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2021-04-03 New Scientist International Edition

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Published by pssaadiwangsa, 2021-04-05 20:38:52

New Scientist International Edition (April 2021)

2021-04-03 New Scientist International Edition


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How excited should we be
about LHC particle result?


Breakthrough that could
supercharge medicine


Synthetic life that divides
like the real thing

WEEKLY 3 April 2021



How bad could the variants get? 13

This week’s issue

On the 18 Hints of new physics 46 Features
cover How excited should we be
about LHC particle result? “New
34 There’s something varieties
weird at the edge of 40 Immune memory of vanilla
our solar system Breakthrough that could could
supercharge medicine be more
Could it be a black hole? citrusy,
14 Artificial cells nutty or
8 Mutating coronavirus Synthetic life that divides caramelly”
How bad could the like the real thing
variants get?
54 Can you drink too much tea?
Vol 250 No 3328 18 Robot tying knots
Cover image: Joshua Francis 15 Land of bees
19 When octopuses dream
46 The new vanilla

News News BRUCE D TAUBERT Features

12 Mercury’s heat pipes 15 Land of bees Hundreds of species thrive at the US-Mexico border 34 Our backyard black hole
How the solar system’s Could there be a bottomless
innermost planet got so small monster lurking at the fringes
of our solar system?
13 Genetic greening
GM crops could drastically cut 40 First line of defence
carbon emissions in the EU Understanding the more ancient
part of our immune system could
17 Swirly is the new black change how we fight pandemics
The latest picture of a
supermassive black hole 46 Not so vanilla
reveals its magnetic field The taste of vanilla could
soon be a lot more exciting
The back pages
21 Comment
Mary Wortley Montagu is an 51 Citizen science
unsung hero, says Jo Willett Studying the seas with
the eOceans app
22 The columnist
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein 52 Puzzles
on the mystery of neutrinos Try our crossword, quick quiz
and logic puzzle
24 Letters
Vaccine strategy may 54 Almost the last word
yet prove to be an error Is there any harm in drinking
too much tea?
28 Aperture
Bold photojournalism from 55 Tom Gauld for New Scientist
the World Press Photo Contest A cartoonist’s take on the world

30 Culture 56 Feedback
Why flavour and aroma Lunar living and praying for
matter so much to humans a vaccine: the week in weird

3 April 2021 | New Scientist | 1

on New Scientist

Virtual event Virtual event EGAL/ISTOCK Online

A rescue plan for nature Saving nature How to restore biodiversity and prevent pandemics RM FLAVIO MASSARI/ALAMY Covid-19 daily briefing

An all-star panel of scientists Newsletter All the latest, most crucial
and economists explains how coverage of the pandemic, with
our disregard for nature helped The way of the dodo What killed off the Neanderthals? news, features and interviews.
cause the covid-19 pandemic – Updated each day at 6pm BST.
and how we can begin to get back Podcast
on the right track. This event is coronavirus-latest
presented in association with DEEPOL BY PLAINPICTURE
the United Nations Environment Essential guide
Programme and is free to all.
Join us at 6pm BST on 15 April. Get to grips with all the grandeur
Register your place now. and complexity of Charles Darwin’s peerless theory of natural selection
with our Essential Guide: Evolution,
Podcasts the sixth in the series. Available
to purchase now.

The Large Hadron Collider just
might have found something that
challenges the standard model
of particle physics. The team also
hear what the Perseverance rover
is up to on Mars and discuss
vaccine hesitancy in the EU.

Escape Pod

This week’s dose of escapism is
all about scales: why some musical
scales sound happy and others sad;
the strange world at the Planck
scale; and the maths of infinity.


Our Human Story

A monthly look at human evolution
and archaeology sent free to your
inbox. The latest edition asks: what
happened to the Neanderthals?

Singing strings Why musical scales sound happy or sad

2 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021


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The leader

Virus-driven progress

Covid-19-spurred medical advances are great, but we can’t return to business as usual

IN COUNTRIES where vaccinations against discoveries in virology and vaccinology. A related area where huge strides have
been taken is immunology. More has
covid-19 are progressing well, this phase The ongoing HIV pandemic brought already been learned about the human
body’s response to the SARS-CoV-2
of the pandemic feels a bit like the part breakthroughs in these too, plus in coronavirus than we know about the
viruses that have been with us for decades
of a long-haul flight where the captain antiviral drugs. (see page 40). Other areas of medicine
have been on a steep learning curve
has switched on the seatbelt signs and What dividends can we expect too, which will pay off as we confront
future health threats.
ears are starting to pop. Everyone is from covid-19? Vaccinology has made
Excellent as all this is, however,
impatient to land but there is a way jaw-dropping progress. Before the we mustn’t regard such medical leaps
forward as an excuse to return to business
to go yet. The descent will be turbulent, pandemic, vaccine development as usual, secure in the knowledge that
we are tooled up to defeat the next
there is still a possibility of disaster and pandemic. One mantra of the past
year has been “build back better”.
even once we are on the ground, there “We may even be able to develop When this is all over, we are going to
need a whole new aeroplane, not just
are many obstacles to negotiate before universal vaccines to protect a better first aid kit. ❚

the journey is over. us against any emerging virus”

Even so, thoughts inevitably turn

to what lies beyond the airport. The invariably took years. This time it took

pandemic has been – still is – a health just months to create multiple vaccines,

disaster, but there are many reasons many using brand-new technologies.

to believe that we will find silver linings. There is real belief that vaccines will

Historically, pandemics have led now get even better. We may even be

to progress in science and medicine. able to develop universal vaccines to

The 1918 flu, for example, catalysed protect us against any emerging virus.

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A family attends a funeral
in Vila Formosa cemetery,
Sao Paulo, Brazil

FERNANDO BIZERRA/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK called for stricter measures,
including lockdowns to reduce
non-essential activity, increased
use of face masks and social

However, Brazilian president
Jair Bolsonaro has consistently
criticised lockdowns, saying they
will hurt the poor, and has publicly
referred to regional leaders who
impose them as “tyrants”. The

“The lack of medication,
materials and intensive
care beds are turning the
situation into chaos”

South America president told supporters at an
event in Goias on 5 March that the
Brazil fears covid collapse government regretted the deaths,
but there had been “enough
The country is buckling under record coronavirus cases and poor fussing and whining”.
governance, while Chile enters strict lockdown, reports Luke Taylor
The government has been slow
BRAZIL is facing the biggest health das Clinicas in São Paulo. The younger population,” he says. to purchase vaccines and so far
system collapse in its history, shortages and a lack of trained The P.1 variant of the virus only 6.4 per cent of the population
according to researchers at personnel are causing has received one dose.
Brazilian health institute Fiocruz, unnecessary deaths, she says. may be to blame for the high case
as the country records its highest numbers in Brazil. Studies suggest Infections appear to be
number of weekly deaths since Brazil’s mortality rate for SARS- the variant has mutations that stabilising at a high level due to
the pandemic began. Meanwhile, CoV-2 is already high: 8 out of 10 help it evade antibodies from increasing interventions from
Chile has been forced to impose Brazilians intubated as a result of previous infections or from states that are imposing their
strict new lockdowns to cope the virus have died compared with vaccination, and thus may own strict measures, says Jesem
with a severe second wave of a global average of 5 out of 10, says be able to reinfect people who Orellana at Fiocruz, but the delay
infections, despite having Fernando Bozza at Fiocruz, which have already been infected. between infection and illness
mounted one of the world’s is based in Rio de Janeiro. means the next two to three
fastest vaccine roll-outs. Despite a lack of viral genetic weeks will be critical.
Information from hospital sequencing in Brazil, the samples
Brazil recorded 18,164 deaths admissions suggests the virus that have been analysed show the Meanwhile, Chile has rolled out
last week, bringing its total to is hitting more younger people, variant is now dominant in some 50.46 doses of vaccine per 100
more than 300,000, a higher toll says Raphael Guimarães at regions. “We have to strongly people. Nevertheless, on 25 March,
than any other country except Fiocruz. He says there has been a consider that P.1 is causing the the country recorded 6196 new
the US. Many of the country’s surprising increase in the number increase in the number of cases daily cases, and has reached
intensive care units have reached of 30 to 59-year-olds needing right now,” says Nuno Faria at almost 1 million cases in total.
capacity. “The lack of medication, hospitalisation. “It means that the Imperial College London. Around 95 per cent of intensive
materials and intensive care pandemic in Brazil is reaching the care beds are taken in the country.
beds are turning the situation Researchers at Fiocruz have
into chaos,” says Renata Pieratti Strict lockdown measures have
Bueno, a doctor at the Hospital Daily coronavirus news round-up been put in place from 25 March
for almost all of the country. These
Online every weekday at 6pm GMT include an evening curfew and set times for exercise. Each person is
only allowed to go outside for
essential activities twice a week,
and must request permits to do so.

The P.1 variant and the highly
transmissible B.1.1.7 variant, which
was first seen in England, together
with lots of travel during Chile’s
summer season have been blamed
for the increase in cases. ❚

3 April 2021 | New Scientist | 7

News Coronavirus


How much worse can variants get?

The coronavirus could turn into just another cold, but it could also evolve
into something much deadlier, reports Michael Le Page

THE devastating impact of the new experiments as he wanted to avoid NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
coronavirus variants is becoming any risk of escape.
clear. The more transmissible A human cell infected Next is lethality. There is
B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the Then there is immune evasion. with the B.1.1.7 variant growing evidence that B.1.1.7 is
UK is causing a surge of infections Our immune system protects us in of coronavirus slightly more lethal than older
and deaths around the world. two main ways. It produces T-cells variants. “There’s a reasonable
Is this just the beginning? Could that detect and destroy infected of the virus. For this reason, T-cell possibility it could even get
even nastier variants evolve? cells before the virus can replicate, resistance is expected to evolve worse,” says Aris Katzourakis
and antibodies that bind to the much more slowly than antibody at the University of Oxford.
When considering future virus to stop it infecting cells. resistance, giving us time to tweak
variants, there are three main vaccines if necessary. “It appears While it is often said that
properties to worry about: The most effective antibodies, to be difficult for the virus to viruses evolve to become less
transmissibility, evasion of called neutralising antibodies, completely escape T-cells,” deadly, there is no reason to
immunity to past infection or bind to the part of the spike says Andreas Bergthaler at the think this will be the case with
vaccines, and lethality. Of these, protein that helps the virus get Research Center for Molecular SARS-CoV-2, says Katzourakis. “It
transmissibility is the most into cells. That means mutations Medicine in Austria. can easily be transmitted before it
important. The new coronavirus, in this region can allow the kills its hosts, so there’s not much
SARS-CoV-2, is far less lethal than virus to evade antibodies to selective pressure for this virus
the Ebola virus, but it has killed some extent, which is what to become less virulent,” he says.
far more people because it happened in the B.1.351 variant
is much better at spreading. first spotted in South Africa and The good news is that the
the P.1 variant that was first seen vaccines work even better than
We still don’t understand why in Brazil (see page 7). hoped and that the coronavirus
the B.1.1.7 variant is at least 50 per is unlikely to be able to completely
cent more transmissible than But there are limits on further evade vaccine protection any time
other variants, says Joe Grove at evolution. “The spike protein soon. As more people acquire
University College London. But is a machine with moving parts immunity, many experts still
his work suggests that the spike that have important roles,” says believe that the virus could turn
proteins on its surface are a bit Grove. If mutations arise that into just another cold virus, like
better than those of other variants break the machine, the virus the existing human coronaviruses.
at getting into human cells. cannot infect cells.
But with most people on the
The bad news is that he has It is also much harder for the planet yet to be vaccinated, we
found that the spike protein virus to evade the T-cell response are a long way from that point
of a coronavirus isolated from because this remains effective as and the vaccines may require
pangolins is around 100 times long as T-cells recognise any part tweaking more than once to
better at getting into human cells, remain effective. “This game
suggesting there is plenty of scope The covid-19 risk from our pets of evolutionary to and fro with
for SARS-CoV-2 to evolve to become the virus is going to go a few
even more transmissible. “Until In humans, the new coronavirus been infected by humans – cats more rounds yet,” says Grove. ❚
recently, SARS-CoV-2 was not living appears to be changing relatively are particularly susceptible –
slowly, but it seems to mutate there is no evidence of pets
“A coronavirus in pangolins much faster in animals. infecting people. However,
is about 100 times better the virus has jumped to mink
at entering our cells than When Sue VandeWoude’s and then back to people. So far,
the one causing covid-19” team at Colorado State University this hasn’t given rise to more
infected dogs, cats and hamsters dangerous variants.
in humans,” he says. “Now it is with the virus, many mutations
undergoing optimisation for arose within days. This could be Another worrying finding is that
humans and there is no reason a source of dangerous variants the B.1.1.7 variant infects lab
to assume it is going to stop here.” if they jumped back into people. mice, unlike older variants. If this
variant circulates in wild mice, it
But Grove stresses that we “There’s a risk, albeit a very could infect cats and then people.
can’t be sure the spike protein low risk, of the virus becoming
changes are behind the higher more virulent or transmissible,” As a result, VandeWoude thinks
transmissibility, not least because says VandeWoude. we should consider vaccinating
he didn’t use live viruses in his cats against the virus.
While many dogs and cats have

8 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021

Health Check newsletter

Get a weekly round-up of health news in your inbox

Exiting lockdown

A third of UK population might

not be protected from third wave

Clare Wilson

LAST week, UK prime minister The number of people who could and deaths will rise along with gradual than if restrictions were
Boris Johnson warned that there catch it would be higher still, infections, they should do so lifted at once.
is no doubt that the third wave because the vaccines don’t less than they did in the first
of covid-19 infections happening completely prevent people from and second waves, because older Other factors that would affect
in mainland Europe will “wash up” catching and transmitting the and more vulnerable people the size of any future wave include
on the UK’s shores. virus, even if they don’t become will be 80 per cent protected by lower vaccine uptake in younger
ill themselves. We don’t yet have vaccination. “We’re going to be adults, or coronavirus variants
In fact, scientists and doctors, firm numbers for that. On the seeing fewer hospitalisations that are more transmissible or
including England’s chief medical and deaths per case,” says Cori. that can evade vaccines.
officer Chris Whitty, have been 22 million
warning for weeks that a new Putting actual numbers to the Despite the uncertainties, Cori’s
surge of infections would happen people in the UK may remain hospitalisations and deaths is team and another group at the
this year, as lockdown restrictions difficult because they depend on University of Warwick, UK, have
are eased. Now we have some early susceptible to covid-19 by July many variables. One of the most offered estimates of the number
figures on vaccine take-up and important is how fast lockdown of deaths likely in a third wave in
effectiveness, what can we predict other hand, those people who restrictions are lifted. the UK. Using computer models,
about the UK’s third wave? have already had covid-19 will both groups estimated that even
have some natural immunity. England and Scotland have if all goes well, there could be
Although some people might planned timetables for easing another 30,000 deaths. This work
have expected that the roll-out Putting all the figures together, restrictions in a series of steps was presented to UK government
of coronavirus vaccines would put Anne Cori at Imperial College between March and June. Plans advisers in February and helped
an end to infection surges, the new London and her colleagues, for Wales and Northern Ireland inform England’s timetable.
wave is inevitable because there who have been advising the UK are less definite. This means many
will still be three groups of people government, have calculated restrictions being lifted before To put that in context, there
who can get sick, even when that by July about a third of the everyone eligible has been offered were about 40,000 deaths in the
everyone eligible has been offered UK population – some 22 million their first vaccine, currently slated UK’s first surge, although a third
a vaccine. These are: under-18s, people – would still have neither to be by the end of July. wave could be more spread out
who aren’t currently eligible for vaccine-derived nor natural so hospitals wouldn’t necessarily
immunisation in most countries; immunity to the virus, and would However, the plan is that each be overwhelmed. “We should
those who refuse the vaccine; be susceptible to a third wave. step will proceed only if figures hopefully avoid any of these
and the people it fails to protect. show that the previous one hasn’t mass hospital surges we’ve
How would this wave be set things on the path to hospitals seen before,” says Sam Moore
In the UK, about 21 per cent of different from the previous ones? being overwhelmed. This should at the University of Warwick.
the population is under 18. About Although hospital admissions mean the third wave is more
6 per cent of adults don’t plan to However, if one or more of
have the vaccine, according to DINENDRA HARIA/LNP/SHUTTERSTOCK the unknowns go in the wrong
the latest poll from the Office for direction, says Moore, that could
National Statistics. And a first dose take hospital admissions and
of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Oxford/ deaths higher than this optimistic
AstraZeneca vaccine gives about estimate – enough for stricter
75 to 80 per cent protection from social distancing rules to be
severe illness that would lead to reinforced. “My main worry is the
hospitalisation. The figures for emergence of variants that would
vaccine effectiveness and uptake jeopardise the effectiveness of the
are better than initially predicted, vaccination campaign,” says Cori.
says Mark Woolhouse at the
University of Edinburgh, UK. “People really shouldn’t think:
“That’s very encouraging.” ‘On 13 April I will be able to do this
thing’, because I think it’s unlikely
Nevertheless, those three we can make a plan and stick to
groups add up to a sizeable chunk it,” says Cori. “Things evolve.”
of the UK population who could
still get severely ill from the virus. However, Moore believes
that the current timetable for
A man receives a covid-19 lockdown easing is unlikely to
vaccine at Wightman Road have to go into reverse – unless
Mosque in London a vaccine-resistant variant starts
taking over in the UK. “That is
the biggest worry,” he says. ❚

3 April 2021 | New Scientist | 9

News Coronavirus

Interview: Steven Laureys

Meditation can help with covid-19 anxiety

Meditation could retune our brains and help us cope with the long-term effects
of the pandemic, neurologist Steven Laureys tells Helen Thomson

HAVING spent his career exploring MICHEL HOUET/UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL LIÈGE When we scan the brains of our kids about meditation. I think
disorders of consciousness, long-time meditators, we see it’s very strange that we have
Steven Laureys has started increased grey matter volume schoolteachers emphasising
working with meditators to show in the cingulate cortex, which is knowledge, and gym teachers
the positive impact meditation important for attention, and taking care of our physical health –
can have on the brain. increases in the hippocampus, why not have teachers for our
important for memory. There are mental well-being too? We’ve
Helen Thomson: What’s going on Profile changes in the insular cortex, vital been ignoring it for so long.
Steven Laureys is a neurologist for internal sensations, and the
in our brains during the pandemic, at Liège University Hospital in left prefrontal cortex, which helps I’ve been taught how to be a
Belgium. His book The No-Nonsense us with emotional control. doctor, but I was never told how
and how can meditation help? Meditation Book will be published in to take care of myself. Meditation
the UK this month Meditation can also boost the isn’t going to change the things
Steven Laureys: People have lost immune system. Could it help that are happening to you, but it
their jobs, they’re experiencing started this only after I had my protect us from covid-19? does allow you to take control of
burnout, they’re thinking, “What tension headache, insomnia, We’re just beginning to
impact is this having on my kids?” burnout, I wish I’d known about understand the power the mind “I’m not a zen master, I’m a
That kind of thinking can turn it earlier”. So perhaps we need has over the body, including its control freak. But you can
into catastrophising, which has to think about using meditation interaction with the immune meditate anywhere, even
a big impact on our mental health. for prevention rather than as a system. It’s not because you in a traffic jam”
People are also thinking about treatment for these conditions. meditate that you’ll protect
the past year, what they’ve lost. yourself from covid – even the how your body responds to these
You say that meditation retunes Dalai Lama has been vaccinated. things. I’m convinced it will take
Our internal survival the brain. What do you mean? However, chronic stress weakens increasing importance in our
mechanism is in overdrive. When someone runs, they build our immune system. So having medical toolkit.
The area responsible for all this their leg muscles; when someone ways of dealing with stress is a
anxiety, “the internal awareness swims, they build their biceps. good thing. It’s also been shown Has meditation helped you cope
network”, continues to be active It’s the same with meditation, that your mental state can
even in some comatose patients, but you’re exercising your brain. influence the efficacy of other with the pandemic?
a bit like the humming of a fridge. vaccines, so meditation could I’m not a zen master, I’m a control
be very important right now. freak. I have five kids, a lot of
During the pandemic, we’ve flaws, a job in a hospital and at a
mostly heard from virologists – The pandemic has affected children university, my wife works – it’s a
we haven’t talked enough about too, could meditation help them? challenge. You just do what you
our mental health. Dealing with We should definitely be teaching can. I’m not like the monks I’ve
covid isn’t just about dealing with worked with. My wife says it’s
a virus, there’s so much more. easy to be zen when you’re not
married, no kids, no job.
How do we deal with all that?
One way is meditation, which is But I tell my patients, you can
all about living in the moment, meditate anywhere, even in a
so it’s a timely exercise in regard traffic jam. You breathe, and you
to helping us cope with covid. take control of your “monkey
mind”. You try to bring your
What makes you think it can help? FATCAMERA/GETTY IMAGES thoughts and emotions back
to your present time.
Meditation is not a surrogate for
medical care. Always go to your When you become an
doctor first. But in my hospital, observer of your thoughts and
we have people who have chronic acknowledge your emotions,
pain, anxiety and depression – all your heart rate goes down, your
these things have been made blood pressure goes down, stress
worse by covid – and we offer hormones like cortisol go down.
them meditation alongside drugs. It can all help you deal with the
When I prescribe meditation, my challenges of covid. Studies show
patients say, “I wish I hadn’t even informal meditation has
great benefits. ❚
Children in school
meditating before
the pandemic

10 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021




Thursday 6 May 2021 6 -7pm BST/1-2pm EDT and on-demand

The universe as we know it began in a Big Bang almost 14 billion
years ago. In this talk, Jo Dunkley will tell the story of how we have
come to know this to be true, and how we have been able to find
out how fast space is growing.

She will discuss the fascinating conundrum
facing astronomers today: the two methods
of measuring the rate that space is growing,
and the age of the universe, don’t agree. Have
we got something wrong in our understanding
of the universe? Jo will describe her team’s
contribution to answering this question, using
a telescope high in the Chilean desert.

For more information and
to book your place visit:




Heat pipes helped shrink Mercury

Magma travelling from the planet’s core to its surface led to cooling

Leah Crane

MERCURY is a mysterious little types of materials making up and tries to go back and make But if magma travelled from
world. Its surface shows signs those layers – to determine how the models explain it.” the planet’s core through its
that cooling of its core has caused the planet’s features may have mantle, finally solidifying to form
the entire planet to shrink by formed. The work was presented Magnetic rocks in the crust a crust on the surface, that could
between about 5 and 10 kilometres at the virtual Lunar and Planetary show that the planet had a global have stirred up the core. Usually,
in radius – but for that shrinking Science Conference on 17 March. magnetic field around the same volcanoes are fuelled by small
to occur, heat must have somehow time as it rapidly contracted, but veins of magma called dykes, but
escaped. A series of simulations “Everything about Mercury we don’t know how that field was Mercury may have been cooled
now show that it may have is a little bit strange,” says sustained. Generally, planetary by melted rock flowing through
travelled from Mercury’s core Lauren Jozwiak at Johns Hopkins magnetic fields are formed larger tubes called heat pipes.
through its mantle via heat pipes. University in Maryland. “There as molten cores churn, which
are all these parts that don’t quite creates a phenomenon called “There is so much melt being
Many of our current models for fit, and this work takes the data a magnetic dynamo. Without generated that the inside of the
the early history of Mercury fail taking volcanism into account, planet streamlines it into a sort of
to explain all of the features we Stretch marks on Mercury’s Mercury’s early core wouldn’t mega dyke, which is really efficient
see now. For example, the stretch surface suggest it shrank have churned enough to maintain in getting heat out of the interior,”
marks left behind by the planet’s quickly in its early years a magnetic field, said Peterson. says Jozwiak. Peterson’s team
contraction suggest that most of found that magma flowing to the
the shrinking happened early on, NASA/JHU APPLIED PHYSICS LAB/CARNEGIE INST. WASHINGTON surface in heat pipes could have
within the first 500 million years cooled down the mantle quickly,
after Mercury formed, before explaining why the planet shrank
continuing at a slower rate. so rapidly in its early years.

Georgia Peterson at the The cooling would have created
University of British Columbia temperature gradients that would
in Canada and her colleagues enhance the churning in the core.
analysed images of Mercury’s “Early mantle cooling associated
surface sent back from the with volcanic resurfacing is
Messenger and Mariner 10 great for maintaining a dynamo,”
missions. They ran 2430 said Peterson.
simulations of Mercury’s
evolution – changing parameters Understanding how Mercury’s
including the initial temperatures early magnetic field worked could
of the core and mantle and the help us explain what keeps its
current magnetic field going. ❚

Climate change

Hotter and drier days to large blazes in west Scotland more obvious and noticeable The results were then combined
could make wildfires with a weather index of how serious
a big threat in the UK and Cornwall last month. A new one, perhaps to the extent that fires could be if they broke out. The
main reason for greater fire danger
CLIMATE change is projected to analysis has found that if the people are familiar with it in the was higher temperatures, followed
drive a large increase in fire danger by humidity decreasing.
across the whole of the UK, leading world continues to have high carbon Mediterranean,” says Nigel Arnell at
researchers to warn that planning Thomas Smith at the London
rules may need to block the building emissions, the number of days with the University of Reading in the UK. School of Economics says one
of new homes in fire-prone areas. important caveat is that the
conditions hot and dry enough for To model the future risk, Arnell indicators of fire danger in the
Flooding is considered the UK’s UK are still poorly understood.
biggest threat from climate change, serious wildfires in the south of and his colleagues divided the UK Those in the study are based on
but even rare wildfires can cause indicators developed for Canadian
disruption, from the toxic smoke England will climb from 20 a into 12 by 12-kilometre squares wildfires in large forests, not the
created by massive recent fires on heathlands and moorlands that
Saddleworth Moor near Manchester year today to 111 by the 2080s. and looked at how temperatures, tend to burn in the UK.  ❚
Adam Vaughan
Even traditionally wet parts of the humidity and rainfall would change

UK, including Wales, will see big in those areas using a climate model

increases in days when fire danger developed by the UK’s Met Office.

is very high (Environmental

Research Letters, “In a few decades, the UK

“If we don’t think we’ve got a will have a much more

wildfire hazard at the moment, in obvious and noticeable

a few decades we will have a much wildfire hazard”

12 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021

Evolution Climate change

A plant gene crossed GM crops could greatly reduce
into insects and EU carbon emissions
helps them feed
Michael Le Page
Donna Lu
NIGEL CATTLIN/ALAMY THE European Union could This would wipe out thousands the environment. If you
ONE species of whitefly, an significantly lower carbon more species and release measure the impact of low-
aphid-like insect, has incorporated emissions by embracing enough carbon to warm the intensity organic farming per
a portion of plant DNA into its genetically engineered crops. world by more than 2°C, even area used, it is indeed lower,
genome that protects it from leaf If EU countries had grown if all other human emissions says Kovak. But per amount of
toxins. It appears to be the first genetically modified crops in stopped, it says. food produced, high-intensity
known example of so-called 2017, in total they could have farming has a much smaller
horizontal gene transfer between cut greenhouse gas emissions Kovak and her colleagues impact. “The intensification
by the equivalent of 33 million have now worked out what the of farming can spare habitat
Silverleaf whitefly tonnes of carbon dioxide that change in carbon emissions for wildlife,” she says.
have benefited year, according to an analysis. would have been if the adoption
from horizontal rates of five key GM crops – Tim Searchinger at Princeton
gene transfer The reason is that GM cotton, maize, soya beans, University, one of the authors
crops have higher average rapeseed and sugar beet – had of the 2018 World Resources
a plant and insect in which the yields, meaning less land is been as high in Europe as they
transferred genetic material needed to produce the same were in the US in 2017, which 33
performs a useful function. amount of food. has a much more favourable
view of genetic engineering The EU could save this many
While sequencing the “That can reduce clearing (bioRxiv,
genome of the silverleaf whitefly of new agricultural land,” says million tonnes of CO₂ equivalent
(Bemisia tabaci), Ted Turlings study co-author Emma Kovak The team used data from a
at the University of Neuchâtel at the Breakthrough Institute global metastudy of GM crops a year by using more GM crops
in Switzerland and his colleagues in California. “And when along with previous studies
discovered a gene known as land is cleared, that carbon of land-use change to calculate Institute report, says there
BtPMaT1, which is found in storage is lost.” the 33 million tonnes of CO2 is more uncertainty about the
numerous plants, but has never equivalent figure. This yield rises from GM crops than
previously been seen in insects In fact, according to a 2018 represents 8 per cent of the the study suggests. However,
(Cell, report by the World Resources EU’s total greenhouse gas the overall evidence does point
Institute, if farm yields stay emissions from agriculture in to yield gains. “I think genetic
This gene is thought to have at today’s levels, most of the 2017, so a substantial amount. engineering probably can be
an important botanical function. world’s remaining forests would For comparison, total global very useful,” he says.
Many plants generate toxins have to be cleared to meet emissions from all human
to defend themselves from attack estimated food needs in 2050. activities are around 100 million Luisa Colasimone at the
by animals. The team suspects tonnes of CO2 per day. Greenpeace European Unit says
that the BtPMaT1 gene helps some A farmer sowing maize genetically engineered crops
of these plants store these toxins Many people think that aren’t a good solution. “GE food
in a harmless form so they don’t in Frauwüllesheim, intensive farming is bad for means handing over food
poison themselves. production to a few companies
Germany interested only in profits,”
Similarly, the gene may help she says. “GE crops increase
the silverleaf whitefly avoid being REUTERS/STEPHANE NITSCHKE the use of harmful chemicals.”
poisoned when it eats a plant that
produces these toxins. Some studies have concluded
that GM crops have reduced the
Turlings says the gene transfer use of pesticides. And the rise of
event, which is estimated to have CRISPR gene-editing technology
taken place at least 35 million years is enabling smaller groups and
ago, could have involved viruses companies to create modified
that cause disease in plants and are crops, says Kovak.
transmitted via the whiteflies. Some
DNA from a plant may have been Technologies such as gene
taken up by a virus, transmitted editing could produce much
to a whitefly and then assimilated more dramatic yield increases
into the insect’s genome, he says. ❚ in the future. For instance, in
2019, a team boosted tobacco
yields by about 40 per cent by
fixing a flaw in photosynthesis.
This trait is now being
engineered into food crops. ❚

3 April 2021 | New Scientist | 13


Synthetic biology Genetics

Artificial cells can grow and DNA explains why
split like natural bacteria some rabbits walk
on their front legs
Layal Liverpool
Michael Marshall
SYNTHETIC cells made by THOMAS DEERINCK, NCMIR/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY A previously developed for the cell to live – so that’s
combining components of CARNEIRO M ET AL., 2021, PLOS GENETICS an exciting area for future SOME rabbits can’t hop, and a single
Mycoplasma bacteria with a example of synthetic research,” he says. gene is the reason why. Mutations in
chemically synthesised genome this gene leave the bunnies unable
can grow and divide into cells Mycoplasma bacteria “[This research] is incredibly to coordinate their limbs well.
of uniform shape and size, just important for understanding
like most natural bacterial cells. bacterial cells and then how life works and what genes Leif Andersson at Uppsala
monitoring how the additions are needed to operate cells University in Sweden and his
In 2016, researchers led by affected cell growth under a reliably,” says Drew Endy at colleagues studied a strain of
Craig Venter at the J. Craig microscope, Strychalski and Stanford University in California. domestic rabbits called sauteur
Venter Institute in San Diego, her team were able to pinpoint d’Alfort, also known as Alfort
California, announced that they seven additional genes “Basic research on jumping rabbits. Unlike most
had created synthetic “minimal” required to make the cells minimal cells helps us rabbits and other hopping animals,
cells. The genome in each cell divide uniformly. understand the principles of the sauteur d’Alfort bunnies can’t
contained just 473 key genes the phenomena of life, and perform two-footed hops.
thought to be essential for life. When the researchers the evolutionary history of
added these seven genes to life,” says Kate Adamala at the After their first few months of life,
The cells were named JCVI- JCVI-syn3.0 to produce a new University of Minnesota in the rabbits learn to compensate for
syn3.0 after the institute and synthetic cell, they found that Minneapolis. This is because the this by walking solely on their front
they were able to grow and this was enough to restore minimal cell is a good analogue legs, arching their backs to stick
divide on agar to produce normal, uniform cell division of the last universal common their hind limbs into the air.
clusters of cells called colonies. and growth (Cell, DOI: ancestor of all life on Earth.
10.1016/j.cell.2021.03.008). The team selectively bred
But on closer inspection The new finding also sauteur d’Alfort rabbits and
of the dividing cells, Elizabeth Strychalski and her colleagues “brings us closer to engineering identified a region of their genome
Strychalski at the US National found that while two of the fully defined, understood and that differed from that of other
Institute of Standards and seven genes were already controllable” live cells, she rabbits. This section contained
Technology and her colleagues known to be involved in cell says. “Free of the complexity of 21 protein-coding genes, and a
noticed that they weren’t division, five were previously natural live systems, synthetic mutation in a gene called RORB
splitting uniformly and without a known function. cells are a tool for both basic looked significant. “This was the
evenly to produce identical “It was surprising,” she says. research and biotechnology.” only mutation that stood out as
daughter cells as most natural really striking,” says Andersson.
bacteria do. Instead, they were “Those five genes were “The potential applications
producing daughter cells of outside the scope of what we are vast, in agriculture, RORB is crucial for the formation
bizarre shapes and sizes. had known about,” says James nutrition, biomedicine and of spinal cord neurons that link
Pelletier at the Massachusetts environmental remediation,” the left and right sides of the body,
7 Institute of Technology, a says Jef Boeke at New York which are essential for coordinating
co-author of the study. University. “The ability to the limbs. The team found that
extra genes added to artificial correct and refine biological these body-crossing neurons
“The minimal cell has many code like this is a crucial step didn’t form properly in newborn
cells to allow normal cell growth genes of unknown function to getting us there.”  ❚
that, although we have no idea The sauteur
“[The creators of JCVI-syn3.0] what they do, they are necessary d’Alfort rabbit
had thrown out all the parts of has a distinct
the genome that they thought walking style
were not essential for growth,”
says Strychalski. But their sauteur d’Alfort rabbits (PLoS
definition of what was necessary Genetics,
for growth turned out to be
what was needed to make Many genes play a role in
beautiful colonies growing locomotion and gait, and their
on an agar plate, she says, effects will often be subtle,
rather than what was needed says Andersson. RORB is a
to produce cells that divide rare case where one mutation
in a uniform and lifelike way. produces a dramatic effect.  ❚

By reintroducing various
genes into these synthetic

14 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021


US desert is a bee hotspot

Hundreds of bee species live in a patch of land on the US-Mexico border

Jake Buehler

THERE are about 20,000 known “That’s a tremendous number The group’s site at the border and the Great Plains – each of
bee species on the planet. of bees,” says Minckley. The team is a more homogeneous which has its own set of bee fauna.
Hundreds of them can be found estimates that 14 per cent of all environment, fluctuating by only Another contributor may be the
in a patch of desert along the North American bee species 120 metres in elevation, and is local climate. There is a spring
US-Mexico border about the size found north of the US-Mexico mostly home to creosote bush, bloom and then a second one after
of Heathrow airport, meaning it border call this region home, the mesquite and cactus plants. monsoon season starts, providing
has the world’s densest aggregation vast majority of which live solitary a twice-yearly flower bonanza.
of bee species yet measured. lives and nest in the ground. The incredible bee diversity on
the border may have many causes. Karen Wright at Texas A&M
Unlike plants and many other Other locations in the US The site sits at the confluence of University says the findings are
organisms that see the highest have logged more bee species, says the Sonoran and Chihuahuan “a wonderful achievement”,
diversity in the tropics, bees seem Minckley. But these are in national deserts, subtropical dry forests though not that surprising. Her
to be most diverse in warm, dry parks, which are far larger, more sampling project in New Mexico’s
regions. So when Robert Minckley variable regions thanks to bigger Twice-yearly blooms Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge
at the University of Rochester in changes in elevation and habitat and a dry climate may has yielded 372 bee species so far.
New York had the opportunity across their massive landscapes. support bee species
to study bee populations in Compared with the stable
the Chihuahuan desert at the BRUCE D. TAUBERT tropics, deserts experience
US-Mexico border, one of his wild climatic swings: hot to cold,
main goals was simply to count deluges to drought. It is possible
how many species were there. that this variation has encouraged
the evolution of new species, she
Minckley and his colleagues says. The dryness of these habitats
targeted a site composed of may also help ground-nesting
a former cattle ranch in the solitary bees, says Minckley.
Mexican state of Sonora and the Ground nests are often plagued
San Bernardino National Wildlife by fungi, which might be a bigger
Refuge in Arizona. From 2001 problem in the wet tropics.
to 2008, the group collected bees
with traps in the desert scrub, Whatever the causes of this
then later identified the species. glut of bee species, documenting
biodiversity is important, says
From tens of thousands of Melanie Kazenel at the University
individual bees, the team counted of New Mexico. It may help
473 species from a 16-square- scientists “better understand
kilometre area (The Journal of where, when and why [wild] bee
Hymenoptera Research, in press). declines are occurring”, she says.  ❚

Green energy

UK hydrogen vehicle vehicles, with hydrogen mooted energy needs by 2050. If half of government rules out now
switch would need impractical solutions like widespread
boost to wind power as the answer by some firms. heavy-duty trucks and buses and a use of synthetic fuels and hydrogen
in cars, vans and trucks,” says Matt
SHIFTING to hydrogen trucks, So-called green hydrogen can be tenth of cars are run on hydrogen by Finch at Transport & Environment.
buses and cars in the UK would
require about 2000 more coastal made by using renewable electricity mid-century, with the rest on electric The report indicates that even
wind turbines than if batteries were the battery-only route for trucks
prioritised, a new analysis suggests. and electrolysis to extract it from batteries, the UK will need 15 per and cars would entail a dramatic
investment in renewables, requiring
Battery electric vehicles are the water, but energy is lost in the cent more electricity than it would by 369 terawatt-hours of electricity
leading technology for moving supply by 2050, slightly more than
away from fossil fuel cars in the UK. process, leading to questions of only using battery electric vehicles. total UK electricity generation today.
Yet there is still a debate over how Greater reliance on hydrogen would
best to decarbonise heavy-duty whether it stacks up against using “After 2030, renewable energy require 426 TWh by mid-century.  ❚
Adam Vaughan
renewable electricity directly. demand in transport rises quickly.

A report published last week by It is therefore essential the UK

non-profit organisation Transport

& Environment outlines how much “It is essential the UK

renewable electricity would be government rules out

needed for hydrogen to provide even impractical solutions like

a small share of road transport’s widespread hydrogen”

3 April 2021 | New Scientist | 15

News Cryptocurrencies

Palaeontology NFT developers call for
cut in carbon emissions
Ancient rattlesnake
lived in the jaw of Matthew Sparkes
a mastodon
NON-FUNGIBLE tokens (NFTs) TON SNOEI/ALAMY Cryptocurrencies
Joshua Rapp Learn have risen in popularity as a way
to sell artwork using blockchains, cryptocurrencies with carbon often have high
SOME 15,000 years ago, a dusky the technology behind offsetting, in which people
rattlesnake stretched out and spent cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. pay to have carbon emissions power requirements
its last living moments inside the Now, two of the developers removed from the atmosphere.
jawbone of a giant mastodon. behind the NFTs at the root “Bitcoin is the opposite of that. just happen immediately.”
of the current digital art boom When you purchase bitcoin “The carbon footprint of
Jose Alberto Cruz at the warn that they are damaging you’re purchasing carbon
Meritorious Autonomous University to the environment and that a creation credits,” says Entriken. proof-of-work blockchains
of Puebla in Mexico says the change in direction is needed. “When you purchase the deserves all of the criticism
mastodon bones were found $50,000 [of bitcoin] somebody it gets and more,” says Dieter
in 2019 by villagers who were An NFT is a cryptographic else is directly putting that much Shirley, who also worked on
building a house in the state of claim of ownership, similar carbon into the atmosphere. the Ethereum NFT protocol.
Puebla. He and his colleagues to the deed to a house, that Ethereum is the same.” “But NFTs are not the problem
were surprised to discover the is encoded into a blockchain, here. Now that we have electric
well-preserved fossil of an meaning that it can’t be altered. He has called for Ethereum cars, we can say that cars aren’t
80-centimetre dusky rattlesnake William Entriken, one of the to switch from a proof-of-work the problem, gasoline is the
(Crotalus triseriatus) inside the authors of the NFT protocol for approach to a proof-of-stake problem. Same with proof of
jawbone of the American mastodon Ethereum, a popular alternative (PoS) approach, which would stake: now that we have PoS
(Mammut americanum). to bitcoin, says NFTs aren’t remove the need for intense blockchains, we can say that
inherently bad, but that calculations by allowing the NFTs aren’t the problem,
Since these mastodons were rapacious speculation is pushing owners of existing coins to PoW chains are.”
herbivores, Alberto Cruz says it them and cryptocurrencies control the network, rather than
is unlikely the giant elephant-like down a destructive path as the owners of the computing Increasing awareness of
animal ate the snake. Instead, the their carbon footprints rise. power. It is estimated this could the carbon cost of NFTs has
reptile was probably using the cut the total energy demands of inspired some artists to look
jawbone of a dead mastodon for Most cryptocurrencies rely on Ethereum by 99 per cent. “You elsewhere. French artist Joanie
shelter when a mudslide led to “proof of work”(PoW) to secure have to switch to proof of stake. Lemercier began selling NFT
an untimely end (Quaternary their networks, meaning that Proof of work should be illegal,” artwork on Ethereum as an
International, computers must perform huge says Entriken. alternative to the emissions
numbers of calculations to involved in shipping physical
He and his team say that “mine” new currency and verify Ethereum developers have artwork, but soon stopped.
reptile fossils from the Pleistocene transactions on the blockchain. been working to make the “I was trying to find something
are rarely found in the Americas – This uses large amounts of switch for some time, but no better, and I thought NFTs
this is the first ancient dusky single person or organisation would be it,” he says. “But it’s
rattlesnake found in Mexico. “When you purchase is in charge of the open source 10 to a hundred times worse,
Remains of a brown snake, anole bitcoin you are project, meaning progress has so it makes no sense.”
lizards and an alligator lizard were purchasing carbon been sporadic, says Entriken.
found in the same sediment layer creation credits” “It’s always been three months He says that websites selling
as the mastodon. away. These things don’t NFTs need to take the initiative
electricity – bitcoin’s annual and switch to technologies that
Many of these species are power consumption is have already adopted proof of
still around today, so the authors comparable to that of Finland. stake. “The platforms should
compared what we know about be held accountable and
the climate in their preferred Investing money in responsible and they should
habitats with other research on cryptocurrencies – either address the issue, because
palaeoclimate to estimate the through simple speculation they can,” says Lemercier.
rough age of the fossils. or by purchasing expensive
artwork – boosts demand Lemercier has been exploring
Previous research has suggested and therefore prices, says alternatives and is currently
that the climate in the past was Entriken. That makes mining a selling pieces via a blockchain
colder and more humid, says cryptocurrency more profitable, network called Tezos, which
Alberto Cruz. Understanding but also more difficult, operates on proof of stake.
the range of temperatures these increasing carbon emissions. “It works absolutely great.
reptiles can survive could help us There’s no reason to remain
predict how they might adapt to Entriken contrasts on Ethereum. The big money
ongoing climate change. Today, is going to come where the
some of the reptiles found near artists are,” he says. ❚
the mastodon remains no longer
live in the area. ❚

16 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021


Black hole image reveals
its swirling magnetic fields

Leah Crane

THE first picture of a black hole’s of the supermassive black hole Some black holes spew The measurements allowed the
shadow just got more interesting. researchers to significantly cut down
Polarised light has been added to at the centre of the M87 galaxy, enormous jets of matter, but how on the number of possibilities for
the image (shown below), giving how the black hole and its jet work.
us an idea of how magnetic fields 55 million light years away. exactly they do so is still a mystery. They compared the observations
around a supermassive black hole with simulations of 120 different
create powerful jets of matter. Electrons accelerated by Researchers think the jets are theoretical models, and only 15 of
the models fit what we actually see.
The Event Horizon Telescope magnetic fields emit light, and the launched and shaped by magnetic In all 15, the black hole’s magnetic
(EHT) team released the first direct fields are relatively strong and
image of a black hole in 2019, and polarisation of the light depends on fields, but evidence is limited. divert matter away from the black
while the picture was impressive, hole itself, starving it in favour of
it wasn’t the scientific smorgasbord the direction of the magnetic field. launching the material into the jet.
some had hoped for. “It was not a
lot of information about the actual EHT measurements of the polarised “The magnetic field around It isn’t yet clear whether the
physics of the gas around the possibilities are similarly narrowed
black hole,” says Sara Issaoun, light near the black hole showed the black hole is ordered, for all supermassive black holes or if
an EHT team member at Radboud it is specific to this one in particular.
University in the Netherlands. that the magnetic field’s strength which means it can launch Adding just a few more telescopes
to the EHT array – which the
The EHT uses a network of eight is between 1 and 30 gauss (The powerful jets of matter” researchers already plan to do –
telescopes around the world to turn could help nail down exactly how
Earth into one giant radio telescope, Astrophysical Journal Letters, doi. the black hole is launching its jet. ❚
giving us an unprecedented view
org/f3jr). This is about 50 times the “Something the size of our solar

strength of Earth’s magnetic field system can shoot out a jet that

at the poles, where it is strongest. pierces through entire galaxies

“The polarised light has these and even galaxy neighbourhoods,”

curved swoops like a spiral,” says she says. “Now we’re really seeing

Issaoun. “This tells us that the the magnetic field close to the

magnetic field around the black black hole for the first time, and

hole is ordered, and this is really that’s connecting it to the jet,

important because only an ordered which is the most powerful

magnetic field can launch jets.” process in the universe.”


3 April 2021 | New Scientist | 17

News Artificial intelligence

Analysis Particle physics Robot ties knots
using two fingers
A sign of new physics? Reports that a discovery at the Large on each arm
Hadron Collider could poke holes in our understanding of the
universe should beware tricky statistics, says Richard Webb Matthew Sparkes

THERE has been a buzz of have found a deviation from these like a pretty solid indication that A ROBOT powered by an artificial
excitement surrounding what predictions in the rates at which there is something new here. intelligence that has been trained
has been described as “tantalising a b-quark-containing particle, to tie knots could enable simple
hints of new physics” emanating the B+, decays into the electron The problem is, however, that machines to perform intricate tasks
from the LHCb experiment at and its heavier cousin, the muon. these sorts of decays are incredibly with electrical wires or cables.
the CERN particle physics lab, rare and, in looking for them,
but just how excited should we The standard model says that physicists have to sift through Robot arms can solder
be? In short: a little, but anyone electrons and muons should be a whole load of statistical noise, microscopic components or
holding their breath is in for produced at roughly the same scanning widely. That leads to construct an entire car from
an uncomfortable time. rate in these decays, but LHCb’s a seemingly paradoxical effect: thousands of parts, but most
result suggests that they aren’t, the wider you cast your gaze, struggle to deal with flexible items
LHCb is one of four big and that is just the sort of hint the more likely you are to see like pieces of string because these
experiments at CERN’s Large of physics beyond the standard something that seems statistically move in unpredictable ways.
Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, model that researchers are significant. Gather more data, and
desperate to see. these anomalies disappear again. Tetsuya Ogata at Waseda
1 in 1000 University in Japan and his
The fact is, though, that Particle physics is littered with colleagues have now taught a
Chance of LHCb seeing its data rumours of this anomaly at LHCb 3-sigma effects that have come robot with a pair of general-purpose
if the standard model is correct have been around for the best and gone, so researchers have arms, each equipped with two
part of a decade. The recent news settled on a much higher test fingers, to tie a knot around a box
Switzerland. It is intended to reports are based on a paper threshold for discovery: as if it were being gift-wrapped.
analyse decays of particles released by the collaboration “5-sigma”, corresponding to The robot is able to tie two kinds
containing one of the six known that the anomaly has passed a probability of about 1 in of knots: a bowknot, which is
flavours of quark, the “bottom”, the “3-sigma” level of statistical 3.5 million that a pattern of commonly used to tie shoelaces,
or alternatively “beauty”, quark, significance, conventionally data like this is a statistical fluke. and an overhand knot, a simple knot
hence the “b” in its name. seen as the threshold for being often tied to prevent ropes fraying.
“interesting” by particle physicists. That is the bar the ATLAS
Bottom quarks are much and CMS experiments reached The team began by manually
heavier than the up and down A 3-sigma result amounts to in 2012 with the Higgs boson. knotting a piece of rope dozens of
quarks that make up the protons a probability of about 1 in 1000 LHCb has much further to go. times, directing the arms by remote
and neutrons of conventional that you would see a pattern of Judging by the rate of data control. The information recorded
atomic matter, meaning particles data like this if the standard model analysis – and the fact that the by the arms was then combined
containing them have lots of were correct. That might sound LHC has been switched off for with data from an overhead camera
ways they can decay into lighter an upgrade for the past two and proximity sensors on the fingers
particles. Particles containing The LHCb experiment years – it is going to be a good and used to train a neural network
b quarks are also unusually at the Large Hadron while before they have anything to replicate the procedure.
long-lived, and these two Collider near Geneva more definite. Breathe out. ❚
properties combined make During the training, the team
them very useful to physicists BRICE, MAXIMILIEN; ORDAN, JULIEN MARIUS/CERN used a rope with one half coloured
looking for physics beyond the red and the other half blue to aid
standard model – our current identification. When tasked with
best understanding of all tying a bowknot using rope with
particle interactions. coloured sections, the robot
succeeded 95 per cent of the time.
The standard model is It also managed it 90 per cent
supremely well tested but also of the time using a plain white rope,
woefully lacking, saying nothing despite not having been trained
about gravity – one of the four with this. With overhand knots, the
fundamental forces – or dark robot got it right 95 per cent of the
matter and dark energy, which time with a coloured rope and on
seem to make up more than 85 per cent of attempts with white
95 per cent of the cosmos. rope (

Those are pretty key gaps, but Ogata’s team intends to improve
when the standard model works, it the robot by adding a torque sensor
really works, producing extremely to the arms, giving it information
precise predictions. LHCb seems to on how hard it is pulling the string
and allowing it to tie tighter knots. ❚

18 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021

News In brief

Animal behaviour

Snoozing octopuses seem
to slip in and out of dreams

SYLVIA S L MADEIROS OCTOPUSES change colour when colour and texture, including the
they sleep, and it might be because fine bumps on their skin. Their eyes
they are dreaming. and arms also moved, their suckers
contracting. “It’s clearly a very
Sidarta Ribeiro at the Federal active state,” says Ribeiro.
University of Rio Grande do Norte
in Natal, Brazil, and his colleagues The team tested whether the
have found that some octopuses octopuses were truly asleep in
go through two distinct stages of this state by presenting them
sleep, one active and one passive. with a video of some crabs. They
didn’t react, in marked contrast
They recorded four common with their responses when awake
octopuses (Octopus vulgaris) in (iScience,
the lab over day and night periods.
During the day, the animals slept A similar pattern of sleep occurs
for more than half the time. in birds and reptiles, and the team
suggests that the active sleep state
“In quiet sleep, they stay in in octopuses might be analogous to
the same position for long periods REM sleep in mammals – the phase
of time – very quiet, very pale in which we dream the most.
the pupils closed – and breathe
regularly in a very quiet manner,” “If the octopus is having
he says. This was punctuated every something like a dream, it’s
30 to 40 minutes by active sleep, probably a very short behavioural
lasting 1 to 2 minutes. In this phase, sequence, it’s not a narrative,”
the animals showed changes in says Ribeiro. Donna Lu

Materials Archaeology

Sheepskin was a fine documents were made with a Prehistoric delivery and 900 BC, in the Late Bronze Age.
variety of animal skin – most kept miners well fed These types of food require
way to spot fraudsters commonly vellum, from calfskin
(Heritage Science, WORKERS in a mine in the Eastern preparation to make them edible,
YOU might not trust a wheeler Alps during the Bronze Age had including separating grains from
dealer in a sheepskin coat, but as a Doherty and his team suspect cooked, bread-based meals husks and then cooking them, but
parchment for legal deeds over the that sheepskin was used for delivered to the site. the team found no signs of this
past centuries, sheepskin turns important deeds because it is kind of work being done at the
out to be a good way to avoid fraud. difficult to alter without being Andreas Heiss at the Austrian mine. There was also no evidence
noticed due to its high fat content. Academy of Sciences and his of harvesting nearby, suggesting
Sean Doherty at the University colleagues studied cooked food the food must have come from
of Exeter, UK, and his colleagues When animal skin is processed, remains, including refined cereals elsewhere (PLoS One,
analysed 645 pages from 477 legal it is submerged into an alkaline and ground grains (pictured), from
deeds concerning property in solution. This draws out the fat a site called Prigglitz-Gasteil in “All the early stages from
England, Scotland and Wales and removes hair, leaving behind what is now Austria. It was an processing were entirely missing
dating from 1499 to 1969. the dermis layer of the skin which active copper mine between 1100 and this is usually a good indicator
is then stretched into parchment. for a consumer habit that people
They first cut a small sample of HEISS ET AL, 2021, PLOS ONE did not produce themselves,
parchment from each document Sheepskin is between 30 and 50 but they received stuff that was
and isolated collagen from it, a per cent fat, compared with 2 to 3 already pre-processed,” says Heiss.
protein made up of a mix of sub- per cent in cattleskin. Removing
units called peptides. “Each animal fat causes sheepskin parchment to Since wet ingredients like milk
has a different set of peptides that be very fragile. As a result, you can weren’t preserved, the researchers
make up collagen – it is species see a visible mark where text has can’t say exactly which dishes the
variable,” says Doherty. This let been altered on sheepskin more miners were being served, but
them work out what type of easily than other animal skins. they were likely to be bread-based.
parchment a deed was written on. Previous research has shown that
“If someone intentionally tried these miners had pork delivered
They found that 622 of the 645 to alter a word… they would leave to them, but the new findings
pages were made from sheepskin, behind a telltale smudgy residue,” suggest that plant-based foods
which was a surprise, as previous says Heather Wolfe at Folger were a major part of their diet too.
research suggested these types of Shakespeare Library in Krista Charles
Washington DC. Karina Shah

3 April 2021 | New Scientist | 19

News In brief

Physiology Really brief

Clues to why human Elephant species FRANK AF PETERSENS/SAVE THE ELEPHANTS
now endangered
brains grow so large AVALON.RED/ALAMY
Poachers have brought
TINY brains developed in the lab Africa’s two elephant
have shown how our brains grow species to the brink of
bigger than those of other apes. extinction: both are now
listed as endangered. Forest
At birth, our brains have around elephants (Loxodonta
three times as many neurons as cyclotis) and savannah
those of newborn gorillas and elephants (L. africana) are
chimps, despite similar gestation poached for their ivory.
periods. To understand why, There are thought to be
Madeline Lancaster at the MRC about 415,000 of the
Laboratory of Molecular Biology animals left in total.
in Cambridge and her team grew
miniature brain organoids to Large kangaroos
mimic early brain development once lived in trees
in humans, gorillas and chimps.
Fossils show a 50-kilogram
They analysed genes in the kangaroo that lived in
organoids and found differences Australia 40,000 years
in activity of one called ZEB2, with ago spent half its life in
the gorilla and chimp organoids trees. Congruus kitcheneri
turning it on earlier than human had long fingers and strong
organoids did (Cell, arms like a tree-dweller.
The gene controls cell shape and Some extant kangaroos
motility. By delaying its activation, live in trees, however
early human brain cells are able C. kitcheneri was much
to multiply for longer. KS larger (Royal Society Open
Artificial intelligence Environment
Bee brains are
Tiny swimbots get a Lake toxin after consuming the weed and that rather dense
may be to eagles were eating this prey as it
steer from a ‘brain’ blame for US was easy to catch. But they couldn’t Some bees have a brain cell
eagle deaths find an obvious toxin. density greater than that
MACHINE learning could help tiny of small birds. Researchers
swimming robots reach their goal AN EXPLANATION for the mystery So Timo Niedermeyer at Martin estimate there are 2 million
without being knocked off target. deaths of hundreds of bald eagles Luther University in Germany and cells per milligram in the
across the south-eastern US may his team used a potent type of mass brains of sweat bees
It is hard for bacteria-sized have been found. They could have spectrometry on cyanobacteria (Augochlorella), whereas
microrobots to stay on course ingested bromide-laced prey samples from US lakes and found the brain of the goldcrest
because their size – some are just plucked from lakes. an unexpected ingredient: bromine. (Regulus regulus) has just
2 micrometres across – means 490,000 cells per mg
they are buffeted by particles in In 1994, dozens of bald eagles Bromine in the form of its ion (Proceedings of the Royal
the fluid. Unlike real bacteria, they (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) died in bromide isn’t uncommon in nature, Society B,
can’t correct direction of travel, Arkansas. Since then, nearly 200 he says, but it is rare in fresh water.
so tend to follow a random path. others – all living near artificial lakes However, water-thyme loves it:
from Texas to the Carolinas – have measurements from the US lakes
Frank Cichos at the University been diagnosed with vacuolar show the weed soaks up so much
of Leipzig, Germany, and his team myelinopathy, which creates bromide that its contains almost
gave their microrobot a “brain”: a holes in the brain and spinal cord. 1000 times more than the water.
machine learning algorithm on a
computer. This AI could direct a US researchers long suspected It seems that when cyanobacteria
laser to a point on the microrobot’s a connection with water-thyme, grow on the water-thyme, they pick
surface, driving the microrobot an underwater weed, and the up bromide from it. Niedermeyer’s
through the fluid directionally. cyanobacteria that coats it. They team grew cyanobacteria in the lab,
noticed that fish and water birds adding bromide to the test tubes,
After 7 hours of training, the became weak and uncoordinated and within days, the cyanobacteria
system cut the instructions were producing toxic compounds
needed for the microrobot to full of bromine (Science,
swim to its goal from 600 to 100 f3qr). The next step is to pin down
(Science Robotics, the source of the bromide in the US
Chris Stokel-Walker lakes. Christa Lesté-Lasserre

20 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021

Views Letters Aperture Culture Culture
Vaccine strategy Bold photojournalism Why flavour and DNA tests to find the
The columnist may yet be proven from the World Press aroma matter so perfect partner go
Chanda Prescod- to be an error p24 Photo Contest p28 much to humans p30 awry in The One p32
Weinstein on
neutrinos p22


An unsung hero

Mary Wortley Montagu championed the use of inoculation against
smallpox, but her pioneering work is often overlooked, says Jo Willett

MICHELLE D’URBANO WITH the world’s mild case of smallpox and people observed the increased severity of bleeding and purging before the
attention on vaccines, gained immunity from future of the raging waves of smallpox inoculation itself. The pioneering
now feels like a good infection in the process. infections. Eventually, in April physician Edward Jenner had such
moment to sing the praises of 1721, she decided to use the Turkish a miserable experience being
an often forgotten contributor Like other visitors to the country, practice to have her daughter inoculated as a child that he was
to their development. Three Montagu took steps to ensure inoculated. As she had experienced determined to find a better way.
hundred years ago this month, that her son was inoculated during smallpox as a young woman and This led to his realisation that
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu got her time in Constantinople. This lost her only brother to the vaccination using material from
her daughter inoculated against worked well, but she knew that disease, she believed that the a cow with cowpox would work
smallpox with a technique that trying it in England would be rewards would outweigh the even better than inoculation.
was unfamiliar to people in Britain far more controversial. risks. After a safe time had
at the time – making her child the Inoculation performed by elapsed following the inoculation, He is rightly lauded for his
first person in the West to be unlicensed amateurs would Montagu allowed a select group of contribution, but the throughline
protected in this way. Without threaten doctors’ professional doctors and aristocratic friends to from China to Turkey and from
Montagu’s willingness to adopt standing and potentially rob examine her daughter. Montagu’s introduction of the
a practice she had learned from them of valuable income. Clerics practice in Western Europe to
other cultures, the introduction also disputed the practice, as they Doctors in Britain gradually Jenner’s own inoculation has
of vaccines around 80 years later saw it as interfering with nature. accepted the practice, but insisted often been overlooked.
would never have taken place. on a punishing six-week procedure
Back in England, Montagu Montagu felt it was best to keep
Montagu was an aristocrat quiet about her involvement, a
with no formal scientific training. decision that inevitably frustrated
She first witnessed inoculation her. Eventually, she wrote and had
when she accompanied her published an anonymous article,
husband to Turkey in 1717, where arguing the case for inoculation.
he had been appointed as the As she put it to her sister, there
British ambassador. News had are “some fools, who had rather be
already reached the Royal Society sick by the doctor’s prescriptions,
in England that people in Turkey than in health in rebellion to the
used a process called inoculation college [of physicians]”.
against smallpox and that the
disease was far less serious there As recently as last century,
than in the West as a result, but academics argued that Montagu
it wasn’t taken seriously. was no more than an enthusiastic
amateur with a vindictive attitude
Inoculation had started in towards the medical profession.
eastern regions of Asia, probably In truth, hers was a vital scientific
in China, as early as the 10th contribution towards finding the
century AD. Montagu observed cure for smallpox – an infectious
how older women in Turkey were disease that was only finally
sent to take a tiny amount of pus eradicated in 1980.  ❚
from a person with smallpox. They
then used needles to make cuts Jo Willett is the author of
on people’s wrists and ankles and
added the pus to their bloodstream. The Pioneering Life of
This typically resulted in a very
Mary Wortley Montagu:

Scientist and feminist

3 April 2021 | New Scientist | 21

Views Columnist

Field notes from space-time

The many mysteries that remain The standard model of particle
physics explains a lot of observations, but the strange nature of
neutrinos isn’t one of them, writes Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

THE standard model of in a strange feature of neutrinos. example, an electron won’t
particle physics is so named Before we get to that, you need randomly turn into a muon or a
because it is a model of our to know that these particles come tau particle as it moves through
space. The evidence for neutrino
subatomic universe that is now in three forms, or flavours as oscillations is now extensive. We
know they happen in the sun and
the standard description of reality physicists say: electron neutrino, we know they also happen in our
atmosphere. They have also been
for physicists. It is not only widely muon neutrino and tau neutrino. observed in nuclear reactors and
particle accelerators. Experiments
accepted, but also extensively What is unusual about have been incredibly successful in
capturing evidence for this.
tested. Although it is unable to neutrinos, compared with other
Yet challenges lie ahead. There
account for gravity, it describes members of the lepton family remain open questions about
why neutrino oscillations occur,
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein every other force and every of fundamental particles and there still isn’t a satisfactory
is an assistant professor of theoretical explanation for them.
physics and astronomy, and particle we have ever seen in a (electrons and quarks) in the This is related to our inability to
a core faculty member in calculate a mass for neutrinos: as
women’s studies at the laboratory or particle collider – standard model, is that they their identities tend to mix, their
University of New Hampshire. masses must also mix. Plus, the
Her research in theoretical from the familiar electron, which can change flavour. An electron traditional Higgs mechanism that
physics focuses on cosmology, gives mass to other particles relies
neutron stars and particles carries a charge and makes up the neutrino flying through space on those particles having a form of
beyond the standard model handedness, a sense of left or right
outer layers of atoms, to the Higgs, will randomly become a muon at the quantum property level.
Chanda’s week
which is a complex part of the neutrino or a tau neutrino, and The neutrinos that we have seen
What I’m reading seem to only be lefties, and that
Desiree C. Bailey’s new picture, one that gives mass to the same is true for all three forms. suggests that maybe there are
poetry collection, What right-handed neutrinos that we
Noise Against the Cane. most particles in the model. just haven’t observed yet. The
most popular model for neutrino
What I’m watching Even so, mysteries remain. “That neutrinos don’t mass, the see-saw mechanism,
Judas and the Black adds a right-handed neutrino
Messiah. It is a powerful There is the strong CP problem, have a static identity to the mix and allows the
film that helped put my which I’ve described in earlier may seem bizarre Higgs mechanism to provide
mother’s own experiences columns and which gives rise to because we are so all neutrinos with a mass. These
as a Black Panther Party the hypothetical axion particle, my used to things right-handed neutrinos are very
breakfast programme favourite dark matter candidate. massive, which tips the scales
volunteer in context. away from the left-handed ones –
And of course the aforementioned staying the same” making them very light.
What I’m working on
I’m still plugging away inability to bring the standard The standard model is a
with my research on stunning success in our quest to
neutron stars. model into line with gravity. Neutrinos, rather than having understand the basic building
blocks of visible matter in the
This column appears But at a more basic level, there a static identity, can shift to any universe, but in some ways it is
monthly. Up next week: still a work in progress. The fact
Graham Lawton is another big issue. This concerns one of the three identities at that it is incomplete is a wonderful
thing from my point of view. It not
22 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021 a class of particles in the model any time. As a queer person, I’ve only means that there is much for
me to do, but that there probably
whose basic properties continue enjoyed recognising that this will still be questions for the next
generation to pursue, too. ❚
to confuse us: the neutrinos. means neutrinos are non-trinary,

These particles are elusive. We rather than being permanently

know they are there, but they are fixed in one of a trio of identities.

very hard to capture because they In technical language, we call these

only interact through gravity, changes neutrino oscillations

which isn’t very powerful, and the because the neutrinos are

weak nuclear force, which is only oscillating between flavour types.

effective at very short distances. The fact that neutrinos don’t

Trillions of them pass through have a static identity may seem

our bodies every second without bizarre because in everyday life

pause. Neutrinos are also very low we are so used to things staying

in mass. We have an upper limit on the same. But even in human

this property – they are maybe a relations, we are coming to see

million times less massive than that beliefs about fixed identities

the electron, itself a featherweight. don’t necessarily make much

However, we still don’t have an sense and that distinctions we

exact number for their mass or a once clung to are outdated.

solid theory for how they gain it. On a subatomic scale, neutrinos

The Higgs mechanism that works are certainly set apart because

so well for other particles can’t their leptonic family members

explain neutrino mass. that I mentioned earlier don’t

These mysteries are tied up display this behaviour. For



FOR NATURE Adjany Costa

Thursday 15 April 2021 | 6 -7.30pm BST and on-demand Conservationist, UNEP Youth
Advocate and adviser to the
Join a top-level panel of scientists, conservationists presidency of Angola
and policymakers as they discuss how our disregard
for nature caused covid-19 – and how we can seize Partha Dasgupta
a unique opportunity to build back better.
Economist, University of
This event accompanies our “Rescue Plan for Nature” feature Cambridge, and author of the
series presented in association with the United Nations UK government review “The
Environment Programme (UNEP). It is free for all to attend, Economics of Biodiversity”
and the panel will be answering your questions.
Susan Gardner
Book your free tickets and submit your questions
Ocean conservationist and
for the panel at director of the Ecosystems
Division, UNEP

Cristián Samper

Tropical biologist, president
and CEO of the Wildlife
Conservation Society

Introduced by

Zac Goldsmith

Minister for Pacific
and the Environment

Foreign, Commonwealth &
Development Office (FCDO)
and the Department for
Environment, Food and
Rural Affairs (Defra)

Views Your letters

Editor’s pick the presence of older siblings – to check whether a vaccine has in remote areas, but not ones
believed to bring in germs from worked. This begs the question: that are difficult to access.
Vaccine strategy may school and the playground – and is there a test that is a good way of
yet prove to be an error attendance at day care during checking if a vaccine has worked? Why hydrogen cars are
the first six months of a child’s probably non-starters
13 March, p 9 life lower the risk of many Another trillion dollars
From Adrian Cosker, autoimmune diseases. that could be well spent 6 February, p 44
Hitchin, Hertfordshire, UK From Peter Newbery, Bristol , UK
I, too, fear that the strategy of Those are exactly the 27 February, p 38 Further to the debate on the merits
targeting covid-19 vaccinations circumstances denied to today’s From Brian Reffin Smith, of a hydrogen economy. For cars, an
at vulnerable people first may well babies and toddlers. This youngest Berlin, Germany electric vehicle getting renewable
turn out to have been the wrong generation may be an unwitting One megaproject not mentioned energy from the grid wins out.
decision, a possibility suggested experiment to either prove or as a way to fix the world for a
in Michael Le Page’s report. disprove the hygiene hypothesis trillion dollars is (relatively) cheap: There are energy losses from
once and for all. I hope for their buy all the right-wing tabloid the electricity transmission and
Even if we do get away with it sake that it will be proven wrong. newspapers. Not a copy of each, distribution systems (maybe
and no new variants emerge that but the entire businesses. Then 2 per cent for transmission and
nullify all the vaccination efforts so My vaccination didn’t lead either transform them completely up to 10 per cent for distribution).
far, it doesn’t mean this was a wise to a positive antibody test or shut them down. Charging and discharging a
choice – just that we got lucky. battery is maybe 80 per cent
13 March, p 10 They are to blame for much of efficient, while the electric car
It was, of course, understandable the prejudice and hatred, the motor efficiency is probably
that the short-term benefits of From Cedric Lynch, misogyny, the anti-expert and 80 per cent. Overall, in round
vaccinating vulnerable people took Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, UK anti-science attitudes that cause terms, an electric vehicle is
priority – partly for humanitarian Regarding the idea of covid-19 so much harm and suffering. These 55 to 60 per cent efficient.
reasons and partly, at least in the antibody tests as a means to see translate into actions or inactions
UK, due to the political imperative if vaccination has worked. I was that affect the entire world, be it This compares with the
of protecting the NHS, the collapse invited for my first dose of the towards climate change, refugee efficiency of electrolysis to
of which would have had significant Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine on awareness or international aid. produce hydrogen (maybe
political repercussions for the 13 February. I had already been 70 per cent), of a hydrogen car’s
government after a decade of tested for antibodies on 11 February. I can’t quite say farewell fuel cells (about 50 per cent) and
austerity cuts. The result was negative. On to the Tasmanian tiger of its electric motor (around
3 March, I took another antibody 80 per cent). That gives an overall
We were late to vaccinate care test, a different brand this time: 13 March, p 24 efficiency of around 30 per cent.
workers and NHS staff, and haven’t it, too, was negative. From Guy Cox, St Albans,
prioritised workers in transport, New South Wales, Australia Old rigs could be turned
supermarkets, schools and other On 5 March, I took a third such While I applaud Graham Lawton’s into havens to boost fish
frontline roles. This not only allows test, also negative. The results desire to expose extinction
SARS-CoV-2 to spread and mutate, form said: “Clinical Assessment: deniers, I don’t actually feel we Letters, 6 March
but also preserves a reservoir of Based solely on the result of this should call time on the Tasmanian From Scott McNeil,
the virus that can infect vulnerable test, there is no indication that tiger, or thylacine, just yet. Banstead, Surrey, UK
people, who would also have you have developed antibodies To expand on Marc Smith-Evans’s
benefited indirectly from a against a COVID-19 infection.” Sure, over the years many point about using offshore wind
policy to protect these groups. people have sought to promote turbine structures as reefs to aid
My doctor’s surgery has a low themselves by falsely claiming fish stocks, structures associated
Pandemic could be a test opinion of antibody tests because to have seen it, but the areas it with oil and gas production in the
of the hygiene hypothesis several people who work there may (or may not) inhabit are North Sea (and elsewhere) have
have had covid-19 with symptoms just unbelievably impenetrable. long been seen as wildlife havens.
6 March, p 8 and positive PCR tests, but now Lawton says it hasn’t appeared
From Christine Duffill, test negative for antibodies. in roadkill, but there aren’t In other areas of the world, there
Southampton, UK any roads in these places. have been very successful “rigs-to-
One year into the pandemic, There seems to be a consensus reefs” programmes, where defunct
I welcome your article looking of opinion that vaccines generate To take a comparable example, platforms are either toppled in
at the psychological and health antibodies that aren’t identical to the night parrot (Pezoporus place or moved to an area close by.
impacts of repeated lockdowns those generated by exposure to occidentalis) was believed extinct This practice has been banned in
on children. Perhaps now is also the virus and often don’t show from 1912 until the 1990s. It lives the North Sea since 1998, except
the time to consider another up in antibody tests, and that in very specific circumstances.
possible health implication. such tests aren’t recommended
However, there is a growing
I have always been a supporter Want to get in touch? body of evidence that it would be
of the hygiene hypothesis to more environmentally beneficial
explain the rise in the prevalence Send letters to [email protected]; to leave a large part of many of the
of autoimmune disorders. The see terms at North Sea platforms coming up
supporting evidence suggests that Letters sent to New Scientist, 25 Bedford Street, for decommissioning in place.  ❚
London WC2E 9ES will be delayed

24 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021

Signal Boost

Welcome to our Signal Boost project – a page for charitable organisations
to get their message out to a global audience, free of charge. Today,
a message from Universities Federation for Animal Welfare


The Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW)

Most of us care deeply about animal welfare improved the lives of millions of mice who are These and other projects also provide
and want to do the right thing for animals, be it now routinely given nesting material. invaluable PhD training, demonstrating our
those we eat, those we experiment upon, or our commitment to training the next generation
much-loved pets. But simply caring about ASKING ANIMALS HOW THEY FEEL of animal welfare scientists.
animals isn’t enough; we also need to know Another project tackled the holy grail of animal
what makes animals’ lives better or worse to welfare: asking animals how they feel. We’re also passionate about spreading
guarantee their welfare. At UFAW we strive to Researchers trained rats to press a button to the message about animal welfare science.
answer such fundamental scientific questions receive a treat when they heard a particular tone For instance, many breeds of companion
about animal welfare, through funding and not to press after a different unrewarded animals suffer inherited conditions.
innovative research like the examples below: tone. Next, they tested whether they would press
the button for intermediate frequencies between We compiled a database of these
COMFORTABLE ENVIRONMENTS those two tones. Rats feeling positive pressed the issues which is invaluable to professionals
FOR LABORATORY MICE button in the hope of a reward, those feeling less and pet owners alike in understanding
positive didn’t. This is like asking animals if the which conditions affect which breeds
Traditionally, laboratory mice have been kept glass is ‘half-full’ or ‘half-empty’! The ingenious ( UFAW
in barren cages and are housed at about 21⁰C, technique has been applied to many species to conferences share the latest animal welfare
but they actually prefer to be much warmer. see if certain conditions effect how animals feel. science and ensure it has an impact - you can
UFAW-funded research showed that rather than watch our latest conference online here:
turning up the temperature, the best way to allow
mice to keep warm and enliven their environment
was to provide materials like shredded paper so Want to help?
they could build a nest. This provided enrichment
and allowed them to regulate their temperature UFAW is funded solely by donations and legacies from members and supporters.
just as they would in the wild. This work has Please support Science in the Service of Animal Welfare by joining UFAW at or donating to support our work at



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Valerie Jamieson SCIENCE



What happened at the big bang? What is It’s the most complex object in the known
the universe made of? Are we just part of universe – but just what makes the human brain
‚ ŠĔŠ•† Ž–•Š—†“”†ĭ so special? How does it make thoughts, memories
and conscious reality? And how can you keep
If you’re fascinated by the biggest questions in the yours functioning better for longer?
cosmos, this introductory, expert-led online course
from New Scientist Academy is for you. Get an Get to grips with the most fascinating questions
overview of the hottest science at your own pace, about the human brain, and some practical tips on
anywhere, anytime. how to take care of yours, with this introductory,
expert-led online course


Dan Hooper is a senior scientist and the head Penny Lewis is a sleep scientist and professor
of the theoretical astrophysics group at the Fermi of psychology at Cardiff University. She has coined
National Accelerator Laboratory, as well as a the term sleep engineering to capture the spirit of
professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the her lab’s work. She explores ingenious ways to
University of Chicago. His research focuses on the enhance memory, disarm negative emotions, and
interface between particle physics and cosmology, combat cognitive decline through ageing during
and he is especially interested in questions about sleep. Her book, The Secret World of Sleep explores
dark matter and the early universe. the latest research into the night time brain to
–…†“”•‚… •‰† “†‚ ƒ††Ĕ•” ‡ ”††‘Ħ

Chris Impey is a University Distinguished Sophie Scott is professor of cognitive neuroscience
Professor of Astronomy and Associate Dean of the at University College London. As head of the speech
College of Science at the University of Arizona. He communication group, her research focuses on how
has over 180 refereed publications on observational our brains process the information in speech and
cosmology, galaxies, and quasars, and his research voices, and how our brains control the production of
has been supported by $20 million in NASA and our voice. Her work also explores individual
NSF grants. differences in speech perception and plasticity in
speech perception, both of which are important
factors for people with cochlear implants.

Fiona Panther is a research associate at The Anil Seth is professor of cognitive and
University of Western Australia in Perth. She is a computational neuroscience at the University
physicist and mathematician with an interest in of Sussex. His research seeks to understand the
astronomy and software development. Her expertise biological basis of consciousness by bringing
is primarily in microphysical astronomy: how processes together research across neuroscience,
that occur on the atomic and subatomic scale can mathematics, computer science, psychology,
Šĕ–†„† ˜‰‚• ˜† ƒ”†“—†  ˆ‚‚„•Š„ ‚… philosophy and psychiatry.
cosmological scales.
Find out more
Find out more


Views Aperture

28 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021

Extreme moments on Earth

World Press Photo Contest 2021 row left) is nominated in the
Environment (Singles) category.
THESE stunning photos have It highlights an unexpected cost
all been shortlisted in various of the pandemic.
categories for this year’s World
Press Photo Contest, a global Nominated in the Nature
photojournalism competition. (Singles) category is New Life
by Jaime Culebras (bottom row,
Luis Tato has been nominated middle). It shows eggs from
for the top award, World Press Wiley’s glass frog (Nymphargus
Photo of the Year, with his image wileyi) hanging off the tip of a leaf
Fighting Locust Invasion in East in the tropical Andean cloud forest
Africa (top row, left). It was shot for in Ecuador, and helps fill in the
The Washington Post and captures gaps about a rare species.
the struggle of Kenyan farmers in
2020 as the country was invaded One Way to Fight Climate
by hundreds of millions of locusts, Change: Make your own glaciers
which ravaged crops and (bottom row, right) is nominated
devastated the land. in the Environment (Stories)
category. Taken by Ciril Jazbec for
Nominated in the same National Geographic, it shows an
category is The First Embrace by ice cone built in the cold desert
Mads Nissen for Panos Pictures region of Ladakh in northern
and Danish newspaper Politiken India to provide water for farming.
(top row, right). Shot in São Paulo, Climate change is causing the
Brazil, it shows care home resident glaciers here to recede.
Rosa Luzia Lunardi receiving her
first hug in months, from nurse The competition’s winners
Adriana Silva da Costa Souza. will be announced online on
Covid-19 prevented millions of 15 April during the World Press
Brazilians from visiting relatives. Photo Festival 2021. Visit for details. ❚
California Sea Lion Plays
with Mask by Ralph Pace (bottom Gege Li

3 April 2021 | New Scientist | 29

Views Culture

Smells good, tastes good!

Why do flavour and aroma matter so much to creatures like us? Simon Ings
finds out in Delicious, a charming new book with a compelling message


Delicious: The evolution
of flavor and how it
made us human

Rob Dunn and Monica Sanchez

Princeton University Press

HOW do we know what to eat?

Dolphins need only hunger and

a mental image of what food

looks like. Their taste receptors PUBLIC DOMAIN/THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

broke long ago and they no

longer detect anything but

salty flavours, thriving on

hunger and satisfaction alone.

Omnivores and herbivores,

on the other hand, have a more

varied diet – and more chance

of getting things badly wrong.

They are therefore guided by

much more highly developed

senses of flavour and aroma.

In Delicious, evolutionary or two: there is, after all, no clear things here that aren’t nails.” Humans have long
It would be all too easy, out of a
biologist Rob Dunn and evidence of fire-making this far surfeit of enthusiasm, for them to searched for complex
distort their readers’ impressions
anthropologist Monica Sanchez back. Still, they incline very much of a new and exciting field, flavours in our food
tracing the evolution of flavour.
weave together what chefs know towards Wrangham’s hypothesis. of how it contributed to the
Happily, Dunn and Sanchez extinction of hundreds of the
about the experience of food, There is no firm evidence of are scrupulous in the way they largest, most unusual animals
present their evidence and on the planet. Delicious is a
what ecologists know about hominins fermenting food at this arguments. As primates, our charming book, but it does
experience of smell and flavour have its melancholy side.
the needs of animals and what time either – indeed, it is hard to is unusual, in that we experience
retronasal aromas – the smells To take one dizzying example,
evolutionary biologists know imagine what such evidence that rise up from our mouths the Clovis people – direct ancestors
into the backs of our noses. This of roughly 80 per cent of all living
about how our senses evolved. would even look like. Nonetheless, is because we have lost a long Indigenous populations in North
bone, called the transverse lamina, and South America – definitely
Together, this knowledge tells the that helps to separate the mouth ate mammoths, mastodons,
from the nose. gomphotheres, bison and giant
story of how we have been led by “The loss of a bone that horses. They may also have eaten
our noses through evolutionary helped separate our The loss had important Jefferson’s ground sloths, giant
history, turning from chimp-like mouth from our nose consequences for olfaction, camels, dire wolves, short-faced
primate precursors to modern, had consequences for enabling humans to search out bears, flat-headed peccaries, long-
dinner-obsessed Homo sapiens. human olfaction” tastes and aromas so complex nosed peccaries, some tapir
that we have to associate them species, giant llamas, giant bison,
Much of the research with memories in order to stag moose, shrub-oxen and
individually categorise them all. Harlan’s muskoxen.
described here dovetails
The story of how H. sapiens “The Clovis menu,” say
neatly with work described in the authors believe it took developed such a sophisticated the authors, “if written on a
palate is also, of course, the story chalkboard, would be a tally
biological anthropologist Richard place. They make a convincing, of a lost world.”  ❚

Wrangham’s 2009 book Catching closely argued case for their

Fire: How cooking made us human. rather surprising contention

Wrangham argued that releasing that “fermenting a mastodon,

the calories bound up in raw food mammoth, or a horse so that

by cooking it led to a cognitive it remains edible and is not

explosion in H. sapiens around deadly appears to be less

1.9 million years ago. challenging than making fire”.

As Dunn and Sanchez rightly “Flavor is our new hammer,”

point out, Wrangham’s book the authors admit, “and so we are

wasn’t short of a speculation probably whacking some shiny

30 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021

Getting creative in space Don’t miss

Will we soon 3D print our lunch or spare parts for surgery? Watch/Listen
A great podcast explores the latest in engineering, finds Gege Li Our Ludicrous Future
occupies the minds of Joe
Podcast future, makers are going to be up Haptics can have life-changing Scott, Tim Dodd and Ben
in space,” says Rogers. effects, as Rogers discovers with Sullins. Each week, they
The Engineering Edge naviBelt, designed by researchers try to keep pace with
Tommaso Ghidini, head of the in Germany. The belt is embedded how wild the world of
DesignSpark European Space Agency’s structures, with a compass and haptic motors tomorrow will be, from
Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube mechanisms and materials division, to help people find their way around space exploration to new
says the ventures aren’t far-fetched. their surroundings. Each motor tech. Watch via YouTube
IT IS easy to take the devices “Many people think that we are vibrates individually depending or listen as a podcast.
and machines holding our modern still in a kind of research and on the direction in which the user
world together for granted. The development phase – we are not,” is travelling. This could have huge Read
Engineering Edge, a podcast now he tells Rogers. Several upcoming benefits for people who are blind The God Equation is out
in its second series, is an excellent ESA missions have what he calls the or partially sighted. there, says futurist and
guide to this fascinating technology. “added manufacturing baseline” of physicist Michio Kaku.
3D printing, and there are plans to One user (now medical device His latest book is about
Each of the six episodes in put a 3D bioprinter in space in a few sales manager for the company the search for a “theory
the latest season explores how years. NASA has even “printed” that sells naviBelt) became blind of everything”, travelling
technology transforms lives, cow tissue from stem cells, which 15 years ago. He says it is a from Newton’s universal
giving us an edge in everything from could be eaten by astronauts. “brilliant idea for every blind law of gravitation, via
space travel to healthcare and even individual”. It also inspires Rogers to relativity and quantum
helping to save the planet. It is what At the heart of it all is the need develop her own prototype that, by mechanics, to the latest
lets us do the “extraordinary things” for creativity. “I think creativity, not quite working, provides light in string theory.
described by host Lucy Rogers. She especially for an explorer, is entertainment between interviews.
is currently a visiting professor of fundamental,” says Ghidini. Watch
engineering at Brunel University in Considering I could only listen Thunder Force, on
London, as well as an author and In episode two, Rogers turns her as Rogers hammers and drills in her Netflix from 9 April,
presenter – but, luckily for listeners, attention to haptics, technologies shed, The Engineering Edge works sees scientist Emily
she most strongly identifies as “an that produce vibrations or other surprisingly well. This is a testament (Octavia Spencer) invent
inventor with a sense of fun”. feedback providing the sensation of to her enthusiasm and knack for a process that ends up
touch. Haptic motors are responsible explaining the science of what she is giving superpowers to
This becomes obvious when for the buzzing of everything from doing, as well as to the stories of her her old but estranged
Rogers talks to engineering mobile phones to video controllers, guests. There is a bonus: Roger asks friend Lydia (Melissa
champions and pioneers, and she as well as more obscure applications (and answers) all the questions we McCarthy) in this original
often tries to recreate technologies that bestow us with a “sixth sense”, are likely to think of as we listen.  ❚ superhero comedy.
herself. In the first episode, she looks such as night-vision goggles.
at using 3D printing in space to help 3 April 2021 | New Scientist | 31
astronauts make materials and tools MADE IN SPACE
during missions, as well as to provide T&B:NASA/JPL-CALTECH; HOPPER STONE/NETFLIX
tailored medical care by bioprinting
tissues and eventually organs.

Some of the applications we
hear about are suitably otherworldly.
Engineering company Made In
Space, which sent the first 3D
printer to the International Space
Station, is investigating how to
repurpose the ISS’s waste plastic
and even dirt from the moon as
feedstock for 3D printing. This
could let astronauts use the
materials to build lunar facilities,
such as habitats for rovers. “In the

The first 3D printer to be
sent to space during one
of its test flights

Views Culture

What do genes and love make?

When a company develops a test that can reveal your perfect partner,
the result is plenty of drama and intrigue, finds Abigail Chandler

TV In The One, genetic tests
can reveal who you are
The One guaranteed to fall for

Netflix also explored the theme with
nanobots that help people find
ACCORDING to Netflix, The One their perfect partner.

takes place “five minutes in the However, despite the fact
that there are already dating
future”. In those five minutes, a big companies that claim to utilise
DNA testing, the technology
leap in technology has happened: just isn’t there. Matthew Cobb,
a zoologist at the University of
a company called The One has Manchester, UK, and author of
The Idea of the Brain, says it simply
learned how to find someone’s isn’t possible to detect whether
a couple will fall in love based
perfect romantic partner via purely on their DNA.

some sort of genetic testing. He says the only case you
could make for this idea is that
Couples who are “matched” feel people who have diverse genes
controlling their immune system
an immediate connection, but have healthier offspring, and it
has been argued that this can be
this isn’t just a carnal response to detected by smell. “But sadly those
claims are based on very poor
whatever pheromones really do it studies with very small sample
sizes, and are simply untrue.”
for you: this, according to The One,
It comes down to what
is the person you are “genetically compatibility between two
humans actually is. “How could
guaranteed to fall in love with”. you measure it? Is it the same
throughout a person’s lifetime,
While the technology is far or the lifetime of a couple?” says
Cobb. “Very little about humans
from plausible, that doesn’t is solely determined by genetics,
so the idea that this most
stop the show from being an magical and inexplicable part
of our behaviour might be
intriguing exploration of the determined by a string of
ACTGs seems… fictional.”
human collateral of finding your
Of course, that isn’t a problem
perfect partner. The new tests when you are talking about actual
fiction – which The One plainly
are causing a spate of divorces is. Putting aside pesky facts, the
concept promises a rich vein
as previously happily married of drama, tension, shocks and
humour. The problem is that
people can’t resist taking one to The One doesn’t quite mine
deep enough to find it.  ❚
find their true match. The firm’s
Abigail Chandler is a freelance film
power-suited CEO Rebecca Webb NETFLIX
and TV journalist based in the UK
(Hannah Ware) is comfortably in

control until a body is hauled out

of the Thames river, triggering “The new tests are rather large liberties with John
a police investigation and a causing a spate of Marrs’s source novel, and it feels at
series of flashbacks revealing divorces as previously times like he should have followed
that she didn’t get where she happily married people the book’s lead and focused on
is by talent alone. can’t resist taking one” matched couples, rather than
tacking on the corporate intrigue.
“We deserve the fairy tale,” While that mystery gives the show
an obvious hook, it is nothing that
she declares in a speech in episode hasn’t been seen before.

one, but that is far from what this so that the question is less about There is something
undoubtedly compelling in the
show offers as Webb goes to what Webb did and more about idea of using technology to find
our perfect partners, and it is a
increasingly dangerous lengths what she will do next. But Webb is story that has come up a lot of late.
Recent anthology show Soulmates
to maintain control of what she so distant and controlled that she has an almost identical concept,
and both Black Mirror and Rick and
has built, and as the diverse works neither as a great villain, Morty have dedicated episodes to
the subject. Netflix series Osmosis
ensemble of supporting nor as a sympathetic anti-hero.

characters obsessively pursue Faring better are the admittedly

their happily-ever-afters. disjointed subplots, in which

There are all the hallmarks of the effects of being matched

a classic thriller here, but it falls take characters in genuinely

a little flat – too much of the unexpected directions. Creator

mystery is revealed early on, Howard Overman has taken some

32 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021




How do species arise and change? What part do genes and DNA play? Where is evolution heading?

Radical in its simplicity, yet infinitely complex in its implications for life, Charles Darwin’s theory
of evolution by natural selection is arguably the most important scientific idea ever. Get up to speed
with the latest New Scientist Essential Guide, available now.



Also available in the New Scientist iOS App

RUBY FRESSON Features Cover story

34 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021

A black hole in
our backyard

Black holes born in the big bang could transform
our view of the universe. Is there one lurking on the
fringes of the solar system, asks Stuart Clark

BEYOND the giant planets of the outer Black holes are regions of space-time so
solar system lies a vast wilderness. Most warped that their gravity becomes irresistible;
astronomers think it is inhabited by a nothing can escape their pull, not even light.
population of small, icy worlds similar to Pluto, They were predicted based on Albert Einstein’s
and several groups have dedicated themselves general theory of relativity in 1915. Exactly a
to tracking down these dwarf planets. In the century later, they were directly detected for
process, some have come to suspect that the first time when the Laser Interferometer
something bigger is lurking out there: a Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO)
planet several times the mass of Earth. spotted faint ripples in space-time, or
gravitational waves, caused by the
They believe that this hypothetical world, collision and merger of two black holes.
known as Planet Nine, betrays its presence by
the way its gravity has aligned the orbits of a LIGO has since reverberated to the tune
group of these small, icy bodies. The problem of 50-odd more detections, many of which
is that no one can imagine how a planet big aren’t what we were expecting. The black holes
enough to do that could form so far from the previously inferred from theory, and from
sun. “All we know is that there’s an object of their influence on nearby matter, fall into two
a certain mass out there,” says Jakub Scholtz, categories. The largest are the supermassive
a theorist at Durham University in the UK. black holes found at the centre of every galaxy
“The observations we have can’t tell us in the universe, including our own. These grow
what that object is.” by merging with other black holes, becoming
behemoths that are millions or even billions
But if not a planet, then what? Scholtz of times the mass of the sun.
suspects it could be something even more
exotic: a primordial black hole, one forged Then there are stellar black holes. These are
in the big bang. created in the gigantic explosions that end the
life cycles of massive stars, and the closest to
If he is right, it would be a stunning Earth is around 1,000 light years away. They
discovery. Primordial black holes would give tend to weigh in at between five to 15 solar
us a new window onto the early universe. masses, and they were the black holes that
They might even comprise dark matter, the most astronomers had assumed LIGO would
mysterious substance that holds galaxies pick up. But the 2015 discovery only made
together. All of which explains why sense if one of the colliding black holes was
cosmologists have been scouring the roughly 35 times the mass of the sun, while
universe for them. But no one had dared to the other was around 30 times this mass.
dream we might find one in our own backyard.
Subsequent detections threw up more
The question now is, how can we determine seemingly inexplicable black hole masses.
what the mysterious source of gravity lurking The GW190814 signal involved one black >
at the fringes of our solar system really is?

3 April 2021 | New Scientist | 35

hole that was too heavy, at around 23 solar from the sun. At the distance Planet Nine CALTECH/MIT/LIGO LAB
masses, and one that was too light, at about would be sitting, there simply isn’t enough
2.6 solar masses. Then there was GW190521, raw material to build something that large. “This ancient
from a collision between black holes of 85 and black hole
66 solar masses. “These observations are very There is a hybrid scenario in which Planet would
hard to explain with astrophysical scenarios Nine formed much closer and was then hurled be roughly
and they are quite easily explained with into the darkness by the gravity of Jupiter or the size of a
primordial black holes,” says Sébastien Saturn. But that quickly becomes problematic grapefruit”
Clesse, a cosmologist at the University because a single interaction can’t do the job.
of Brussels in Belgium. Instead, a string of interactions is needed to
make sure Planet Nine never returns to where
Little and large it was originally formed – and that all sounds
like too much coincidence to Scholtz, or at least
That is because primordial black holes are grounds to consider alternatives.
thought to form across a wide range of masses,
even down to that of planets and asteroids. “When you look at the formation scenarios
In theory, they formed in the early universe, for Planet Nine, I think they pose a lot of
a shifting maelstrom of matter and energy issues,” says Scholtz. What drew him to the
squeezed together so tightly that any possibility that the mysterious mass at the
disturbance could tip a given region over edge of the solar system could instead be a
the critical density at which it collapses into primordial black hole was another intriguing
a black hole. The size of each would depend observation from astronomers looking much
on the conditions from which it sprang. So further afield.
there should be lots of primordial black holes
of all different sizes. The Optical Gravitational Lensing
Experiment (OGLE), operating primarily out of
Still, it seems a stretch to propose that Planet Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, watches
Nine is one when its mass is dramatically stars in the centre of the Milky Way for
smaller than the black holes revealed by LIGO. unexpected increases in brightness caused
At present, the conventional story is that the by gravitational microlensing. This is when
mysterious source of gravity beyond Pluto is light from background sources is bent by the
a planet between five and 15 times the mass passage of intervening objects that would
of Earth. That was the estimate Scott Sheppard otherwise be too small or too faint to be seen.
at the Carnegie Institution for Science in They reveal themselves because their orbits
Washington DC and Chad Trujillo at Northern happen to temporarily line up between Earth
Arizona University first came up with in 2014. and a star in the galactic centre such that
their gravity focuses the light, making the
And yet the more Scholtz and his colleague star appear to brighten. The shorter the time
James Unwin at the University of Illinois span of this increase, the lower the mass
thought about the logistics of Planet Nine, the of the intervening object.
more comfortable they were speculating about
a more exotic scenario. Unwin had heard about Out of 2600 microlensing events that
Planet Nine at a planetarium show in Chicago. OGLE detected between 2010 and 2015, six
“I think he was pretty excited,” recalls Scholtz, turned out to be “ultrashort”, lasting less
“because he calls me and he’s like, ‘You know, than half a day. Przemek Mróz at Warsaw
OK, maybe it’s a planet and that’s great, but University Observatory in Poland and his
what if it’s something else? What could it colleagues suggested that they were planets
possibly be?’” orbiting freely in interstellar space rather than
bound to a solar system. But in a 2019 paper,
Their thinking was fuelled by the Hiroko Niikura at the University of Tokyo in
theoretical problems involved in forming a Japan and his colleagues showed that these
large planet that far from our star. The planets signals could just as easily be produced by
of the solar system coalesced from a disc of primordial black holes of a few Earth-masses.
matter surrounding the sun. The difficulty is
that the matter thins out the further you get When Scholtz saw this paper, he noticed
something curious: the alignment of
mini-worlds in the outer solar system was

36 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021

Garcia-Bellido at the Autonomous University

of Madrid, used the rate of black hole mergers

seen by LIGO to figure out how many ancient

black holes there could be. Their estimates

suggest that the total population might indeed

contain a significant fraction of the universe’s

mass. “Primordial black holes could be the

dark matter,” says Clesse.

Having formed in the first few moments of

the universe, primordial black holes would

also encode information about what was

happening just fractions of a second after the

CALTECH/MIT/LIGO LAB big bang. This was a crucial time: the forces of

nature were taking on their final forms; matter,

antimatter and dark matter were coalescing

into their respective proportions; and space

itself was engulfed by a bout of exponential

inflation that blew it up to a vast size.

One of LIGO’s detectors Yet investigating this era is incredibly
(left) and one of the
mirrors that reflect difficult. Optical and radio telescopes can never
laser beams along the
detector arms see that far back. They hit a barrier at around

improbable to capture a primordial black hole. 300,000 years after the big bang, when the
What is in no doubt is that finding a
density of matter increases so much that it
primordial black hole anywhere in the cosmos
would be absolutely massive, if you can pardon fogs the view. An attempt to extract a subtle
the pun. If they are still distributed across the
universe, as expected, these ancient objects gravitational wave signal created in this era
could solve several of cosmology’s biggest
problems in one gulp. also met with failure, when researchers were

Dark secrets fooled by the effects of dust in the Milky Way.

indicative of an object of similar mass to Take dark matter, the catch-all term for the As relics from the birth of the universe,
those behind this series of anomalously gravitational glue that holds galaxies together
short microlensing events. It could just be and accelerates their formation in the first primordial black holes would change
a coincidence, of course. But for Scholtz and place. For much of the past half century,
Unwin, it hinted at a wider population of researchers have been convinced that it must everything. “We would suddenly have a way
previously unseen celestial objects. And if be made of undiscovered particles: not the
they aren’t planets, then the only other things stuff we know, but weird stuff that generates to search back in time, to events that we have
that fit the bill are primordial black holes. gravity and doesn’t interact with light. The
trouble is that no one has been able to detect no other way to explore,” says García-Bellido.
In 2019, Scholtz and Unwin put out a paper a single dark matter particle, despite having
titled “What if Planet 9 is a Primordial Black spent billions on experiments over the years. Such events took place at different times and
Hole?”. It revealed that such a black hole would
be just 9 centimetres in diameter, roughly the In recent years, researchers have argued over so, according to theory, would be associated
size of a grapefruit. It also went into detail as whether it could be comprised of primordial
to why the suggestion is plausible, and it all black holes. Clesse, working with Juan with a different primordial black hole mass.
comes down to the way you would have to
get Planet Nine – if it were actually a planet – Furthermore, each event would have
into its orbit.
influenced the number of primordial black
If Planet Nine didn’t form in our solar
system, the only other way to get it there is to holes forming at that instant. So comparing
capture a free-floating planet that was made in
another solar system and just happened to be the number of black holes of different masses
passing. Different groups have come up with
estimates, each showing that this is unlikely, should tell us about what was going on back
but not impossible. In their paper, Scholtz
and Unwin demonstrated that it was no less then. Planet Nine’s mass, for example, suggests

that, if it is indeed an ancient black hole, it was

probably produced during the electroweak

transition, when electromagnetism separated

from the weak nuclear force.

But we aren’t about to start peering

through this window onto cosmic history

quite yet. First, we have to show that there

really is a black hole in our solar system, and

that means mounting a fresh search that

requires a different approach to the hunt

for a hinted-at planet. >

3 April 2021 | New Scientist | 37

Optical telescopes will never see a black hole. RUBIN OBS/NSF/AURA The Vera C. Rubin
X-ray telescopes do stand a chance because Observatory in Chile
anything falling into a black hole would heat and (below) an artist’s
up and give off a burst of light in the X-ray impression of a solar sail
wavelength. The catch is that these flashes
would be fleeting, so we would have to be In a recent paper, Turyshev and several
looking in exactly the right direction at exactly colleagues point out that the miniaturisation
the right time to spot one. There is one other of satellites and the use of solar sails now make
possibility that would give a steady X-ray such missions possible. Solar sails require no
signal, and that is if dark matter really is made fuel: they propel a spacecraft simply by the
up of exotic particles that annihilate each other momentum imparted by the pressure of
on contact. The dark matter would tend to sunlight falling on the sail. By first diving close
cluster around the black hole. As a result of the to the sun, they can receive a mighty push,
annihilation, it would emit a steady beam of sufficient to send them sailing serenely out to
X-rays or gamma rays that would drift across the orbit of Neptune in about a year. “This is
the sky as the black hole followed its orbit. about 10 times faster than can be achieved
with chemical propulsion,” says Turyshev.
Mission possible “We could
prove this For now, such a mission remains firmly on
Perhaps the best way to catch a mysterious the drawing board. Indeed, some astronomers
primordial black hole is to look for the gravity source are unconvinced that a Planet Nine of any
thing it produces in abundance: gravity. using a fleet description is out there. Earlier this year, Kevin
This is where Slava Turyshev at NASA’s Jet of tiny craft” Napier at the University of Michigan and his
Propulsion Laboratory in California comes colleagues published an analysis making the
in. He has suggested probing whatever this case that the alignment of smaller dwarf
source of gravity is with a fleet of small planets suggesting the existence of a ninth
spacecraft. The idea is that deviations in planet is simply a statistical artefact that
their expected trajectories could reveal will fade away with more and better data.
any massive object lurking out there  – be
it planet or black hole. It would provide For the moment, the state of the art is
a precise location on which to train our to return to where we started: charting the
telescopes. If we see a speck of light, it is small, icy worlds of the outer solar system to
a planet; if not, it is a black hole. determine whether Planet Nine – or something
else – is out there. That will soon become less of
NASA a slog thanks to the Vera C. Rubin Observatory
in Chile, due to start operating this year.
It is expected to find tens of thousands of
mini-worlds in the remote reaches of the
solar system, vastly increasing the sample size.
Their orbits will prove once and for all whether
there is a planetary-mass object out there.
They will even allow astronomers to precisely
predict its location, at which point the telescope
can take a closer look.

If it sees a planet, it will be a huge deal. If it
doesn’t see anything and yet the anomalous
gravitational pull remains, it will be time to
launch the solar sails. ❚

Stuart Clark is a consultant for New
Scientist. His latest book is Beneath
the Night: How the stars have
shaped the history of humankind

38 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021


Your first line
of defence

A breakthrough in understanding the more
ancient part of our immune system could
change how we fight future pandemics,
finds Graham Lawton

FOR immunologists, the covid-19 during the pandemic. It is often what people in a different light. Without it, the “higher”
pandemic has been a steep learning mean when they talk about “the” immune adaptive system is a useless embellishment.
curve. “We’ve learned much more about system. But it is only half of the story. Even more importantly, the innate system
the host immune response to SARS-CoV-2 in does actually have memory. After an encounter
a matter of a few months than we have about The other half is the innate immune system, with a pathogen, it switches to a heightened
many, many other viruses that we’ve dealt with which is much less sophisticated. It consists state of alert that persists for months or even
for decades,” says Bali Pulendran at Stanford of a set of fast-acting, all-purpose defences that years, making us more resistant to future
University in California. At every turn, the bludgeon invaders indiscriminately, providing infections. This “trained immunity” could
virus has confounded expectations, from covering fire while the special forces get their have been exploited to significantly soften the
why it leaves some people unscathed but boots on. One of its weapons is inflammation, blow of covid-19 and is now being developed
kills others in days to the “cytokine storms” which is a general purpose response to as a life-saving weapon against the next
that wrack the bodies of those who become pathogens, injury and stress. pandemic. “Innate immunity was considered
seriously ill. And then there was the nail-biting the little brother, not that important,” says
wait to see if vaccines were possible. But one The innate system is evolutionarily ancient, Mihai Netea at Radboud University in the
discovery above all will have immunologists found in all animals and plants. Vertebrates Netherlands, who pioneered the rethink.
rewriting their textbooks. added the adaptive system about 600 million “Now we understand how important it is.”
years ago, but still rely on their innate system
This concerns a long-neglected backwater as a first responder; the adaptive system can Immune memory
of the immune system called innate immunity. take several days to fire up, whereas the innate
Once seen as a rather prosaic and primitive system gets going almost instantaneously. The first signs that there was more to the
bit of human biology, it now turns out to play Nevertheless, innate immunity has long been innate system date back a couple of decades,
a pivotal, and often decisive, role in the body’s regarded as rather primitive and uninteresting. when immunologists began investigating the
reaction to SARS-CoV-2 and the vaccines In particular, it was assumed to lack any sort of immune responses of plants and invertebrates.
against the virus. And not just that: a better memory function. As Netea points out, these life forms represent
appreciation of it is also being touted as our 97 per cent of all biodiversity, so even if they
best bet for seeing off the next pandemic. For decades, this is what was thought lack sophisticated adaptive immunity, it
to indelibly distinguish the two systems. seems unlikely that they have failed to evolve
Being vertebrates, we are the proud Adaptive immunity remembers invaders for something as useful as immune memory. And
owners of two immune systems (see “Meet years or even decades and can respond to them so it turned out to be. Study after study showed
your immune system”, page 42). One is the at the drop of a hat. This “immune memory” that plants, insects and worms do remember
“adaptive” system, a smart and highly effective is a defining feature of adaptive immunity. encounters with pathogens and attack them
special force that develops and deploys It is why a single exposure to some viruses more vigorously the second time around.
precision weapons against invaders. This is such as measles confers lifelong resistance, The mechanism is different from adaptive >
the now-familiar arsenal of antibodies and and is also why vaccines work.
T-cells that have been such a focus of interest
But in the past decade or so, immunologists
have come to see the innate immune system

40 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021


3 April 2021 | New Scientist | 41

Meet your immune system

After the human brain, the vertebrate immune system is the most complex biological entity in the
universe. Broadly speaking, it is divided into two branches, innate and adaptive. Innate immunity
is a generalised, rapid-response defence system. Adaptive immunity provides slower, more
pathogen-specific responses. Here are some of the key components

Innate immune system Adaptive immune system immune memory and is less pathogen-
specific, but the result is broadly the same:
Pattern-recognition Cytokines are signalling molecules that B-cells produce highly- heightened protection against viruses and
receptors on cell coordinate the innate response. Many targeted antibodies bacteria lasting months or even years.
membranes detect promote inflammation and ones called
pathogens and interferons interfere with virus replication. Killer T-cells (or The same proved to be true of mice.
sound the alarm Others call in strikes from certain types of CD8+ cells) directly Stimulating their innate immune systems
leukocytes, or white blood cells kill infected cells elicits a form of immune protection that
is independent of adaptive memory. That
1 suggested that humans could also have innate
2 immune memory, which also looked to be true.
For example, live vaccines such as measles, oral
3 polio and the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG)
vaccine for tuberculosis conferred broad
Innate leukocytes mount a defence. Natural killer cells Helper T-cells (or protection against other, unrelated pathogens
The principal kinds are: destroy host cells that CD4+ cells) produce via the innate immune system. That suggests
have been invaded by signalling molecules that as well as eliciting an adaptive immune
1 Neutrophils are the first responders, rushing viruses or become to coordinate the memory to protect specifically against, say, TB,
towards alarm signals and unleashing chemical cancerous adaptive response the jabs may also be general immune boosters.
B-cells and T-cells can mature into memory In 2011, Netea pulled together all the evidence,
2 Macrophages are large amoeba-like cells that cells that remember a pathogen and can coined the phrase “trained immunity” and
patrol tissues seeking and swallowing invaders mount a response very quickly if it returns. proposed that it could lead to a whole new
Although they are innate immune cells, branch of medicine.
3 Dendritic cells engulf and dismember pathogens natural killer cells also mature into
and then display the remains on their surfaces to memory-like cells and thus bridge the divide At first, he was ploughing a lonely furrow.
alert the adaptive immune system between the two systems “In the first five years, probably 80 per cent
of the work was coming from our group.
“Eventually, a central We had to convince people that it’s an
dogma of immunology important biological process.”
crumbled. There are
two kinds of immune Game changer
But the evidence kept building. In 2015, Netea
published game-changing results from a
clinical trial in Guinea-Bissau showing that
low-birthweight infants given the BCG vaccine
had stronger innate immune responses to
other pathogens, and much lower mortality
than infants who didn’t have the injection.

Eventually, one of the central dogmas of
immunology – that memory is the preserve
of the adaptive system – crumbled, says
Pulendran. “Work over the last five years would
suggest that there’s a different form of immune
memory, quite different from the immune
memory that is situated in T-cells and B-cells.”

“I would dare to say that it’s now accepted,”
says Netea. In July 2019, he published another
piece laying out his vision for using trained
immunity to develop revolutionary and
life-saving new therapies against hard-to-cure
diseases such as immune disorders, cancer
and infectious diseases caused by viruses.

42 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021

This Seattle lab tests
for the antibodies
the adaptive immune
system produces
against SARS-CoV-2

KAREN DUCEY/GETTY IMAGES of an immune response to win the war. Yet
a significant minority of people – perhaps
And then along came covid-19. During the “Flu vaccination because they have a slightly compromised
early stages of the pandemic, immunologists would have innate immune system to start with – never
were keen to understand what tricks the bought us time to catch up. “Now you’re in trouble because
SARS-CoV-2 virus uses to evade our immune develop covid-19 you’re not controlling the viral loads,” he says.
defences. This is something that all disease- vaccines without “The antibody and T-cell responses may come
causing viruses do to some extent; if they shutting down up, but it may be too late.”
don’t, the immune system makes mincemeat economies”
of them long before they can make us ill. The fact that SARS-CoV-2 gains a toehold
“The virus has evolved to fight and block many immune response to get started,” says Shane by sabotaging the innate immune system
aspects of our defence, and this is true for every Crotty at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology suggests that trained immunity may be worth
virus you’ve ever heard of,” says Benjamin in California. “So if the alarm bells of the innate pursuing as a therapeutic strategy. Similar
tenOever at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount response are delayed, that is likely to result in to how a vaccine primes adaptive immunity,
Sinai in New York. “If it is a virus that causes a delay of the adaptive immune response.” trained immunity could stiffen the innate
disease in humans, it’s because it has evolved immune response.
to block some aspect of our biology.” That is what makes SARS-CoV-2 so
dangerous. With the interferon response This was the opportunity that Netea and
SARS-CoV-2’s trick turned out to be evasion hobbled and the adaptive immune system his colleagues had been waiting for. After the
of the innate immune response, specifically AWOL, the virus can run amok. “It has free first wave of covid-19 in the Netherlands – from
a group of proteins called interferons. These rein,” says tenOever. “That’s what we see in March to June 2020 – they obtained health
are released inside a cell when it senses the the most severe covid patients: the virus records from more than 10,000 hospital
presence of foreign RNA, a reliable sign of replicates and spreads rapidly throughout employees. The records showed whether
viral attack. As the name suggests, interferons the lungs.” Without backup from the adaptive the employees had caught covid-19, and also
interfere with viral replication. They also system, the innate system may go into whether they had been given a flu shot in
activate certain genes of the innate immune overdrive to try to fill the gap, leading to late 2019 or early 2020. A comparison of the
system and alert neighbouring cells to the a potentially deadly cytokine storm. two data sets revealed something significant.
threat. Interferons are thus a critical node in “We saw 39 per cent less covid-19 in the
the innate immune system’s antiviral defences. According to Crotty, the virus isn’t tricksy influenza-vaccinated people,” says Netea.
They are also responsible for making those enough to fool all of the people all of the time. This suggests that the flu vaccine is somewhat
people who get symptoms feel unwell, causing We may lose the early battles, but the vast protective against covid-19, possibly via trained
them to hunker down under the duvet instead majority of us eventually mount enough immunity. Peer-reviewed studies from Italy and
of going out and spreading the virus. the US have found similar effects.

The interferons also help to start a full-scale Netea’s team also took innate immune cells
immune response featuring the shock and awe from people vaccinated and unvaccinated
of antibodies and killer T-cells. “The adaptive against flu and exposed these to SARS-CoV-2 in
immune response depends on the innate an assay they use to detect trained immunity.
Again, cells from flu-vaccinated people
showed clear signs of being more resistant to
the virus. He also now has data sets from the
Netherlands’ second covid-19 wave, which
confirm the initial result and go into more
detail (the details are under review in a journal
and aren’t yet public). Taken together, Netea
says these lines of evidence strongly point
to trained immunity to SARS-CoV-2.

Indeed, Netea says that, knowing what
we know now, it would have been a good
idea to do mass flu immunisation at the start
of the pandemic. “If in March last year, we
vaccinated the population very quickly with
an influenza vaccine, we would have bought
enough time to develop specific vaccines >

3 April 2021 | New Scientist | 43

Mass vaccination
against flu could
have reduced deaths
from covid-19

PATRICK T. FALLON/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES but until recently were more alchemy than
science, based on trial and error. We now
without shutting down our economies.” stronger, in turn spurring a bigger adaptive know that some adjuvants work their magic
Flu vaccines are no substitute for the highly response. In principle, trained immunity by stimulating the innate immune system, so
could also diminish the risk for deadly kick-starting the adaptive system and possibly
effective SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, but even if they cytokine storms. This innate immune laying down some trained immunity.
provide 40 per cent protection, they would overreaction probably arises when the
have allowed us to go about our daily lives adaptive response is slow or doesn’t arrive. Pulendran proposes developing what he
in a “near-normal” way, he says. “The innate immune system tries to fill in calls “epigenetic adjuvants” – therapeutic
that vacuum and continue to control the agents that are specifically designed to train
Netea and his colleagues have also been viral loads on its own,” says Crotty. the innate immune system to be more
looking at whether the BCG jab can give any resistant to viruses. He envisages an inhalable
protection against covid-19, but again, the Pulendran and his team are currently aerosol that could be delivered to the lungs to
results are under wraps for now. examining the immune responses to covid-19 make cells of the respiratory tract more hardy.
vaccines to look for signs of trained immunity. “We know that we can make vaccines in 12
There are other hints that trained immunity They have also been probing what happens months, but I would say that is 12 months too
is already helping to fight covid-19. In Israel inside innate immune cells when they are long. Is there something else that we could be
and other places that have vaccinated large exposed to a threat, to reveal the underlying doing in the intervening time to control the
proportions of society, there is emerging mechanisms the drive trained immunity, with pandemic? That’s where I think these
evidence that people are surprisingly well a specific eye on epigenetic changes. These are epigenetic adjuvants come in.”
protected after a single dose of vaccine, says chemical tags added to DNA to control which
Pulendran. This is despite clinical trial data genes are expressed. “Trained immunity They will take time to develop and test, but
showing that the booster shot is required to works through epigenetically mediated there are things we can already try. Up until
stimulate a full antibody response. “How can it mechanisms,” says Netea. now, adjuvants have barely featured in the
be? We don’t know the answer to this,” he says. design of vaccines against covid-19. That is
Pulendran is now looking at the role of understandable given the urgency and the
High alert epigenetic changes in innate immune cells in bias towards the adaptive response, says
response to the flu jab and also in the context Netea. It is also possible that the newer vaccine
One possibility is trained immunity. So far, of exposure to viruses other than SARS-CoV-2. technologies such as mRNA used by Moderna
covid-19 vaccines have generally been given That work is now under review. and Pfizer/BioNTech, and the chimpanzee
to older people, who are also routinely adenovirus used by Oxford/AstraZeneca,
immunised against flu and shingles, and According to Pulendran, our growing automatically stimulate the innate immune
possibly had a BCG shot many years ago. understanding of trained immunity means response already. But deliberate addition
These earlier vaccines may have trained we can start using it to our advantage. He of adjuvants has to be worth a try, he says.
the innate immune system into its proposes a new take on an old trick in vaccine
heightened state of alert. design: adjuvants. These are compounds To that end, Netea’s group is in the middle
added to boost vaccine effectiveness. of an experiment to see whether using the
Trained immunity may also make the Adjuvants have been used for over a century, BCG jab as an adjuvant can improve the already
initial innate response to the covid-19 vaccine impressive efficacy of the Pfizer/BioNTech
vaccine. Pulendran recently published early
results from a study adding various adjuvants
to an experimental covid-19 vaccine. The
results are “really quite impressive”, he says.

Ultimately, says Netea, the goal is to deploy
all of the immune system, not just half of it.
“By using the power of both the innate and
adaptive immune systems, hopefully we are
going to be prepared for the next time.” ❚

Graham Lawton is a staff

writer at New Scientist.

Follow him @GrahamLawton

44 | New Scientist | 3 April 2021


7 days | 24 September 2021 | 20 May 2022 | 23 September 2022

Learn to dig Mycenaean
archaeology: Greece

An interactive tour of the key Mycenaean sites - Visit Bassae to see the well-preserved and BOOKNIONWG
including a unique ‘behind the ropes’ 3-day architecturally unique UNESCO World Heritage
experience at Mycenae, one of the most site of the Temple of Apollo Epikourios. Sited In partnership with
important archaeological sites in Greece, where on a windswept mountain, this is the place you Travel Editions
you will be taught how to explore, map and can really feel the presence of the gods.
excavate with their archaeologists. Followed by
visits to the hidden gems and famous sites of - Explore the oldest inhabited city in the world,
the ancient Peloponnese. Accompanied by Argos. Along with Thebes, it is considered the
Professor Christofilis Maggidis, President of the most powerful city of ancient Greece. Here,
Mycenaean Foundation, and New Scientist you will find several monuments and a great
editorial staff. museum with finds from 8th century BC to 5th
century AD.
Tour highlights
- A drive to Messene, one of the largest and
- Full-day archaeology experience in the unique best-preserved archaeological sites in Greece.
one-acre dig simulator and working in the Often overlooked by visitors to the
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- A private tour of the famous citadel of - Walking seminars, evening talks and intimate
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Covid-19 safety
- Archaeological walking survey in an area that protocol includes:
has not been formally surveyed yet and is
off-limits to tourists. - Pre-departure screening of all guests
and tour leaders.
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monuments and statues, Ottoman fountains - Increased sanitisation of all accommodation
and Venetian building of Nafplion. and transport.

- Mandatory use of PPE where appropriate.

For more information visit

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