Van Meegeren did not make copies,
the craquelure did not need to replicate that
of an original, but it still had to show the
wear and tear of three centuries’ aging.
Photograph: Michael GÄBler
• Paint takes centuries to dry and harden.
In the 1940s, this was tested by dabbing a
painting with a solvent-soaked cotton bulb.
If the paint is completely dry, no pigment
• In order to fake drying and craquelure, Van
Meegeren mixed his paint with bakelite, a
thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin.
He would cook the paintings for two hours
at 110°C. Heat made the resin harden and
the paint seemed ‘dry’. He would then roll
the painting to form cracks. To imitate the
dust that would have settled in the cracks
for three centuries, Van Meegeren added
India ink to the cracks. This detail was
only detected when the forger himself told
experts where to look.
At present, experts are still on the lookout for
Van Meegeren forgeries. While he confessed to
making seven, there are currently 21 identified
as his work, and more surely exist. His use of
Bakelite to fake aging is what modern scientists
look for as his signature. It is detectable by
GC/MS (Gas Chromatography and Mass
Spectrometry), a technology that did not exist
during Van Meegeren’s lifetime.
WHAT MAKES ART VALUABLE?
Since Van Meegeren is now a famous name,
his fakes have a value of their own and are
themselves forged. His story and talent, both
as an artist and a criminal, make us consider
the value of art. One might think that a work’s
value would lie in its beauty, technique or
the emotional response it produces; fame
would come to the artist from that. However,
even if the technique and the degree of effort
expended on a painting are similar, a perfect
copy or pastiche has far less market value than
an original work.
Alexandra Cauvi is studying for an MSc in
Science Media Production
n a rainy day in 1980, cooped in the basement of a gloomy bed
and breakfast in the Highlands of Scotland, two Catalan artists,
Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, discovered an unusual
archive. It consisted mainly of notebooks filled with German
annotations, photographs, X-rays, dissection instruments,
taped recordings of animal squeals, and horrifying stuffed specimens.
Despite the glorious weather on the two days that followed, Fontcuberta
and Formiguera did not see the sun. Fascinated by their discovery, they
spent every waking hour analysing their findings and trying to decipher the
meaning of the notebook’s cryptic annotations. They concluded that the
author – and likely owner of the archive – was Neo-Darwinist Zoologist
Peter Ameisenhaufen, born in Munich in 1895.
The archive remained in obscurity until the late 1980s, when Fontcuberta
and Formiguera organised an exhibition, Fauna, aimed at presenting
Ameisenhaufen’s story to the world. This photograph, showing
Ameisenhaufen holding the arms of a Centaurus neandertalensis (centaur
like creature with the torso of a baboon and the body of a deer), was one
of many ‘documents’ displayed in the exhibition. Other animals catalogued
include the Ceropithecus icarocornu, which resembles a monkey with a
unicorn-like horn on its head, and the Solenglypha polipodida, a snake-like
creature with twelve feet.
Fake or real? You may well be sceptical of the story, logically-so considering
its inclusion in the deception issue. Imagine, though, that this story was
published in a newspaper, a magazine, or a science journal, and illustrated
with images and facts.
Would you have believed it?
Angels Codina is studying for an MSc in Science Communication
Centaurus neandertalensis (1987), from the Fauna series,
by Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera
Jamie Brown questions the ethics of the pharmaceutical industry, and of a business model
built around profiting from the sick.
ast September, Martin Shkreli’s smug face became the
embodiment of every negative thing you have heard
about the pharmaceutical industry. In raising the price of
newly acquired Daraprim by 5000% in the US – a oneof-a-kind drug predominantly used by HIV patients – the CEO of Turing
Pharmaceuticals gave the world an uncomfortable reminder: for all the
good they do, these people are profiting from the sick. It was ‘just business’;
conniving and sly, but legal... in the US at least. Thankfully, in Europe, it is
Disturbingly, Shkreli appeared to delight in the ensuing outrage after
reporters challenged his personal involvement in the decision. So great
was his love of the limelight that, by December, he was reportedly
preparing to do much the same again – this time at KaloBios, a company
his investment group had recently rescued from bankruptcy with a semiancient drug for Chagas disease.
Fortunately for the hundreds of thousands of US Chagas patients, Mr
Shkreli was arrested days later and removed as CEO from both Turing and
KaloBios before his plans could be executed. Among his several charges
were counts of security fraud and wiring, but nothing relating directly
to his effective extortion of patients and healthcare providers. Shocking
though it is, the story is symptomatic of a flawed system ripe for abuse, and
is certainly not the first of its kind.
to erode the price of the drug. However, just to be sure, the majority of
European countries have laws enforcing significant price cuts once a
drug’s patent expires. This enables their healthcare systems to continue
providing established treatments whilst putting aside funds to reinvest in
new medicines. In short, these regulations stop them getting ‘Shkrewed’.
In a way, what Shkreli did was rather shrewd. ‘Shrewd’, like pulling a knife
on someone and then politely asking for their wallet. He acquired the
rights for a cheap drug that people need, with no direct competitors, in
a market where he can name his own price, and then he jacked the price
up. Buy low, sell high – it’s a simple principle. The concern for Americans
will be that one man has exploited their healthcare policy in such a way
that made the entire industry look like a scene from The Wolf of Wall
Street. The Food and Drug Administration were already under pressure
from Congress to lower treatment costs. Now they have this total
embarrassment to deal with.
Jamie Brown is studying for an MSc in Science Media Production
In the US, drug manufacturers are free to set their own price and change
it overnight. In practice, a drug’s price will be as much as insurers and
patients are prepared to fork out for it. This holds true until the patent
expires, at which point competitors flood the market with generic forms
of the drug at a fraction of the price.
The European system is – broadly speaking – more strictly regulated. The
maximum price of a new drug is agreed nationally at launch, negotiated
between manufacturer and government on the basis of its value to
that country’s population. If the drug is to be provided through public
healthcare then, by law, this initial price is the most it will ever cost and the
only route for negotiation is down. The prices may be renegotiated only
in exceptional circumstances (such as better long-term outcomes than
anticipated or unforeseen efficacy in a new indication) if new evidence
comes to light. This aside, you cannot just put up prices willy-nilly.
As in the US, after patent expiry, generic competition is usually sufficient
IllustrationS: GOOGLE CREATIVE COMMONS ARTIST UNKNOWN
From mermaids to ape-men, natural history is cluttered with hoaxes.
Shane Morris takes a look.
eception has occurred in
the field of natural history
for as long as it has existed.
The most infamous cases of
deception took place in the 19th and early 20th
Century, when natural history was at its most
fashionable. These hoaxes were constructed for
money, fame or both.
The myth of mermaids exists in cultures
worldwide, from the Sirens of Greek mythology
that were thought to lure sailors to their doom,
to ‘Suvannamaccha’, a mermaid princess
found in Thai folklore. Since the mid-16th
Century, sailors have been drying, carving and
varnishing skates or rays to resemble mermaids.
These creations were known as ‘Jenny Hanivers’.
The origins of the name are uncertain, although
one theory suggests that the practice was so
lucrative among Belgian sailors at the port of
Antwerp, that ‘Jenny Hanivers’ is a corruption
of jeune d’Anvers (‘young person of Antwerp’).
Jenny Hanivers were not only made to resemble
mermaids, but also angels, dragons and demons.
The 19th Century circus and sideshow tycoon,
P.T Barnum, took advantage of this fascination
by displaying what he claimed to be a real life
mermaid. It was, in fact, a torso of a monkey sewn
to the lower half of a fish. Crafted by a Japanese
fisherman for use in religious ceremonies, it
passed through many hands before ending
up with Barnum, who fabricated a story of its
capture off the coast of Fiji. It became known
as the Fiji (or Feejee) mermaid, and he made a
fortune displaying it to the American public
– first at Concert Hall on Broadway and then
at Barnum’s American Museum. The Feejee
Mermaid was a classic example of Barnum’s
ability to take a mildly interesting object and
turn it into a must-see ‘event’ almost overnight.
Not all cases of deception
in natural history have
been the fabrication of
mythological creatures –
some have been forgeries
of scientific specimens.
In 1912, Charles Dawson
proclaimed he had found
the ‘missing link’ between
ape and man. Dawson was
something of a wunderkind
in the worlds of palaeontology
and archaeology, with a knack
for making spectacular discoveries;
from the teeth of unknown mammals
to Roman statuettes. This time he
claimed to have found skull fragments
that had both human and ape features.
Dubbed the ‘Piltdown Man’ and
proposed as evidence for the theory
of evolution, it became a media
sensation. Debate over whether
these fossils were real raged
amongst palaeontologists for
over 40 years.
In 1953, the Piltdown Man was
revealed as a composite of a
modern human cranium and
an orangutan jaw. The identity
of the forger was a mystery for
the next half a century. Suspects
varied from Dawson himself
to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,
who raised suspicion due to the
fact that he lived near Piltdown,
belonged to the same archaeological
society as Dawson, and in the year of the
discovery had written The Lost World;
a novel in which dinosaurs and ape-like
men survive to the present day. The book
also includes the incriminating line “If you
are clever and know your business
[…] you can fake a bone as easily
as you can fake a photograph.”
In 2003, it was discovered
that at least 38 of Dawson’s
marvels were fakes, and
it is assumed that he was
also responsible for the
There have been countless
other examples of
deception in the
world of natural
to the ‘Cardiff
Giant’ – and
that’s only the
first three letters
of the alphabet!
Scientists of the
time failed to
view the Piltdown
Man objectively, largely because
they wanted it as evidence for the thencontentious theory of evolution. Perhaps
scientists should be more wary of that which
seems too good to be true.
Shane Morris is
Illustration: James Marno
Now You See It...
rom the moment we are born,
our senses respond to numerous
stimuli every second. Each
of us goes from the secure
confines of the womb to a vast
new environment. Sounds come from a whole
variety of different sources: our parents, the
television, the dog, the rumble of traffic outside.
Where we were previously fed through an
umbilical cord, we now experience taste for the
first time. We feel the smooth bars of a cradle,
a soft blanket, the touch of other humans. Not
to mention all those colours and strange shapes
that fill our visual field.
Babies are plunged into a sensate world. Their
initial confusion gives way to cognition as their
brains learn to interpret environmental stimuli,
and how to react to them. Yet our brains are
easily fooled. What we physically see, with our
eyes, is not necessarily what we perceive. Our
eyes are the light-gathering organs. They take a
snapshot of our field of vision, and light-sensitive
photoreceptors convert light into electric
signals that travel along neurons to the brain.
This is where illusion creeps in. Our brain’s
job is to make sense of all the information it is
receiving. Seemingly simple drawings become
so distorted by our brain that we see something
that isn’t really there. For our brains, context is
Take a look at the three double-ended arrows
on this page. Do these lines appear different
lengths to you? Most of us will live in a boxshaped building where three lines bisect at
the corners of the rooms. As children, playing
helped us to develop spatial awareness in our
3D environments. We learnt to gauge distance,
proportions and relative locations. When we
see three lines bisecting in the corner of a room,
we interpret that corner as being furthest away
spread across the internet on social media,
prompting furious debate as to whether it was
#whiteandgold or #blackandblue.
Colour, like space, is a construct of our brains
based on the electrical signals it receives from
our eyes. The different wavelengths of light that
make up the colour spectrum hit the retina
of our eye, and our brain then interprets the
signals it receives. Our brains not only have to
determine the colour, but also how illuminated
it is. We can still distinguish colours in bright
sunshine and the muted shades of dawn
because our brains interpret the colour in the
context of all the other light.
from our location.
Some psychologists have suggested that our
brain’s automatic 3D scaling does not always
translate to the 2D page. Most of you will
probably have perceived the middle arrow as
being the longest – perhaps because it appears
similar to the bisecting corners of a room,
causing our brains to overcompensate the
length of the line. But all three lines are in fact
the same length.
This illusion, called the ‘Müller-Lyer illusion’,
has been used to study groups of people around
the world. One such group, the Meriam people
of Murray Island in Northern Australia, were
found to be significantly less susceptible to
falling for this illusion than those of us who
have our environments ‘straightened’ out.
Psychologist W.H.R Rivers suggests that the
natural environment of the Meriam, lacking in
straight lines, means they don’t contextualise
the image in the same way others do.
Remember DressGate? Just one week after
being posted to Tumblr, images of the dress
In the case of the dress, some people’s brains
overcorrected for this illumination, making
an extra mental leap it needn’t have made. The
overexposed photograph caused many people
to perceive the dress – revealed to have in fact
been black and blue – as being in shadow; their
brains interpreted it as being white.
The furore surrounding DressGate was enough
to prompt a scientific investigation into colour
perception. Those who saw white and gold were
found to have extra activity in their front and
parietal areas of the brain, the areas responsible
for visual perception, mental reasoning and
The Hermann grid is another example of how
what we see isn’t necessarily what we perceive.
Most of us will see grey spots appearing at
the corners of the boxes, except the one we
are looking directly at. Neuroscientists have
worked out that this is due to an effect called
lateral inhibition. Neurons that become excited
are able to reduce the activity of neighbouring
neurons. For bright images, this ensures that
our eyes do not overexpose the image (as in
We usually trust what we can see, but it turns out the eyes are easily fooled.
Samuel Lickiss investigates the science behind optical illusions.
the photograph of the dress). In the Hermann
grid, the high contrast between black and white
confuses our neurons, causing the grey spots to
Our eyes are the harbingers of vision, just one
of an arsenal of senses we possess, and we rarely
use them in isolation. Would a crisp that fails
to crunch yield the same satisfaction? When
looking at a plate of food, our expectations of
the taste depend on the food’s appearance,
which, like our perception of space, comes from
prior experiences. The sound of the morningafter fry up instantly conjures up a sense of the
taste, as does the feeling of handling food as you
subconsciously. As we continue to grow older,
our brains continue to do their best to make
sense of this strange world.
Samuel Lickiss is studying for an MSc in
This sense synergy sometimes gets confused.
Most of the vast quantities of information that
flood into our brains every second is processed
A Brief History of
ver a circuit-board, my lab
partner describes an old pub
near her family home in Sussex.
Its name is ‘The Piltdown Man’,
coined after the infamous
man-ape hybrid discovered in 1912 by amateur
archaeologist Charles Dawson. A so-called
‘missing piece’ in man’s evolution, Dawson found
part of a human skull in Piltdown, Sussex, and
presented it to the scientific community where
it was widely welcomed as a breakthrough
finding. Under scrutiny, the remains were found
to be no more than the skull of a man combined
with the jawbone of an ape, which had been filed
down and dyed to appear human. The hoax was
not uncovered until the 1950s, and it was not
until 2003 that Dawson’s trickery was fully
uncovered and condemned.
“The point of science is to know more stuff ” my
lab partner stresses, expertly twizzling the dial
on a current source, “If you lie, you can’t be a
Throughout its long history, deceit in the
scientific world has brought about calamity;
destroying research groups and rendering
entire fields of science unpalatable. In the case
of Haruko Obokata, a research unit leader at the
RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in
Kobe, Japan, the publication of a pair of papers
in Nature magazine in 2014 brought heartache.
The papers detailed a new, more efficient
method for creating stem cells. The technique –
stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency
(STAP) – was backed by a cohort of secondary
Her work, though initially promising, came
under immediate scrutiny. Members of the
scientific community recognised that images
used in the papers were doctored, and similar
to those used in a separate experiment
conducted during her PhD. Moreover, it
became increasingly clear that her results were
unrepeatable, and genetic tests run on sample
cells proved them to be unreliable.
It was not long before RIKEN and many of
Obokata’s co-authors withdrew their support
and their papers, each calling for the retraction
of the studies from Nature. The worst was yet to
come. Hounding from the press and unilateral
condemnation of the affair as unethical sent
the innovative group at RIKEN reeling, and
culminated in the tragic suicide of Yoshiki Sasai,
a co-author and a supervisor of Obokata’s, who
was in charge of editing and quality-checking
the work. Every member of the RIKEN
development team took a sharp career hit from
the incident, facing disciplinary action and left
with a feeling of “overwhelming shame.”
The scandal drew sinister parallels with a similar
case that had occurred ten years previously in
2004. Geneticist Hwang Woo-suk, a Professor
and highly funded researcher at Seoul National
University, claimed he could create human
stem cell lines from cloned embryos. This work
– which promised a breakthrough in stem cell
research – was later found to be fabricated.
After admitting he had falsified data for his
studies in 2006, he was also accused of using
unethical sources to provide embryos for
his research. In 2009, he was convicted on a
suspended sentence of embezzlement and the
illegal purchase of human eggs for research.
This procurement of eggs was shrouded in
allegations of coercion, with many women
being bribed and not giving fully informed
consent. Most damningly, some of the donors
were junior members of Hwang’s research team.
An enormous number of these egg cells were
used in the research, and similar resources were
then used by researchers such as Ryuzo Toori
of Shiga University, Japan, in trying to replicate
Hwang’s fraudulent work.
Needless to say, the scandal unleashed by
Hwang’s group was damaging not only for the
reputation of South Korean genetic science,
but for the entire field of stem cell research.
It reignited existing ethical concerns around
the usage of human egg cells in research,
and provoked further doubt and speculation
amongst a public already sceptical of stem
cell science. Problematically, when ethical
misconducts become public knowledge, they
feed into the narrative of scientists as amoral
figures who care far more about progress than
societal and ethical responsibilities. Particularly
in genetic and medical ethics, where there are
suspicions that scientists are in the pockets of
the government and Big Pharma, or that genetic
modification is akin to ‘playing God’, scandals
such as this only serve to fuel the fires of doubt,
and make the job of scientists and medical
researchers even more difficult.
It would be wrong to write about the ethics of
scientific hoaxes without calling attention to
the work of Andrew Wakefield. In The Lancet
in 1998, he suggested a link between the MMR
vaccine and the development of childhood
autism. The claims of his study were shown to be
tenuous and were called into further question
when it was revealed that he was taking money
from a lawyer named Richard Barr, who had
approached him with the intention of raising a
lawsuit against the manufacturers of the vaccine.
Wakefield accepted more than £400,000, giving
him a hefty conflict of interest in his research.
Further conflicts of interests would later emerge,
and Wakefield was struck off and his paper
retracted. The damage was done, however, and
Despite their reputation for veracity, scientists have proved responsible for some
elaborate and dangerous hoaxes. Anita Chandran examines where it all went wrong.
caused a huge outcry against vaccinations which
persists today. Measles itself remains on the rise.
As deceitful as the work of Obokata, Hwang
and Wakefield might seem, it is important to
consider the ‘publish or perish’ culture that
researchers are constantly faced with. The
persistent drive to add novel contributions to
the field causes funding bodies and scientists to
invest in dramatically different techniques than
those previously considered, so as to increase
their chances of producing contemporary,
publishable science. After all, repeat studies
of already published work are less groundbreaking than entirely new research. In the
case of Obokata, the STAP technique showed
incredible promise but the experiment was
hurried and produced disappointing results.
Perhaps it was an honest mistake which rapidly
spiralled out of the control of a young researcher
under an immense amount of pressure to
Financial incentives inevitably complicate
cases such as Wakefield’s, as well as many
medical studies into harmful substances such as
tobacco, sugar and asbestos. Corporate bodies
levying favour with scientists skew research
in their favour, with potentially damaging
consequences. Even implicitly, having a vested
interest in the outcome of your results allows for
biased selection, meaning researchers may see a
trend in selective data where none truly exists.
We can never know the extent to which the
scientists involved in these scandals regretted,
or even recognised, the damage their lies had
caused. Did they apply the proverbial nail file to
the monkey jaw as they penned their papers, or
were they blindly corrupted by their convictions
from the start? There is no single rationale.
Instead there exists a complicated web of what
is important to scientists: a conglomeration of
the unique pressures academics face. Even so,
there is truth in my lab partner’s words – the
wilful ignorance of the truth precludes you from
the fundamental objectivity of science. To falsify
your work is the antithesis of discovery.
Anita Chandran is studying for a BSc in
Illustration: Wendy LING-HSUAN WANG
Monogamy: a key ingredient to a successful relationship, or an unnatural expectation?
evolution in Love. Can you
tell me what you mean by
that? Do you want free
love as against bourgeois
marriage, or monogamy as against bourgeois
Wales is either married or cohabiting. However,
more than 40% of those cases will end in divorce
or separation, with 25% and 18% of married men
and women respectively admitting to at least
one incidence of adulterous behaviour.
While extensive research in psychology,
sociology and behavioural economics attributes
infidelity to factors such as status, gender and
economic dependency, contributions from
the field of genetics have become increasingly
prevalent within this body of research.
This passage from Milan Kundera’s book
Life is Elsewhere highlights the inherent
contradictions in our society between
the amalgam of state, social and cultural
institutions. These institutions are designed to
foster a strict definition of monogamy and the
prevalence of promiscuity within it.
According to a study on infidelity published
in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy,
around 57% of men and 54% of women in the US
have admitted to cheating on a partner at least
once. The numbers are similar in Europe, where
36% of Brits, 43% of French and 45% of Germans
admitted to having had sexual encounters
outside of their relationships.
Considering the burdensome costs that
infidelity poses on relationships and society
– from psychological harm to the enormous
expenses associated with separation and
divorce – it’s worth considering whether we
need a new perspective on this issue.
Recent scientific research concerning
monogamy and infidelity may help us to reevaluate. Accounting for over 5000 mammal
species on Earth, studies have found that
between three to five percent of species –
including humans – practice some form of
monogamy. However, biologists largely agree
that humans are not on the extreme end of the
monogamy spectrum, where animals such as
the swan and wolf typically stay with the same
companion throughout their entire lives.
Most people have more than one sexual partner
during their life and, outside the Western
World, other societies engage in various forms
of polyamorous arrangements. This supports
the argument that humans are likely not
genetically predisposed to monogamy.
In a study published in 2003 in the Journal of
Molecular Evolution, researchers found that
the diverse worldwide distribution of the Y
chromosome suggests that there was a shift
from polygamy to monogamy between 5000
and 10,000 years ago. These results coincide
with theories proposed by anthropologists,
such as Jack Goody, that a cultural transition
towards monogamy occurred alongside the
increasing complexity of our societies; driven
by the appearance of technologies such as
Whether monogamy evolved naturally or is the
product of cultural forces, today, most people
in the Western World practice a variation of it.
According to the Office of National Statistics,
over 60% of the adult population of England and
A 2014 study led by Dr. Brendan P. Zietsch
looked at the genes of 7378 Finnish twins
and siblings, finding significant correlation
between certain variants of the receptor gene
for the hormone vasopressin and infidelity
in women. Other studies have found similar
results with variants of the receptor genes for
oxytocin and dopamine. Although we are far
from understanding the effects of these genes
and hormones on human infidelity, recent
studies suggest that potential genetic factors are
certainly worth exploring further.
Just a century ago, much of the Western World
punished adulterous behaviour as a criminal
offence, something that unfortunately still
happens in many countries today. Science is
now beginning to show that some people may
be better off with arrangements outside the
bounds of strict monogamy, which for hundreds
of years our culture has strictly adhered to.
Fortunately, our definitions of what constitutes
a relationship are increasingly fluid, and are
beginning to embrace the inherent complexity
explored in Milan Kundera’s novels.
Daniel R Silva is studying for an Msc in
Image: GOOGLE CREATIVE COMMONS ARTIST UNKNOWN
Hilary Lamb dives into the complex world of cryptography. How do we use technology
to disguise our most secret messages?
he Kama Sutra instructs women
who want to send naughty
messages to use ‘Mulavediya’.
This is an example of an early
monoalphabetic cipher; each letter substituted
for another. Aside from Pig Latin, perhaps,
these ciphers offer the weakest concealment
imaginable. They can be broken with frequency
analysis, in which the codebreaker compares
the frequency of letters in the message to the
frequency of letters in the writer’s language, and
matches them up. This takes a pen, paper and a
few minutes of patience.
Polyalphabetic ciphers, in which each letter is
substituted for multiple others, are far more
resistant to attack by frequency analysis.
The Vigenère cipher used such a technique,
surviving three centuries before being broken
by Charles Babbage, who identified repeated
groups of letters as the chink in its armour.
Twentieth Century military communications
were encoded with polyalphabetic ciphers
and transmitted by radio, making them open
to interception. In 1918, French codebreakers
unravelled the German ADFGVX cipher,
providing enough intelligence to halt the Spring
Offensive, and demonstrating the importance of
cryptography in warfare. World leaders wasted
no time amassing armies of codebreakers at
the outbreak of the Second World War. The
development of the electromechanical ‘Bombe’
by Polish and British codebreakers to combat
the infamous Enigma Code, and the invention
of ‘Colossus’ (the first programmable, electronic,
digital computer) to defeat the Germans’
Lorentz ciphers proved that codebreakers
could deliver technological as well as military
triumphs. Computers proved to be invaluable
tools for both increasingly complex encryption
and as blunt instruments for decryption.
Today, it is no longer just wartime leaders
who rely on cryptography; we all need to stay
protected against interception online. Until
recently, our secure information was encoded
using ‘secret key systems’, in which a single
key (a set of instructions) is used to encrypt
and decrypt data. This key must be delivered
securely from sender to recipient. Historical
methods for exchanging secret information
have varied from tattooing messages on slaves’
scalps to knitting Morse code into jumpers,
but public key exchanges today are far more
complex, with millions transferring secure
information every second.
The complexity of secret key delivery,
combined with the vulnerability
of these systems to brute
force attacks, mean that a
more refined technique is
protecting our most sensitive
information. ‘Public key systems’
use a pair of keys: one public and
one private. If a politician wants to send
a suggestive message to his PA, he doubleencrypts it using his private key and the PA’s
public key. The PA decrypts it with her private
key and the politician’s public key. Public keys
can therefore be revealed and reused without
compromising security. Public key systems work
using one-way functions, which take minimal
effort to carry out (e.g: multiplying primes), but
a lot of effort to reverse (e.g: factorising); a tough
defence against brute force attacks. Quantum
computers, which use quantum mechanical
principles to perform operations, could render
every cryptographic system defunct, due to their
enormous theoretical computational power.
The only defence against a quantum brute
force attack is similarly speculative: quantum
Imagine that our politician takes a photograph
and encrypts the data as a series of polarised
photons, which he delivers to his PA. She
attempts to measure the polarisations, and
the politician tells her which were correct.
They compile the correct measurements into
a ‘one-time pad’ (which contains unique data
to encode their message). Before sending the
photograph, they check that their pads match.
If not, somebody has tried to intercept their
messages. The mere act of observation
changes the state of a photon, so
any attempt at eavesdropping is
W h i l e
scientists are yet to send
over useful distances, quantum
cryptography holds the promise
of absolute secrecy, making interception
impossible. The history of cryptography is a
mathematical and technological arms race
between those who want to conceal messages
and those who want to read them. Quantum
cryptography would signal the final defeat for
Hilary Lamb is studying for an Msc in
Illustration: CHEYENNE MCCRAY
Olivia Philipps takes a look at the various ways our senses deceive us.
Imagine you are given a drink that is orange-coloured. Unsurprisingly, it
tastes of orange. Or does it? Research has shown that colour can impact
how we perceive taste. In one study, participants reported that an orangecoloured drink tasted of orange despite the fact that it was a dyed cherryflavoured drink. The associations we make between certain colours and
flavours reveal a deception that our eyes frequently play on us. Moreover,
these associations appear culturally specific. For example, one study
found that Taiwanese participants expected a brown-coloured drink to
taste of grape, whilst British participants expected a cola flavour. Does
orange and lemon Fanta really taste different, or are we merely fooled by
Top restaurants obsess over their choice of crockery and cutlery. Whilst
shape and size are usually their most important criteria, science suggests
that they should focus more on weight. Research participants report
tastier and more satisfying food when served with heavier plates and
cutlery. Our sense of touch also fools our tastebuds when it comes to
takeaway drinks. Apparently, the firmness of the cup can affect how we
regard the quality of the drink. The firmer the cup feels, the higher its
perceived quality. So next time you have a terrible takeaway coffee, think
twice – it might be your sense of touch fooling you.
We all love sugary treats yet know full well the
consequences of eating too many. Wouldn’t it be
great if we could eat them without having to worry?
Well, perhaps we can. Indigenous to West Africa, a
type of berry called Synsepalum Dulcificum tricks
our brains into thinking that sour foods actually
taste sweet. These ‘miracle berries’ have an active
The Bitter Taste
Food is never as flavoursome when you have a cold. This is because our
sense of smell, which is impaired by a stuffed-up nose, has a crucial role
in our perception of taste. Research has shown that smell can drastically
affect how we taste foods – in fact, smell accounts for 90% of flavour. For
example, a sweet smell, such as caramel, can trick us into thinking food is
sweeter than it really is, whilst dampening our perception of its sourness.
A sugary scent means we predict a sugary flavour, fooling us into tasting
the food differently. Next time you’re cooking, try lighting some scented
candles and let your sense of smell trick you into holding back on the sugar.
ingredient called miraculin, which binds to our
sweet taste buds. When sour food is eaten, miraculin
activates these taste buds, deceiving our brains so
that sour tastes seem sweet for up to 60 minutes.
Scientists are currently looking into possible uses
for miraculin – could it be the answer to easy weight
Have you ever wondered why aeroplane meals never taste quite right, or
why tomato juice is so popular while flying? It all has to do with sound.
Scientists have discovered that when there is loud background noise, as on
a plane, our perception of sweet and salty tastes decrease. On the other
hand, our umami taste, which is activated by tomatoes, is thought to be
unaffected. Likewise, the pitch of sound can also impact how we taste
food. High pitched noises are thought to heighten our sweet taste, while
low pitched noises sharpen our bitter taste. Perhaps restaurants should be
giving more thought to their background music.
Olivia Philipps is studying for an MSc in Science Communication