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THE discovery of a new ecosystem, a deep-sea

hydrothermal vent, say, is a rare and exciting
event, and tends to be big news. But one of the
biggest discoveries of recent years is going
on quietly, right under our noses. It turns out
that cities those noisy, smelly, garbage-
strewn expanses of asphalt and concrete
are vigorous ecosystems in their own right.
Of course, we have always known that cities
are home to more than just us humans; ask
anyone with a backyard bird-feeder or a plague
of mice in their kitchen. But, as ecologists are
learning, cities are not just accidental homes
for animals that really ought to be elsewhere.
They are also hotbeds of evolutionary change,
shaping the adaptations of their resident
fauna as surely as the Serengeti plains or the
Amazon rainforest (see page 11).
Nor are cities merely lower-quality
versions of some idealised natural state.
Like any other habitat, they offer animals both
advantages and disadvantages. Squirrels in
suburban Chicago, for example, feast on a
plentiful summertime smorgasbord, courtesy
of overflowing garbage cans, bird-feeders and
picnic leftovers. This is far beyond the dreams
of their wild-land cousins. But they pay for this
summertime bounty once the snow starts to
fall because they cannot stash away sunflower
seeds or crusts of bread for the winter the way
forest squirrels hoard acorns. The result?
The citys squirrels get increasingly desperate
for food and aggressive as winter progresses.
As we begin to view our cities as worthwhile
ecosystems, we may begin to ask questions
that ecologists and urban planners have largely
ignored until now. How can we make our parks
and gardens hospitable to a wider diversity
of species? How much green space do we need,
and in what configuration? What would it take
to bring new birds or insects into our cities?
Can we establish new predators in urban
ecosystems, such as dragonflies, hawks or
coyotes, to help us control some of the less
desirable pest species, or will they become
pests themselves, as urban foxes have?
Researchers have a lot to learn about the
ecosystem most of us live in. As cities become
more dominant and wild lands recede, this
knowledge will become increasingly important.
Discovery of the urban ecosystem has
another big benefit: it brings ecology up close
and personal. No longer is the natural world
something out there in national parks and
wildernesses. City dwellers might be only
mildly interested in tropical rainforests,
but they connect emotionally to the squirrels
and sparrows they see every day. In a world
where nature needs all the friends it can get,
that can only be a good thing.
WHEN cows began dying in Sweden in 1997,
nobody could have predicted that it would
lead to one of the biggest food scares in recent
history. The animals had been poisoned
when they drank from a stream contaminated
with acrylamide, the base chemical for an
industrial polymer.
No surprise, then, that there was uproar in
2002 when Swedish scientists announced that
this same substance was everywhere in food,
from potato chips to bread, breakfast cereals,
biscuits and coffee. No one knew how it got
there, how much of it we were all consuming,
what risk it posed to health or how to remove
it from food.
Thankfully, many of these questions are
now closer to being answered, thanks to a
multimillion-dollar global effort (see page 8).
For once, everyone has done the right thing.
Governments have investigated how
acrylamide forms in food, how abundant it is
and what risks it poses. Industry has poured
millions into finding ways to reduce it.
The reaction to this food scare has been rapid,
proportionate and apparently effective.
The same cannot be said of trans fats,
which like saturated fats increase the risk of
coronary heart disease. Many governments,
especially in Europe, have been slow to act,
even though the risks of trans fats emerged
years ago. Their levels in some fast foods
can be disturbingly high (see page 6).
If governments and food companies want to
keep consumer trust, they cannot shy away
from hazards, actual or potential. For a model
of how to react, they need look no further
than the one they themselves created for
dealing with acrylamide.
Out of the frying pan
Up close and personal
We seem to have missed a fast-growing ecosystem right under our noses
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Vivienne Griffith, Rohan Creasey 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 5
nsuk-apr-22-06-p005 3 18/4/06 4:46:59 pm
News in perspective
Lost wetlands
THE loss of natural wetlands is
bringing wild and domesticated
birds into ever closer contact,
spreading bird flu to farm
animals. So says a report being
prepared for the United Nations
Environment Programme.
UNEP estimates that farmers
and urban developers have
drained half the worlds wetlands
in recent decades. Migrating wild
ducks, geese and other wetland
birds are forced to visit farm
ponds and paddy fields, where
they infect local birds, says David
Rapport, honorary professor
of ecosystem health at the
University of Western Ontario,
Canada. Rapport, lead author
of the forthcoming report, was
speaking at a meeting on avian flu
at UNEPs headquarters in Nairobi
last week.
He called for greater efforts to
preserve natural wetlands and so
reduce contact between wild and
domesticated birds. But the issue
is complicated by the fact that
surviving wetlands along the
flight paths of migrating birds
attract more birds and can
become reservoirs for the virus.
To combat this, Rapport called for
steps to clear intensive poultry
rearing units from the flyways of
migrating birds something no
government has contemplated.
Meanwhile, UNEP biologists
have warned that many more
species of wildlife could be
threatened if avian flu jumps
species. They say 80 per cent of
known bird species could be at
risk, with crows and vultures of
particular concern, and warned
that even big cats like tigers and
leopards might be threatened.
jaw after taking Fosamax. In this
condition, diminished blood
supply causes bone to die.
Osteonecrosis of the
jaw is a rare side effect of
bisphosphonates, the class of
drugs that includes Fosamax,
particularly when people have
had dental surgery. OBrien
alleges that Merck failed to warn
patients of this risk adequately.
Merck says that none of the
17,000 patients who took part
in clinical trials of Fosamax
developed osteonecrosis in their
jaw. However in July 2005, at the
request of the US Food and Drug
Administration, the drugs
labelling was modified to
mention cases that showed
up after it went on the market.
Compounding Mercks woes,
a jury in New Jersey last week
awarded $9 million in punitive
damages to a man who suffered a
heart attack after taking Vioxx for
four years. This was on top of an
earlier compensation award of
$4.5 million. Merck has now lost
two out of the four Vioxx cases
that have come to trial, and nearly
10,000 more are pending.
An obsession with pain and death is not
just a matter of style for most teenage
goths. It seems that about half of them
have deliberately harmed themselves or
attempted suicide. But worried parents
can take heart vulnerable children
who join the subculture may well find
others who understand their problems.
Robert Young from the University of
Glasgow, UK, and his colleagues
interviewed 1258 young people at ages
11, 13, 15 and 19. Of those who
considered themselves goths, 53 per
cent had self-harmed and 47 per cent
had tried to commit suicide (BMJ, vol
332, p 909). Between 7 and 14 per cent
of all young British people self-harm,
with around 6 per cent admitting to
attempting suicide.
But while most youngsters started
self-harming at age 12 to 13, most did
not become goths until a couple of years
later. One common suggestion is they
may be copying subcultural icons or
peers, says Young. But our study
suggests that young people [already]
with a tendency to self-harm are
attracted to the subculture.
Surviving wetlands along
migration routes can become
reservoirs for the virus
The owners of Japans whaling fleet
plan to sell up and do something less
bloody with their money. But that
doesnt let whales off the hook.
Last week, the fleet returned with
its largest kill for 20 years, totalling
850 minke and 10 fin whales. Even
before the whales were brought ashore,
the three shareholding companies
of Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha the only
firm contracted to carry out scientific
whaling by Japans Institute for
Cetacean Research (ICR) said they were
preparing to give up ownership of the
fleet, apparently in a bid to distance
themselves from the industry in the face
of growing public opposition.
Far from being a victory for
anti-whaling campaigners, some
conservationists say this will only make
the situation worse. Thats because the
companies plan to transfer ownership
to the ICR and other public interest
companies in the next few weeks
to the Japanese government, in other
words. The government would be
less susceptible to pressure from anti-
whaling groups, says Clare Perry of the
Environmental Investigation Agency, an
international campaigning organisation.
What is more, at least one of the
shareholding companies, Maruha, the
worlds largest seafood company, will
still profit from whaling through a
subsidiary that will carry on purchasing
and processing whale meat, says Perry.
The news comes amid fears that
pro-whaling nations will be majority
members of the International Whaling
Commission when it next meets in
June, and might seek to reintroduce
commercial whaling.
6 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
Better the whaler you know?
Merck woe grows
THE drugs giant Merck may need
to hire yet more lawyers. Already
facing lawsuits from thousands of
patients who blame their heart
disease on the painkiller Vioxx,
Merck is now battling claims that
its osteoporosis drug Fosamax
can erode the jawbones.
Tim OBrien, an attorney in
Pensacola, Florida, has filed a suit
on behalf of 250 patients who
developed osteonecrosis of the
nsuk-apr-22-06-p006 6 18/4/06 5:41:38 pm
Xena dazzles
PLUTO can rest easy: it can
hold its own against the newly
discovered 10th planet. Xena, it
seems, is only slightly larger than
Pluto not 30 per cent bigger as
previously thought. But Xenas
downsizing means that Pluto, and
indeed nearly every other object
in the solar system, is rather dim
compared with the newcomer.
Xena, officially called 2003
UB313, was announced in July
2005 and lies about three times
as far from the sun as Pluto. From
estimates of Xenas reflectance
and temperature, astronomers
had suggested that it was up to 30
per cent larger than Pluto.
To reveal Xenas size more
accurately, Mike Brown at the
California Institute of Technology
in Pasadena and colleagues
analysed Hubble images taken in
December 2005. They found Xena
is 2400 kilometres across, only
about 5 per cent larger than Pluto.
That Xena is so small and yet
still so visible means it must
reflect about 86 per cent of the
light falling on it. That makes it
about as bright as fresh snow and
more reflective than any other
solar system body except Saturns
moon Enceladus.
Fast fat to go
No wonder Morgan Spurlock
felt so ill after pigging out on
McDonalds fast food for a month
in his film Super Size Me. Maybe it
was the trans fatty acids: artery-
cloggers that have now been
found in large amounts in French
fries and fried chicken from
McDonalds and Kentucky Fried
Chicken outlets worldwide.
In fact, in half of the 43
restaurants visited by Steen
Stender of Gentofte University
Hospital in Copenhagen,
Denmark, and his colleagues,
more than 5 grams of trans-fats
was found in a meal of 171 grams
of fries and 160 grams of
chicken a level estimated to
raise the risk of a heart attack by
25 per cent if consumed every day.
Twice that amount was found
in fries and chicken nuggets
from a New York McDonalds,
the highest level found in any
McDonalds outlet, while the most
trans-fat-laden KFC meal was
from Hungary, with 24 grams (The
New England Journal of Medicine,
vol 354, p 1650).
Since levels of trans-fat in the
food tallied closely with levels in
Xena is as bright as snow
and more reflective than any
other solar system body
The answer is simply to
switch to cooking oils free
of trans fatty acids
No to nukes
CALL it a pre-emptive strike.
Thirteen high-profile physicists,
including five Nobel laureates,
have written to President Bush
warning him not to use tactical
nuclear weapons.
To do so would threaten life
on this planet says Jorge Hirsch,
a solid-state physicist at the
University of California, San
Diego, and lead author of the
letter. Once the US uses a nuclear
weapon again, it will heighten the
probability that others will too,
he writes.
The letter was prompted by
reports earlier this month that
the Bush administration had not
ruled out using tactical nuclear
weapons against nuclear facilities
in Iran. As members of the
profession that brought nuclear
weapons into existence, we urge
you to refrain from such an
action, say the physicists.







NewYork City
Glasgow, UK
Hamburg, Germany
Industrially produced trans fatty acids (grams)
0 5 10 15 20 25
Industrially produced trans fatty acids (grams)
0 5 10 15 20 25
NewYork City
Wiesbaden, Germany
The same chicken-and-fries meal in 43 restaurants across the world contained vastly different
amounts of trans fatty acids French fries (171 grams) Chicken (160 grams)
the cooking oil used for frying
them, the researchers say the
answer is simply to switch to oils
free of trans-fats. Doing this took
only three months in Denmark,
which banned the sale of food
products containing more than
2 per cent trans-fats in 2004. Both
McDonalds and KFC say they take
the issue of trans-fats seriously
and are experimenting with new
cooking fats to get levels down.
Their friends know how it feels
Second face transplant
Chinese surgeons have successfully
carried out the worlds second face
transplant, Chinas state media has
reported. A 30-year-old man who had
been disfigured by a bear in 2004 was
given a new cheek, nose, upper lip
and an eyebrow from a single donor.
Doctors think it will take six months
before the man has any feeling in his
new face, assuming it is not rejected.
Not-so-great outdoors
Video games, surfing the web and high
petrol prices can explain a dramatic fall
in the number of people visiting US
national parks, says a study published
online in the Journal of Environmental
Management. After rising steadily
since the 1940s, the number of park
visits per head of population dropped
20 per cent between 1987 and 2002.
Mystery swirl on Venus
The first pictures sent back to Earth
by the European Space Agencys Venus
Express probe show an unexpected
single vortex of swirling clouds
spiralling in towards a point at the
planets south pole.
Making a century
Want to live to be 100? It helps if your
mother was under 25 when she gave
birth to you, according a team at the
University of Chicago who reviewed
census data for 198 centenarians across
the US. The odds of living to be 100
doubled for people born to mothers
under 25 compared with older
mothers, the Population Association
of America annual meeting was told.
HRT oestrogen safe
Post-menopausal women who
take oestrogen alone as hormone
replacement therapy have no increased
risk of breast cancer, according to a
study of 10,739 women published this
week in the Journal of the American
Medical Association. An earlier study
had revealed that women taking
a combination of oestrogen and
progestin faced a greater risk of breast
cancer than untreated women. 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 7
nsuk-apr-22-06-p007 7 18/4/06 5:42:01 pm
This week
NO ONE expected the news
delivered by Leif Busk and
Margareta Trnqvist on 24 April
2002. Speaking in Sweden to the
biggest press conference the
country had seen for almost
20 years, the two scientists
announced to the world that the
toxic industrial chemical
acrylamide was lurking in a huge
range of everyday foods.
It was a complete bolt from
the blue, recalls Diane Benford,
head of the UK Food Standards
Agencys toxicology branch. The
discovery meant that almost
everyone must be ingesting this
toxic substance, with unknown
consequences for public health.
Acrylamide was suddenly
discovered in food, whereas
previously, it was only known as
an industrial chemical. It was
unprecedented, she says.
The reaction to the news was
unprecedented too, starting with
the huge press interest in the
announcement. What we
wanted to bring out by holding
the press conference was that we
needed more data, says Busk,
who is still based at Swedens
National Food Administration
in Stockholm. What resulted was
a global media frenzy, followed
by fearful consumers demanding
to know what foods, if any, were
safe to eat. We didnt anticipate
the information vacuum that
would result.
Governments, international
health authorities and the food
industry reacted quickly. In
June 2002, the World Health
Organization convened a summit
on acrylamide in Geneva,
Switzerland, which revealed how
little we knew about the chemical
and its effects. Since then, tens of
millions of dollars have been
The food scare
the world forgot
Just four years ago, on the Thursday morning of 25 April 2002,
millions of people awoke to newspaper and TV reports that
their breakfast might be laced with a deadly chemical.
They hadnt been poisoned, nor were they victims of an
unscrupulous food manufacturer. Nevertheless, the reports
warned, the slice of bread, bowl of cereal or plate of waffles
in front of them might contain a potent cancer-causing
chemical called acrylamide. The implications were
astounding. Scientists said the chemical might be impossible
to eradicate, as it was created during the normal cooking
process. And the health effects were impossible to judge.
Though the story faded from the front pages, New Scientist
can reveal the unprecedented research effort that is under
way to learn more about acrylamide. The twin goals are to
establish whether it might be responsible for an epidemic of
cancer and other illnesses, and to eliminate acrylamide as far
as possible from our food. Andy Coghlan takes up the story
of one of the biggest food scares of modern times.
Acrylamide This week
International news and exclusives
8 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
Spot the healthy option
nsuk-apr-22-06-p008 8 13/4/06 8:18:07 pm
Evolutionary traps set by cities, page 11
Were safe from gamma-ray bursts, page 12
Mosquito-borne disease spreads, page 14
S 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 9
The acrylamide scare began in 1997,
when a herd of cows on the remote
Bjre peninsula in southern Sweden
began to stagger, collapse and die.
Investigations revealed the cattle had
been drinking from a stream laced with
acrylamide, which had leached from
drilling works on a nearby mountain
tunnel where polyacrylamide was being
used as a sealant for cracks.
The levels were very high in the
stream, says Leif Busk of Swedens
National Food Administration, who five
years later helped break the news of
acrylamides widespread presence in
food. You could see pictures on TV of
these cows falling over and behaving in
a peculiar way, almost like they had
BSE. Swedish viewers were disturbed
by what they were seeing, and even
more alarmed when they learned that a
common industrial chemical was to
blame. That sensitised the Swedes to
acrylamide, and played a role in the
frantic reaction later on, he says.
The drilling company called in
Margareta Trnqvist of the University of
Stockholm to check if its workers had
been exposed to the chemical, and she
tested their blood for acrylamide. It was
when she found unexpectedly high
levels of the chemical in a control group
with no known exposure to industrial
acrylamide that she began to wonder
whether foods were the source. She
initially suspected burgers might be to
blame, until tests revealed high levels of
acrylamide in potato products.
At first these results were greeted
with disbelief. The levels found by
Trnqvist were so high in fried potatoes,
French fries and crisps, we suspected it
must be an artefact, Busk says. Only
when the tests were repeated and
extended, and the researchers were sure,
did they make their findings public.
spent on hundreds of research
projects to find the answers, and
next week scientists will come
together to discuss progress at a
meeting convened by the UNs
food regulator, the Codex
Alimentarius Commission.
What is clear is that acrylamide
is formed by what is known as the
Maillard reaction, in which amino
acids react with sugars when food
is heated to more than 120 C and
begins to brown. Bread crusts and
fried or roasted potatoes are
among the many foods in which
the Maillard reaction is
responsible for the characteristic
texture and taste. Acrylamide
forms from the reaction between
the amino acid asparagine and
reducing sugars such as glucose
and fructose, which are found in
large quantities in plants such as
potatoes and cereals.
The current best guess is that
half the acrylamide we ingest
comes from processed foods, and
half from food cooked at home.
Richard Stadler, technical director
of an initiative by the European
Unions Confederation of the Food
and Drink Industries (CIAA) to
eliminate acrylamide from
processed food, says research is
ongoing to pin down exactly
where the acrylamide in our diet
comes from.
It is also becoming apparent
that acrylamide might be far
more prevalent in food than even
the Swedish researchers thought.
According to data from 17
countries published in February
2005 by the Joint FAO/WHO
Expert Committee on Food
Additives (JECFA) we now know
that the chemical is found in
foods ranging from olives, pizza
and beer to baby foods and green
tea. Between 10 and 20 per cent of
our exposure is thought to come
from pastries and cookies, while
in some countries up to 39 per
cent of exposure comes from
coffee (see Table).
That puts acrylamide in a
different category from
carcinogens in food such as
aflatoxins or ochratoxin A, which
are produced by fungi that
contaminate cereal crops. For these
toxins, legal safety levels can be set
on the quantities that can be
present in food, ensuring that only
safe levels are ingested. That is
virtually impossible with
acrylamide, as it is everywhere.
We realised we couldnt remove
products containing it from sale,
says Busk. There would be nothing
left in the shops. Even if that were
done, acrylamide would still be
produced during home cooking.
Acrylamide is known to have
potent health effects. It is
potentially neurotoxic, and
workers in the building and
construction industry exposed to
polyacrylamide, which is
prepared on site from acrylamide,
have developed numbness in
their fingers and toes, while
prolonged exposure can trigger
paralysis, Busk says.
Animal studies suggest that a
substance called glycidamide,
produced by the body as it breaks
down acrylamide, is genotoxic, as
it can bind to and damage DNA.
What that means is
complicated, says Angelika
Tritscher, WHO secretary to JECFA.
In people, less glycidamide
appears to be produced when
acrylamide is broken down than
in animals, she says, so we may be
less affected. In 2004, a US Food
and Drug Administration expert
panel concluded there was a
negligible risk that acrylamide
would trigger adverse
reproductive and developmental
effects in people, while there was
only a minimal concern that it
would cause heritable effects
French fries
Potato crisps (chips)
Pastries and sweet biscuits
Bread, bread rolls and toast
Other food items Acrylamide
16 to 30 %
6 to 46 %
13 to 39 %
10 to 20 %
10 to 30 %
less than 10%
Proportion of acrylamide exposure by food type (intake data from 17 countries)

nsuk-apr-22-06-p009 9 18/4/06 1:52:23 pm
This week
One way to limit the amount of
acrylamide produced in home-cooked
foods is to follow the golden rule.
That means cooking or baking foods
only until they are golden, and not
letting them go brown or black.
Acrylamide forms at temperatures
above 120 C from reactions between the
amino acid asparagine and reducing
sugars such as glucose or fructose.
This is the so-called Maillard reaction,
which a whole range of amino acids
undergo to create the rich flavours of
grilled, baked and roast food. It is also
what causes food to brown, and the
browner the surface the higher the
acrylamide content.
Following the golden rule has its
downsides. Potato products cooked at
lower temperatures tend to absorb
more fat, and so are less nutritionally
healthy. Also, gentle cooking is more
likely to allow bacteria to survive,
raising the risk of food poisoning. You
cant just get rid of acrylamide, because
you cant get rid of heat treatment for
safety and quality reasons, points out
Angelika Tritscher, the WHOs secretary
to JECFA. Its a trade-off.
Steps taken by the food industry to
limit acrylamide include selecting
different potato varieties, as levels of
the reducing sugars that contribute to
acrylamide formation can vary 30-fold
across varieties. Developing new yeasts
that limit the content of asparagine
formed in dough can cut down the
amount of acrylamide in bread crusts.
Several companies have been
experimenting with asparaginase, an
enzyme that destroys asparagine and
which could be commercially available
by the end of the year.
More details are available at www.
10 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
in the general population.
The most controversial area of
research relates to whether
acrylamide in food can cause
cancer. Rats fed acrylamide
develop tumours in the mouth,
and the mammary, thyroid and
pituitary glands. Yet most
epidemiological studies in people
so far have found no such link.
Our series of large case-control
studies found no consistent
association between dietary
acrylamide intake and risk of
breast, colorectal or other
common cancers, says Claudio
Pelucchi of the Mario Negri
Institute of Pharmacological
Research in Milan, Italy
(International Journal of Cancer,
vol 118, p 467). In two previous
investigations we found no
association between risk
of selected cancers and
consumption of fried or baked
potatoes and coffee two of the
food items thought to contribute
a considerable risk. His negative
findings were echoed by those of a
team in 2003 led by Lorelei Mucci
of the Harvard School of Public
Health, published in the British
Journal of Cancer (vol 88, p 84).
Despite these reassuring signs,
the JECFA concluded last year that
efforts to reduce acrylamide
should continue. It cited data
showing that, on average, people
eat 1 microgram of acrylamide per
kilogram of body weight per day.
That is 1/300th of the dose known
to cause a 10 per cent increase in
breast cancer in rats, and high
consumers of acrylamide might be
eating 1/75th of the carcinogenic
dose. In the world of food safety,
that is seen as an uncomfortably
narrow safety margin. For instance,
people eat between 1/10,000th
and 1/25,000th of the safe dose of
the carcinogenic polyaromatic
hydrocarbons formed in foods
such as charred burgers every day.
According to Busk, any cancers
caused by acrylamide in food will
only show up in sophisticated,
large epidemiological studies, and
these have not been done. The
risk is low compared to smoking,
but high compared with other
food carcinogens, he says. Its
probably the same level of risk as
background natural radiation.
We might know for sure in two
or three years, when the results of
a massive toxicology programme
in animals initiated in 2004 by
the FDA bears fruit. A genotoxicity
study in animals is just complete,
and should be published soon,
while carcinogenicity studies are
due to be completed in 2007, with
neurotoxicity studies due in
2008. We dont take issue with
the JECFA conclusions, but the
FDA data in the next two years will
be crucial to moving beyond the
interim levels at the moment,
says the FDA spokeswoman on
acrylamide. The JECFA agrees, and
has said it will review its
recommendations in the light of
the FDA animal studies.
In the meantime, behind the
scenes, the food industry has made
massive strides towards reducing
levels of acrylamide in the foods
we buy. Millions of dollars have
been spent reducing levels of it in
fries, potato chips, bread, biscuits,
gingerbread and coffee, while last
year the CIAA set up a website,
aimed at both food manufacturers
and home cooks, advising on how
best to eliminate acrylamide from
food (see The golden rule, left).
If its later found not to be a
concern, then we may have spent
money on it, but at least no lives
will have been lost through
negligence, Benford says.
The advice of most experts
is to continue to eat a balanced
diet low in fried foods and high in
fruit and vegetables, which is
what most also advise on
nutritional grounds. Busk, the
man who helped alert the world to
the problem four years ago, is
certainly not going to extremes.
I eat fewer crisps and fries, but
still drink as much coffee, and
thats 30 to 40 per cent of the
exposure, he says. Its important
to put it all in perspective.
One topping you didnt order
Behind the scenes the food
industry has made great strides
towards reducing the levels of
acrylamide in the food we buy
nsuk-apr-22-06-p010 10 13/4/06 8:19:18 pm
ITS the wild west of evolution
and ecology, says Joel Brown, an
ecologist at the University of Illinois
at Chicago. Evolution is operating
with a vengeance in the urban
environment as animals struggle to
adapt to novel conditions and cope
with evolutionary illusions.
An animal is said to be in an
evolutionary illusion or trap when it
does something it has evolved to do,
but at the wrong time or in the
wrong place. The concept may help
explain why so many squirrels get
squashed on city streets, says Brown.
For millions of years, squirrels have
evolved to cross open spaces as
quickly as possible, without wasting
time watching for predators that they
would not be able to escape anyway.
Ordinarily, that was a very sensible
thing to do, he says. But as an
urban squirrel crossing four lanes of
traffic, thats a bad idea.
Though ecologists used to dismiss
urban areas as unworthy of study,
they have recently begun to realise
that cities provide an ideal theatre in
which to see behaviour evolving at a
pace rarely seen in the wild. City
environments tend to be less variable
than the countryside. Urban heat
islands mean that insects can be
active longer or throughout the year,
and human activity provides urban
wildlife with more stable, predictable
sources of food and water.
Surprisingly, this too can set an
evolutionary trap, as an abundance
of food is not necessarily a good
thing because it may give animals
the wrong signal. For example, the
numerous bird feeders in Florida
suburbs allow Florida scrub jays to
live a well-fed and relatively stress-
free life. This easy living has a cost,
says Reed Bowman, a behavioural
ecologist at the Archbold Biological
Station in Lake Placid, Florida. By
mimicking an unusually early and
productive spring, the artificial
abundance fools the suburban
birds into breeding several weeks
earlier than country birds, and
laying larger clutches.
And heres the trap: the nuts and
other plant foods that fatten the
parents are unsuitable for nestlings,
which need the more digestible
protein provided by insect larvae that
will not emerge until later in spring.
As a result, suburban nestlings are
more likely to starve or be stunted,
Bowman has found. He will report
his results next week at a meeting on
urban birds at the American Museum
of Natural History in New York.
The citys bright lights may also
set a trap for animals. Sea turtles that
hatch on the beach usually head for
the safety the sea, which in the wild
is always brighter than the land. Now
they may head inland towards lights
from beachfront developments,
where they are unlikely to survive.
Night-migrating songbirds may fly
into brightly lit buildings and radio
towers, leading to deaths sometimes
numbering in the tens of thousands.
Challenges of this sort make cities
an ideal laboratory for evolutionary
biologists to watch adaptation
happening before their eyes.
In 2003, for example, Hans
Slabbekoorn of Leiden University in
the Netherlands showed that urban
great tits sing at a higher pitch than
their country cousins so that their
songs stand out better against the
city noise, which tends to be at lower
frequency. Slabbekoorn is now doing
further experiments to see whether
individual tits can learn this response.
Most of these species have
just begun to adapt to human
environments, Brown says. Its a
cool natural experiment.
Evolution gets busy
in the urban lab
Cities make an ideal laboratory
for evolutionary biologists
to watch adaptation
happening before their eyes 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 11
Survival of the most streetwise

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nsuk-apr-22-06-p011 11 18/4/06 4:40:20 pm
This week
OF ALL the threats to life on Earth,
gamma-ray bursts are probably
not uppermost on anyones
mind. However, those of us who
were worried can at last rest easy.
It seems that the very nature of
the Milky Way precludes these
dangerous explosions from
going off in our galaxy, let alone
anywhere near enough to
obliterate us.
A long gamma-ray burst within
6500 light years of Earth could
produce enough radiation to strip
away the ozone layer and cause a
mass, or even total, extinction
(New Scientist, 30 July 2005, p 13).
But studying the precise risk
has been hard because most long
GRBs occur in very distant, barely
visible galaxies. Only four have
been spotted within 2 billion light
years of Earth. Kris Stanek of Ohio
State University in Columbus
presented data on the latest of
these, GRB 060218, which
occurred on 18 February in the
constellation Aries, to his
colleagues. I was surprised that
people were more interested in
the host galaxies than the burst
itself, he says.
This sparked a discussion that
led the team to compare the host
galaxies of the four GRBs with
70,000 nearby galaxies studied
by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
They found that the galaxies
housing the bursts had levels of
heavy elements that were only 10
per cent of the average, and 20 per
cent that of the Milky Way (www.
This is very unlikely to be a
coincidence, says Stanek.
Theorist Stan Woosely of the
University of California at Santa
Cruz has an explanation. Long
GRBs are thought to be caused by
the collapse of gigantic fast-
rotating Wolf-Rayet stars that
have lost their outer layer of
hydrogen. In metal-rich galaxies,
heavy elements on the stars
surface should absorb the
momentum of the light coming
from inside the star, pushing off
the outer layers. This would
reduce the stars spin, making the
eventual collapse less violent and
a GRB less likely.
Adrian Melott of the
University of Kansas in Lawrence
and Brian Thomas of Washburn
University in Topeka, Kansas
who warned of the dangers of
GRBs are not convinced that our
galaxy is safe. Thomas points out
that the Milky Way could merge
with or swallow smaller, metal-
poor galaxies suitable for GRBs.
Also, a study by Armen Atoyan
of the University of Montreal in
Canada and his colleagues, due to
be published in The Astrophysical
Journal, claims that a source of
gamma rays in our galaxy, about
40,000 light years away, is a
remnant of a GRB that went off
about 10,000 to 20,000 years ago.
Luckily it wasnt pointed at us,
says Atoyan. If he is right, it
provides a counter argument,
says Melott.
Stanek, however, argues that
the source seen by Atoyan is more
likely the leftovers of an unusually
energetic supernova.
Earth escapes
gamma-ray disaster
12 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
Ozone layer safe for 100 years
Further evidence that the
chlorouorocarbons 11 and 12 are a
greater threat to the ozone layer in the
stratosphere than any other chemical
compound is cited in a report published
by the Department of the Environments
Central Unit on Environmental Pollution
(CUEP). If the 1973 rate of CFCs 11 and 12
is continued, says the report, a
maximum depletion of about 8 per cent
in the ozone layer will occur in about
100 years time. This would cause an
increase in ultraviolet radiation reaching
the ground of about 16 per cent. To put
this in perspective, this would be no
worse than the increase currently
experienced in moving from the north
to the south of England.
Uncertainties exist, however,
concerning the mechanism of CFC
destruction in the troposphere.
Research planned, or in progress, will
resolve some of the outstanding issues
during the next three years. In the
meantime, the CUEP advises that
precautionary steps should be taken in
advance of a nal decision on whether
to ban CFCs or not. These include
asking manufacturers of aerosols and
plastic foams using CFCs to intensify
their search for alternatives and
requesting manufacturers and users
of equipment using CFCs (mostly
air-conditioning and refrigeration
units) to minimise leakage.
In Britain, which accounts for about
6 per cent of world usage, 80 per cent
of CFC consumption is in aerosol
propellant, 7 per cent in refrigeration
and air conditioning, and 10 per cent
in the production of foam plastic. In
the US, by contrast, 20 per cent of CFC
production is used in air conditioning
and refrigeration, and about 50 per
cent as aerosol propellant.
From New Scientist, 29 April 1976
The Wellcome Trust & New Scientist Essay Competition 2006
For a full list of the competition rules go to:
Are you a current postgraduate student in science, engineering or technology?
Can you captivate an audience with a lively, fresh 700-word article on your
research and its implications for society?
Then why not tell the world?
Your chance to win a Wellcome Media Training Placement with New Scientist
Enter this years essay competition and show your skills:
it could gain you a career training opportunity
FIRST A two-week expenses paid
media placement with New Scientist,
1000 spending money and your
essay published in New Scientist
The winners plus the top 10 runners-up
get a free one-year subscription to New
Scientist and all winners will be invited to
give a short talk at an exciting event to be
held in London later this year and to share
their work with famous people from
science and the media
Closing date Friday 26 May 2006
A long gamma-ray burst within
6500 light years of Earth could
produce enough radiation to
cause a mass, or total, extinction
nsuk-apr-22-06-p012 12 18/4/06 1:57:08 pm
This week
A LITTLE-KNOWN mosquito-
borne virus is spreading pain and
death across the Indian Ocean,
and could be headed for Europe
and the Americas.
Chikungunya virus is normally
little cause for concern, as it
has not been fatal and large
outbreaks are rare. That looks
to be changing, as the virus has
recently swept across the Indian
Ocean, striking a third of the
population of the French island of
Runion in the past three months,
and killing for the first time.
Meanwhile the mosquitoes that
carry it are invading Europe and
the Americas, and there are signs
that the virus could already have
reached these fresh territories.
Chikungunya causes fever,
headache, nausea and a rash, but
its calling card is excruciating
pain in the smaller joints hence
its old name, knuckle fever.
It usually lasts a few days, but in
some cases pain and stiffness can
last months or even years.
In January 2005, travellers
from east Africa, where the
disease is endemic, brought the
virus to the Comoros islands
off the north-west coast of
Madagascar. It has since spread
to other previously uninfected
islands including Mauritius,
the Seychelles and Runion.
According to Frances health
surveillance agency, as many as
230,000 people may have had the
virus in Runion so far this year,
and there have been thousands of
cases on the other islands. Worse,
174 deaths on Runion have been
attributed to chikungunya.
Both the size and severity of
the outbreak could be because the
virus is new to the islands and few
people are immune, says Herv
Zeller, an expert on insect-borne
viruses at the Pasteur Institute in
Lyon, France. It is also possible
that the virus has mutated. The
chikungunya sequence from
Runion in 2006 indicates that
the virus there is different from
other viruses characterised until
now, says Rmi Carrel of the
University of the Mediterranean
in Marseille, France.
All this could be bad news for
the rest of the world, because the
tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus)
that carries chikungunya is also
invading new territory. It is native
to south-east Asia, but in the
past 20 years it has invaded the
southern US, Central and South
America, and parts of Europe
including Albania, Spain, Italy,
France and Belgium. Andrew
Tatem and his colleagues at the
University of Oxford blame
increased global trade for the
spread of the mosquitoes,
with the most popular air and
shipping routes from infested
countries closely correlating
with recent migrations of tiger
mosquitoes (Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences,
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0508391103)
(see Map, below).
While Zeller says that these
new mosquito colonies might
not be large or dense enough to
maintain the chikungunya virus,
some people in Spain and Italy
have recently been found with
antibodies to it, so something
carrying the virus must have
bitten them. In 1987 researchers
found the virus, or one of its close
relatives that also cause disease,
in people with flu symptoms in
Albania. If chikungunya really has
mutated, and the new killer strain
is carried into recently established
colonies of mosquitoes by an
infected person travelling from
Runion, for example then a
previously obscure disease could
become a lot better known.
Virus turns killer as
insect host fans out
14 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
The expansion of global trade has carried the tiger mosquito to many new territories
Native populations Populations established
in the last 30 years
Countries recently reporting
tiger mosquitoes at ports
Getting tough with Runions tiger mosquitoes
made easy on
the desktop
and web
T: 01462 480055 E:
nsuk-apr-22-06-p014 14 18/4/06 2:44:58 pm
WHAT happened before the big bang?
Cosmologists have long speculated
that a universe much like ours could
have collapsed in a big crunch and
then bounced back into the universe
we know. Now a theory that tries to
reconcile the incompatible theories
of general relativity and quantum
physics has provided the first
physically plausible model of how
this could have happened.
General relativity explains gravity
as being caused by distortions in the
fabric of space-time. But physicists
have struggled to also explain gravity
in terms of quantum mechanics,
leaving it the only force that still
lacks a clear quantum description.
A theory known as loop quantum
gravity (LQG) attempts to quantise
gravity by suggesting that space-
time is not as continuous as it seems.
Instead, space-time is made of tiny
interconnected loops, each only
metres in diameter, that form a
smooth fabric much like a shirts
fabric is smooth even though it is
woven from separate threads. The
curvature of LQG space-time creates
the effects of gravity, just as in the
theory of general relativity.
Abhay Ashtekar, Tomasz
Pawlowski and Parampreet Singh of
Pennsylvania State University in
University Park have now applied the
equations of LQG to the universe as a
whole. Starting from the expanding
universe we live in, they ran the
equations backwards in time to
see what happens if the expansion
is reversed.
As space shrinks, matter and
energy are crammed tighter and
tighter. Up to a point, loop quantum
gravitys description of the process
matches that of classical cosmology.
However, in classical cosmology, you
can reverse the big bang only so far.
The universe eventually becomes so
dense that the classical laws of
physics break down.
At this stage, according to LQG,
the extreme density undoes the
fabric of space-time. Two years ago,
this was shown by Martin Bojowald,
who was then at the Max Planck
Institute for Gravitational Physics in
Potsdam, Germany, and is now at
Penn State (New Scientist, 20 March
2004, p 34). His mathematics did
not go far enough, though, to work
out the exact nature of the pre-big-
bang universe.
Now, Ashtekars team has shown
that when space-time comes
undone, the loops resist further
shrinking. The quantum gravity
effects make gravity repulsive,
halting the collapse, says Ashtekar.
The breakthrough is in explaining
what happens next: the loops soon
rearrange themselves into a smooth
fabric, and the universe bounces
back in what we call the big bang.
This post-big-bang universe is
strikingly similar to some
cosmologies based on string theory,
which also tries to reconcile gravity
with quantum physics. According to
those cosmologies, our universe is a
3D brane within a higher-
dimensional space. Although the LQG
universe has no extra dimensions
and string theorys brane-based
approach cannot yet handle the pre-
big-bang world, their agreement as
to the post-big-bang universe is
reassuring, says Joe Lykken, a particle
theorist at Fermilab in Batavia,
Illinois. Finally we are all talking the
same language.
Ashtekar, Bojowald and others
plan to refine the LQG model and
hope that it will predict something
experimentally testable, maybe even
traces of the pre-big-bang past.
The big crunch does not completely
erase memory of what the universe
was like before, says Ashtekar. Their
work will be published in Physical
Review Letters. Davide Castelvecchi
A view of the universe
before the big bang
You can reverse the big bang
only so far before the universe
becomes so dense that classical
cosmology breaks down 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 15
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nsuk-apr-22-06-p015 Sec1:15 13/4/06 8:16:30 pm
In brief
Research news and discovery
A NEWBORN wallaby is a tiny,
bean-shaped creature, barely
more than a fetus. It lacks a
developed immune system,
relying on compounds in its
mothers milk to protect it against
pathogens. Now a unique
antimicrobial has been discovered
in wallaby milk that could be used
in hospitals to fight deadly
antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
When born, with a heart but no
that is 100 times more effective
against Gram-negative bacteria
such as E. coli than the most
potent form of penicillin. The
molecule, called AGG01, also kills
four types of Gram-positive
bacteria and one type of fungus.
The work was presented at the US
Biotechnology Industry
Organization 2006 meeting in
Chicago last week.
AGG01 was probably lost from
placental mammals, whose young
have their own immune systems,
when they split from marsupials.
lungs, tammar wallabies
(Macropus eugenii) crawl into
their mothers pouch, where they
latch on to milk-bearing teats.
A huge amount of development
happens in the pouch and during
that time they just rely on milk,
says Ben Cocks of the Victoria
Department of Primary Industries
in Melbourne, Australia.
Cocks has found that the
mothers milk contains a molecule
Fighting superbugs with milk
FOR you and me, its a humble
U-shaped bone above the larynx
that helps us chew and keeps our
tongues in place. But for whales,
its the key to getting around. Joy
Reidenberg, a comparative
anatomist at the Mount Sinai
School of Medicine in New York,
has found that these giants could
not roam the seas as they do
without a bone called the hyoid.
When Reidenberg started
thinking about how whales swim,
she realised that the hyoid might
not be an adaptation for feeding,
as some anatomists had thought.
Though the tail is what drives a
whale forward, its up-and-down
motion actually starts with the
head, powered by muscles
attached to the enlarged hyoid.
Their locomotion is really a body
wave, says Reidenberg, who
presented her results earlier this
month at the Experimental
Biology 2006 meeting in San
Francisco. The hyoid has become
a locomotor bone, she says.
It moves whales
STONED motorists will only stop
driving under the influence of
cannabis if they think they will
get caught.
Craig Jones and colleagues at
the New South Wales Bureau of
Crime Statistics and Research in
Sydney, Australia, interviewed
320 cannabis users about their
driving habits. When told that
being under the influence of
cannabis makes drivers three to
seven times more likely to cause
an accident, most users said that
would not stop them driving
while stoned. The threat of fines
and bans met with similar
More tests and advances in
testing technology would make
users less likely to drive. The
results will be published in
Accident Analysis and Prevention.
Ban no deterrent
to stoned drivers
Killing wolves wont solve
farmers long-term problems
HUNTED to the verge of extinction in North America, the
grey wolf has long been disliked and misunderstood.
Wolves that prey on livestock are sometimes hunted and
killed, but now an ecological study suggests that
compensating ranchers for lost stock is a better solution.
Wolves have been intentionally reintroduced into the
western United States. With the total population at about
5000, the animals often take livestock, and individual
wolves or packs may be killed by ranchers and government
animal control officers.
C. Cormack Gates of the University of Calgary, Canada,
and colleagues examined the effects of predation of
livestock and subsequent killing of wolves in North
America. The benefits are short-lived, Gates says. The
study found that killing wolves did nothing to deter other
wolves from preying on livestock in subsequent years
(Wildlife Society Bulletin, vol 33, p 876).
The researchers say it is cheaper to compensate ranchers
for lost livestock than to hunt wolves, and recommend
non-lethal controls, such as alarms. Were not saying
dont use lethal control. But put the emphasis on other
things, Gates says. Ed Bangs of the US Fish and Wildlife
Service says that killing problem wolves can be effective
and should continue to be used with other measures.
16 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
nsuk-apr-22-06-p016 16 13/4/06 5:49:28 pm
them to adjust the cars speed.
After 30 sessions over 10
weeks, Pineda found that the five
childrens mu brainwaves had
changed and they performed
better on tasks involving
imitation, typically difficult
for people with autism. Pineda
presented his work at the
annual meeting of the Cognitive
Neuroscience Society in San
Francisco last week.
This seems to indicate the
children improve, Pineda says.
How long the effects will last,
though, is unknown.
Pineda at the University of
California, San Diego, wondered
if controlling it through
neurofeedback could exercise
faulty mirror neurons and
improve their function.
He attached sensors to the
necks and heads of eight children
with autism and had them watch
a video game of a racing car
going round a track. For all of
the children, sitting still and
concentrating kept the car
travelling around the track, but
five of them were also able to
harness their mu waves and use
A VERSION of an unstable
molecule that has only ever
existed in interstellar space has
been made in the lab. It could be
used as a catalyst, as it has a long,
slender tip that could poke into
previously inaccessible regions
of a reactant, and high-energy
electrons that could destabilise
strong bonds.
Cyclopropenylidene (C
) is a
triangular molecule with a carbon
atom at each corner. Two are
bonded to hydrogen and have
full outer shells of electrons,
but one has an unfilled shell
and reacts with any molecule it
encounters. This is not a problem
in the low-density vacuum of
space, but on Earth it makes the
molecule highly unstable.
Guy Bertrand at the University
of California, Irvine, and
colleagues stabilised the unfilled
carbon atom by replacing the
hydrogen on the other two with
clusters of electron-rich atoms.
These have an umbrella effect
over the third carbon atom
(Science, DOI: 10.1126/
In space there are a lot
of molecules that are really
crazy, says Bertrand. It will be
interesting to synthesise them.
It came from
outer space
Nile releases citys
deep history
ALEXANDER wasnt quite so great after
all. Sure, he conquered most of the
world known to the ancient Greeks,
but he didnt found the Egyptian city
of Alexandria he just rebranded it.
It now seems that this part of the
Nile has been settled for at least
4500 years, pre-dating Alexanders
arrival by a good two millennia.
Alain Vron from the Paul Czanne
University in Aix-en-Provence, France,
and colleagues made the discovery
by measuring the variations in lead
concentration in a mud core from
Alexandrias ancient harbour. They
determined how lead levels had
changed over time by carbon-dating
seashells found in the core.
Clear pulses of lead contamination
occurred between 2686 and 2181 BC
and then again from 1000 to 800 BC.
The researchers conclude that these
peaks were associated with human
activities such as plumbing, fishing,
building and ship-building. This is
supported by ancient texts, which
mention a settlement named Rhakotis
(Geophysical Research Letters, DOI:
Lead levels rocketed around 330 BC
when Alexander the Great arrived,
and got higher by the time of the
Roman empire about 400 years later.
The work should settle a long-running
debate over the founding of the city
based on literary evidence.
Need a fix? Could
be time to relax
STRESS can trigger binge eating and
compulsive drug-taking. But how?
Kent Berridge of the University of
Michigan, Ann Arbor, and colleagues
suggest that stress hormones might
actually change how much we value
a reward, increasing our desire for
something pleasurable without
actually increasing our enjoyment.
Berridges team injected the
stress hormone corticotropin
releasing factor (CRF) into the nucleus
accumbens of rats brains, a part of
the dopamine reward circuitry
responsible for wanting or desire.
These rats had been trained to press
a lever to get a dose of sugar and to
associate hearing a certain tone with
getting that sugar. The stressed rats
worked harder at pressing the lever
when they heard the tone than rats
with low stress hormones (BMC
Biology, DOI: 10.1186/1741-7007-4-8).
The effect looked exactly the
same as when amphetamines were
injected, something well known to
increase desire. Stress magnifies the
wanting, says Berridge but only
when theres a cue, the tone, to
advertise the reward as well. Its a
bit like how seeing an advert for ice
cream makes you desire it, he says.
You might resist when youre not
stressed, but the advert and the
stress together make it irresistible.
The findings could explain
why some stressful pursuits can
be rewarding, and also how drug
paraphernalia and stress can make
relapse almost inevitable.
NEUROFEEDBACK practice may
be able to alleviate some of the
symptoms of autism, according
to a pilot study on eight children
with the disorder.
The technique involves
hooking people up to electrodes
and getting them to try and
control their brain waves.
In people with autism, the
mu wave is thought to be
dysfunctional. Since this wave
is associated with mirror
neurons the brain cells
that underpin empathy and
understanding of others Jaime
Brain training can change autistic behaviour 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 17
nsuk-apr-22-06-p017 17 13/4/06 5:51:03 pm
Comment and analysis
ON NEW Years Day, 50,000 inmates
in Kenyan jails went without lunch.
This was not some mass hunger strike
to highlight poor living conditions.
It was an extraordinary humanitarian
gesture: the money that would have
been spent on their lunches went to
the charity Food Aid to help feed an
estimated 3.5 million Kenyans who,
because of a severe drought, are
threatened with starvation.
The drought is big news in Africa,
affecting huge areas of the Sahel,
east Africa and the Horn. If you are
reading this in the west, however, you
may not be aware of it the media is
not interested in old stories. Even if you
do know about the drought, you may
not be aware that it is devastating one
group of people disproportionately:
the pastoralists. There are 20 million
nomadic or semi-nomadic animal-
herders in this region, and they are
fast becoming some of the poorest
people in the continent. Their plight
encapsulates Africas perennial
problem with drought and famine.
How so? It comes down to the
reluctance of governments, aid
agencies and foreign lenders to support
the herders traditional way of life.
Instead they have tended to try to turn
them into commercial ranchers or
agriculturalists, even though it has
been demonstrated time and again
that pastoralists are well adapted to
their harsh environments, and that
moving livestock according to the
seasons or climatic changes makes
their methods far more viable than
agriculture in sub-Saharan drylands.
Furthermore, African pastoralist
systems are often more productive, in
terms of protein and cash per hectare,
than Australian, American and other
African ranches in similar climatic
conditions. They make a substantial
contribution to their countries
national economies. In Kenya,
for example, the turnover of the
pastoralist sector is worth $800 million
per year. In countries such as Burkina
Faso, Eritrea and Ethiopia, hides from
pastoralists herds make up over 10 per
cent of export earnings.
Despite this productivity,
pastoralists still starve and their
animals perish when drought hits.
One reason is that only a trickle of the
profits goes to the herders themselves;
the lions share is pocketed by traders.
This is partly because the herders only
sell much of their stock during times of
drought and famine, when they need
the cash to buy food, and the terms of
trade in this situation never work in
their favour. Another reason is the lack
of investment in herding areas.
Funding bodies such as the World
Bank and USAID tried to address some
of the problems in the 1960s, investing
millions of dollars in commercial beef
and dairy production. It didnt work.
Firstly, no one bothered to consult the
pastoralists about what they wanted.
Secondly, rearing livestock took
precedence over human progress. The
policies and strategies of international
development agencies more or less
mirrored the thinking of their colonial
predecessors. They were based on two
false assumptions: that pastoralism
is primitive and inefficient, which led
to numerous failed schemes aimed
at converting herders to modern
ranching models; and that Africas
drylands can support commercial
ranching. They cannot. Most of Africas
herders live in areas with unpredictable
weather systems they are prone to
droughts that are totally unsuited to
commercial ranching.
What the pastoralists need is
support for their traditional lifestyle.
Over the past few years, funders and
policy-makers have been starting to
get the message. One example is
intervention by governments to ensure
that pastoralists get fair prices for their
cattle when they sell them in times of
drought, so that they can afford to buy
fodder for their remaining livestock
and cereals to keep themselves and
their families alive (the problem in
African famines is not so much a lack
of food as a lack of money to buy it).
Another example is a drought early-
warning system run by the Kenyan
government and the World Bank that
has helped avert livestock deaths.
This is all promising, but more
needs to be done. Some African
governments still favour forcing
pastoralists to settle. They should
heed the latest scientific research
demonstrating the productivity of
traditional cattle-herding. Ultimately,
sustainable rural development in
pastoralist areas will depend on
increasing trade, so one thing going
for them is the growing demand for
livestock products: there will likely be
an additional 2 billion consumers
worldwide by 2020, the vast majority
in developing countries. To ensure that
pastoralists benefit, it will be crucial to
give them a greater say in local policies.
Other key tasks include giving a greater
say to women, who play critical roles in
livestock production.
The rich world should pay
proper attention to the plight of the
pastoralists. Leaving them dependent
on foreign food aid is unsustainable
and will lead to more resentment,
conflict, environmental degradation
and malnutrition. It is in the rich
worlds interests to help out.
Curtis Abraham writes on African
development issues. He is based in
East Africa
Unsettled existence
The policies of aid
agencies mirrored
the thinking of
their colonial
Forcing Africas nomadic herders to become ranchers will not save them from
drought. Far better to support their traditional ways, says Curtis Abraham
18 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
nsuk-apr-22-06-p018 18 12/4/06 4:17:00 pm
Diet disorder
From Simon Mallett
What causes the mood swings of
attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder (1 April, p 8)? Consider
the 7-year-old who is normally a
charming boy polite, attentive,
fascinated with how things work
and generally calm and then
without warning is bouncing off
the walls, shouting at his mother
and clearing the kitchen table
with a single backhander. The
cause is easy to see: a bad modern
diet that is overloaded with
sugars, additives and anything
else that the food industry can get
away with to maximise profit.
I fear the focus on a cure using
a cocktail of drugs is always going
to be the preferred option for
researchers, as it might lead to
funding and recognition. Simply
telling people to eat more greens,
to cut out the rubbish from the
diet and not to poison their kids
with sweeteners might be seen as
too simple.
Lenham, Kent, UK
The editor writes:
Children can become
hyperactive for many reasons,
one of which is diet, but a child
who is normally attentive is
unlikely to have ADHD. This
underlines the message of our
article, which is that ADHD is a
complex condition (see www.cdc.
htm) whose diagnosis should be
the responsibility of a qualified
psychiatrist or paediatrician
through extensive behavioural
observation in different contexts.
Accidental underdose?
From Alex Corbishley
Andy Coghlan suggested that a
possible explanation for the tragic
ill effects of TGN1412 might have
been an accidental overdose
(25 March, p 10). Has anyone
considered the possibility that
the investigators may have
inadvertently underdosed the
It was hoped that TGN1412
would work by binding to the
CD28 receptor of regulatory
T-cells and activating them to
dampen down the immune
response. But if it has a stronger
affinity for the CD28 receptor of
conventional T-cells than for
that of regulatory T-cells, a low
dose may be enough to stimulate
the former but not to stimulate
the protective regulatory T-cells,
resulting in the disastrous effects
seen. I note that the investigators
administered just 0.2 per cent of
the dose considered safe in
animal experiments.
The same effect could appear
if there were a subtle difference
between the messenger systems
that convey the message from the
CD28 receptor into the regulatory
and conventional T-cells.
Cambridge, UK
For cods sake
From Wesley Ludemann
Contrary to Nick Palmers
opinion, the culling of Canadas
harp seal pups is well justified, as
it could allow the survival of the
few remaining cod (25 March,
p 22). Harp seals eat enormous
quantities of fish, and are very
wasteful. As pointed out in Mark
Kurlanskys book Cod, harp seals
dont like to deal with bones: they
tear into the belly of the cod and
leave the rest.
Cod can live for 20 to 30 years,
and used to grow to well over
1.5 metres long, weighing
90 kilograms. Fully mature, they
were relatively safe from seal
predation, and spawned
astronomical quantities of eggs.
Because of overfishing, mature
cod no longer exist. The larger
remaining codlings are 2 to
3 years old and under 60
centimetres long. Since all the
large cod have been fished out,
these remaining bite-sized
juvenile cod are the only hope for
continuation of the species.
During the last seal-hunting
ban, the harp seal population
doubled. Culling is necessary to
save the remaining cod.
Livermore, California, US
Teaching evolution
From John Nicoll
Robin Holden wonders how good
biology teachers could possibly
teach creationism (1 April, p 24).
He should come to south-east
London, where I teach science and
where there are many biology
graduates who are creationists.
Many, though not all, are from
Christian parts of Africa or Asia.
I know of two local biology
teachers who are not only
creationists, but who believe
literally in a seven-day creation a
few thousand years ago, and I can
think of at least three student
teachers who have passed
through our own department in
recent years who are both biology
graduates and creationists.
These people cannot teach
creationism under the national
curriculum (yet) but what they do
in the classroom with the
miserable little bit of Darwinism
left in the syllabus I shudder to
think. Many of my most able
pupils are creationists, too. It is
not just in America that the
darkness is gathering.
London, UK
From Norman McCanch
I am a rara avis among biology
teachers, one whose specialisms
are ecology and evolutionary
biology. The vast majority of my
biology graduate colleagues are
essentially physiologists,
biochemists and microbiologists
and lack background knowledge
and experience to do justice to the
most neglected parts of biology in
the curriculum, namely ecology
and evolution.
Many cannot even name the
trees, flowers and invertebrates
inhabiting the school grounds
and certainly cannot adequately
interpret these complex subjects
to young minds. These teachers
are poorly prepared to deal with
the sort of insidious questioning
which accompanies the
creationist view and have little
more than a few textbook
examples to refer to in response.
Canterbury, Kent, UK
Wrong priorities
From Meghann Mears
Having just read your special on
lunar science, I find myself
horrified by the money being
poured into projects that are
unsustainable and irrelevant in
comparison with the good that
the money could do here on Earth
(1 April, p 32). It is not only space
science that is guilty: I often find
myself wondering whether the
returns in terms of benefits to
humans or the planet can justify
the resources put into projects
such as particle colliders.
I do not presume to say what
science is worthy of being
pursued, but it seems obvious we
have more critical problems to
solve, notably improving peoples
quality of life and minimising our
impact on the planet. The amount
of money that WHO projects, for
example, require to tackle some
of them is minute compared with
NASAs billions.
Space travel in its present form
promotes unsustainability.
Perhaps we need to re-examine
the priorities of todays science if
we want to preserve our dreams
of future possibilities.
Sheffield, UK
Give me a child
From Wai Wong
As a childs brain develops, there
are short periods during which
the ability to process certain
information, be it vision, sound or
language, can be acquired. If the
relevant window of opportunity is
20 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
nsuk-apr-22-06-p020 20 13/4/06 1:06:15 pm
missed, the childs ability to
process that information will be
lost or significantly hampered.
Since the Pirah children were not
exposed to concepts such as
numbers, colours or time when
growing up, they have difficulties
grasping such concepts later in
life (18 March, p 44). It is a matter
of exposure, not language or
culture. Give me a Pirah child,
and I can use objects to train him
to understand those concepts
without altering his language
or culture.
I stand by Chomskys theory of
universal grammar, which is akin
to our (almost) universal ability to
understand the visual language of
red, green, blue and white (but not
infrared or ultraviolet). What we
need is the right environment for
inborn ability to develop to its
potential. If our eyes were covered
during the first couple of months
after birth, we would never be able
to read this sentence.
Mitcham, Victoria, Australia
From Niki Edwards
The linguist Dan Everett suggests
that the Pirah are not given to
fretting about the future and
that they live for the moment.
However, when they ask an absent
Everett, via a tape recorder, to
bring matches and bananas when
he next visits them, are they not
living beyond the moment?
Main Beach, Queensland,
Celestial pioneer
From Ian Stewart,
University of Warwick
My article on the celestial
express inadvertently omitted a
key part of the history of low-
energy pathways across the solar
system (25 March, p 32). The
foundations of the entire area
were created in 1991 by Edward
Belbruno of Princeton University,
whose work was used to rescue
the Japanese spacecraft Hiten and
get it to the moon using such
routes the first time that this
method was used. The mission
established the techniques
practical advantages and
convinced people that it really
does work.
In 1994 Belbruno published
the first paper describing the
invariant manifold tubes for the
lunar transfer, and his work was
also used by ESAs lunar
spacecraft SMART1. He is the
author of the only textbook on
the topic: Capture Dynamics and
Chaotic Motions in Celestial
Mechanics, published by
Princeton University Press and
reviewed by Carl Murray in New
Scientist (15 May 2004, p 48).
Coventry, UK
Raining algae
From John Etherington
Now that Milton Wainwright and
his colleagues have confirmed
that the Indian red rain cells
contain DNA, it seems most likely
that they are algae, and as he
suggests in his letter, are not in
the least mysterious, despite the
date it was published (1 April,
p 12 and p 25).
Researchers in Kerala suggest
that the red rain could be cells of a
red-pigmented green alga,
Trentepohlia, but there are other
likely candidates. The green algal
genus Haematococcus is a
member of the motile order
Volvocales which forms spores
and resting-stage palmella
structures, both enclosed by thick
cell walls, and very similar to the
pictures that you published. The
cells are strongly red-coloured by
the carotenoid pigment
astaxanthin, formerly called
One species, Haematococcus
pluvialis, occurs in ephemeral
rain pools and its specific name
means of rain. In arid
environments, water or dust
containing the cells may be picked
up by mini-tornadoes, the usually
acknowledged source of bizarre
objects such as the froglets, snails,
small fish and other creatures
deposited in storm showers.
Llanhowell, Pembrokeshire, UK
From Guy Cox,
University of Sydney
Hazel Muir presents an electron
micrograph and asks, Does it
look alien to you? Having spent
quite a lot of time over the
past 30 years working on
cyanobacteria, the answer has
to be, No, not at all.
It looks very like a
cyanobacterium (blue-green alga)
of the genus Gloeocapsa or
Gloeothece. In this case the
red colour would come from
c-phycoerythrin and there would
also be absorption from
chlorophyll. These both absorb
strongly at wavelengths
reasonably close to the reported
figures. The unusual cell wall
(or sheath) is quite typical of
these genera and gives them
amazing tolerance to drying:
they can live just about anywhere.
I have not, however, found any
previous references to them
living in clouds.
Sydney, Australia
Is farther older?
From Howard Zimmerman
In the 25 March issue there seems
to be a misrepresentation of the
ages of galaxies (Shady deals
on galactic scale, page 21).
It states that cosmologists
compared the mass ratio of
visible and dark matter in these
[faraway] galaxies with the ratio
in galaxies that are close by and
therefore older.
Nearby and distant galaxies
may well be the same age, but the
visible-light images received from
distant galaxies represent a time
when the universe was younger
compared with the visible-light
images from closer galaxies.
New York City, US
Culling mozzie larvae
From David Lowry
John Balfour is concerned that
rainwater storage tanks will breed
mosquitoes (25 March, p 24). In
my experience there is an easy
solution. In Adelaide the public
water supply is notorious for its
high salt content and unpleasant
taste, and many residents have a
rainwater tank attached to the
house to allow them to brew a
decent beer or cup of tea.
We moved to a house with a
5000-litre corrugated iron tank
but I was discouraged by the
presence of lively mosquito larvae
in a typical jug of water.
I first attempted to remove
them by adding a metal mesh
filter to the tap. This worked but
the water supply reduced to a
trickle as the larvae clogged the
filter, which needed cleaning
every month or two.
Attempt 2 was a variation on
the Australian outback practice
of pouring a little kerosene into
the tank. It floats on the surface
and kills the larvae when they
ascend and try to breathe. The
prospect of adding aromatic
hydrocarbons to my drinks did
not appeal, so I tried vegetable oil.
As the water level in the tank rose
and fell, the oil accumulated as a
gunge on the sides of the tank and
became ineffective.
Attempt 3 was biological
control. I added a couple of small
fish to the tank and they worked
perfectly for the couple of years
we continued living in that house.
Brisbane, Australia
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Antarctic isolation 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 21
nsuk-apr-22-06-p021 21 13/4/06 1:09:19 pm
Lasers bring
cracks to light
A MONITORING system could
provide early warning of building
or pipeline collapse after an
earthquake by spotting the first
signs of cracking and assessing
the seriousness of any damage.
The Distributed Brillouin
Sensor (DBS) was developed by
a team led by physicist Xiaoyi
Bao at the University of Ottawa,
Canada. It relies on the small
temperature changes that
occur in a deformed or cracked
structure. Light from two lasers
of different types travels through
a fibre that runs the length of
the structure. The temperature
changes increase the frequency of
light from only one of the types of
laser: this makes it interfere with
and so amplify the other lasers
light, revealing the temperature
change at the site of the crack and
allowing damage to be pinpointed
to within a few centimetres.
Attack of the
giant rodent
IMAGINE pitting yourself against
a giant man-eating hamster. That
is the theme of Mice Arena, an
augmented-reality computer
game in which your opponent
is a real, live animal.
The live though normal-
sized hamster is housed in a
tank fitted with infrared sensors
that track its motion as it chases a
tasty piece of bait. Its movements
Chinese websites last week
urged the government and
other sites to eliminate
unhealthy pornography
and violence on the web
Leonardo da Vinci may have created
beautiful paintings, but he wouldnt
have been much of a web designer.
Thats the implication of a study into
how the design of a website affects
how easy it is to use.
The artist behind the Mona Lisa
believed that the golden ratio
approximately 1.618 could give
designs a fundamental beauty.
However, a study by Paul van Schaik
at the University of Teesside, UK, has
found that the golden ratio does not
benefit all designs. Websites with
golden proportions can be harder to
extract information from.
Van Schaik put 98 students into five
groups and asked them all to answer
questions using information on five
websites. He recorded the time it took
participants to answer each question,
together with the number of web pages
they looked at to do so. All the sites had
a navigation bar with links to other
sections of the site on the left of the
page and a frame for content on the
right, but the sizes of these two sections
differed for each group. The pages of
one group were divided according to
the golden ratio, while the websites of
the other four groups gave over less
space to the navigation bar.
Those in the golden group answered
the questions slowest, taking an
average of 15.8 seconds to complete the
task, 3.5 seconds longer than the fastest
group and 2 seconds longer than the
next slowest, which had the third
largest navigation pane. The golden
group also visited more pages to find
the information (Computers in Human
Behaviour, vol 22, p 870).
are mimicked by the monster
hamster on your computer
screen, which is chasing an avatar
representing you, the player.
When you evade the monster
hamster on screen, actuators
move the bait around the tank to
evade the animal. The game ends
when your avatar is caught.
The game is the work of
researchers at the Emerging Art
and Architecture Research Group
in Serbia and the Mixed Reality
Lab at Nanyang Technological
University, Singapore.
Have you ever felt your bath was just a little too narrow for comfort? Then you may
be glad to hear that Sony has applied for a patent on a shape-shifting tub. Its walls
would be made of a strong, flexible polymer, and a controller mounted on the bath
would adjust pressure rams connected to elastic cushioning panels behind the walls.
Now you can surf the web without even hooking up to the internet. Webaroo has
created a program that lets users store a snapshot of the web on their laptop.
Software scours the web, selecting pages with a lot of content and a small storage
size, and divides them into subject categories. Users select what interests them,
connect to the internet and download the pages from the companys server. From
then on, the stored pages can be searched and viewed at any time.

2005 06 07 08 09 2010
Households subscribing to internet TV will
reach 16.7 million in western Europe by 2010
Stephen Forrest, a materials scientist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who has developed wafer-thin, light-emitting plastic sheets that
could be much more efficient than light bulbs and can be turned into wall panels and ceiling tiles (The Guardian, London, 13 April).
We hope it means the end of the light bulb
At least you dont need a plug-in to see it
Y 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 23
nsuk-apr-22-06-p023 23 13/4/06 5:53:15 pm
WHEN the last of Sonys Aibo
robotic dogs rolled off the
production line last month, it
wasnt just consumer fans who
mourned its passing. For years
robotics researchers have been
using Aibo to test artificial
intelligence systems, and they
were dismayed by its demise. Their
online chatter has been littered
with panicked requests for advice
on getting hold of remaining
stocks and concern over the
future of their research projects.
Since its birth in 1999, Aibo has
quietly become one of the most
widely used robotics research
tools. Its skills as a soccer player
that could be programmed to
compete in teams for the annual
RoboCup Four-Legged Challenge
are what first attracted many
research labs. Soon it was being
used much more widely, and it
became the closest thing
researchers had to a standard
programmable robot.
So when Sony announced
earlier this year that it would be
ending its commercial robotics
programme on 31 March,
researchers were left wondering
what, if anything, would take its
place. Some are still hoping for
a miraculous resurrection, if
not of Aibo, at least of Sonys
robotics programme. A group of
researchers who compete for the
RoboCup are compiling a volume
of some 150 papers they have
published on research using
Aibos. They plan to present it to
Sony in the next few weeks to
alert the company to the amount
of work carried out, in the slim
hope of changing its mind. Even
I was surprised by collecting all
these papers, says Manuela
Veloso, a computer scientist at
Carnegie Mellon University in
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who is
editing the volume. We knew the
research was being done and the
papers were being published, but
we didnt realise there was such a
substantial amount.
Although Aibo was not
designed as a research tool, it came
equipped with a camera, sensors,
computer chip and the ability to
walk all the attributes needed for
testing AI programs which saved
scientists the trouble and expense
of building their own robots.
Because many teams used Aibos,
researchers were able to compare
their results and determine whose
algorithms performed best.
Aibo had everything, but the favourite pet of robotics
researchers is no more. What can take its place?
Take Aibos walk, for example.
In the RoboCup competition,
Aibos scoot around on their
forearms, trapping the ball
between their arms as they run. In
the first four-legged competition
in 1999, most teams programmed
this gait by hand, and reached
speeds of up to 25 centimetres per
second. Since speed is a crucial
factor in winning soccer matches,
the researchers soon began to
experiment with programs that
enabled their dogs to learn the
best gaits for themselves. For
example, the winners of the 2005
competition, a collaboration of
four German universities called
GermanTeam, used a genetic
algorithm that bred possible
gaits and then selected the two
most successful from which to
spawn offspring with the best
characteristics of both. As a result,
their robot reached a speed of
45 centimetres per second.
Of course the Aibo wont
disappear overnight, as
researchers have been gently
reminding each other on the
Four-Legged leagues mailing list.
Sony has promised to continue
servicing the latest model for
seven years. However, some
teams have been unable to find
new Aibos in shops or online, and
a recent attempt by the leagues
coordinators to work with Sony to
stockpile dogs for the RoboCup
was unsuccessful. Anybody who
is planning to restock now is out
of luck, says Peter Stone, an
artificial intelligence researcher at
the University of Texas at Austin.
Stone believes the league will be
able to continue until 2008 by
fielding the robots the teams
already have. After that, the future
of the league is up in the air, he
says. There is now an urgent need
Some are still hoping for a miraculous
resurrection of Sonys robotics programme
Hunt is on for
the next top dog
24 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
nsuk-apr-22-06-p024 24 13/4/06 5:54:21 pm
EduBots commercially in 2007.
They also plan to create a website
where researchers can exchange
experimental techniques and
results an important step to
making the robot a standard
research tool. The robots will cost
around $5000 initially, but
Koditschek expects this to drop
significantly once they are
produced in large numbers.
A final, more idealistic option
for replacing Aibo is for AI
researchers to collaborate to
design a robot that fits all their
needs. By working together to
build a robot, AI researchers
would no longer be at the mercy
of a single company or university,
which would ensure the device
was with them for years to come.
That, at least, is the dream of
roboticist David Calkins of San
Francisco State University.
Calkinss ideal robot would
also be brick-shaped and include a
standard computer brain. From
that base it would be completely
modifiable. Researchers could
snap on different heads, legs,
cameras and sensors, he says.
It could even be made in different
sizes: the difference between a
toy poodle and a German
shepherd, he says. It would also
not be limited to four legs like
Aibo: it could have two, four, six,
or even 12 legs, according to each
researchers needs.
Now is the time for us to
stop being lazy and using Sonys
platform, Calkins says. We
need to get together and build a
better system.
for an inexpensive, programmable
robot to fill Aibos shoes.
One possible successor is
Robosapien, a humanoid
consumer robot built by WowWee
Robotics of Hong Kong. The robots
are not fitted with the complete
package of sensors and processing
power like Aibo, but inventor
Mark Tilden hopes researchers
will modify the robot to suit their
needs. As I am a frustrated
robotics researcher myself, I have
specifically though not
officially made all our
Robosapien line flexible, adaptive
and inexpensive enough for
modification and improvements,
he says. We even colour-coded
and socketed all our internal
cables for ease of modification.
Two universities have already
fielded modified Robosapiens in
the RoboCups humanoid league.
To make their Robosapiens
autonomous, the teams replaced
the head with a hand-held
computer and a camera. A team
from the University of Freiburg
in Germany bought and modified
a Robosapien for less than
$1000, half the price of an Aibo.
Other teams are also beginning
to modify Robosapiens, but it is
not clear if these robots will
ever be great soccer players, or
whether it would make sense to
devote an entire league to them.
While its possible to dribble a
ball with the robot, Robosapien is
unable to perform the powerful
kick needed for penalties, the
Freiburg team reports.
Perhaps a better solution would
be to design and build a robot
specifically for researchers. Daniel
Koditschek, a robotics engineer at
the University of Pennsylvania,
Philadelphia, is developing just
that. Its called EduBot and,
standing still, looks as lacklustre
as its name implies. It is shaped
like a brick, with six semicircular
appendages that look as if they
would be better for swimming
than walking. However, EduBot
comes into its own when it moves.
It can leap, flip, run and pronk
jumping straight up in the air by
pushing with all its legs at once,
like a springbok. Using four of its
legs, EduBot can also bound like a
gazelle, and it runs much faster
than Aibo, with its speed expected
to exceed five body-lengths per
second. This compares very
favourably with the Aibo record of
1.4 body-lengths per second.
In September Koditscheks
team will begin testing EduBot as
a teaching and research tool.
Some 10 robots will be used in
engineering classes at the
University of Pennsylvania,
and other EduBots will be shared
with robotics labs at other
universities. If all goes well, the
team hopes to begin selling
Time to hang up their boots 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 25
No prizes for looks, but when EduBot moves
The Robosapien age?
nsuk-apr-22-06-p025 25 13/4/06 5:54:50 pm
A HIDDEN trap that detects how fast
vehicles are going just by listening to
them as they pass could catch
speeding drivers unawares.
The system, being developed by
the University of Tennessee and the
Battelle Institute in Oak Ridge, uses
microphones hidden by the roadside
to measure the speed of passing
vehicles. It does not emit telltale
radiation, unlike radar or laser-based
devices, so it cannot be picked up by
dashboard detectors.
Once the microphones have
detected and recorded the sound of
a passing vehicle, digital filtering
removes background noise to leave
only the sound of the engine.
Software then calculates the vehicles
speed by measuring the engine
sounds Doppler shift the change in
a sounds pitch as its source moves
past an observer.
The system, revealed by recently
filed patents, has been developed
with funding from the US
Department of Energy. The
microphones could easily be hidden
in street signs, the patent says.
To test the concept, the
researchers recorded a number of
moving vehicles and then calculated
their speed based on the Doppler
shift. They calculated speeds to
within a few per cent in 32 out of
33 experiments.
The system can also measure the
engine speed in rotations per minute
by detecting the pulsing sound made
by the pistons. By comparing this
with a library of acoustic signatures,
it can estimate the size of the engine.
This information can even be used
to measure the weight of vehicles, to
catch overloaded trucks. Microphones
installed on a slope with a known
incline would record the engine as
the vehicle starts to climb and use
more power. Correlating the
simultaneous changes in road speed
and engine speed as the vehicle
starts labouring up the slope, and
comparing this against the size of
the engine, gives a good estimation
of the vehicles weight. Barry Fox
AN IMPLANT that squirts
chemicals into the back of your
eye may not sound like much fun.
But a solar-powered chip that
stimulates retinal cells by spraying
them with neurotransmitters
could restore sight to blind people.
Unlike other implants under
development that apply an
electric charge directly to retinal
cells, the device does not cause
the cells to heat up. It also uses
very little power, so it does not
need external batteries.
The retina, which lines the
back and sides of the eyeball,
contains photoreceptor cells that
release signalling chemicals called
neurotransmitters in response to
light. The neurotransmitters pass
into nerve cells on top of the
photoreceptors, from where the
signals are relayed to the brain via
a series of electrical and chemical
reactions. In people with retinal
diseases such as age-related
macular degeneration and
retinitis pigmentosa, the
photoreceptors become damaged,
ultimately causing blindness.
Last year engineer Laxman
Saggere of the University of
Illinois at Chicago unveiled plans
for an implant that would replace
these damaged photoreceptors
with a set of neurotransmitter
pumps that respond to light. Now
he has built a crucial component:
a solar-powered actuator that
flexes in response to the very low-
intensity light that strikes the
retina. Multiple actuators on a
single chip pick up the details of
the image focused on the retina,
allowing some pixels to be
passed on to the brain.
The prototype actuator consists
of a flexible silicon disc just
1.5 millimetres in diameter and
15 micrometres thick. When light
hits a silicon solar cell next to the
disc it produces a voltage. The
solar cell is connected to a layer of
piezoelectric material called lead
zirconate titanate (PZT), which
changes shape in response to the
voltage, pushing down on the
silicon disc. In future, a reservoir
will sit underneath the disc, and
this action will squeeze the
neurotransmitters out onto
retinal cells. Celeste Biever
The voltage produced when light strikes the
implants solar cell fires a piezoelectric
actuator causing a pulse of neurotransmitter
to be squrited onto the retina
Piezoelectric layer
Fluid fill port
Solar cell
Flexible silicon disc


implant could
restore vision
Caught by the
sound of your
speeding car
26 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
Technology |
The new StabyCloning
A revolutionary system for fast cloning
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nsuk-apr-22-06-p026 26 13/4/06 5:59:59 pm
at the slits it still creates a pattern of light
and dark bands as if it were two waves.
In 1983, Hawking and James Hartle of the
University of California at Santa Barbara, took
up this picture and applied it to the evolution
of the whole universe. They did that using the
sum over histories interpretation of quantum
theory, first set out by the late Richard
Feynman. Feynman suggested that the way to
interpret quantum phenomena such as the
double-slit experiment was to assume that
when a particle travels from point A to point B,
it doesnt simply take one path it takes every
possible path simultaneously; the photon
travels through both slits at the same time
and interferes with itself, for example.
In this scheme, when a photon travels from
a lamp to your eye it moves in a straight line,
but it also dances about in twists and swirls,
travels to Jupiter and back, and ricochets off
the Great Wall of China. The obvious question,
then, is why do we see only ever see one path,
straight and simple? Feynmans answer was,
because all the other paths cancel each other
out. In the sum-over-histories interpretation,
each path can be mapped out as a wave. Each
wave has a different phase (effectively a
starting time), and all the waves added
together create an interference pattern,
building upon one another where their phases
align and cancelling each other out where
their phases are mismatched. The sum of all
the waves is one single wave, which describes
the path we observe.
Applied to the universe, this idea has
an obvious implication. Just as a particle
travelling from point A to point B takes every
possible path in between, so too must the
history of the universe. In one history, the
Earth never formed. In another, Al Gore is
president. And in yet another, Elvis is still
well, you get the idea. The universe doesnt
a singularity a place where gravity becomes
so strong that space and time are curved
beyond recognition. In this situation, general
relativity our best description of how space,
time and matter interact no longer applied.
So what rules did apply? Hawking and
Hertog suggest that the universe was so small
at this time that quantum effects must have
been important. We dont yet have a quantum
theory of gravity, so we cant be sure exactly
what the rules were, but the principle still
stands, they say. The real lesson of these so-
called singularity theorems is that the origin
of the universe is a quantum event, Hertog
claims. And that, of course, opens the whole
universe up to some very strange phenomena.
The famous double-slit experiment
highlights the bizarre reality of how a
universe born in quantum mode might
behave. In the experiment, a screen with two
open slits faces a sheet of photographic film.
When light is shone through the slits the film
registers where it lands. If the light goes
through both slits the film shows an
interference pattern of light and dark bands.
Such a pattern is typically produced by
interfering waves one from each slit. Whats
spooky is that even when a lone photon is fired

HERES how to build a universe. Step
one: start at the beginning of time.
Step two: apply the laws of physics.
Step three: sit back and watch the universe
evolve. Step four: cross your fingers and hope
that it comes out looking something like the
one we live in.
Thats the basic prescription for cosmology,
the one physicists use to decipher the history
of the universe. But according to Stephen
Hawking of the University of Cambridge and
Thomas Hertog of the European Organization
for Nuclear Research (CERN), the steps are
all backward. According to these physicists,
there is no history of the universe. There
is no immutable past, no 13.7 billion years of
evolution for cosmologists to retrace. Instead,
there are many possible histories, and the
universe has lived them all. And if thats not
strange enough, you and I get to play a role
in determining the universes history. Like a
reverse choose-your-own-adventure story, we,
the observers, can choose the past.
This bizarre state of affairs has its roots
in Hawkings work in the 1970s. Early in his
career, Hawking, along with physicist Roger
Penrose, proved a theorem showing that our
expanding universe must have emerged from
Cover story |
28 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
Mr Hawkings
The history of the cosmos has yet to be decided.
At last, a chance to play God, says Amanda Gefter
nsuk-apr-22-06-p028 28 11/4/06 2:00:18 pm 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 29
nsuk-apr-22-06-p029 29 11/4/06 2:00:41 pm
universe. What does that mean?
Hawking and Hertog equate the cosmic
histories with how the geometry of the
universe evolves in each possible case of
going from point A (the beginning of time)
to point B (now). To start with, this seems
straightforward enough. We can specify the
state of the universe at point B by making
certain observations of the world around
us the universe has three large spatial
dimensions, its geometry is close to flat,
it is expanding, and so on.
What about point A, though? Mapping out
the paths of a photon from a lamp to our eye is
not too hard because we know the beginning
point the lamp and the final point: our eye.
We know nothing about the universe at the
beginning of time, however. After all, thats
what cosmology is supposed to tell us.
This is where the sum-over-histories
interpretation comes into its own. The
mathematics behind this approach to
the window and thrown the sacred laws of
cause and effect into question. But theyre
not exactly being violated, Hawking says
its all to do with perspective. If we could stand
outside the world, we would be able to see
the present affecting the past, as when an
observer affects a photons path through the
universe. From inside the universe, though
from the only place we can possibly be no
observer sees causality violated. What we
observe in the present, the final state, is one
entire, causally consistent history or another:
from within any given history, cause and
effect proceed in the usual manner.
Observations of final states determine
different histories of the universe, says
Hawking. A worms-eye view from inside the
universe would have the normal causality.
Backwards causality is an angels-eye view
from outside the universe.
So the idea is that to unravel the past, we
must sum together all possible histories of the
have a single history, but every possible history,
each with its own probability, Hertog says.
But there is a twist: the history that we see
depends on the experimental setup. In the
double-slit experiment, it has been shown
time and again that if we use a photon
detector to find which of the two slits the
photon went through, it no longer creates an
interference pattern, just a single spot on the
film. In other words, the way you look at the
photon changes the nature of its journey. The
same thing happens in Hawking and Hertogs
universe: our observations of the cosmos
today are determining the outcome in this
case, the entire history of the universe. A
measurement made in the present is deciding
what happened 13.7 billion years ago; by
looking out at the universe, we assign
ourselves a particular, concrete history.
If true, this is no mere curiosity; Hawking
and Hertog have tossed the notion of a
unique, observer-independent cosmology out
30 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006

Its all to do with perspective, Hawking says: if we could stand
outside the world, we would see the present affecting the past

nsuk-apr-22-06-p030 30 11/4/06 2:01:24 pm
quantum theory contains an oddity: the
answers only come out right when the
calculation is done in imaginary time. That
doesnt mean make-believe time, but rather
a time dimension that is expressed using
complex numbers. This is not an entirely
esoteric idea: electrical engineers routinely
use complex numbers, which are split into
real and imaginary parts, to design
electrical circuits. In the hands of
cosmological engineers, imaginary numbers
turn out to have profound consequences.
Hawking and Hartles original work on the
quantum properties of the cosmos suggested
that imaginary time, which seemed like a
mathematical curiosity in the sum-over-
histories approach, held the answer to
understanding the origin of the universe.
Add up the histories of the universe in
imaginary time, and time is transformed into
space. The result is that, when the universe
was small enough to be governed by quantum
mechanics, it had four spatial dimensions
and no dimension of time: where time would
usually come to an end at a singularity, a new
dimension of space appears, and, poof! The
singularity vanishes.
In terms of the universes history, that
means there is no point A. Like the surface
of a sphere, the universe is finite but has no
definable starting point, or boundary. Hence
the ideas name: the no-boundary proposal.
This has led Hawking to define a new kind
of cosmology. The traditional approach, which
Hawking calls bottom-up cosmology, tries
to specify the initial state of the universe
and work from there. This is doomed to fail,
Hawking says, because we know nothing
about the starting conditions. Instead, he
suggests, we should use the no-boundary
proposal to do top-down cosmology, where
the only input into our models of the universe
comes from what we observe now together
with the idea that our universe has no
boundary in the past.
Improbable tuning
The result of this process, he says, solves a
long-standing problem of cosmology: fine-
tuning. Most cosmologists think, for example,
that the universe went through an early burst
of rapid expansion, or inflation. There is
some evidence to support the claim, but
theres also a problem. Standard inflationary
models require a very improbable initial state,
one that must have finely tuned values that
cause inflation to start, then stop in a certain
way after a certain time: a complicated
prescription whose only justification is to
produce a flat universe without any strange
topology, and so on a universe like ours.
Such a prescriptive method makes hard
and unsatisfying work of producing the
universe we see today. While a cosmologist
can put these values into the equations by
hand, it is not exactly a satisfactory way to
develop our model of how the universe works.
In the no-boundary theory, however, there
simply is no defined initial state. In the
usual approach it is difficult to explain how
inflation began, says Hawking. But it occurs
naturally in top-down with the no-boundary
condition. It doesnt need fine tuning.
To do top-down cosmology, Hawking
and Hertog first take a whole raft of possible
histories, all of which would result in a
universe with features familiar to us. We then
calculate the probability for other features of
the universe, given the constraints, Hertog
says. Specify a universe that is three-
dimensional and flat, for instance, and you
can have histories that involve inflation and
histories that dont. Top-down cosmology
does not predict that all possible universes
have to begin with a period of inflation, but
that inflation occurs naturally within a certain
subclass of universes, Hertog says. The
process creates a probability for each scenario,
and so Hertog can see which kind of history is
most likely. What we find is that the inflating
histories generally have the largest probability.
In many ways, top-down cosmology is
an unsettling idea. Usually, science demands
that our observations come out as output
we certainly dont expect them to be the
input. That, after all, denies us the chance to
see if the theory matches up with
observations. Whats more, the sum over
histories is formed by calculating the various
probabilities for a universe like ours to arise
out of literally nothing: that means we can
never know anything for certain about
how our universe got to be as it is.
We shouldnt be surprised, Hertog says: 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 31

Like the surface of a
sphere, our universe
has no definable
starting point
nsuk-apr-22-06-p031 31 11/4/06 2:01:57 pm
32 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
quantum theory has long shown us that it is
impossible for us to know everything about
the world around us. In classical physics,
we can predict both the exact momentum
and position of a particle at any time, but
quantum mechanics doesnt allow it. No one
suggests that quantum mechanics is wrong
because of this, Hertog points out and
experiments have shown that it is not. What
quantum theory has given us now, Hertog
says, is some indication about the nature of
inflation, where before we had none. Before,
we had no prediction at all and indeed no
notion of likeliness on this issue.
For many, it remains a difficult argument
to swallow. Science since Copernicus has
aimed to model a universe in which we are
mere by-products, but top-down cosmology
turns that on its head, rendering the history of
the universe a by-product of our observations.
All in all, it is very like the anthropic
landscape argument that is causing
controversy among string theorists (see
Putting the you into universe, below).
Princeton University physicist Paul Steinhardt
is certainly unimpressed by Hawking and
Hertogs scheme. Its kind of giving up on the
problem, he says. Weve all been hoping to
calculate things from first principles. Stephen
doesnt think thats possible, but Im not
convinced of that. They might be right, but
its much too early to take this approach; it
looks to me like throwing in the towel.
Stanford Universitys Andrei Linde is
similarly unconvinced. There are a number
of technical assumptions that make him
sceptical. I dont buy it, he says.
The past is out there
The merits of Hawking and Hertogs new
approach to cosmology might be decided by
experiment. The theory predicts specific
kinds of fluctuations in two cosmological
phenomena: the cosmic microwave
background radiation produced just after the
big bang, and the spectrum of primordial
gravitational waves. These fluctuations arise
from applying the uncertainty principle of
quantum mechanics to Hawking and Hertogs
scheme: in this scenario, the universes shape is
never precisely determined, but is influenced
by other histories with similar geometries.
If Hawking and Hertog are right, quantum
uncertainty will manifest as slight differences
from what standard inflationary theory
predicts for the CMB. The top-down predictions
only differ from the standard cosmological
model at a level of precision that has not yet
been reached in observations, however. The
top-down signature in the gravitational wave
spectrum should be easier to differentiate, but
since we havent yet detected any gravitational
waves, well have to wait for that proof too.
For Hawking and Hertog, theres simply no
doubt that top-down cosmology is the only
answer. Its simple: if you cant know the
initial state of the universe, you cant work
forwards from the beginning: the top-down
approach is the only one that works.
Hartle agrees. Hawking and Hertogs
scheme may seem strange, but it is the only
way forward because we are part of the
experiment we are trying to observe. Its a
different viewpoint, but its sort of inevitable,
he says. Colsmologists certainly should be
paying attention to this work.
The trouble, of course, is that if they are
right, were involved in the making of that
history. In that case, we have a new set of
instructions for building a universe. Step one:
look around you. Step two: find the set of all
possible histories that end up as a universe
like the one you see. Step three: add them
together and create a history for yourself.
Putting the you into universe
Hawking and Hertogs cosmology
adds an interesting twist to the
ongoing debate in physics about
the existence of multiple universes.
At issue is the fact that string
theory, physicists most popular
candidate for a theory of
everything, describes not just
one universe but a near infinity of
them. Some physicists are willing
to accept that these theoretical
universes actually exist, both
because string theory doesnt seem
to favour any particular universe
over all the others in the bunch,
and because their existence could
help explain the apparently fine-
tuned features of our universe.
Take, for example, the value of
the cosmological constant, the force
that appears to be causing the
expansion of the universe to speed
up. It is a very small force, and
no one has yet explained why it
should be so. The trouble is, its size
happens to be a number that sits in
a very narrow range of values that
would allow life to exist. This
coincidence has compelled some
physicists to make the so-called
anthropic argument: maybe there
are multiple pocket universes
that branch off from one another,
and within each the constants take
a different value. In that scenario,
there is bound to be one universe
with a cosmological constant
like ours and we should not be
surprised to find ourselves in the
one universe hospitable to life.
Many physicists argue that this
is just giving up on the problem
of explaining why our universe is
the way it is it is not, they say,
science. Hawking and Hertogs new
idea adds fuel to this fire. The
picture of a never-ending string of
pocket universes is only meaningful
from the perspective of an observer
outside any one universe, Hawking
says and that, by definition, is
impossible. Parallel pocket
universes can have no effect on a
real observer inside a single pocket,
so, according to Hawking, they are
theoretical baggage that should be
eliminated from cosmology.
But Hawking has a replacement
in mind and it is just as mind-
boggling. His view is that the string
theory landscape is populated by
the set of all possible histories.
Rather than a branching set of
individual universes, every possible
version of a single universe exists
simultaneously in a state of
quantum superposition. When you
choose to make a measurement,
you select from this landscape a
subset of histories that share the
specific features measured. The
history of the universe for you
the observer is derived from that
subset of histories. In other words,
you choose your past.
Read previous issues of New Scientist at
nsuk-apr-22-06-p032 32 11/4/06 2:03:23 pm

ADAM TWINE doesnt look like the
kind of person the nuclear industry
should be scared of. An organic farmer,
Twine is skinny, with big round glasses and
unruly hair that makes his head look like its
fraying at the edges. How could he possibly be
a threat to a multibillion-dollar industry?
Maybe he wouldnt be if he were operating
alone, but Twine is far from alone and has
serious money behind him. He has just
managed to persuade 2127 people to send him
a total of more than 4 million that he will use
to set up a co-operative wind farm on land he
owns in the south of England. In fact, the idea
of owning a share in the Westmill wind farm
in Oxfordshire has proved so popular that the
project is having to return some of the cash: it
only needed 3.7 million. The plan now is to
give priority in ownership to people living
within 80 kilometres of the site, and asking
others to accept a smaller stake in the co-op.
Though the wind farm is small five
turbines in a vast, bleak field, amounting to
6.5 megawatts of electricity it represents
another nail in the coffin of nuclear power,
one of many being hammered in all over the
world. If the nuclear industry wanted to
convince governments to start building
another generation of nuclear reactors as soon
as possible, it needed to bury the likes of
Twine before their schemes took off. Now it
may be too late.
According to projections by the
International Energy Agency and a handful of
energy industry experts, 2005 was the first
year nuclear powers electricity output
dropped behind that of small-scale plants
producing low or no carbon dioxide emissions
(see Graph, page 34) and thats not counting
large hydroelectric projects on the low-carbon
side of the balance sheet.
Though small, such projects are already
flourishing. Much of the worlds small-scale
generation involves combined heat and power
co-generation projects, whose carbon
dioxide emissions are 30 to 80 per cent less
than that of large-scale gas-fired plants. On
average they are at least 50 per cent less. The
worldwide uptake of this technology is being
accompanied by fast growth in the use of
renewables such as solar and wind. The
Danish company Bonus, from which the
Westmill co-operative wants to buy its 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 33
Governments are keen and
the nuclear industry is on a
30-year high. But theyve
missed the crucial point,
argues Michael Brooks
Wind farms and other
renewables are filling the
gap left by nuclear power
Is it all
over for
nsuk-apr-22-06-p033 33 12/4/06 6:56:20 pm
34 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
Decertioliseo coereiotior (6/ rotuiol os)
Ceotleirol Plotovoltoics ioross oro woste
!roll lyoioelectiics wiro




2000 2002 2004 2006 2008 2010
wind turbines, now has a backlog of orders
from wind farms in Texas, Florida, Sweden,
Denmark, Germany and Greece. In 2005 the
company, bought by Siemens, almost doubled
its wind turbine sales, and its fabrication
capacity for 2006 is fully booked.
This burgeoning micropower movement
is a significant step towards reducing carbon
emissions (New Scientist, 21 January, p 36). It is
also a knock for a nuclear industry that has
been struggling to get back on its feet in the
western world. Until last year, near-zero
emissions of greenhouse gases were nuclear
powers trump card, its big advantage over
other sources of electricity and the one thing
that might make western governments invest
in a nuclear renaissance: nuclear is clean and
produces a lot of power, so we need it. That
argument now has a hole punched through it,
and it boils down to economics.
Until recently, it seemed the wide-scale
construction of a new generation of nuclear
power plants was inevitable. China is investing

Nuclear subsidies have the same
effect as defibrillating a corpse
in nuclear, after all, as are Japan, Russia and
India, so why not the west? Though Germany,
Sweden, Spain and Switzerland have forsworn
investment in new nuclear plants, other
western nations, notably the UK, France and
the US, are taking the idea seriously. In August
2005, the US government handed out a range
of nuclear subsidies and incentives worth
nearly $20 billion. In the UK, Prime Minister
Tony Blair has commissioned an energy
review with what is widely believed to have
a pro-nuclear agenda, marking a move away
from the position three years ago when his
government said there was no case for nuclear
new build. France, which already gets 78 per
cent of its electricity from nuclear power, has
its eye on starting construction of at least one
more plant within the next decade.
In the UK and the US, the case for a nuclear
renaissance is on the table mainly because the
reactors now generating electricity are coming
to the end of their lives. The cry is going up
that this will lead to an energy gap: in a few
nsuk-apr-22-06-p034 34 12/4/06 6:57:39 pm
generated almost three times as much as
nuclear. Spain and Germanys ventures into
wind power alone added as much power
capacity in 2004 as the worlds nuclear
industry will add from 2000 to 2010. Industry
projections indicate that by 2010, renewable
and low-carbon sources will offer 177 times as
much added capacity as nuclear.
This is not going to be enough to power the
world; large-scale fossil-fuel generators will
still be needed in this timescale. But the
overarching global trend is clear. Few new
nuclear stations will be operating before
2020, and by the time these plants are even
half-built, there will be enough low or no-
carbon electricity available from non-nuclear
sources to give investors in nuclear plants
second thoughts.
The negawatt effect
If they ever invest at all, that is. In January, the
financial analyst Standard & Poors issued a
report saying that even the new incentives for
the US nuclear industry will not be enough to
persuade investors to climb aboard; from a
business perspective, nuclear remains the
highest-risk form of power generation. Thats
because the subsidies dont deal with the
capital, operating and decommissioning risks
that most concern the capital markets, says
Amory Lovins, CEO of the Rocky Mountain
Institute, a Colorado-based energy analysis
firm. The effect of even such huge subsidies
will be the same as defibrillating a corpse, he
says. It will jump, but it will not revive.
Whats more, a report issued in February by
the California-based Electric Power Research
Institute (EPRI), whose members include
private and public organisations concerned
with power generation and distribution, says
that implementing energy efficiency
measures together with technologies that can
respond to changes in demand offers a cost-
effective alternative to adding new generating
capacity. Contrary to what is often said, we are
getting better at controlling our hunger for
electricity. If you want proof, just ask the US
firms who built gas-fuelled power plants
capable of generating 200 gigawatts of
electricity, and then found that the
anticipated demand they were catering for
never materialised. The investors lost
$100 billion. According to Lovins, worldwide
electrical savings, or negawatts, now match
or exceed global additions of low or no-carbon
micropower. So far, the EPRI says, we have
only scratched the surface of possible
efficiency increases; it is estimated that the
US could save three-quarters of the
electricity it now uses.
Some states are making progress towards
this goal. In California, energy use per capita
has been flat for 30 years, and the state has
issued plans to halve its rate of growth of
electricity consumption by 2013. Vermont has
done even better, with efficiency measures
that have already cut per capita energy use.
It is economics that is driving these
changes. Producing and delivering electricity
costs money, so not wasting it makes good
sense. Businesses, of course, respond well 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 35
il hucleoi kerewo|les Cos Cool
wiro, soloi,
eotleirol oro
oceor 1
ioross oro
woste 1
Pyoio 16
years there wont be enough electricity to go
round, and the lights will go out. Thats a
simplistic analysis, of course. The idea of a
gap is artificial and fails to acknowledge the
dynamics of the market system, says Jim
Watson, an energy analyst in the Science
Policy Research Unit at the University of
Sussex, UK. The energy markets in these
countries will tend to ensure that there will
always be electricity to buy and sell, Watson
points out. The cost may go up and the sources
may change, but the market will quickly
adjust by using more electricity derived from
coal and gas, for instance.
Without nuclear, though, wont we be
producing ever more carbon emissions? Not
necessarily. Nuclear never was part of the
short-term solution to climate change, and the
rapid growth in small-scale energy production
means nuclear may not be needed as part of
the long-term solution either.
Of the electricity added to the worldwide
supply in 2004, micropower technologies
Germany gets one-third
of its power from plants
like Brokdorf, yet it is
phasing out nuclear
nsuk-apr-22-06-p035 35 12/4/06 6:58:23 pm
36 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
to market forces and are implementing
changes well ahead of domestic users.
DuPonts 600-hectare Chambers Works in
New Jersey has reduced by one-third its energy
use per kilogram of chemical produced.
Western Digitals disc drive factory in Malaysia
cut energy use by 44 per cent and recouped
the cost of implementing the efficiency
measures in just one year. By last year, Toyota
US had reduced its energy consumption per
unit of production by 15 per cent from 2000
levels. All these measures add up to less need
for new electricity generating plants.
Nuclear power is also being squeezed on
the cost of the electricity it produces.
According to a report last year by the New
Economics Foundation, a London-based think
tank, a kilowatt-hour of electricity from a
nuclear generator will cost as much as 8.3
pence once realistic construction and running
costs are factored in, compared with about 3
pence claimed by the nuclear industry and
thats without including the cost of managing
pollution, insuring the power stations or
protecting them from terrorists. This
compares with about 3.4 pence for gas, 5 pence
for coal and up to 7.2 pence for wind power,
according to a report in 2004 by the UKs
Royal Academy of Engineering.
The same report told the government that
it has to ensure the long-term stability of
electricity prices if it wants people to invest
in nuclear power. Around the same time,
Oxera, a firm of energy consultants based in
Oxford, UK, reported that a new-build nuclear
programme in the UK would require an
injection of 1.6 billion in government grants
to make the idea appeal to private investors.
The action needed to meet either of these
requirements is unlikely to be allowed within
the European Union. Andris Piebalgs, the EUs
commissioner for energy, wants different
forms of energy production to compete with
each other on a level playing field, and has
declared that state funds must not be used to
subsidise the building of new nuclear plants.
British Nuclear Fuels and the UKs Nuclear
Decommissioning Authority have already
been subject to an 18-month inquiry over
potential infractions of fair competition
though even Gordon MacKerron, head of the
UKs Committee on Radioactive Waste
Management and no fan of the nuclear lobby,
has called the alleged infractions marginal.
Finnish line
More serious are allegations against the
European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) at
Olkiluoto, Finland, the only nuclear power
station presently under construction in
Europe. A relatively new design of pressurised
water reactor, the EPR is being built jointly by
the French nuclear company Areva and the
German company Siemens, and is being
financed at extremely low rates of interest by
French and German state-owned
organisations. The scheme is being
investigated by the European Commission,
following a complaint by the European
Renewable Energies Federation that the
financing breaches the commissions rules.
If the complaint is upheld, it will be a
serious blow to the nuclear industry, which
likes to point to Olkiluoto as evidence of the
viability of new nuclear stations. That
argument, however, is questionable whatever
the outcome of the complaint. The company
the plant is being built for, called TVO, is not a
conventional electricity utility, but a company
owned by large Finnish industrial concerns
that supplies electricity to its owners on a
not-for-profit basis.
The plant will have a guaranteed market
and will not therefore have to compete in the
Nordic electricity market, says Steve Thomas,
an expert in nuclear economics at the
University of Greenwich in London. Whats
more, he says, suspicions have been raised
that the Areva-Siemens consortium is so
anxious to showcase its technology that it has
offered a price that might not be sustainable
just to get the plant built.
If that is their aim, they may succeed.
When the Olkiluoto project is completed it
is scheduled for 2009 it will become
Energy security
How many countries want their energy
sources to rest in the hands of foreign
governments? Such concerns were at
their height during the cold war, but
they have not gone away completely.
Are they a valid reason for shifting
towards new nuclear power plants for
generating electricity?
Its certainly true that much of the
fuel for Europes gas-fired plants comes
from politically unreliable states such
as Russia. That can lead to problems. In
January, the supply to many European
countries was interrupted by a dispute
between Russia and Ukraine.
In the US, gas sources are more
diverse and less vulnerable, according
to a 2004 report from the University of
Chicago on the economics of nuclear
power. The researchers studied the
prices of natural gas in 34 countries
from 1994 to 2002 to see how closely
they were linked. They found that the
US buys from at least three major world
markets in natural gas, and that the
groups prices are not strongly linked.
That means, the report concluded, that
no one will be able to hold the US to
ransom over gas supplies. So for the US,
at least, security of fuel supply is not a
good argument for increasing the
nuclear share of its electricity market.
The point is reinforced when
uranium sources are taken into
account. The expected expansion of
Chinas nuclear programme could
absorb all the uranium supplied by
Australia, which alone accounts for
some 40 per cent of the worlds
uranium reserves.

The UK and US no longer have
the skills to build and operate
nuclear power stations

Natural-gas pipelines like
this one in Hungary are a
big part of the solution T
nsuk-apr-22-06-p036 36 12/4/06 6:58:49 pm 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 37
apparent whether the EPR design works and
how long it takes to build. The US Nuclear
Regulatory Commission is already
investigating whether the EPR is a good model
for replacing US nuclear plants.
There are a couple of problems looming,
though. First, the US is experiencing some
new public health and safety concerns: in
March, the state of Illinois filed a lawsuit
against Exelon, which operates the Braidwood
nuclear power station, seeking damages over
tritium leaks from the plant. The regulatory
commission has formed a task force to
investigate radioactive spills that have
occurred at plants across the US in the past
decade. Any new technology will need to be
proved safe and reliable.
The second problem was highlighted at
a seminar at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology last month, when Peter Lyons,
head of the US Nuclear Regulatory
Commission, pointed out that few science and
engineering students are coming through to
replace reactor workers who are now retiring.
As a result there will soon not be enough
people to build and operate new reactors. The
next decade will be crucial, Lyons said. If the
US does not start investing in nuclear energy
over that period, it will have neither the skilled
workers nor the industrial infrastructure for
nuclear power to be a viable option.
It is not just for the US that this is a
problem. Last October, UK-based energy
consultant Ian Fells told an energy conference
in Rimini, Italy, that there are only six
engineering consortia in the world capable of
building a nuclear power station. None of
them is British. We do not have the skills to
build nuclear power stations in the UK
anymore, Fells told the conference. The
teams of engineers that built Sizewell B in
1995 are all retired or dead. Even the limited
construction now taking place across the
world is stretching the industrys capacity, and
a construction queue is developing that could
kill nuclear plans for the UK, Fells says.
Bridging the gap
Despite these obstacles, Fells remains a
supporter of nuclear new-build as the best
way to secure energy supplies and protect the
environment. My feeling is that it is
inevitable that we add a new, nuclear
electricity supply component to our energy
mix, he says. He envisages a future in which
30 per cent of the UKs energy comes from
new nuclear plants. Just maintaining the
nuclear status quo in the UK, however, would
require eight to 10 new plants, which he says
might not be up and running for 25 years.
That time lag could prove fatal for the
nuclear industry. As existing plants go into
decline and are shut down, something else has
to replace their generating capacity. Adam
Twine and his ilk, with their reduced or no-
carbon technologies, are already taking up
this slack and pulling themselves into an ever
stronger position.
Renewables alone wont bridge the gap,
even with increased energy efficiency. Fossil-
fuel generators will also be needed, in both
small-scale projects and large plants, perhaps
with carbon sequestration (New Scientist,
3 September 2005, p 30). And here is the
problem for nuclear: any investment in new
nuclear power could damage the chances of
making other climate-friendly technologies
work. After all, finances are not unlimited, and
you can only spend the money once.
How can anyone justify spending it on
something that is not proven to be
economical, not going to deliver for two
decades and then will only provide a limited
solution? In the UK, nuclear power supplies
only 8 per cent of energy used, Watson points
out. Why prejudice programmes and policies
to tackle 92 per cent of emissions by spending
lots of political and financial capital on 8 per
cent? he says.
In the end, contrary to everything touted
by the industry, nuclear investment may not
help reduce carbon emissions at all it might
even increase them over the next two decades.
If nuclear supporters are truly concerned
about climate change and an energy gap, they
ought to be encouraging the take-up of
renewable and low-carbon technologies the
very technologies that threaten to drive their
industry to extinction.
Nuclear power continues to prompt
concerns based on safety issues, regulatory
problems and the danger that it encourages
proliferation of nuclear materials and
weapons. Now it also faces a bigger hurdle:
there are better economic options that are no
less climate-friendly. The slow, steady success
of idealists like Twine is showing the world
that it no longer needs nuclear power.
As oI [anuary 2006, there were 441 operab|e nuc|ear reactors wor|dw|de.
|ead|ng the way are the 0! (10J) |rance (59) and [apan (55)







The US is considering
replacing ageing reactors
like this one near San
Clemente, California
nsuk-apr-22-06-p037 37 12/4/06 6:59:17 pm
crawl, crouch and punch and to use a
bewildering variety of weapons and
implements. Thats why the typical controller
is a two-handed affair bristling with buttons
and joysticks. These controllers guarantee a
fast response, but make a player more or less
static. The amazing athleticism of the games
characters is in stark contrast to the
sluggishness of the gamers themselves. Its
easy to become lost in these visually complex
worlds, playing for hours with fingers ablur
but with your body otherwise motionless.
Its not that people havent tried to change
the nature of games controllers. In the late
1960s and 70s, artist and computer scientist
Myron Krueger experimented with human-
computer interaction at the University of
Wisconsin, and developed a number of whole-
body games in the process. His art
installations incorporated pressure pads,
showcasing technology designed to provide
players with more compelling ways to interact
with virtual worlds. As well as offering all the
usual entertainment, these machines should
also get sluggish gamers off their backsides by
substituting their arms, legs and bodies for
the joystick controller.
Cynics might dismiss the idea as just
another marketing gimmick, but if all goes to
plan, these games could finally call time on
your old-fashioned joystick and your
favourite sofa for the future of game play
lies with the whole you.
Interacting effectively with computers has
always been a tricky problem. Any gamer will
tell you that a keyboard and mouse are fine for
data entry, but for serious gaming you need a
specially designed controller. This must allow
the player to direct on-screen characters with
extraordinary precision to run, jump, kick,

HIGH kicks, karate chops and vicious
punches are just the thing to beat off
a horde of flesh-eating zombies.
Unfortunately it takes a good deal more than
that to shift a typical computer gamer from a
comfy chair. No matter how hard they work
their virtual selves, their real selves remain
stationary, the only sign of life their twitching
thumbs and an occasional ape-like grunt.
It is hardly surprising then, that since the
1970s when the tennis game Pong first hit
video screens, parents have accused computer
games of turning their children into couch
potatoes. Now, though, those same parents
might be lining up to buy them. Thats
because there is a new generation of games
that could finally get kids of all ages up on
their feet.
In a few weeks time, at the E3 video gaming
conference in Los Angeles, companies will be
No limits
Wave your arms, kick your feet and leap into
the blue. Every move you make is part of the
game, says Justin Mullins
38 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
nsuk-apr-22-06-p038 38 11/4/06 10:07:01 am
cameras and video screens and enabled
people to move virtual objects using their
own silhouettes so that they could play
volleyball or noughts and crosses on a screen.
Run, hop and skip
Krueger had the advantage of being able to
control the environment in which this took
place usually an art gallery with carefully
adjusted lighting and he had access to state-
of-the-art computing power. Even then, the
reliability and speed of this kind of interaction
was far from perfect.
Things began to change in the late 1980s
with the release of a pressure-sensitive floor
mat called the Power Pad for playing games on
a Nintendo Entertainment System. The games
required the player to run, hop and skip on the
mat to avoid various obstacles on screen. The 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 39
Power Pad and a hand-based controller from
Mattel called the Power Glove represented a
revolution in game control, but neither of
them caught on.
Then, a decade later, a computer game
called Dance Dance Revolution or Dancing
Stage in Europe began to appear in arcades
around the world. Created by the Japanese
gaming company Konami, DDR uses a set of
pressure pads which the player must press
with their feet in response to on-screen
commands. This time it was a huge success.
DDR has become a global craze with its own
subculture and tournaments. In Norway, DDR
is registered as an official sport. Today there
are over 90 variants of the game and many
offspring offering similar features.
The game became so popular that Konami
decided to create a version for home consoles
such as the Sega Dreamcast, Microsofts Xbox
and the Sony PlayStation, and home DDR
quickly became a hit too. This raised the
possibility in the minds of other game makers
of looking beyond the conventional controller.
At about this time Richard Marks, a
computer scientist with a background in
robotic control, began to think about other
forms of game control. In 1999 he joined Sony
Computer Entertainment R&D in California to
develop the idea of connecting a video camera
to a PlayStation console and controlling
games using its input. In 2003, Sony released
the result of his work the EyeToy. For the first
time, game designers had a video input they
could use to control games. The question was:
what could they do with it?
The first generation of games were
relatively simple players see themselves on
the screen and wave their arms to clean
windows or punch objects that appear on
nsuk-apr-22-06-p039 39 11/4/06 10:07:36 am
the screen. But the games are becoming
more sophisticated. For example, in one
game players can use their head and arms to
fly through a landscape, and another is
specifically designed to improve fitness
(See Fat Fighters, above).
Just add eyes
What made the EyeToy possible were cheap
cameras offering reasonable quality images
combined with games consoles with the
processing power to handle them. But the
system still has limitations. While the
PlayStation2 can distinguish a moving body
from the background, it cannot easily identify
specific parts, such as a hand or a head, and
track them precisely what youd need if you
were to pick up a helmet on screen, say, and
put it on. However, simply tracking a players
40 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006

With a 3D camera, he can import
his entire body into the game

Fat fighters
Last April, 85 children in West Virginia received a gift
from a local health insurance company a Sony
PlayStation 2. The machine came with a game called
Dance Dance Revolution in which the player follows
a fast-paced dance routine using an interactive
mat that feeds feet movements back to the console.
Its a dream toy for most children, but the insurance
company wasnt being purely altruistic.
In West Virginia, more than a third of children
are overweight. These are the next generation of
clients for the West Virginia Public Employees
Insurance Agency, which provides health insurance
for 215,000 public employees and their dependents.
We have an obesity epidemic in West Virginia,
says Nadia Henderson, a spokeswoman for the
agency. Giving them PlayStations is good business
sense if it helps them lose weight.
Its part of a study to see if this type of computer
game can reduce obesity. So far, results seem
positive. For example, one 11-year-old boy weighing
80 kilograms lost 4.5 kilograms in two weeks.
head movements uses up about 20 per cent of
the processing power on a PlayStation2, way
too much considering that the processor also
needs to deal with images and sound as well.
There are other problems too. At the
moment the camera can only track objects in
relatively good light. And while it can capture
images at up to 30 frames per second
enough to fool the human brain into thinking
a movement is smooth that is not fast
enough to allow a computer to track and react
to the fastest of movements which you
would need in a virtual fight, for instance.
To capture the movement of a sword you
need 120 frames per second, says Marks.
A faster frame rate is just more reactive.
Video is not the only way to get your body
involved in gameplay. In September, Satoru
Iwata, president of Nintendo, showed off a
new wireless controller for the companys
next-generation games console. It looks a bit
like a TV remote, but the controller is able to
determine its position and orientation in
space relative to the console. Nintendo is
tight-lipped about how it works, but the device
probably relies on a gyroscopic sensor a little
larger than a sugar cube that has been
designed by California-based company
Gyration. Rather than the spinning wheel
used in conventional gyroscopes, this sensor
has tiny vibrating arms mounted at right
angles to each other, each one tipped with a
tiny magnet. Any acceleration alters the
vibrations in the arms, and magnetic sensors
mounted alongside measure this by detecting
changes in magnetic field. Nintendo says its
controller can measure yaw as well as tilt.
You can swing it like a bat, tap it like a
drumstick, turn it like a steering wheel or
point it like a gun the controller translates
nsuk-apr-22-06-p040 40 11/4/06 10:08:16 am
each action into movements within the game.
The device also has buttons and a keypad that
allow it be used as a conventional controller.
Nintendo has demonstrated the device in
games as a fishing rod, an aircraft and a
hockey stick, but which games Nintendo has
up its sleeve for its new system provisionally
code-named Revolution and when it will be
launched should be revealed at the E3
conference in May.
EyeToy is also set to improve. In November,
the PlayStation 3 is scheduled to go on the
market. Where the PS2 had one image-
processing chip, the PS3 has seven, each of
which is 10 times as fast as a PS2 chip. That
should make a huge difference. The extra
processing power can deal with 60 images per
second, which will make it possible to control
games using much more complex movements.
Sizing you up
The PS3 will be able to track the movement
of different body parts independently and
get a rough idea of the players distance from
the console by measuring head size, so the
computer can place objects in front of and
behind the player, for example. It will also be
able to track objects coated with a special
reflective material that makes them appear
bright. At last years E3 show, for example,
Marks demonstrated the PS3s capability by
playing with virtual water, pouring it between
two real cups coated in the fabric. Give players
gloves of this material and they could pick up
and drag virtual objects in an interface much
like that in the film Minority Report.
Even though these new kinds of features
are available, persuading games developers
to use them is an uphill struggle, says Marks.
He admits that there remain limitations with
the EyeToy fast, complex movements may
remain problematic, for example but
developers might be able to find creative ways
to get around them, he says. Marks gives the
example of early computer games in which
the graphics pallet was limited to four colours.
What developers quickly learned to do was
swap pallets in the middle of generating a
scene so that the top half of the screen was
rendered with different colours to the bottom
half. It was an idea that effectively doubled the
number of colours that the player would see.
Its those kinds of tricks that we need to see
more of for the EyeToy, he says.
Some are already emerging. For example,
there is no force feedback with the EyeToy
get hit by a virtual ball or bullet, say, and you
feel nothing. However, you can achieve a
remarkable approximation using sound.
Your brain does most of the work, Marks
says. Sound doesnt replace force feedback,
but it is the next best thing.
Marks has his sights set on some new
tricks, too. One of the biggest drawbacks of
video input at the moment is that it gives only
a two-dimensional image of the player. His
dream is to translate the three-dimensional
movements of the player into the actions of a
character or object in the game. Stereo images
produced with two cameras are not the
answer, he says, because such an arrangement
has to be carefully calibrated each time the
game is played to correct for any slight
differences in alignment of the cameras. That
is a stumbling block for home use, he says.
Another option is to measure distance using
the cameras focusing system, but that gives
only a rough idea based on what part of the
image the camera has focused on.
A much more promising approach is
beginning to take shape thanks to a new
generation of cameras that are sensitive to
infrared light as well as visible wavelengths.
These cameras can record accurate three-
dimensional images using infrared flashes
(see Illustration, below). When a scene a
player holding one hand out towards the
camera, say is illuminated with an infrared
flash, the games console can measure how
long it takes the light to travel to the players
body and be reflected back into the camera.
This information is used to create a contour
map of the player. Repeat the process 60 times
a second and you have a 3D movie.
Marks has already begun experiments.
With a 3D camera, he can import his entire
body into a game. When he dances, his on-
screen character a skeleton at the moment
dances too. When he punches or kicks, the
skeleton mimics his movements exactly. With
this kind of technology, says Marks, your
imagination is the limit.
Its not just home consoles that could
benefit from this technology. Marks is looking
at what cameras can do for handheld devices
such as Sonys PlayStation Portable. Attach a
camera to a PSP, he says, and it becomes a new
kind of lens for looking at the world. Point the
camera along a street and on the screen you
could see game characters superimposed onto
the pavement. Augmented reality could be a
big application, he says.
It will be a while before devices with these
features appear on the market. Marks says
that his 3D camera system is not yet ready for
the consumer market because of the
expensive electronics it needs to measure the
travel time of light over such short distances.
But that will change. I have a dream scene,
he says. Its a scene from the film Spiderman
in which the hero flicks his wrist to shoot a
web towards a nearby building. Im a big fan
of Spiderman, and Id love to be able to
recreate that capability with the EyeToy, with a
flick of your wrist. When this might appear is
difficult to say, but Markss brief provides a
clue: We never look more than five years into
the future. 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 41
Tilt to win
Dont be surprised if you see gamers frantically
tilting and twisting their laptops.
In 2003, IBM built an accelerometer a device
more commonly found in, say, airbags into a
laptop. The idea was that it would spot if a laptop is
dropped and lift the heads off the hard disk to
prevent damage. Other companies, including Apple
and Toshiba, quickly followed suit. Then Amit Singh,
a researcher at IBMs Almaden Research Center in
San Jose, California, became interested. He reasoned
that an accelerometer could open up new ways to
control computer programs, including games,
simply by tilting or shaking a computer. So he
worked out a way to capture the output from the
sensor used in Apples laptops in real time.
In 2005 Singh released his findings, and
programmers began to put the idea to work. One of
the first games to appear was Bubblegym, in which
a player controls a rolling ball by tilting a laptop
a simple idea, but one that could kick off a new
branch of interactive gaming.
nsuk-apr-22-06-p041 41 11/4/06 10:08:41 am
Nothing can evade the noses of this
flying squad, Stephanie Pain discovers
Honeybees and Microplitis
wasps (above) are part of a new
generation of sniffer devices that
are part insect, part machine
42 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
out smells they would never encounter in
nature a hint of explosives, say, or a whiff of
cocaine? And if so, is it possible to make a
practical device that harnesses their skills?
Enter Wasp Hound, a hand-held odour
detector with a team of little black wasps as
its sensor. Developed by Rains, a biological
engineer at the University of Georgia, his
colleague Sam Utley and Joe Lewis, an
entomologist at the US Department of
Agricultures Agricultural Research Service
in Tifton, Georgia, the device is still only a
prototype, but the team has high hopes for it.
As well as helping with security and forensics,
it can also be used to assure food quality,
checking grain stores for contaminants, for
example. Eventually, it may even play a role
in diagnosing diseases such as cancer and TB.
Wasp Hounds beginnings were more
prosaic. For decades, Lewis has studied the
wasp Microplitis croceipes as a potential
biocontrol agent for two serious caterpillar
pests, the corn earworm and tobacco
budworm. The slender wasps, which are 10 to
12 millimetres long, are parasitoids: females

HALF a minute is all it takes. After
three 10-second training sessions,
Glen Rainss crack team of sniffers is
ready for anything. They could be co-opted
into the hunt for a corpse. They might join the
search for a stash of Semtex or a consignment
of drugs. Or they could have the more tedious
job of checking luggage at the airport.
Whatever the assignment, their role is the
same: to pick up a scent no human nose can
detect and pinpoint its source. These new
recruits to the fight against crime are smaller,
cheaper and more versatile than a sniffer dog,
and more sensitive than an electronic nose.
They are wasps.
Insects have exquisitely sensitive olfactory
systems. Their antennae are covered with
microscopic sensors that can detect the
faintest odour. Some are also remarkably
quick learners. So it is hardly surprising they
have aroused the interest of the military and
security services, police and customs, all
badly in need of ultra-sensitive, flexible and
portable odour detectors. Insects obviously
have the right stuff, but can they use it to sniff
nsuk-apr-22-06-p042 42 11/4/06 10:02:25 am
lay their eggs inside live caterpillars. As Lewis
investigated ways of encouraging wasps into
farmers fields, he found that they are ultra-
sensitive to a huge range of volatile chemicals.
The nectar-feeding wasps can pinpoint a
productive flower from a few stray molecules
of scent. Females seeking hosts for their eggs
are attracted to the alarm odours plants
release when caterpillars chew them. They
follow the odour trail to the plant, says Rains.
Then they home in on the scent of the
caterpillar or its faeces. The wasps start life
attracted to odours they associate with their
host caterpillar, but they are quick to switch
to new ones if they bring better results. This
could mean learning any of thousands of
possible smells. Their survival depends on
being adaptable and learning new cues as
their environment changes, Rains says.
A call from the US Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency, the R&D arm of the
Pentagon, prompted a rather different line of
enquiry. DARPA wanted to know whether the
wasps could use their remarkable olfactory
skills to sniff out odours they would never
normally encounter in the wild. The team set
to work and found it was very easy to teach a
wasp an unfamiliar smell. Expose a wasp to an
odour while you give it a drop of sugar water
or a caterpillar, and after just three 10-second
sessions the connection is fixed in its memory
(Chemical Senses, vol 28, p 545).
Bombs and bodies
So far the wasps have learned to respond to
just about any odour weve tried, Rains says.
They can detect 2,4-dinitrotoluene, a molecule
given off by the explosive TNT (Journal of
Forensic Sciences, vol 50, p 1187). They can
pick up the scent of a corpse from molecules
of cadaverine and putrescine produced as
microorganisms begin the process of
decomposition. Back on the agricultural
beat, they are adept at identifying chemicals
associated with food spoilage and toxic fungi
that can contaminate stored nuts and grain.
They detect most odours at the parts per
trillion level, which is very similar to a dog,
says Rains. In a contest with a commercial
electronic nose, in which both wasp and
machine were trained to detect the fungal
odour 3-octanone, the wasps were the
undisputed winners. They were a hundred
times more sensitive than the electronic
nose, says Rains.
This left the team in no doubt about the
wasps sniffing skills, but how to harness
them? You cant put insects on a leash and
walk them along the queues at the airport
check-in. They must be closely confined and
kept focused on the job. Then there is the
problem of communication. Sniffer dogs are
so costly around $15,000 each because it
takes six months to train them and they need
a dedicated handler. But at least the two can 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 43
nsuk-apr-22-06-p043 43 11/4/06 10:02:59 am
behaviour that indicates a positive result and
aimless milling about, the wasps responded
only to the target odour (Biotechnology
Progress, vol 22, p 2).
Many other insects have potential as
sniffers, but so far only one other group is
anywhere close to developing a practical
device that harnesses their skills. Inscentinel,
a small British company based at Rothamsted
Research in Hertfordshire, has developed a
prototype detector with honeybees as the
sensor. The device, as yet unnamed, has
successfully detected explosives in cars and
is now in trials at a freight airport somewhere
in the UK.
Honeybees have the advantage of being
one of the best-studied of all insects, giving
researchers a head start in developing a bee-
based sniffer machine. To locate nectar-
producing flowers and pollen, worker bees
use both visual cues and scent. When they
return to the hive, they pass on information
about the best places to forage, indicating
direction with their famous waggle dance and
providing olfactory clues by passing on some
of the nectar and pollen they have collected.
During their four-week life, bees learn and
remember a multitude of smells.
A bees facility to learn new associations
between odours and environmental cues
means it is easy to train in the same way as
Rainss sniffer wasps, simply by offering it a
drop of sugar water while exposing it to a
target odour. After four 6-second exposures
with a short rest between them, Inscentinels
bees connect the target smell with food and
remember it. We have trained them to
remember a whole range of chemicals that
It worked, but it took up to 3 minutes to get
a response and that was too slow. They
decided instead to monitor the wasps search
behaviour with a video camera. That evolved
into Wasp Hound, says Rains.
The device consists of a short piece of
plastic tube closed at each end with a PVC
cap. At one end there is a hole, and just above
it five wasps inside a ventilated transparent
cartridge. At the other end of the tube is a
small fan, a miniature video camera and an
LED to provide light. As the fan draws air
through the hole and into the cartridge, the
camera records the wasps responses, sending
images to a laptop to be analysed. If the
black-bodied wasps dont recognise an
incoming odour, they mill about and the
image is a scattering of black pixels on a
white background. If they do recognise the
smell, they cluster around the inlet turning
the central part of the image black. The more
black pixels around the centre, the stronger
the response. We usually get a response
within 25 seconds, says Rains. Five wasps
turned out to be the ideal number; any fewer
and the camera cant distinguish clearly
between a yes and a no result, while more
wasps brings no further improvement.
Wasp Hound passed its initial trials with
flying colours. Not only did the software easily
distinguish between the intense search
communicate: a dog follows instructions
and indicates a positive result by growling,
crouching or pointing with its nose. It may
be much quicker to train a wasp, but how can
you tell when it has picked up an odour?
The answer lies a combination of
insect behaviour and technology. We had
to work out what sort of feedback we could
understand, Rains says. We focused on the
wasps behaviour. When a hungry wasp
scents food it begins to search for it, walking
around and pressing its antennae down onto
what it thinks is the source of the odour.
When a female wasp detects a caterpillar, it
adopts what the researchers call coiling
behaviour, rearing up on its hind legs with a
characteristic bending of the antennae and
readying itself to stab in its ovipositor.
Train a wasp to link a target odour to food,
and it will show search behaviour when it
detects that smell. Train it to link the odour to
a host, and coiling behaviour indicates a hit. In
theory, you can train female wasps to detect
two target odours linking TNT, say, with
food, and Semtex with a host. If it searches,
you have TNT; if it coils, its Semtex. You can
be certain its the target odour triggering the
response: once a wasp associates a particular
smell with a reward it ignores all others.
For the sake of simplicity, the team began
with the foraging response. We had the odour
coming in through a hole. Trained wasps
clustered round the hole and tried to stick
their heads through, says Rains. The teams
first idea was to use this as a yes signal by
running an electronic beam across the hole.
If the wasps stuck their heads in the hole,
they broke the beam and set off an alarm.
44 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006

If they stick out their
tongues, thats a yes.
If they dont, its a no

After a two-day stint as
sniffers, Inscentinels bees
are returned to the hive
nsuk-apr-22-06-p044 44 11/4/06 10:03:32 am
are not present in nature, such as explosives,
says bee biologist Mathilde Briens. Like
Microplitis wasps, bees are at least as sensitive
as dogs. They can detect an odour at
concentrations of a few parts per trillion.
Thats equivalent to a grain of salt in a
swimming pool, says the companys
managing director, Rachael Carson.
Unmistakable signal
Inscentinel exploits an even simpler
behavioural response than the team in
Georgia to signal when its bees have detected
a target odour. When a bee expects food, it
automatically sticks out its tongue, and it
is this proboscis extension reflex that
Inscentinels device monitors. The current
model, the third prototype, is the size of a
shoebox with a detachable drawer that
contains three bees, each in its own holder (see
Photo, left). A pump draws air past the bees
heads while a miniature camera records their
response and relays the images to a laptop.
If they stick out their tongues, the software
registers a yes result. If they dont, its a no,
Carson says. The proboscis reflex is very
clear. Their tongues are so long you cant
mistake it.
When Inscentinel began work on the device
in 2001, the bees first job was in food quality
control sniffing strawberries to check they
were ripe before going onto supermarket
shelves. The bee machine has also sniffed out
hidden packages of tobacco and identified
cheap whisky masquerading as a top brand.
Since 9/11, the interest has mainly been in
detecting explosives, says Carson. Bees can
learn to recognise all known explosives at
levels low enough to detect traces on
someones hands.
With DARPA and security organisations as
clients, Inscentinel isnt giving away too much
about its work on explosives. However, Carson
thinks the device could be in commercial
production in a years time. In the meantime
the team is looking at ways to improve it. One
plan is to extend the scope of the sniffer, with
banks of bees screening the air for several
odours at a time, which could save crucial
minutes when hunting for a bomb.
Meanwhile, Rains is optimistic that within
three years his Wasp Hound will be out there
sniffing for bombs at airports and locating
buried bodies. By then he hopes to have a
Wasp Hound that has more of the qualities
of a dog constantly on the move but able
to raise the alarm in an instant. The current
25-second response time is too slow for this,
but by analysing the component parts of the
wasps search behaviour, Rainss team hopes
to find a telltale body movement that signals
when it first detects a target odour. That could
reduce the response time to as little as a
second. That might allow you to walk around
with the device and find the source of an
odour, says Rains.
Bombs, drugs and bodies apart, there is
another field in which an insects nose could
be invaluable: diagnosing diseases at an early
stage. Some diseases peptic ulcers, some
cancers and TB, for instance have signature
odours that appear on the breath or in urine
or saliva long before a person develops
obvious symptoms (New Scientist, 8 April,
p 27). Detect these, and you can start treating
the disease in its earliest stages. A group at
Amersham Hospital in the UK is investigating
the ability of dogs to diagnose bladder cancer
from odours in urine. If dogs can do it, then
there is every chance insects can too. This
looks promising, says Carson, although no
one has identified what exactly the smell is
yet. It may be a complex of smells and it may
change over time as the tumour ages.
Screening for TB might prove easier. In
Tanzania, a Belgian research group called
Apopo based at Sokoine University of
Agriculture has trained giant pouched rats to
sniff out TB in samples of saliva. This provides
a speedier diagnosis than traditional methods
but the rats take four to six months to train.
Insects could offer a better service. In lab
trials, bees have discriminated between
different bacteria, including E. coli and BCG,
a weakened strain of the TB bacterium.
Inscentinel is now working with the London
School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to
see if bees can pick out the scent of TB.
Does all this mean the days of the sniffer
dog are numbered? Probably not. We dont
see insects as a replacement for dogs, says
Rains. But they do have lots of advantages.
They cost pennies to raise. They dont need
special handling, and because they are so
quick to train you can have them on call, ready
to learn a new smell whenever you need it. 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 45
Animal detectives
European police forces began using
bloodhounds to hunt down criminals
in the 18th century. Dogs, which have
noses 50 times as sensitive as ours, are
still the gold standard for detecting
odours. They are increasingly used to
sniff out explosives, weapons, drugs,
bodies and fire accelerants. They may
even be able to detect certain cancers.
Giant pouched rats (Cricetomys
gambianus) have been trained to
detect explosives and used to clear
landmines left over from the civil war
in Mozambique (below). The 40-
centimetre-long rats are also in trials to
see if they can provide a fast, cheap
service for diagnosing TB. Tests show
they can sniff out infection in samples
of saliva, checking as many as 150
samples in 30 minutes. A technician
can analyse 20 samples a day.
Bluegill sunfish (Lepomis macrochirus)
have been recruited by US army
researchers to detect chemical attacks
on drinking water. The fish respond to
toxins in water by breathing faster
and deeper, coughing more often and
moving in a characteristic way. These
movements generate electrical signals
that are picked up by electrodes and
sent to a computer. When the number
of fish showing signs of stress passes a
certain threshold, the computer sounds
an alarm. The system is in use at a New
York city reservoir.
nsuk-apr-22-06-p045 45 11/4/06 10:03:56 am
Talking point
Six clicks of
What is the difference between the web today and
the semantic web? Will it bring us closer to
artificial intelligence by automatically sifting
through all the information for us?
Perhaps too much fuss has been made about
automated systems and agents. Lots of things
that people think are spooky and magical have
come out of the web because of the
wonderfulness of human creativity which has
been applied to it. But the web is just about
putting documents on line, which sounded
boring at the time. The semantic web is about
putting data online, which sounds boring
now, but when we see the data connecting up
its going to be powerful.
On an everyday level, what will it let me do
I cant do now?
Currently scientists or science writers can
get someones paper from an online journal,
but a frequent cry is: I want to see your data.
The problem with journals is they can publish
the paper but not the data. Often scientists
have data in different stovepipes vertical
systems which dont connect horizontally
very well. You may have to go to one screen
and write something on the back of an
envelope and paste it somewhere else. This is
like life before the web. The main thing about
the semantic web is that we need the data on
the web. We still want words and music and
poetry but we need data too.
How will it work?
Right now theres no standard way to put data
onto the web. If you go to a weather site, you
cant just pull off that data and drop it into a
spreadsheet well, you can write a program,
but its horrible. An HTML table is no good
because a computer wont realise it can treat it
as a table. We have created a mark-up
language: just as HTML is a mark-up language
for text, RDF is a mark-up language for data.
What does RDF let you do?
Put data on the web. It also allows you to say
what data means. Suppose you have two
people who put data on the web. One has a
column called postal code, the other a
column that says postcode. The computer
doesnt know this is the same thing. So in RDF
we write not only actual data but information
about that data. When you make a few
connections like that between the data, you
can start to use all the data you have access to
as one big database.
How will people use this giant database?
Well, computers could book you an
appointment at the dentist or hairdresser near
you without even checking with you. But
were really looking for serendipitous reuse
if you put it out there, then people you havent
met will be able to do stuff with data that you
havent even imagined. If you think about it,
thats always been the value-added of the web.
People dont yet realise how important this is
with data. But they will.
Isnt this all rather like what happened when the
web first emerged?
In a way its very similar. There are some
The next big thing on the web is widely
supposed to be computers learning to
reason, as the long march to artificial
intelligence begins in earnest. Park the
hype, and the new semantic web is still
revolutionary enough that your computer
could use it to book a dental appointment
at a practice near you without being
asked or allow researchers based
anywhere in the world to share and
explore their data as they hunt cures for
diseases. The man behind the web,
however, is the unrevolutionary and
private Tim Berners-Lee. Personal
information about the man, appropriately
enough, has to be gleaned from the web
he proposed back in 1989. What really
counts for him are ideas, ideals, global
utopias, egalitarian communication and
neutral open formats all markers for a
lack of ego in a cyberworld. Everything
from being the son of British
mathematicians who worked on one of
the earliest computers to finding a faith
(Unitarian Universalist) committed to being
compatible with reason is grist to the mill.
These days, Berners-Lee peers out an office
window in MITs futuristic Ray and Maria
Stata Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
where he is director of the World Wide Web
Consortium. Ivan Semeniuk dropped in to
find out how the web is reshaping society
46 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
Photography: John Soares
nsuk-apr-22-06-p046 46 12/4/06 5:16:24 pm 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 47
people who dont get it and they wont
understand it until they are suddenly blown
away when they find themselves with these
very powerful data-handling tools. There are
others who do get it and they will just start
using it.
There are a lot of people who get it in the
life sciences, because they have this data
integration problem in spades. They have very
urgent needs. There is so much hanging on
the ability to make a new drug to cure a
disease. Theres clearly a lot of money tied up
in this as well. And they have huge amounts of
data. So in the life sciences theres been a very
strong understanding of whats possible.
Arent there also huge privacy issues?
People might naively think of the semantic
web as just a pool of data, but in fact different
parts of it come from different places and,
legally speaking, can be used for different
things. An awareness of this is very important.
We can design systems that are aware of the
policy aspects of data. There is some data you
wont necessarily want to share with anybody,
but there is some data that youll use in a
business transaction and its not practical to
write software which will prevent that data
from being used by anybody else. Here at MIT,
Im working on this with a decentralised
information group, and the conclusion weve
come to is that you wont really be able to stop
someone from getting at your data, but if they
are a government agency, for example, they
will have to handle that data in a transparent
way, so that you or the judge can find the
data they used and whether they used it
according to the laws.
How far is the web today from your vision?
What frustrates me is that the web was
designed to be a creative play space where
people could work together on the same piece
of hypertext. They would not only use it as a
form of communication, but leave a trail for
people to see why they had done things a
certain way. From that point of view, the web
hasnt met its potential by any means. In a
way, blogs and wikis are both signs that this is
changing, but they are still very crude in terms
of the hypertext editing you can do. We need
better tools for being creative on the web.
What stopped the web becoming the creative,
collaborative, play space you describe?
One of the technical things that happened was
that HTML became more powerful as a
presentation medium than it had been at first.
So while it was quite easy to create a browser,
it became quite difficult to create a good
editor. To create one that has the same
features as HTML is really quite a challenge.
One of the social aspects of people really
collaborating is whether there are social
controls over the information whether, for
example, you guarantee the privacy of what
they are saying when they are in a small
group. Allowing people to write a page is not
just giving them an editor, its allowing them
to create groups and granting them read and
write authority. But that is complicated, and
we have to learn about how people like to
make groups and learn about the social
systems involved in collaborations as well as
the technical side of things.
Is this notion of the common good, usability and
neutrality of the web down to you?
Remember, I came along and designed the
web 20 years after the internet had been
invented. It more or less went without saying
that the internet was designed not to care
what was done with it. It just moved packets of
information from one place to another: the
fundamental properties that make the
We want words, music,
poetry on the web
but we need data too
nsuk-apr-22-06-p047 47 12/4/06 5:17:12 pm
Talking point
48 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
internet work could not be held to ransom.
The internet is all about division between
layers. Because the people who built it made it
universal and non-discriminatory, I could
come along and invent HTTP. All these new
things can happen on top of the web because
it is also a universal medium, there is no
central point of control. The web tries not to
prefer one sort of information over another,
its a flexibility point around which new
applications can be built. Independent
development of the layers the internet layer,
the web space layer and the components on
top of that is good engineering and its also
good marketing.
So did this open, egalitarian attitude that
pervades the web just emerge?
The web needs to be the way it is to work.
There were lots of systems that were invented
to operate differently. There were all the
dial-up information providers, which were
very resistant to letting people break out and
access information from different places.
There were lots of centralised systems which
just didnt take off because they didnt have
the openness, the universality properties
of the web.
Does being decentralised mean you have no
choice but to tolerate inconsistencies, and cannot
impose control?
Before the web, and even now, a lot of systems
were being designed to be completely
consistent. The way weve traditionally done
that is to make top-down hierarchical systems,
whether in organisations or in programming.
This has always been considered a good thing.
The maxims of top-down, structured
programming are information hiding so
that modules dont see into each other but are
black boxes tied together at the edges. Having
a place where someone could just jump in
from outside is harmful in that kind of
structure because its difficult to maintain this
nice order if people keep doing that.
The maxim of the web, however, is if you
have something important, give it a label and
then people will link to it. So then we get all
this mess of what happens when a link no
longer works or when people disagree about
what a concept means. But that is only the
mess that humanity is in anyway, and by
trying to constrain ourselves to use
hierarchical systems, weve reached the limit
of scale.
So is the web closer to the way human beings
actually interact?
Yes, except when humans are constrained to
operate within a hierarchy, for example in a
medium-sized company, when the cleanest
way is for everyone to know where they are. Its
just that if you try to organise a large company
or nation state that way it doesnt work. We
cant manage hierarchies above a certain size.
The printing press changed society way beyond
expectations when it was introduced. Are we in
the middle of a Gutenberg moment?
The web is changing society dramatically, in
ways that we have to be careful to track. The
web is more connected than tree-like systems,
so it can be more powerful as a way of
connecting people, and more powerful as a
leveller and as a divider. I think we have to be
very aware of its power as we develop new web
technologies so we make sure were using
them to make a better world.
That said, we still have a limited number of
things we can think about and do, a certain
amount of enthusiasm, of time, energy and
talent. The web allows you to choose what
youre involved in from a much larger
palette. So if you do five things a week, two
may be in different countries. If we learn as
individuals to break out of hierarchies which
in the past have been largely geographical,
then the world ends up more connected.
And when someone is crying out for a solution
in one part of the world, maybe the number
of clicks between them and the solution will
be reduced.
Could the web also foster closed worlds, where
extremists only talk to other extremists with
narrow views?
This has been a worry from the beginning.
The other worry is that when everyone is
connected, diversity will vanish. I think what
we need in society is a lot of different
structures between these two extremes. If
you look at your own life, youve probably
got interests in different places with groups
of different sizes. You connect these groups
and end up reducing the amount of
inconsistency between them by making
sure the local group thinks with the global
mind, and hopefully that the global group
thinks with the local mind. Im basically
an optimist. I dont think humans have
done very well at all times throughout history,
but maybe connecting ourselves more
efficiently and thoughtfully is a way that
can help.
You recently started a blog. Whats that been like?
Its fun. After my first blog I got over 500
replies from people saying thanks for
inventing the web. I had to turn the
comments off because it was overloading
the thing. But now Im part of a group
who are blogging about the semantic web
and so were sharing our excitement about
its potential.
Tim Berners-Lee read physics at Queens College, University
of Oxford, where he made his first computer using logic
gates, an M6800 processor and an old television. At CERN,
the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva,
Switzerland, he developed (for his own use) the web
prototype Enquire program, which stored information
using, among other things, random associations. In 1989,
he proposed the full-blown article, a global hypertext
project based on Enquire.
He has been awarded countless honorary degrees, a
knighthood and a professorship in computer science at the
University of Southampton, UK.
His most recent book is Weaving the Web
(1999, HarperCollins)
We have to be very
aware of the webs
power as we develop it
nsuk-apr-22-06-p048 48 12/4/06 5:18:06 pm
Second sight
IN NATURAL sunlight, Earth looks stunning
from space no end of spectacular
photographs bear this out. This isnt one
of them, however.
Its a microwave radar image of the
Congo river in central Africa taken by
Envisat, the largest Earth observation
satellite ever built. Envisat was launched
by the European Space Agency in 2002,
and its unique vision is changing the way
we look at the planet.
It only has a modest resolution, but
Envisat has a useful trick up its sleeve: it
can measure distances incredibly precisely.
Images like this one can be turned into
3D maps in which the topography is
precise down to a few millimetres. Not
bad from an altitude of 800 kilometres.
Thats why Envisat is attracting interest
from far beyond the usual academic
world. Insurance companies can use the
satellites digital elevation maps to see
subsidence long before buildings begin to
crumble. Vulcanologists can monitor
whether volcanoes are deforming the
ground a sure sign that they are about
to blow. Town planners can model the
way water runs off the land to predict
areas at risk of flooding. Envisat can track
soil erosion, ice cover and the movement
of glaciers with its microwave eyes.
It works by creating its own
microwaves and beaming them towards
Earth like an orbiting flashgun. It works as
well at night as it does during the day,
and it can also peer through cloud and
haze. To increase the image resolution,
the satellite takes several pictures of the
same location as it moves through space
and then combines them, a technique
known as synthetic aperture radar. Since
it is only measuring the intensity of
reflection, the images are all black and
white this one is artificially coloured.
With Envisats new digital maps
proving so useful, what does the future
hold for conventional paper-based
contour maps? Sadly, they will probably
eventually join cathode ray tubes, video
cassette recorders and film-based
cameras as relics of a bygone era.
You get the picture
Photography: European Space Agency 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 49
nsuk-apr-22-06-p049 49 11/4/06 2:06:46 pm
In January 1871, the Prussian troops encamped near the upper reaches of the
river Seine took little notice as Emile Robert trundled past on his horse and
cart. The Frenchman in his smock and otter-skin hat was obviously an itinerant
egg seller, and the occupying Prussians had more pressing things on their
minds. After all, their job was to lay siege to Paris.
The Prussians should have taken more notice. Concealed beneath the hay in
Roberts cart were the strangest eggs. They were the size of a childs head and
made of zinc, and inside each one were hundreds of letters bound for Paris. For
the purpose of Roberts frequent trips to the Seine was to secretly submerge
the eggs in the river so they would roll along the riverbed to Paris.
Rolling down the river
ON 19 July 1870 France declared war on
Prussia. It was a disastrous miscalculation. By
2 September the French emperor Napoleon III
and his army had surrendered to the Germans
at Sedan. By 19 September, the Prussians had
surrounded Paris and laid siege to the city and
its two million inhabitants. For France it was
the end of empire. A new republican
government abandoned the capital and
headed south-west to Tours.
It would take inspiration, ingenuity and
modern technology to keep Paris in touch
with the rest of the country. The war with
Prussia prompted the worlds first airmail
service, first in the besieged eastern town of
Metz and then in Paris. During the 20-week
siege, 2.5 million letters were carried out of
Paris by balloonists.
Getting post into the city was more
difficult, however. Franois-Frdric
Steenackers, the governments director of
Postes et Telegraphes, put his faith in balloons,
but these were at the mercy of both the wind
and Prussian guns. Leaving Paris was
possible if you left after dark but flights
into the city were hopeless. The first and last
attempt was a miserable failure: the wind
dropped and the balloon landed two hours
after take-off almost where it had started.
Carrier pigeons seemed a better option,
and so the postal service set up a pigeon loft in
Paris. The pigeons were flown out of the city
by balloon and sent back with messages on
microfilm. Few made it. The Prussians shot
them and harried them with falcons. Of 102
pigeons released during September and
October 1870, only 22 reached Paris.
Communication was considered vital
both for those running the city and to bolster
flagging morale. And so three Parisians, Emile
Robert, Pierre-Charles Delort and a Monsieur
Vonoven, put their heads together and came
up with an ingenious plan. Their idea was to
send the post by river, packing the letters
inside watertight metal balls and dropping
them into the Seine upstream of Paris. The
current would do the rest.
In early October, Robert took the idea to
the citys military governor, General Louis-
Jules Trochu. Impressed, Trochu asked the
head of the postal service, Germain Rampont,
to look into it.
The technology was simple. The balls
would be about 20 centimetres across, with
a series of vanes from end to end to help the
current propel them downriver. Each ball
could hold more than 500 letters but
buoyancy tanks ensured they were only just
heavier than water, so they would bump along
the river bed without sinking into the silt.
Anticipating attempts to float goods into
Paris, the Prussians had stretched nets across
the Seine. The balls would sneak beneath these
and roll on into a net fixed to the river bed
close to the city walls, where postal workers
would retrieve them.
Rampont ordered a trial. The inventors and
postal officials crept out of Paris to a small
stream just beyond the citys southern gate.
To the sound of Prussian cannon, they
dropped two balls into the water and waited
with a net. They caught the first; the second
travelled so fast it broke through the net.
Rampont ordered another trial, this time
in the Seine. It took the inventors two weeks to
make and install a net across the river bed at
Port--lAnglais, close to the city wall. Before
they could test it, a Parisian gunboat snagged
it and wrecked it. The three men made
another, diving into the icy waters to stretch it
across the river bed. The new net resembled a
trawl, with a mouth 280 metres wide and
weighted to keep it on the river bed. It was
1 metre high, big enough to catch a rolling ball
without fouling the gunboats.
On the day of the experiment, Rampont
and the inventors took a gunboat 2 kilometres
upstream, as close to enemy lines as they
dared. Rampont dropped a ball into the Seine
and the boat party swiftly retreated. The next
morning Vonoven retrieved the ball from the
river at Port--lAnglais. Satisfied, on 6
December Rampont signed an agreement
with the inventors, promising to pay them 1
franc for each letter delivered.
The next day, Robert and Delort took the
first balloon out of Paris, leaving Vonoven
in charge of the net. They made their way to
Tours to see Steenackers. According to Robert,
he wished them success and gave them letters
to send to Paris. However, Steenackers was
engaged in a bitter feud with Rampont, and
had tried to thwart his earlier initiatives.
When one inventor proposed a better
Each of the metal balls
could hold more than
five hundred letters
50 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
nsuk-apr-22-06-p050 50 11/4/06 9:54:58 am
microfilm for the pigeon post, for instance,
Steenackers threatened him with a court
martial and firing squad if he pursued it.
Two days after their meeting, Robert and
Delort received a telegram from Steenackers
threatening legal proceedings if they went
ahead with their scheme.
It was now 18 December and the
government had moved south to Bordeaux.
Robert and Delort followed and tried to reason
with Steenackers. He refused to acknowledge
the agreement made in Paris. We are the
masters here, he said. Frustrated, they
hurried to see Alphonse Feillet, the man in
charge of developing new technology to
communicate with Paris. He promised to talk
to Steenackers.
Back in Paris it was one of the coldest
winters for years. The average temperature
during December was 1.4 C and stories
circulated of wine freezing in cellars. The
people were short of food and fuel, and the
cold paralysed the pigeon post: only three
birds reached Paris that month. Things were
desperate. But Feillets intervention must have
worked, because the next day the inventors
had a new agreement. It was much the same
as the old one, but reduced their take from
1 franc to 80 centimes.
On 25 December adverts appeared in the
French press informing the public that they
could send letters to Paris by a new and secret
service. Paris-bound mail should be sent to
the post office at Moulins, a town 300
kilometres south of Paris. Letters flooded in
from all over France and beyond. On 4 January
Robert and Delort made their first collection
from Moulins. Delort packed the letters into
the balls and Robert took them to the Seine,
submerging them at various places between
70 and 115 kilometres upstream of Paris.
A total of 55 balls went into the river.
None appeared in the net at Port--lAnglais.
Vonoven checked the net every day, but on 23
January he arrived to find it had been badly
damaged by ice floes. Five days later France
surrendered. Steenackers halted the now
redundant service on 1 February, leaving
14,600 letters still at Moulins.
The letters that were left behind were the
first to be delivered, in the middle of February.
On 6 March a ball was found 170 kilometres
downstream of Paris. On 26 March a second
one turned up near the mouth of the Seine.
These two balls had travelled an average of
5 kilometres a day. Over the next 11 years
18 more balls turned up: some had reached
Paris, some didnt get that far, and still others
had travelled far downstream. They are still
turning up, the most recent in 1982, but 20
remain unaccounted for.
The wide distribution of balls is exactly
what you would expect, says Roger Bettes,
a river-flow specialist at hydrological
consultants HR Wallingford in Oxfordshire,
UK. But could the service ever have bettered
the 20 per cent success rate of the pigeon
post? And what effect did the delay caused by
Steenackerss politicking have? The first balls
were probably just reaching Port--lAnglais
at the time the net was damaged, says Bettes.
If they had had a couple of weeks more they
would have done a lot better than 20 per
cent. Robert, Delort and Vonoven had been
tantalisingly close to success.
No one gained much from this episode.
Steenackers resigned in February 1871. Two
parliamentary reports criticised him for
frustrating initiatives from Paris. The six
postal workers manning the nets at Port--
lAnglais received medals. Vonoven did not.
And when Delort asked for the inventors
money, 150,000 francs, the postal service
refused to pay. Mick Hamer
The Prussian armys stranglehold on Paris forced the
French to try ingenious new means of communication
You can see some Boules de Moulins at the Muse de la Poste in Paris ( 22 April 2006 | NewScientist | 51
nsuk-apr-22-06-p051 51 11/4/06 9:57:10 am
Bookends The word
Future fuel
Beyond Oil and Gas
by George A. Olah, Alain Goeppert and
G.K. Surya Prakash, Wiley, 17.99/$29.95,
ISBN 3527312757
Reviewed by Richard A. Lovett
the darling of
alternative fuel
proponents. But
Olah, a Nobel
laureate, Prakash
and Goeppert
argue that methanol is better,
despite its higher toxicity. It is
a liquid, so it is easier to ship and
store. Today it can be created
from natural gas. The authors
real dream is of a future in
which nuclear or renewable
power is harnessed to make
methanol from carbon dioxide
and water mitigating global
warming by reusing carbon
dioxide. A bit dry but, aside from
some of the chemistry, it is
mostly non-technical and a
potentially important work.
How its done
The Beginners Guide to Winning the
Nobel Prize: A life in science
by Peter Doherty, Columbia University
Press, $24.95, ISBN 0231138962
Reviewed by Amanda Gefter
IN 1996, the
Peter Doherty
won the Nobel
prize for his work
on T-cells. This is
a collection of his
thoughts on how he made it to
Stockholm, and how other
aspiring scientists might do the
same. Part memoir, part science
book and part how-to, it veers
wildly from Greek science and
the history of the Nobels to the
inner workings of the immune
system and the relationship
between science and religion. It
may be inspirational for young
research scientists, but the
general reader will be wondering
exactly what this book is about.
HOW do animals and birds get their
common names? Why is a robin a
robin? Why is a cat not a dog? Like
their scientific counterparts, common
names are part of a classification
system of sorts. You could call it folk
taxonomy. Yet these names are much
more than mere labels to ensure that
we all eat or conserve the same things.
With their descriptive terminology,
often what they do is tell us what to
expect, so that if we meet one we
can recognise it by its appearance
or behaviour.
A good example is the set of names
for the three resident British
woodpeckers: great spotted, lesser
spotted and green. Its not too hard to
guess what they look like. The
thinking applies to tropical species
too. Think of the hornbill, the
hummingbird and the leaf-thrasher.
And it applies to animals as much as
birds: squirrel, spider, swamp and
howler are all folk names for monkeys,
and each gives some idea of what the
creature is like.
The uacari, however, breaks all the
rules. It is a type of monkey, but you
wouldnt know that from its common
name. Uacari means nothing in
English, nor in any other European
Even knowing how to pronounce it
properly wuk-ah-ree doesnt
help. Its scientific genus name,
Cacajao, is just as unhelpful. Most
scientific names make some sense
in Latin or Greek, but not this one.
Where do uacari and Cacajao come
from? For an explanation, we need to
go back to two European explorers
born in the 18th century, Alexander
von Humboldt and Johann von Spix. In
1800, in a Jesuit mission on the Brazil-
Venezuela border, Humboldt
encountered a strange little monkey
with a very short tail, a woebegone
countenance and long shaggy fur. It
was unlike anything he had seen, and
he called it by its local name, cacajao.
Some 20 years later Spix, collecting
specimens in the central Amazon,
found a similar animal and called it by
another local name, ouacary. Sadly,
well never know what these names
mean, since the tribes who lived in the
places where Humboldt and Spix
collected are now extinct, and no one
fully recorded their languages. It is just
possible that the name might have
meant something like ugly
monkey the uacari is no pin-up.
The uacari is not the only animal
with a name whose meaning is lost.
Consider the aye-aye, the binturong,
the cacomistle and the yapok, all of
whose common names came from a
local language. Any idea what they
are? Look them up and see if you
guessed right. If names like this tell us
anything, its that we dont know
what to expect, but we know to expect
something strange.
It means nothing in
English, nor in other
European languages
Order, order!
No. 1388 Susan Denham
In a recent episode of the television quiz
show A Question of Sport, the two teams
each had to put the same five sporting
events in chronological order. When they
had chosen an order they were given one
point for each event in the correct place. One
team answered DEBAC when the correct
answer was EDACB, and so scored nothing
which seemed a bit harsh. So for future
episodes this type of question will be scored
a different way. For each possible pair of
events, if they are in the correct order in the
teams answer, the team will get a point. So
under this system the above answer would
have got seven out of the possible 10 points
(for the correctly-ordered pairs AC, DA, DB,
DC, EA, EB and EC).
In a trial run, the two teams had to place
a certain number of events in chronological
order. For each team their score turned out
to be exactly what it would have been
under the old system. Furthermore, the
number of events in question was the
product of the two teams scores. How many
events did they have to place in order, and
what were the two scores?
15 will be awarded to the sender of the first
correct answer opened on 23 May. The
Editors decision is final. Please send entries
to Enigma 1388, New Scientist, Lacon House,
84 Theobalds Road, London WC1X 8NS, or to (please include
your postal address). The winner of Enigma
1382 is Josh Kopp of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, US.
Answer to 1382 Counter pain
The smallest number would be 35728416.
52 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
nsuk-apr-22-06-p052 52 11/4/06 4:30:23 pm
A MONTH ago we reported, with perhaps a
tiny hint of scepticism, on a construction
company called Snibor that claims to build
in every dimension (4 March). How could
we be so out of touch as to doubt, even
implicitly, its ability to exceed the
conventional three dimensions? Keith
Simpson chides us for not keeping up to
date. Take a quick trip to www., he
admonishes. Once there, we clicked on
The Transformation and learned that
by the year 2012, humanity, mother earth
and possibly other planets in our solar
system, will make a transition from our
current 3rd dimension, to the 4th and 5th
dimension soon after.
Further on we read: We are
approaching the Harmonic Concordance,
which will take place on November 8/9th
2003... A gateway will open up in the
heavens, which will allow greater light
energy to flow through to this part of the
solar system. Folks, this will herald in an
even greater vibrational frequency change
(higher), and will bring humanity towards
greater awareness. Thats odd. Did
anyone notice that change in vibrational
frequency in 2003?
At the foot of the home page we come
to the real point of all this: HAPPY
SHOPPING! And we learn that if you spend
only A$150 on Transformation 2012 gear you
will receive a free pair of wonderful Detox
Foot Patches which, if the before-and-after
photos are to be believed, go authentically
icky-coloured after use.
Intrigued by the idea of therapeutic foot
patches we find another site, www., where we read
about First Detox Foot Patches. These
may or may not be the same as the
transformational ones, but here they cost
17. It seems that they are approved by the
Food and Drug Administration and are
the worlds most advanced patch with the
highest negative ion emission count
measured in excess of 1200 per patch.
In which dimension are 1200 ions
significant, though?
SPARRING physicists provided some
entertainment at the annual Isaac
Asimov Memorial Debate, held last
month at the American Museum of
Natural History in New York.
Physicists Andrei Linde, Michio Kaku,
Lisa Randall, Lawrence Krauss and
Virginia Trimble tussled over the
theme Universe: One or Many?
taking a packed audience on a dizzying
trip to the farthest reaches of the
cosmological imagination. Sometimes
the trip was too unsettling even for the
physicists themselves.
Kaku, of the City University of New
York, spoke at one point of the
possibility of tunnelling into other
universes through space-time foam,
harnessing the power of negative
energy. Genesis happens all the time,
he said. Continuous genesis in an
ocean of Nirvana, and the ocean is an
11-dimensional hyperspace.
As Kaku spoke, Krauss, of Case
Western Reserve University in
Cleveland, Ohio, looked as if he was
about to have an aneurysm. He turned
to Kaku. If there are an infinite
number of universes, he declared, I
cant imagine one in which I agree with
what you just said.
During the question and answer
session, a young member of the
audience asked if our universe was the
first in the tree of branching universes
projected on the backdrop behind the
speakers. Its extraordinarily unlikely
that we live in the first universe, Linde,
of Stanford University, explained. We
live in the middle of infinity.
That was too much for the chair of
the evening, Neil deGrasse Tyson,
astrophysicist and director of the
Hayden Planetarium in New York.
We live in the middle of infinity? he
repeated. Did those words really just
come out of your mouth?
THE UK-based online news service Life Style
Extra reported on 2 April: More than a
third of a million British victims of bird flu
are to be buried in plague pits if an
outbreak of the deadly disease takes hold.
Not quite the kind of thing that is
normally meant by life style, was our
reaction. Whats more, as reader Janet de
Castro Lopo notes, it appeared in LSEs
Healthy Living section.
A PHOTO of a street sign in Ulm,
Germany, arrives from David Craig.
The sign has illuminated digits which
can be changed to indicate how many
spaces are available in the towns
car parks. But the distances to the car
parks are also shown in changeable
lights. David was puzzled until he
remembered that Ulm is the birthplace
of Albert Einstein and it all started to
make sense.
FINALLY: Walking on a ceiling is very
different from normal walking, Stanislav
Gorb of the Max Planck Institute for Metals
research in Stuttgart, Germany, says in a
press release, because gravity tends to pull
an inverted insect away instead of pressing
it to the surface. Thanks for the insight.
You can send stories to Feedback by email
at Please
include your home address. This weeks and
past Feedbacks can be seen on our website.
Chinas Ministry of Health explicitly
banned the sale of human organs
on Monday, we announced in
New Scientist (1 April, p 7).
Gavin Fourie is delighted yet he
cant help wondering about the
other days of the week
64 | NewScientist | 22 April 2006
nsus-apr-22-06-p064 80 12/4/06 4:30:16 pm
The last word
When people die of electric shocks,
what kills them current or voltage?
It is the current through the heart
region that causes most deaths from
electric shock. The effect depends on
duration of exposure and also varies
between individuals. The frequency of
mains power around 50 or 60
hertz is very dangerous, and
currents of only a few tens of
milliamps at such a frequency can
cause the heart to fibrillate. It pulses
at a much higher rate than normal
and fails to pump blood to the brain;
death follows in a few minutes.
Because the body has electrical
resistance, the current flowing in it
depends on the voltage. It also
depends on the dampness of the skin
and where on the body the current
enters and leaves. It is therefore very
difficult to come up with a safe voltage
for all circumstances. This is being
attempted at the moment by the
International Electrotechnical
Committee (IEC) working group on
electric shock, but the number of
variables makes simple
recommendations difficult.
There are other mechanisms that
can cause death from electric shock.
One of these is muscular contraction.
If a current passes through the chest it
can inhibit breathing and lead to
asphyxia. A current in the head can
affect the respiratory centre in the
brain, again leading to asphyxia. Once
more it is current, rather than voltage,
that is the critical factor.
Most people who receive an
electric shock survive. This is not
because they are particularly strong
but because there is usually some
factor that reduces the current, such
as resistance from clothing or shoes,
or the length of the shock. An
earth-leakage circuit breaker (also
called a residual current device or
ground-fault circuit interrupter), often
touted as a panacea, is useful to
shorten the duration of a shock but
does not prevent the shock occurring
in the first place.
In short, it is a function of current
and time that kills.
N C Friswell
International Electrotechnical
Committee working group on electric
shock, Horsham, West Sussex, UK
Damage from an electric shock
varies with current. However, except
in the case of superconductors,
voltage is needed to drive this current
so the distinction is a little artificial. If
the resistance of the human body
were constant then voltage would be
an equally valid yardstick. But the
resistance varies according to a
number of factors.
For example, dry skin offers an
electrical resistance of 500,000 ohms.
Yet wet skin reduces this to 1000
ohms only double the resistance of
salty water. So being soaked to the skin
leaves us more vulnerable to harm.
The path of the current is critical.
This is why standing on insulating
material and doing electrical work
with one hand behind your back, so
that an earthed current will not pass
across your chest but down to your
feet, reduces the chance that a current
will pass through your heart. The heart
can stop if current passes through it,
and we can suffer severe burns as
electrical energy is converted to heat.
Alternating current is said to be
four or five times as dangerous as
direct current, because it induces
more severe muscular contractions.
It also stimulates sweating, which
lowers the skins resistance, increasing
the current passing through the
person. Sixty cycles a second happens
to be the most harmful range.
Thomas Edison tried to take
advantage of this fact when, in 1886,
New York state established a
committee to replace hanging with a
more humane form of execution. He
employed Harold Brown to invent the
electric chair, powered by the
alternating current that was favoured
by his rivals in the race to
commercialise electricity distribution.
If it were used to kill criminals, Edison
hoped that potential customers would
shun alternating current in favour of
the direct-current system he had
developed. Sadly for Edison, this
interesting piece of marketing turned
out to be unsuccessful because AC
proved to be cheaper and can be
stepped up to higher voltages to be
transported more efficiently over great
Mike Follows
Willenhall, West Midlands, UK
Electricity kills by delivering energy
where it is not wanted. Energy is the
product of voltage, current and time.
It could be lethal when delivered as
low as 100 microamps at a few volts if
sent directly to the heart, or about 30
milliamps at a few hundred volts from
one hand to another. In both cases
the problem arises if the shock
disorganises the electrical activity of
the heart to make the ventricles
fibrillate. Of course, the solution to
this problem is to deliver another
shock, from a defibrillator, if you have
one handy.
Electrical energy can kill you in
other ways. The electric chair appears
to kill by asphyxiation, because it
causes uncontrolled contraction of the
muscles of respiration. It also cooks its
victims a bit, but does not seem to
reliably produce either ventricular
fibrillation or rapid loss of
consciousness from current through
the brain. In other circumstances,
large currents that pass through the
body without causing instant death
can cause horrible, deep burns.
These can, of course, kill you more
slowly. Finally, a high-voltage
discharge can set fire to your clothes or
blow you off the electricity pylon you
might be working on, either of which
can be fatal.
Mike Brown
Knutsford, Cheshire, UK
Last Words past and present, plus a full list of unanswered
questions, are available on New Scientists website at
The electric chair kills because it
causes uncontrolled contraction
of the muscles of respiration
Water cure
In New Scientists recently published
book Does Anything Eat Wasps? there
was a question about athletes foot. I
used to suffer this to excess until my
father told me to pee on my feet when
I shower. Ive never had it since. How
does this cure work?
Tony Male
Cairns, Queensland, Australia
Questions and answers should be kept as
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Does Anything
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Available in bookstores and online
nsuk-apr-22-06-pibc 3 11/4/06 9:59:19 am