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Published by g-82040737, 2020-12-21 15:48:02

New Scientist International Edition_June_2020

New Scientist International Edition_June_2020

FOCUS ON

CORONAVIRUS

Is it now safe for those at
highest risk to go outside?

South America: The new
centre of the pandemic

Scams, lies and online hate

WEEKLY 13 June 2020

ULTIMATE
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This week’s issue

On the Focus on coronavirus 30 Features
cover 10 Is it now safe for those
at highest risk to go outside? “Nuclear
30 Ultimate power 12 South America: The new fusion is
Nuclear fusion has always centre of the pandemic the most
been decades in the future. 14 Scams, lies and online hate common
Has the future just arrived? source of
20 3D-printed ear 19 GPS ghost energy in
40 Mega dino ships 17 Origin of RNA and DNA the universe”
The biggest beast ever 16 Quantum clouds in space
17 Billion-kilometre-long comet tail
to walk the Earth

Vol 246 No 3286
Cover image: Eric Chow

News News MSFC/NASA Features

16 Quantum clouds 16 Chilly atoms One of the coldest places in the universe is on the ISS 30 Ultimate power
Fifth state of matter created How AI could help achieve
in space for the first time sustainable nuclear fusion

17 Life’s complex code 36 The misbehaving mind
Did RNA and DNA emerge Neuroscientist Mitul Mehta
at the same time? is uncovering the real effects
of psychedelic drugs
19 GPS mystery
Ships around the world 40 Giant dino
seem to be teleporting Identifying the largest animal
and going in circles to ever walk the Earth poses
an enormous problem
Views
The back pages
23 The columnist
James Wong tackles 53 Puzzles
coronavirus diet fads Cryptic crossword and the quiz

24 Letters 54 More puzzles
Different appetite when Do you even know what
chocolate is available day it is anymore?

26 Culture 54 Cartoons
Humankind’s case for Life through the lens of
believing in the best of people Tom Gauld and Twisteddoodles

27 Culture 55 Feedback
Is the digital afterlife in Upload When AI tried to solve
all it is cracked up to be? New Scientist’s cryptic crossword

28 Aperture 56 The last word
Winners of the 2020 Sony Does shaking a kettle
World Photography Awards help it to boil faster?

13 June 2020 | New Scientist | 3

Elsewhere
on New Scientist

Virtual events Virtual event JIMMYJAMESBOND/ISTOCK PHOTO

Climate change in the Covid-19 and the planet Dealing with two crises at once KEVIN WINTER/GETTY IMAGES Essential guide
time of pandemic
Podcast The first in a brand new series,
Climate change may seem like our Essential Guide: The Nature
too big an issue to deal with at Star watcher Queen guitarist Brian May’s career in astrophysics of Reality explores how physics,
the moment, but it is impossible mathematics and consciousness
to ignore. Climatologist Mark Video combine to make the world
Maslin shows us how we can around us, using classic material
rebuild the global economy Healthy gut, happy mind The importance of the microbiome from the New Scientist archive.
after covid-19 and save our
planet from climate change, shop.newscientist.com
all while improving everyone’s
lives, at 6pm BST on 18 June. ROGER HARRIS/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
newscientist.com/events

Podcasts

Weekly

Are covid-19 vaccinations
even possible? Plus, a new
paper by astrophysicist Brian
May – better known as the
lead guitarist of Queen – and
Greta Thunberg’s pop debut.
newscientist.com/podcasts

Newsletter

Health Check

Our free newsletter brings
you a monthly round-up
of all the health and fitness
news you need to know.
newscientist.com/
sign-up/health

Video

Healthy gut, happy mind

The bacteria in your gut are
vital to your physical and mental
health. Megan Rossi shows how
to look after them.
youtube.com/newscientist

Online

Covid-19 daily update

The day’s coronavirus coverage
updated at 6pm BST with
news, features and interviews.
newscientist.com/
coronavirus-latest

4 | New Scientist | 13 June 2020



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The leader

The long road to fusion

Nuclear fusion is the energy of the future – and always will be. Discuss

EVEN Boris Johnson has got in on the project initiated in 1988, won’t actually we report, computational developments,
act. UK scientists were on the verge of be doing fusion until the mid-2030s. not least the application of artificial
creating commercially viable miniature intelligence to the problem of making
nuclear fusion reactors for export, the Harnessing the reaction that powers fusion feasible, could be a game changer.
prime minister told his party faithful the sun is clearly hard. But while fusion’s
last year, announcing a £200 million past invites scepticism, its present gives If the science and the economics can
funding boost, adding: “I know they grounds for renewed optimism. be sorted, that leaves the politics, a
have been on the verge for some time. perennial source of fusion’s woes. That
It is a pretty spacious kind of verge.” The UK government announcement, seems to be changing. Covid-19 has
though welcome, may have had more brought a renewed focus on how we can
Another variant of that gag appears in operate more sustainably in a warming
our survey of recent developments in “Suitably incentivised, world. Among many pressing calls on
the field (see page 30). Nuclear fusion’s human ingenuity has a habit public and private funds, developing
reputation as a technology whose time of overcoming seemingly the biggest source of clean energy we
never quite arrives precedes it, often insuperable hurdles” know of must surely have a great claim.
by decades. And not without reason.
JET-EUROfusion, the UK-based to do with signalling a continued Suitably incentivised, human
collaboration to which the prime commitment to big international science ingenuity has a habit of overcoming
minister was referring, traces its origins post-Brexit. More significant is the seemingly insuperable hurdles. The
to the then European Community’s private money now flowing into fusion. name ITER was chosen in part because it
decision to fast-track fusion research in That is both a symptom and a cause of a is Latin for “the way”. That ways to fusion
1971. ITER, the grand international fusion blossoming of fusion projects besides exist isn’t in dispute – the question is
the established players. Meanwhile, as whether we can finally find the will. ❚

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CORONAVIRUS CRISIS APPEAL

LILI-MARIE WANGARI Maintaining physical distance in Kibera is almost We are using nearly 50 years of experience
IS MSF’S EMERGENCY impossible, as it is in many slum settlements around fighting epidemics to protect the most vulnerable
COORDINATOR the world. People live in tiny, overcrowded homes and save lives.
IN KENYA with few windows or other ventilation. These
conditions make it easy for a disease like COVID-19 WE'RE SENDING MEDICAL TEAMS
An MSF infection prevention and control supervisor measures disinfectant to to spread, and very difficult for people to stay inside Our emergency medical teams are working alongside
be used in cleaning an isolation area for COVID-19 patients in Likoni, Kenya. for long periods. local healthcare staff on the frontlines of the fight
Photograph © Yann Libessart/MSF against COVID-19 in Europe, Africa, the Middle East
Access to clean water is extremely limited, with and Asia. From war-torn Syria to refugee camps in
Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without only 200 water points for the 200,000 people Bangladesh and care homes in Europe, we’re doing all
Borders (MSF) is providing urgent medical care who live in the settlement, making regular we can to fight the pandemic.
and support in more than 70 countries to counter hand-washing almost impossible.
the COVID-19 pandemic. In Nairobi, the Kenyan WE'RE PROTECTING HEALTHCARE STAFF
capital, MSF teams are working in Kibera, one of My greatest concern is that a large proportion of We're setting up life-saving infection control measures
the largest slum settlements in Africa. people here have underlying health conditions, to protect patients and staff.
“Because we know Kibera, we know how catastrophic such as HIV and TB, and diseases, like hypertension
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We’ve worked here for more than 25 years, through of developing severe COVID-19. Our logistics teams are delivering protective clothing
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News Coronavirus

Live samples from people
being tested for coronavirus
in Glasgow, UK

ANDREW MILLIGAN/POOL/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES people are being tested and to
what extent double counting
Testing confusion and unprocessed tests contribute
to the totals, it is difficult for
A lack of clear testing data means researchers are struggling to independent experts to say
monitor the UK’s coronavirus outbreak, reports Adam Vaughan whether enough testing is taking
place to understand and control
THE UK government hadn’t not processed. David Norgrove, the you got it” nose-and-throat the UK outbreak. “If we want
reported the number of people chair of official statistics watchdog swab tests for people outside of to know the infection fatality
outside of hospitals and care the UK Statistics Authority, has hospitals, known as pillar 2. Those rate, we can only guess at the
homes being tested for covid-19 twice written to health minister include ones posted to people at moment,” says Jason Oke at
for more than two weeks when Matt Hancock to complain about home, although these may not the University of Oxford.
New Scientist went to press. figures he says are “far from ever be taken or processed. There
complete and comprehensible” has also been a degree of double In addition, he says, for
On 23 May, the government and “well short” of expectations. counting – for example, separate monitoring how the country
cited difficulties with data swabs of a person’s nose and comes out of lockdown, “what we
collection, but the suspension Officially, more than 5.7 million throat may be counted as two tests. really need to do is have a system
in reporting was later put down tests have been conducted in the where we can monitor potential
to the fact that it had been double UK so far, with 142,123 tests on The remaining 35,636 tests on spikes in positive cases. We can
counting some people who had 6 June. But those simple totals 6 June were swab tests to confirm only do that if we have clear data
had more than one test. Asked mask a complex series of different infection among hospital patients on who’s getting tested and how
when the publishing hiatus tests. A sizeable chunk of that daily and staff, called pillar 1. many people are getting tested,
would end, the Department of count, 26,802, are antibody tests not just total numbers of tests.”
Health and Social Care (DHSC) carried out under testing strategy When tests are combined
didn’t say and referred New pillars 3 and 4. Pillar 3 tests are and counted up in this way, the UK “The current reporting standard
Scientist to its website. used to see if someone has government has been able to say is far short of what is required,”
previously had the coronavirus it has met its targets – the most says Sheila Bird at the University
The quality and transparency and pillar 4 ones for research on its recent of these was 200,000 daily of Cambridge. There is no
of official statistics on coronavirus spread. Such tests are of no benefit tests by the end of May. But breakdown of which pillar 1 tests
testing in the UK have been called for detecting or tracing new cases, without knowing how many were for patients and which for
into question over the past two or advising someone on whether healthcare professionals, she says,
months. A target of 100,000 tests they should self-isolate. 5.7 million meaning there is no way of seeing,
a day by the end of April was only for instance, whether improved
met by including in the count The majority of the tests on tests have been counted in the UK availability of personal protective
ones that had been posted but 6 June – 79,685 in all – were “have so far – including untaken ones equipment has helped reduce the
rate of health workers testing
positive over time. For pillar 1
tests, we know when they were
processed, but not when they were
swabbed, she adds.

Other unknowns include the
total number of people tested so
far, the number of people who have
been tested more than once and
the number of people who have
returned postal tests. John Newton
at Public Health England told
MPs that more than half of posted
tests are returned – but the figure
had still not been made public
by 9 June despite him promising
it over a fortnight before.

The DHSC says that it is
considering Norgrove’s latest
letter and will respond in due
course. A spokesperson says
that the testing statistics “are
presented in the best and most
transparent way possible”. ❚

13 June 2020 | New Scientist | 9

News Coronavirus

Shielding

Is it safe for everyone to go outside?

UK doctors are unsure what advice to give to those most vulnerable to covid-19

Clare Wilson

THE easing of lockdown PHIL LEWIS/SOPA IMAGES/SIPA USA/PA IMAGES providing they maintain social
restrictions in the UK has distancing while out.
prompted growing concern from High-risk UK households mistake. “The messaging has been
those taking extra precautions have remained at home disastrous,” says George Davey What was the basis for the
because they are particularly for 10 weeks or more Smith, a clinical epidemiologist change? The UK government
vulnerable to the coronavirus. at the University of Bristol. initially said on 31 May that it
On 31 May, the UK government pregnant or who have any of a was because “covid-19 disease
announced that so-called long list of health conditions. As more information on the levels are substantially lower
shielders in England and Wales coronavirus emerges, it may now than when shielding was
could now leave their homes. There has been some confusion be that the risk classifications first introduced”.
But what is the evidence behind between the two groups, leaving need refining. We may have
the idea of shielding vulnerable some people officially classed as underestimated the risk that But that was wrong. While
people, and is it really safe for at only moderate risk believing comes from being elderly, infections are falling, the UK is still
this to now stop? they shouldn’t ever go outside. says Mark Woolhouse, an seeing about 1500 new confirmed
epidemiologist at the University cases a day, compared with about
Many countries have told those Such confusion can have of Edinburgh. 1000 a day in March, when the first
thought to be at higher risk from serious effects on well-being. letters were sent to shielders. The
coronavirus due to illness or age Socialising and getting out are According to a report published total number of new cases a day is
to take extra safety precautions. some of the first things that last week by Public Health likely to have been higher in both
But because this virus is so new, doctors recommend for people England, people over 80 who are March and May, as not everyone
advice has largely been based on with mental health conditions hospitalised with coronavirus gets tested.
people’s best judgements, rather such as depression, says Stephen are 70 times more likely to die
than scientific evidence, and the Bradley, a family doctor in Leeds, than those hospitalised who are By 3 June, the explanation
details of the advice has varied who wrote an article in the BMJ under the age of 40. on the government website had
between countries. calling for the UK government to changed, saying the move was
be clearer on shielding. “These are “Nothing has an effect because “covid-19 levels have
The UK has been unusual quite drastic measures to take – it anywhere near as strong as age,” decreased over the last few weeks”.
in distinguishing between two can have a big effect on people to says Woolhouse. “Probably the
groups of people at higher risk. In be told not to leave the house.” right metric is going to be Unfair and impractical
March, letters were sent to about something like frailty – age
2 million people thought to be The UK health minister Matt modified by your general state Shielders in Scotland have
“clinically extremely vulnerable”, Hancock has himself confused of health.” been told to continue staying at
including some people with moderate and high-risk groups home until 18 June, even though
cancer, lung conditions such as within a tweet that rebuked a After 10 weeks, shielders in only a handful of new cases are
severe asthma, and those who had newspaper for making the same England and Wales have been being reported there each day.
had an organ transplant or have told they can leave their homes, Shielders in Northern Ireland,
weak immune systems. Recipients meanwhile, were told they could
were told they should stay home at go out this week.

“We have not eliminated The relaxation of shielding
this virus or suppressed advice in England took doctors
it to what I would say is by surprise. NHS England’s head
a safe level” of primary care, Nikita Kanani,
tweeted on 31 May that she would
all times. If they had no friends or share more information with
family who could fetch essentials, doctors “as soon as I know more”.
they could get food parcels sent.
Doctors remain unsure what to
There has also been advice that tell high-risk people who ask their
a larger group of people at more advice on whether it is safe to go
moderate risk, described as out. “It’s quite difficult to support
“clinically vulnerable”, should try people when they ask you for
to stay at home if possible, but can information if you have just read
still go out when necessary. This about it in the newspaper,” says
group encompassed everyone Bradley. “I worry that policy is
over 70, plus those who are being motivated by the need to
come up with good news rather
than evidence and consultation.”

10 | New Scientist | 13 June 2020

Ending lockdown

Social ‘bubbles’ unlikely
to be allowed in UK soon

Adam Vaughan

“We have not eliminated this SOCIALISING indoors with more a UK decision on social bubbles. a more targeted approach would
virus or suppressed it to what I than one household during the “Assessment of the avoid that. Flasche says those
would say is a safe level,” says covid-19 crisis remains too living alone and those with young
Stephen Griffin, a virologist at risky, according to discussions introduction of bubbles is not children should be allowed
the University of Leeds. by the UK government’s straightforward and potential to form bubbles first.
scientific advisers. unforeseen risks accompany the
One question that some potential benefits,” the document New Zealand is the best known
are asking is why shielders The UK government has said says. Those risks include the pioneer of social bubbles for
can’t stay at home so that it is mulling allowing people bubbles rebuilding networks dealing with the coronavirus.
restrictions for those at a lower to meet in bubbles of up to 10. and enabling “transmission Nicholas Long at the London
risk from the coronavirus can All those in such groups must through the population”. School of Economics and his
be relaxed further. socialise only with members of colleagues studied the New
the bubble, to limit viral spread. One key factor is the virus Zealand experience, surveying
“That’s incredibly unfair,” says reproduction number, R, which thousands of people. They found
Griffin. “You can’t lock 2 million The government’s Scientific measures the average number
people away indefinitely, it’s just Advisory Group on Emergencies of other people each person with 0.8
not reasonable.” (SAGE) has been tasked with coronavirus infects.
seeing if people could be Approximate R number for
It is impractical, too, as many permitted to mix indoors with one “We are in a delicate situation coronavirus in the UK
people who are shielding need other household, to give isolated at the moment where our
regular medical appointments. people more social contact and reproduction number is likely that people were good at
It would also affect not just those to help parents and carers with in the range of 0.7 to 0.9 in the maintaining their bubbles and
who need to shield but their childcare. However, at a meeting UK. And if we would allow all that bubbles brought benefits.
family members and carers, on 14 May, members of SAGE households in the UK to form a
says Griffin, whose household firmly cautioned against bubble with another household, Part of the success in New
is maintaining isolation because introducing bubbles until a strong then there may be considerable Zealand was due to bubbles
one member is at high risk. test-and-trace programme is in risk that would push R above being central to the lockdown:
place, New Scientist has learned. 1,” says Stefan Flasche at the these were initially limited to
Rather than simply switching London School of Hygiene & a single household before alert
between it being safe or not safe Minutes of an earlier SAGE Tropical Medicine, whose team’s levels were reduced and they
for shielders to leave their homes, meeting, released last month, modelling found widespread were allowed to expand, says
some intermediate options are revealed that not enough bubbles in the UK would be too Long. The other striking thing,
being explored in other countries. research has been done to inform dangerous now. A reproduction he says, is that government
Dublin in Ireland has created number above 1 would see the messaging framed expansion
2-hour time slots when parks are Socialising with other number of new cases reported as being about need rather
only open to vulnerable people – households in the UK daily begin to grow again. than want. “It’s not this ‘hugs for
who are called “cocooners”. is only allowed outside grandkids’ discourse promoted in
The team’s work suggests that the media in the UK, but thinking,
Woolhouse says carers and who do you know who needs to
family members of those at high CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/GETTY IMAGES be in a bubble with someone
risk should be allowed to take else – someone who is isolated,
frequent coronavirus tests even someone who is suicidal.”
when symptomless, to avoid
passing it on. Davey Smith has Long believes bubbles should
called for people to be told current translate to countries such as the
local infection levels so they can UK, but the critical question is
stay home when risks are higher. when to permit them, as New
Zealand only allowed bubbles
Ultimately, the safest option to expand when there had been
for shielders would be to further several days with no new cases.
bring down the level of infection.
“The best possible policy you The UK had around 2000 new
can have, whatever your other cases per day early in June. At
risk mitigation strategies, is to midnight on 8 June, almost all
suppress the number of cases coronavirus restrictions in New
in your population,” says Griffin. Zealand were lifted, and the
“[This is] not a problem that will country declared virus free. ❚
go away. While we have circulating
virus, the risks are still there.” ❚

13 June 2020 | New Scientist | 11

News Coronavirus

South America

The pandemic’s new centre

Coronavirus cases are rising sharply in South America, made worse
by inequality, reports Luke Taylor from Bogotá, Colombia

CONFIRMED cases of covid-19 BRUNO KELLY/REUTERS/PA IMAGES
have surged in South America in
recent weeks. As daily infections “Deaths from covid-19 disregarding social distancing Amazonas had registered nearly
surpassed those in Europe in Brazil are expected to measures to limit the spread of 19.4 coronavirus deaths per
and the US, the World Health reach 125,000 by the the virus – Bolsonaro has also 100,000 residents, compared with
Organization declared the region first week of August” angered science communities 4.4 per 100,000 residents for all
the pandemic’s “new epicentre” for recommending unproven of Brazil, according to Reuters.
on 22 May. occurred in the previous 24 hours. drug treatments, such as the
The same day, the Brazilian antimalarial drug chloroquine. But much of the focus has been
More than a million cases of government stopped publishing on large cities, such as Manaus, the
coronavirus and 60,000 deaths its cumulative number of The virus has taken a firm hold state capital of Amazonas. A severe
had been registered as of 7 June coronavirus cases and deaths, and in cities such as São Paulo , where lack of testing may mean that the
in Latin America, which includes an official website has had data football stadiums have been full extent of the outbreak in the
countries in Central and South removed. The move has prompted converted into emergency Amazon isn’t fully captured by
America and Mexico. Many are accusations of censorship. hospitals to treat the crush of statistics. Many mid-sized and
struggling with poor healthcare covid-19 patients. The city had small towns are “lacking in
systems and vast economic As for Brazil’s position as the reported 143,073 cases of covid-19 support and critical care”, says
inequalities. country with the second-highest and 9145 deaths by 7 June. Lotufo. “For many, it takes 2 to
number of confirmed cases – 3 hours to get to a larger town with
While countries across Europe behind only the US – there is only The disease is also hitting a good hospital with critical care.”
are slowly lifting lockdown one reason for this, according to regions of the country inhabited
restrictions and reopening Paulo Lotufo at the University of by indigenous communities, Informal economies
borders, coronavirus cases are São Paulo: the country’s president. such as the Amazon, where mass
still surging in South America “[Jair] Bolsonaro is responsible for graves have rapidly been dug. Covid-19 deaths in Brazil are
despite lockdowns across most everything,” he says. Such areas tend to have less access expected to reach 125,000 by
of the region. to hospital critical care units, and 4 August, according to estimates
Criticised for dismissing the indigenous populations have a from the University of Washington.
“Just in the past week, there virus as a “little flu” and attending higher rate of poverty and less Lotufo says he won’t predict when
were 732,000 new cases globally, mass political rallies where he access to clean water. the epidemic will peak, but that
and of these, more than 250,000 shook hands and held babies –
new cases were in Latin American In early May, the state of
countries, a serious concern that
should serve as a clarion call to
redouble our efforts,” said Carissa
Etienne, the director of the Pan
American Health Organization
(PAHO), at a press briefing on
2 June. The worst is still yet to
come, say epidemiologists and
public health experts.

Key battlefield

If South America is the new
centre of the virus, Brazil is its key
battlefield. The country’s patient
zero, a man returning to São Paulo
from Italy, tested positive on
25 February. By 7 June, Brazil
accounted for 672,846 of the
region’s reported 1,119,575 cases
of covid-19, and nearly 74 per cent
of the region’s deaths.

On 6 June, Brazil’s Health
Ministry confirmed another
904 covid-19-related deaths had

12 | New Scientist | 13 June 2020

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A demonstrator’s placard highest inequality in the world, Confirmed covid-19 cases per million people simultaneously dealing with An emergency area at
reads “30,000 deaths, which exacerbates the region’s key ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGESmalaria, measles, dengue fever Alberto Sabogal Hospital
‘so what?’” at a pro- challenge: getting the poorest and and many other diseases,” said in Lima, Peru
democracy protest in most vulnerable to stay at home Etienne on 2 June.
Manaus, Brazil, on 2 June to prevent the spread of infection. Like Peru, Colombia acted
Enforcing lockdowns has been Few hospital beds quickly on the advice of public
the general consensus is that it made more difficult as the coffers health specialists, but keeping
still has a long way to run. “The of many countries have been Many countries in the region people inside when they have
pandemic will last a lot more hit by a decline in oil revenues. have vastly underfunded health no financial safety net has been a
time, a month or more,” he says. systems, such as Peru, which has challenge. Colombia had reported
In the absence of strong less than 1000 intensive care unit 39,236 cases and 1259 deaths by
But cases are also rising in leadership, civil society is taking beds for its 32 million inhabitants. 8 June, and the trend for both is
countries that have implemented up some of the slack in Brazil, A lack of ICU beds and ventilators still upwards, despite long and
stricter measures. The highest Peru and elsewhere, with medical is common across the region. strict lockdown measures.
infection rate in South America volunteers testing for the virus in
is in Chile, which saw 7018 cases favelas and people donating food, The healthcare situation may At this point, it may not be
per million people on 8 June, but it cannot match the scale of be worst in Venezuela, where useful to make comparisons
followed closely by Peru at the problem. 64.2 per cent of hospital workers between South American
5960 per million – around double reported intermittent access to countries and others around the
that of Brazil’s rate and more than “Food donations in favelas are a clean water between 27 February world when it comes to indicators
anywhere in Europe. patch, but public policy is needed,” and 1 March, according to Human such as testing rates, says Diego
says Ana Maria Malik at the Rights Watch. Rosselli at Javeriana University
Peru is of particular concern, University of São Paulo. Poverty is in Bogotá, Colombia. “People are
say epidemiologists. Its president, one of the many issues identified “It’s a second tsunami when the comparing the likes of Colombia
Martín Vizcarra, announced a by PAHO as making the pandemic first one hasn’t finished,” says with Germany and Japan when
national emergency requiring particularly catastrophic across Feliciano Reyna, founder of Acción we are still two months behind
strict social isolation on 15 March, South America. Solidaria, an NGO coordinating them,” he says.
making it one of the first countries humanitarian relief efforts in
in the region to do so. The “There are far more people Venezuela. More than 9 million But it is clear that governments
measures spared Peru the who cannot access appropriate, people in Venezuela are in a must double down on social
criticism received by Brazil for a quality healthcare than those situation of food insecurity, he distancing measures, says Rosselli.
lack of response, but it hasn’t been who can… and we are a region says. In recent years, more than “The health system has little to
enough to stop the contagion. of underfunded, weak public 5 million have fled the country’s offer,” he says. “Hospitals and
health systems grappling with economic collapse. intensive care units are for a small
Social isolation rules are in far more than covid-19. We are minority, firstly, and they are not
place in Peru until the end of very effective at dealing with the
June, making it one of the longest Rolling seven-day averages of confirmed covid-19 cases per million people disease. The problem has to be
lockdowns in the world, but as solved by distancing and a lot
73 per cent of people work in the 100 Chile of educational measures.” ❚
informal economy, selling goods 10 Peru
Brazil
672,846
US
reported cases of covid-19 in UK
Brazil by 7 June
1 South Korea
in the streets or cleaning houses,
for example, people continue to go 0.1 Australia
out in order to be able to put food 0.01
on the table. New Zealand

“The secret [to managing the China
epidemic] is isolation and contact
tracing,” says David Heymann at 0 20 40 60 80 100 120 140
the London School of Hygiene &
Tropical Medicine in the UK. Days since the total confirmed cases per million people reached 1

But South America has the SOURCE: OUR WORLD IN DATA, EUROPEAN CDC – SITUATION UPDATE WORLDWIDE - DATA
LAST UPDATED 8 JUN, 13:08 (GMT+01:00), EUROPEAN CDC – SITUATION UPDATE WORLDWIDE, CC BY

13 June 2020 | New Scientist | 13

News Coronavirus

Technology

Scams, lies and online hate

The coronavirus pandemic has infected the internet with misinformation

Donna Lu

AS GOVERNMENTS battle to Asian Americans STEVEN SENNE/AP/SHUTTERSTOCK
contain the transmission of protesting in Boston,
covid-19, they have also struggled Massachusetts, in March hateful messages. This suggests It has also received more than
to stymie the spread of related that social media platforms 11,200 reports of coronavirus-
online misinformation and vitriol. between 21 March and 5 April, should take measures to reduce related phishing emails, which
and found that 51 per cent of users’ exposure to hateful content, seek to steal an unwitting user’s
The pandemic has resulted respondents had seen coronavirus says Kumar. “This is not just about personal information.
in the rapid propagation of misinformation in the past month. online hate speech,” he says. “It is
conspiracy theories that pose also about how people get affected The UK National Cyber Security
a risk to public health, a surge in Among the group who reported in the real world.” Centre has noted a rise in scam
online anti-Asian hate speech and they hadn’t seen any fake news websites selling fake testing
a proliferation of covid-19 scams. about covid-19, the researchers Scams on the rise kits, face masks and vaccines.
found that 41 per cent never It launched a reporting service
Much of the misinformation fact-check news stories before The coronavirus pandemic has for suspicious emails on 21 April,
shared online about coronavirus sharing them. “These individuals also led to an uptick in scams. receiving more than 600,000
is being disseminated by sites that are less information aware and In April, UK communications in just over five weeks.
have peddled conspiracy theories may be seeing disinformation regulator Ofcom warned of calls
about other topics, such as vaccines without realising it,” says Daunt. and texts from scammers posing Cybercriminals are taking
and the 9/11 attacks, says John as the government, public health advantage of people’s health
Gregory at NewsGuard, a firm It isn’t just fake news that is agencies and even Ofcom itself. fears, says Jake Moore at internet
that rates the trustworthiness being spread online. Srijan Kumar security firm ESET. “In that panic,
of news and information sites. The at the Georgia Institute of Text messages often mimic [people] are giving away far too
firm first noticed a rise in covid-19 Technology in Atlanta and his official wording, such as seeking much information that they
colleagues looked at the growth in money through fake fines for normally would probably think
51% anti-Asian hate speech on Twitter, allegedly breaching lockdown twice about,” he says.
analysing nearly 31 million tweets rules. Callers have posed as
of people in the UK say they have related to covid-19. health workers or contact tracers, Moore says that coronavirus-
seen coronavirus misinformation offering tests and treatments. related scams have followed
They defined anti-Asian hate trends in the news. A current
misinformation in the last week speech as any tweet that was As of 29 May, nearly £4.7 million concern relates to those around
of January, as the virus began to abusive or derogatory towards had been lost in coronavirus the UK’s contact-tracing app, in
be widely covered in news reports. an individual or groups of Asian scams nationally, and more than which people receive fake texts
people, or that blamed them 2000 people defrauded, according or emails from addresses only
“The majority of the sites for the creation, spread or to ActionFraud, the UK’s reporting slightly different to official ones.
we’ve identified for sharing misrepresentation of covid-19. centre for fraud and cybercrime. “Attackers are jumping on this
misinformation about the and having a field day,” he says. ❚
coronavirus and the pandemic The team identified roughly
are sites we had already rated 3 per cent – or 891,000 tweets – as
as unreliable,” says Gregory. hateful, and 10 per cent of these
were posted by bots. It also found
In Europe, the firm identified that around 200,000 tweets were
36 Facebook pages it deemed counter-hateful, meaning they
“super-spreaders” of coronavirus actively criticised racism and
misinformation, which together hate speech, or supported or
had a following of more than defended Asian people.
13 million users. “The volume is
unprecedented,” says Gregory. Hate speech, like the virus,
seems to be contagious. Even
Some sites are using covid-19 taking into account the fact that
as a new way to spread stories, says people tend to follow others with
Gregory. For example, conspiracy similar views, users who saw
sites that had falsely claimed that anti-Asian hate speech tweeted
5G signals cause cancer have since by someone they followed were
pivoted to baselessly linking 5G to five times more likely to then
the pandemic. tweet hateful content themselves.

In the UK, Kate Daunt at Cardiff Conversely, the researchers
University and her colleagues found that counter-hateful tweets
surveyed more than 700 people discouraged others from tweeting

14 | New Scientist | 13 June 2020



News

Physics

Quantum clouds in orbit

A chilly experiment on the International Space Station is probing the nature of matter

Jonathan O’Callaghan

AN EXOTIC fifth type of matter has NASA/JSC “But in the future, it will enable
been created in one of the coldest a wide spectrum of science.”
places in the universe – a device Astronaut Christina Koch multiple seconds, allowing them
on board the International Space installing the Cold Atom to be studied in more detail. The initial results show that
Station (ISS). Laboratory on the ISS BECs behave differently in orbit.
Robert Thompson at NASA’s Jet The team found that about half
The Cold Atom Laboratory Lachmann at Leibniz University Propulsion Laboratory and his of the atoms form into a halo-like
(CAL) was launched to the ISS Hannover in Germany. colleagues have been operating cloud around the main body of the
in 2018 to investigate a strange the CAL remotely and have BEC. On the ground, these atoms
kind of matter, known as a BECs have been produced in a published their first results. While would simply fall due to gravity,
Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). variety of experiments on Earth mostly just a demonstration that but in microgravity on the ISS, the
This suitcase-sized device chills since 1995, but these are hindered the machine works, there are cloud remains suspended (Nature,
atoms of rubidium and potassium by gravity, which collapses the some tantalising glimpses of DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2346-1).
in a vacuum chamber, using laser clouds in a split second. The what might be possible one day.
light to slow their movement. microgravity environment of In the near future, the
Magnetic fields then contain the the ISS keeps them stable for “It’s more of a technological researchers hope to use the
resulting cloud of atoms, which achievement,” says Thompson. experiment to watch atoms
is cooled to nearly absolute zero collide on a quantum level.
at -273°C, producing a BEC. They also want to probe ripples
in space-time called gravitational
This chilly substance was waves by monitoring disturbances
initially theorised by Albert in the movement of the atoms.
Einstein and Satyendra Nath
Bose in the early 1920s as the fifth Looking further ahead, the
state of matter, following solids, experiment could also tackle
liquids, gases and plasma. It is a ideas like Einstein’s equivalence
supercooled gas that no longer principle, which says that all
behaves as individual atoms and masses in a given gravitational
particles, but rather an entity in field accelerate in the same way.
a single quantum state. Tests in microgravity could reveal
whether there are any violations
“This is pretty remarkable of the principle. “It’s usually
because this gives you a unwise to bet against Einstein,”
macroscopic-sized quantum says Thompson. “But it’s always
mechanical object,” says Maike important to test these things.”  ❚

Robotics

Four-legged at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. surface: the smoother the concrete, information to train a machine
robot gets job as learning algorithm for ANYmal,
a sewer inspector Kolvenbach and his colleagues the better condition it is in. which was able to distinguish
between the three conditions
A ROBOT that inspects concrete have developed a four-legged robot The team tested ANYmal in with over 92 per cent accuracy
by scratching it can walk through (Journal of Field Robotics,
underground sewerage tunnels and called ANYmal that can do the job sewerage tunnels in Zurich, and first doi.org/dxqb).
detect when they need repairing.
instead. Each of its limbs has three tasked it with inspecting an area The robot has since been
Because many modern sewerage used to inspect a 300-metre-long
systems were built decades ago, joints for manoeuvrability, allowing where the concrete conditions had section that hasn’t been checked
they need monitoring to prevent by humans, mapping the concrete
major leaks. Currently, human it to wade through water and climb already been checked by humans. floor every 2 to 3 metres.
inspectors do the job manually.
over obstacles. The robot took 625 samples In the future, the team plans
“It’s damp, it’s slippery, it’s to test ANYmal on other tasks
dangerous, you have all sorts of The robot is equipped with of concrete conditions in areas in different environments, such
rats,” says Hendrik Kolvenbach as underground mines.  ❚
lidar, which uses lasers to map where it had been classified by Donna Lu

3D spaces, and a stereo camera humans as either good, satisfactory

to help it position itself. It also has or fair. The team then used this

sensors built into its feet.

When the robot scratches a foot “The robot was able to

against the concrete, it measures assess the condition of

the vibrations generated, giving an the concrete with over

indication of the roughness of the 92 per cent accuracy”

16 | New Scientist | 13 June 2020

Solar system Origin of life

Comet’s tail Earliest life may have
measured at a billion contained DNA and RNA
kilometres long
Michael Marshall
Jonathan O’Callaghan
KEY building blocks of DNA and colleagues have found a way to suspects that the original
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft detected RNA can be made from the same
a record-breaking comet 18 years raw materials. This finding make two of the four building genetic molecule wasn’t pure
ago. The comet’s tail was so long suggests that instead of one or
that it stretched for more than seven the other kick-starting life on blocks of DNA from simple RNA or DNA, but instead a
times the distance between Earth Earth, both chemicals were
and the sun. involved in the first organisms. carbon-based chemicals that half-and-half molecule that

Geraint Jones at University DNA and RNA are central to were probably abundant included both kinds of building
College London and his colleagues life. They are the molecules that
looked through data from the carry genes, which are passed before life evolved on Earth, block jumbled up.
mission collected in 2002, when from parent to offspring and
Cassini was on its way from Jupiter underpin heredity. Most such as cyanoacetylene (Nature, The building blocks of RNA
to Saturn. The spacecraft used its organisms have genes made of
plasma instrument from 2001 to DNA and some viruses use RNA. doi.org/dxqk). and DNA are called nucleotides.
2003 to study charged particles
from the sun called the solar wind. Many researchers The synthesis was powered RNA and DNA both use a set
investigating how life began
Jones and his team found a suspect that RNA came first – by everyday occurrences: of four nucleotides. Each
notable increase in protons detected an idea called the “RNA World”.
by the spacecraft in March 2002. Later, when life had become the chemicals were variously RNA nucleotide has a DNA
The culprit appears to have been more complex, it would have
hydrogen ions pushed off a comet developed the ability to make mixed with water, exposed equivalent, which is only
called 153P/Ikeya-Zhang by the DNA – and DNA would then
solar wind. “It matches up really have largely replaced RNA as to ultraviolet radiation and subtly different.
well,” says Jones. the carrier of genes.
dried out.
Comets have a dust tail, which However, a new experiment
comprises dust and gas left in its supports a different scenario: The method uses many “RNA and DNA are
wake, and an ion tail, caused by that DNA and RNA coexisted
the solar wind pushing ions behind from the start. of the same chemicals that molecular siblings as
the comet. Based on the number of
protons detected and the position John Sutherland at the MRC Sutherland’s team used in opposed to one being
of the comet, Jones and his team Laboratory of Molecular Biology
believe that Cassini detected in Cambridge, UK, and his 2009 to make two of RNA’s four the parent of the other”
comet 153P’s ion tail.
Life might have used building blocks. “When you look
At the time of the measurement, DNA (pictured) and
the comet was 6.5 astronomical RNA from the start at RNA and DNA, everybody Strikingly, Sutherland’s latest
units (AU) away from Cassini – 1 AU
is the distance between Earth and can see they’re related,” says experiment produced the DNA
the sun. As the comet follows a
curved orbit around the sun, the Sutherland. “This work really equivalents of the two RNA
researchers estimate the tail to
be at least 7.5 AU, or more than a suggests that they’re molecular nucleotides that his 2009
billion kilometres long (arxiv.org/
abs/2006.00500). siblings, as opposed to one synthesis couldn’t produce –

The previous record tail length being the parent of the other.” albeit with two minor chemical
was comet Hyakutake’s ion tail,
measured at 3.8 AU in 1996. “The chemistry is really mistakes. By combining the

Such measurements are impressive,” says Kamila RNA nucleotides they had
only possible when a spacecraft
just happens to cross a comet’s Muchowska at the University already made with the new DNA
path, which has only occurred a
handful of times. These chance of Strasbourg in France. components, the researchers
measurements mean it is likely
that comet tails can stretch much Other researchers have also obtained a full set of four. A
longer than 7.5 AU, says Jones.  ❚
found evidence that DNA could hybrid molecule based on that

have formed early. The question set could have preceded pure

is how the RNA and DNA RNA or DNA, says Sutherland.

building blocks worked together Thomas Carell at the Ludwig

in the first life. Sutherland Maximilian University of

Munich in Germany isn’t

convinced that RNA and DNA

coexisted from the start. His

team has previously found

a way to make the two RNA

nucleotides that Sutherland’s

team couldn’t – although they

also had one of the mistakes

found in Sutherland’s DNA

nucleotides. He suspects that

RNA really did come first and life

later found a way to make DNA.

“Is it harder for a pure RNA

DOTTED ZEBRA/ALAMY to learn to make DNA, or is it

harder in John’s DNA-RNA World

to get a synthesis for the four

missing [building blocks]?”

asks Carell. “I don’t know.” ❚

13 June 2020 | New Scientist | 17

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News

Technology

GPS mystery makes ships appear
to teleport and move in circles

David Hambling

SHIPS around the world are locations in an attempt to protect reported a position 32 kilometres hardware. “In these new cases,
reporting false locations, seeming oil platforms from drones – Saudi inland at Gelendzhik Airport only one vessel was impacted,
to circle Point Reyes near San oil facilities were devastated by in Russia, which could indicate so the device was likely low power,
Francisco when they are actually drone attack last year – but that Russian military spoofing was and short range.”
thousands of kilometres away. wouldn’t explain all of the at work.
incidents. “We have a number of Goward says this indicates that
Under international law, ships ideas, but nobody knows exactly Dana Goward at the Resilient the devices being used are small,
are required to broadcast their what is going on,” says Bergman. Navigation and Timing and possibly on board the affected
identity and GPS location using an Foundation in Virginia says vessels. “I suspect that government
Automatic Identification System GPS can be fooled by spoofing, that the latest cases are different spoofing equipment has recently
(AIS). But Bjorn Bergman of the where a transmitter imitating because they don’t affect all transitioned to the consumer
environmental watchdogs a GPS satellite sends false data. vessels in an area. “It is pretty clear market and that is why we are
SkyTruth and Global Fishing In 2017, 20 ships in the Black Sea that the previous incidents were seeing these events,” he says.
Watch has discovered strange sponsored by governments
anomalies in the data from 2018 Odd circular paths at Point or large government-backed Todd Humphreys at the
and 2019 – for example, a satellite Reyes, San Francisco, are a organisations,” he says, because University of Texas at Austin has
over West Africa picking up a ship sign that ship locations are they could only have been carried long been warning of the danger
supposedly off California. being spoofed on GPS out using big, military-type of GPS spoofing and in 2013
showed how a superyacht could
Vessels affected included a SKYTRUTH/GLOBAL FISHING WATCH/ORBCOMM/SPIRE 15km be lured off course. He agrees
livestock carrier near Libya, a cargo that the latest incidents show
ship in the Suez Canal, a small boat an evolution of technology.
off Chile and a Norwegian tug.
“I think what we’re witnessing
Most incidents lasted just a here is the emergence of
few hours, but a boat carrying oil commoditised spoofing: someone
workers to installations off the has begun selling a low-cost
coast of Nigeria spent two weeks spoofing device for use on ships.”
apparently circling Point Reyes,
then veered off inland to Utah, Such devices are a real
occasionally jumping back to escalation. A spoofer gives a
a Nigerian oil terminal. Most false position, and could allow a
vessels appeared to circle off fishing vessel to stealthily enter
California, but others were prohibited waters or falsify the
displaced to Madrid or Hong Kong. route taken by smugglers.
This previously required
One theory is that ships are sophisticated technical know-how,
deliberately reporting false says Humphreys. ❚

Neuroscience

Electric current helps about 12 times a second in part that this current travels via nerves of time with no regular frequency
treat people with (Current Biology, doi.org/dxqr).
Tourette’s syndrome of the brain called the motor cortex. to the sensory cortex of the brain
Charlie, a 21-year-old with
AN UNUSUAL therapy for Tourette’s Previous research has shown that and induces oscillations at the severe tics, said in a statement:
syndrome involves applying an “When the electrical pulses on
electrical current to the wrist, stimulating brainwaves in this same frequency in the neighbouring the wrist started to increase, the
which travels up nerves to the tic urges decreased, which was a
brain and changes brainwaves. area by using a strong oscillating motor cortex. completely shocking experience
for me, I was silent and still.
People with Tourette’s syndrome magnetic field can reduce tics in When 19 people with Tourette’s I wanted to cry with happiness.”
make frequent involuntary jerks,
facial twitches and vocal tics. people with Tourette’s. Stephen tried out the electrode, it reduced Jackson’s group is developing a
watch-like device that people can
In most people, when they are Jackson at the University of the frequency of their tics by a third, turn on to deliver the stimulation
motionless, brainwaves cycle at when it is needed. ❚
Nottingham, UK, wondered if there compared with when the electrode Clare Wilson

was an easier way to get this effect. was turned on for the same length

His group placed an electrode on

the wrist to deliver a mild current “The tic urges decreased,

with a frequency of 12 times a which was a shocking

second; the current was noticeable experience. I wanted to

but not uncomfortable. The idea is cry with happiness”

13 June 2020 | New Scientist | 19

News In brief

Medicine Really brief

Spare human-like ears GERD ZAHN/GETTY IMAGES Oceans hold carbon
3D-printed on mice KRAIG LIEB/ALAMY from forest fires

HUMAN-LIKE ears have been One-third of all black
grown on mice using 3D printing. carbon – soot produced
The technique could be used to when trees or plants burn
construct body parts for people incompletely – is carried
without the need for surgery. down rivers and ends up
in the ocean, according
Maling Gou at Sichuan to modelling based on
University, China, and his samples from 34 rivers
colleagues injected a “bio-ink” around the world
of hydrogel particles and cartilage (Nature Communications,
cells into the backs of mice, then doi.org/dxpp).
shone patterns of near-infrared
light onto the ink. The light made DNA ‘barcodes’
the hydrogel particles stick to track crops
together and develop layer by
layer into ear-shaped structures. Genetically engineered
bacteria or yeast with
Over the next month, the unique DNA “barcode”
cartilage cells grew around the sequences have been
hydrogel structures until they shown to persist and
resembled the cartilage of real remain detectable on food,
human ears (Science Advances, even after it is washed or
doi.org/dxqj). The team hopes cooked. Spraying crops
the technique could be used with these microbes
to construct new ears straight could help track food
on human bodies. Alice Klein poisoning outbreaks
back to the source
Archaeology Solar power (Science, doi.org/dxpq).

Biggest, oldest Mayan Smart two- follow the sun over the course of Human influence
monument ever found sided solar a day, from east to west. Dual-axis felt in most places
panels could trackers also follow the sun over the
THE oldest and largest known boost energy course of a year, changing position Areas of very low human
monument built by the Mayan according to the seasons. influence, meaning land
civilisation has been found in SOLAR panels that absorb light that is either not occupied
Mexico. The 3000-year-old site on both sides and tilt based on Using global weather data from or used by people, or that
of Aguada Fénix is a huge raised the sun’s position could boost NASA’s orbiting Clouds and the contains only low density
platform 1.4 kilometres long. the amount of energy collected Earth’s Radiant Energy System populations of indigenous
by 40 per cent. instrument, Rodríguez-Gallegos peoples, make up just
Daniela Triadan at the and his colleagues estimated 21 per cent of the land
University of Arizona in Tucson The two approaches existed the total global energy generated on Earth, excluding icy
and her colleagues scanned before, but Carlos Rodríguez- by a variety of combinations areas such as Antarctica
Tabasco state in Mexico from the Gallegos at the Solar Energy of solar panel set-ups. (Global Change Biology,
air with lidar, which uses lasers Research Institute of Singapore doi.org/dxqs).
to create a 3D map of the surface. and his colleagues have now looked The team found that double-
at the effects of combining them. sided panels would produce 35 per
They found 21 ceremony sites cent more energy when combined
centred on rectangular earthen Solar panels around the world are with single-axis trackers, and
platforms. From ground level, the predominantly installed with a fixed 40 per cent more in combination
artificial nature isn’t obvious. “You orientation and absorb light only with dual-axis trackers.
think you’re just walking uphill,” from one side. But two-sided solar
says Triadan. But lidar revealed its panels can also absorb energy that Combining double-sided
true scale (Nature, doi.org/dxqp). is reflected by the ground onto their panels with single-axis trackers
rear side, says Rodríguez-Gallegos. would reduce the levelised cost
The team thinks that between of electricity – an indicator of
3.2 and 4.3 million cubic metres Two types of sun-tracking solar how much a consumer pays per
of earth were used, requiring panels exist. Single-axis trackers kilowatt-hour of solar energy
10 to 13 million person-days of produced – the most, by 16 per
work. “We were like, holy cow,” cent for the majority of the world,
says Triadan. Michael Marshall says the team (Joule, doi.org/dxqq).
Donna Lu

20 | New Scientist | 13 June 2020

18 June 2020 6pm BST/1pm EDT

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Today, a message from Dogs Trust

Dogs may be man’s best friend but there is still Just as we need to know more about our dogs’ providing insights into people’s relationships
much we have to learn about them, and the health, surprisingly little is known about the UK with, and concerns about, their dogs during
impact we have as owners on their health and dog population. Current data only explains these unusual times. All UK dog owners are
wellbeing in the long-term. Dogs Trust, the UK’s where 45% of UK dogs come from; our invited to join this research: just go to the web
largest canine welfare charity, works to improve research is seeking to find the ‘missing dogs’ so address below to find out how.
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Our research addresses key questions about distribution of the population, where they come producing new science to support dog welfare
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communities and policy makers. Early indications suggest that dogs are exciting work:
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Views Culture Culture Aperture
Humankind is a compelling Is the promise of a digital Winners of 2020 Sony
Letters case for believing in the afterlife in Upload all it is World Photography
Different appetite when best of people p26 cracked up to be? p27 Awards announced p28
caffeine, alcohol and
chocolate is available p24

Columnist

Beware the corona diet

Plenty of diets promise to boost your immune system to help protect
you from covid-19, but do their claims stack up, asks James Wong

James Wong is a botanist and IN THE space of less than a This is just as well. An overactive that going on a diet will make you
science writer, with a particular week, I read three front-page immune response seems to be younger or affect your ethnicity.
interest in food crops, stories about “revolutionary” responsible for the worst effects
conservation and the However, research has
environment. Trained at the science-based diets that shield of covid-19. So even if you could consistently shown that obesity
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, he disproportionally affects people
shares his tiny London flat with against covid-19. Intriguingly, “supercharge” your immune living on lower incomes, who are
more than 500 houseplants. also more likely to experience
You can follow him on Twitter all three eating patterns seemed system, it might be a very bad idea. chronic stress, poor diet and
and Instagram @botanygeek physical inactivity – all risk factors
rather different to each other, In the absence of evidence for for compromised immunity. So
James’s week obesity may in fact be a symptom
despite all being published in the boosting immunity, many stories of underlying risk factors rather
What I’m reading than a risk factor in its own right.
The delayed Public Health same newspaper. The only thing have focused on early evidence
England report on how Given this list of complex,
ethnicity affects covid-19 that seemed to unite them was of a link between obesity and poorly understood factors, it
outcomes. is tricky to claim that any diet
that the proponents, helpfully, more severe covid-19 outcomes. will reduce covid-19 risk. We just
What I’m watching don’t have enough information.
Homecoming on Netflix. also had new diet books out. The argument seems to be that, as
Great show, but the What we do know is that
fictional crop plants look There are dozens of “corona thinner people tend to experience some nutrients are essential to
super-fake to a botanist. a healthy immune system, such
diets”, hailing everything from as vitamin C, zinc and selenium.
What I’m working on Certain dietary patterns, such as
After working non-stop meat and ultra-low carbs to “The only thing that eating plenty of fruit, vegetables
on a new Kew Gardens “superfoods” and veganism seems to unite the and wholegrains, may help
podcast, I am planning to as ways to boost your immune reduce the inflammation that
spend some quality time can contribute to complications
with my houseplants. system and protect you from diets is that the in covid-19. And of course, a
healthy weight is associated
This column appears the virus. It is a minefield. What proponents also have with a lower risk of an enormous
monthly. Up next week: does the evidence really say? new diet books out” array of other health risks.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Covid-19 is such a new disease If you think that sounds like
boring standard dietary advice,
that there is very little research in that is because that’s exactly what
it is. The most up to date and
this area. Most of the tiny handful fewer complications from comprehensive review of the
effect of diet on the potential
of studies that have been done covid-19, any weight-losing diet mitigation of covid-19 by an
international team of researchers
to date are just weeks old and will lead to a reduction in risk. But concluded: “Following any healthy
diet at this time... will support
haven’t been peer-reviewed. this oversimplifies the evidence. immune function.” Not much
of a book in that though. ❚
It is impressive, then, that fully Although there are plausible

illustrated cookery books with reasons for a potential causal

hundreds of recipes could have link, such as people with obesity

been developed based on this often showing poorer lung

scientific evidence, despite being function, there is currently no

published at the same time. evidence that weight loss reduces

First up, supercharging your the likelihood or severity of

immune system with specific infection, merely that people

foods, like garlic and honey, who are already lean tend be at

is an old debunked idea. lower statistical risk. Correlation

“Simply put, you cannot ‘boost’ does not equal causation.

your immune system through To put this in context, people

diet, and no specific food or who are obese are more likely to be

supplement will prevent you in other covid-19 risk groups, such

catching COVID-19/Coronavirus,” as belonging to a black or Asian

said the British Dietetic ethnic group and being over 65

Association in a statement. years of age, but that doesn’t mean

13 June 2020 | New Scientist | 23

Views Your letters

Editor’s pick in the real world to properly better? They could outlaw a lot philosophy include the
evaluate the false positives and of plastic usage, insist on more encouragment of a rigorous
Trinity of temptations false negatives. If these numbers new buildings having solar panels approach to observation and
may undo good advice are high, then there is a high risk fitted as standard and enact many thinking, and a humility regarding
that false positives could saturate further life-enhancing projects too the limits of knowledge, thereby
23 May, p 30 medical centres. False negatives, numerous to mention. But I am enriching our intellectual
From Bob Ladd, Edinburgh, UK on the other hand, could result in unconvinced that politicians in imagination and diminishing
I was fascinated by the idea that many missed infectious contacts. the UK, at least, are ready to seize any dogmatic assurances.
we have multiple appetites for the opportunity.
different nutrients, and by the Another concern occurs to me: It feels as though much
authors’ explanation of why the false sense of security that Exercise is the wonder common ground remains
“ultra-processed” foods have such apps might induce in people. drug for many ailments between the three disciplines.
certain effects. They might cause people to relax
and take fewer precautions. 16 May, p 40 The club of space race
Their practical advice (roughly: From Geoff Harding, nations has got bigger
avoid ultra-processed foods, get Maybe the coronavirus Sydney, Australia
enough protein and let nature doesn’t need to evolve Peter Judge discusses the risks 30 May, p 14
do the rest) was encouraging. associated with elevated blood From Ray Taylor,
But the discussion of the “chalet 23 May, p 41 pressure and the use of drugs and London, UK
experiment”, in which people could From Tim Stevenson, Great lifestyle changes to lower blood You state that “no nation capable
eat whatever they wanted, notes in Missenden, Buckinghamshire, UK pressure. Regular exercise has of human space flight has signed
passing that “caffeine, alcohol and We are told that cold-causing been proven to be of particular the Moon Agreement [of 1979],
chocolate weren’t available”. Does coronaviruses may once have benefit in this regard. effectively rendering it moot.”
the dietary advice offered by the been as dangerous as the one
authors work without adjustments that causes covid-19, but have Perhaps exercise is an even India has signed but not ratified
to a world where such substances weakened under evolutionary more potent means of reducing the Moon Agreement, which
are omnipresent? pressure. Jonathan R. Goodman’s hypertension due to the relatively indicates a statement of intent,
highly informative article also low pulse rate, both while resting if not an obligation in law. It is
From Martin Pitt, Leeds, reveals that SARS-CoV-2 isn’t and during physical activity, planning its first crewed mission
West Yorkshire, UK evolving much. that comes with a high level of into space in December 2021.
My elderly mother developed fitness. Even if systolic pressure is
a craving for pear drops, which Perhaps it doesn’t have to. elevated, the shorter time spent at Are the bees adding a
are a type of sweet with artificial It may already have it made. high pressure due to a lower pulse little extra to our food?
flavouring. When I offered her a For most who catch this virus, rate is surely less damaging to the
vitamin C tablet, she said: “That’s it is innocuous, even unnoticed, heart and other organs. 30 May, p 17
it! That’s what I’ve been wanting!” but infectious. From its point of From Nicholas Allen,
view, it accidentally kills a small Much unites maths, Swanley, Kent, UK
As humans are among the few proportion of people, but it science and philosophy You report on research showing
animals that can’t make their own doesn’t care about that. Perhaps that bumblebees can pierce leaves
vitamin C, could it be that we have the evolutionary pressure in this 2 May, p 40, and Letters, 30 May to trigger early flowering in order
a separate appetite for fruit that is situation is on us, not it. From Alastair Cardno, Burley in to produce pollen to feed on when
tricked by nutrient-deficient, sugary, Wharfedale, West Yorkshire, UK it is otherwise scarce, for example
fruit-flavoured foods and drinks? Are our leaders ready I was saddened to read Michael in tomato plants. It has been
for this better future? Brooks’s article and Sam Edge’s suggested that this may involve
Still waiting for a contact letter in response, both seeming the insects injecting chemicals
tracing app that is proven Leader, 30 May to pit philosophy against into the plant.
From Geoffrey Withington, mathematics and science,
25 April, p 9 Bridge, Kent, UK particularly having recently While the amounts would be
From Ramon Lopez de Mantaras, You speculate on what the new reread Bertrand Russell’s tiny, could whatever they are
Sant Cugat de Vallès, Spain decade will have in store for us as a The Problems of Philosophy. theoretically injecting also affect
As pointed out in your analysis result of changes prompted by the the composition and taste of any
of contact-tracing apps, the big pandemic, ones perhaps sparking In this book, he highlighted fruit that is produced? If so, it
question about them is whether or a shift to a greener society. the vital connections between would mean that the bees could,
not they will, technically speaking, the three disciplines. Russell in some cases, have an impact
work well enough. The amount of Will the people who have the suggested that the values of on what we eat, too.  ❚
false positive and false negative power change things for the
contacts might be huge. For the record
Want to get in touch?
The article describes a few ❚  The Zoological Society of
situations that could lead to Send letters to [email protected]; London hasn’t yet received
incorrect contact detections, but see terms at newscientist.com/letters any financial aid from the UK
it is easy to think of many more. Letters sent to New Scientist, 25 Bedford Street, government to help it through
We need a well-designed pilot trial London WC2E 9ES will be delayed the pandemic (30 May, p 8).

24 | New Scientist | 13 June 2020

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Today, a message from Wild Futures

Emergency appeal.
Can you help?

Wild Futures is the UK primate welfare and environmental policies from energy use, team on and off site and isolating the Sanctuary.
conservation charity, rescuing, campaigning, purchase power to recycling. Our main priority is to make sure the monkeys
educating and providing sanctuary to primates have the food and the medicines they need
in need. Providing support to overseas projects in along with continued care.
habitat countries with practical assistance, skills
Sixty percent of all primate species face sharing, staff secondment, funding and advice However, overnight the charity lost its main
extinction due to human activity; habitat loss, are all part of the vital work of the charity in its sources of income from visitors, education,
climate change, the bush meat and primate pet aim to protect primates and habitats worldwide. volunteer and training programmes. This has
trades all contribute to this challenge to their huge financial ramifications. We are facing
survival. Covid-19 is causing devastation all across the troubling times.
world and like many others we are struggling as
Founded in 1964, The Wild Futures Monkey a result of this pandemic. We are facing one of We are appealing for emergency help to get
Sanctuary in Cornwall, UK, was the first of its our toughest years to date. us through this uncertain time.
kind in the world. Our innovative welfare
management practices, exceptional levels of The Sanctuary is home to 40 monkeys Despite the challenges, we will continue
care for monkeys traumatised by the primate rescued from situations of abuse and neglect caring for the rescued monkeys in our care and
pet trade and our internationally recognised from the UK primate pet trade. As fellow continue to promote primate welfare and
training and education programmes mean that primates they may be very susceptible to conservation worldwide.
our sanctuary is the only one in Europe to be Covid-19; many have heart disease and
accredited by the Global Federation of Animal diabetes as a result of their lives as pets, raising Please donate today www.wildfutures.org/
Sanctuaries. The charity’s commitment to the risks further. Wild Futures is taking every donate and follow us on Facebook for updates.
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Views Culture

Focusing on the positive

Humankind argues that people are inherently good. If we assume
that to be true, the whole world could benefit, finds Simon Ings

Book

Humankind:
A hopeful history

Rutger Bregman
Bloomsbury

IN 1651, English philosopher

Thomas Hobbes startled the world

with Leviathan, an account of the

good and evil lurking in human

nature. Hobbes argued that people,

when left to their own devices, were

naturally vicious. Fortunately, PICTORIAL PRESS LTD/ALAMY

they were also gregarious, and

it was through their groups,

societies and civilisations that

people expressed their best selves.

For those with anxious minds,

the trouble with Hobbes’s view

is that civilisation is just a thin murdered in New York City in attention to classic psychological The shipwrecked boys of
experiments. The BBC tried to Lord of the Flies struggle
veneer over underlying darkness. 1964 – the notorious incident that recreate Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford to live peacefully together
prison experiment many years
Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: added the “bystander effect” to the after it was first run. Instead of the flatscreen TVs. Judged by the rate
participants cast as prison guards at which its inhabitants reoffend,
A hopeful history builds a case psychological lexicon – her torturing those playing prisoners, it is among the most effective
they sat around drinking tea. prisons in the world.
for believing otherwise. neighbours didn’t just watch from
Stanley Milgram’s experiment, Since 2004, the entire municipal
Bregman is a historian who their windows and do nothing. where volunteers were persuaded investment budget of Torres in
to electrocute a person until they Venezuela has been decided by
went viral in 2019 after lambasting They called the police, and her appeared to be near death (an a public vote. Ten years after the
actor was, in fact, in on the plan), policy was enacted, a University of
the global elite at the World neighbour rushed out to hold her has been interpreted completely California study showed that the
wrong, argues Bregman. People town had achieved several
Economic Forum for not paying as she was dying. weren’t unthinkingly obeying decades’ worth of progress, as
orders: Milgram’s transcripts measured in new schools, new
their fair share of taxes. Since then, Another story from the book, show that people were desperate roads and reduced corruption.
to do the right thing, and their
he has made a name for himself as which seems to have gone viral anxiety made them frighteningly Humankind’s positivity is
easy to manipulate, he says. refreshing. Of course, every
a sort of utopia advocate. after The Guardian published an example has been cherry-picked
Bregman argues that this to fit Bregman’s central belief, but
This book is very much in the implies we are all desperate to be that doesn’t detract from it being
good people, so we must learn to a gripping read. It just means you
same vein. Bregman believes that “In 1965, a group of boys give people a chance. And if we shouldn’t pick it up hoping for a
assuming humans are innately do so, this produces good results. rigorous scientific treatise on the
became trapped on a human condition. Instead, it is
bad leads to bad politics and For instance, Halden prison, a compelling philosophical
economics. He says that we need Tongan atoll. Rather a maximum-security facility in argument for the benefits of
Norway, gives people convicted of focusing on the positive over
to believe in human goodness to than turning on each the most serious offences a canteen the negative – and that seems
with stainless steel knives and particularly important right now.  ❚
get a better world, and to build other, they survived” porcelain plates, and cells with

his argument, he tries to upend

examples of human badness. extract, is a real-life counterpoint

Once the inhabitants of Rapa to William Golding’s Lord of

Nui (Easter Island) had chopped the Flies. In 1965, a group of

down many of  the trees on the boys became trapped on a

island, their civilisation didn’t fall rocky Tongan atoll without fresh

apart in an all-against-all resource water for more than a year. Rather

war, says Bregman. It instead than turning on each other, they

thrived through teamwork and survived, stayed fit and healthy,

agricultural innovation – until successfully set a lad’s broken

Europeans arrived, bringing leg and formed friendships that

diseases and the slave trade. When have lasted a lifetime.

Catherine Susan Genovese was Bregman then turns his

26 | New Scientist | 13 June 2020

Don’t miss

Virtual life after death

Digital paradise awaits those with money, but the afterlife in
Upload may not be as fun as it first seems, finds Emily Wilson

the fact that his still-embodied rich was built on the shoulders Listen
of the poor – and it stopped being Coast from the British
girlfriend, who now legally owns heavenly the minute your money Library in London is an
TV him, could delete him from ran out. online collection of the
sounds of the shores,
Upload existence with one swift swipe. The main problem with Upload letting you eavesdrop on
is that, unlike in the US Office and the culture, science and
Greg Daniels Our co-hero in the show is Nora, Parks and Recreation, the main nature of the seaside,
characters aren’t interesting from the mating calls
On Amazon Prime Video Nathan’s appointed Lake View enough. Nathan’s flaw is that he of haddock to poems
is a bit vain, but otherwise he is an about mermaids.
“angel”, played by Andy Allo. OK guy. Nora is sweet and earnest.
She occasionally plays soft-as- Read
UPLOAD is the latest creation of Her official job is to ease him into butter practical jokes on Nathan. Cosmology’s Century
But where is our Michael Scott or gives Nobel prizewinning
Greg Daniels, a TV showrunner his new life as part of a computer our Leslie Knope? cosmologist Jim
Peebles’s inside story
with an amazing CV that includes program, but she quickly becomes The writers try to shore up the of how modern physics
two nice-but-dull main characters has grown since
the US version of The Office and embroiled in Nathan’s complicated with wacky support roles, but it Albert Einstein’s
is a losing battle. A secondary day, culminating in a
Parks and Recreation. Most back story. problem emerges: is this meant well-tested physical
to be a comedy? If so, the laughs theory of our expanding
recently, he co-created, alongside are few and far between, and universe.
outweighed by the pathos and
Steve Carrell, the Netflix show “His girlfriend, who the attempts at romance. Watch
Space Force. So on paper, at least, now legally owns him, Your Data in the City
Upload has a fine pedigree. can delete him from All that said, both the US Office at Cybersalon.org is a
existence with one and Parks and Recreation had talk between journalist
The 10-episode first season, difficult first series, and both Wendy Grossman and
out now on Amazon Prime Video, shows went on to become bona fide digital money guru
classics. Let’s hope Upload, with its David Birch (pictured) on
is the story of a young computer swift swipe” fizz of fresh ideas, comes into its 18 June at 6.30pm BST.
own in season two – whenever Lockdown is changing
programmer, injured in a self- filming that becomes possible. ❚ our cities, but are the
changes welcome?
driving-car accident, who agrees This is a show that is packed with
13 June 2020 | New Scientist | 27
to have himself uploaded to a fancy new ideas and inventive flourishes,

virtual world called Lake View. and provides a very clever vision of

This appears to be a one-way ticket, what our world could look like in a

given that his head is blown to pulp decade. The effects are brilliant.

during the upload process. It also has a social conscience,

The year is 2033, and for anyone and at times is quite reminiscent

rich enough to afford it, getting of Downsizing. That was about a

uploaded to one of the virtual world where the inhabitants got

worlds on the market is a great a dreamy new life in exchange for

afterlife option. In fact, this isn't becoming tiny, not dead. Yet there,

really an afterlife, it is just a as here, the heaven on offer to the

different sort of life.

The living, or rather the people

who still have bodies, can visit

uploaded friends and family using

VR head sets, or even just video-call

them on their mobiles. It couldn’t

be easier for loved ones to keep in

touch after body death.

The end of real death has

many downsides, however,

as we are soon to learn. AMAZON STUDIOS, PRIME VIDEO
T&B: JONNY HANNAH: ARTUR LEBEDEV/TASS/ALAMY.
For our hero Nathan Brown,

played by Robbie Amell, the

downsides are exacerbated by

mysteriously missing memories,

the worry that he may have been

murdered and, most chillingly,

Andy Allo plays an “angel”
who helps people settle in
to the digital afterlife

Views Aperture

28 | New Scientist | 13 June 2020

Natural allies

Sony World Photography
Awards 2020
Photographers Pablo Albarenga,
Guofei Li, Luca Locatelli,
Craig McGowan, Caroline Paux,
Florian Ruiz

HUMANITY and nature lie
side by side in these shots (top)
by Pablo Albarenga. They are
part of Seeds of Resistance, a
series documenting threatened
environments and those battling
to protect them. They earned
Albarenga the Sony World
Photographer of the Year prize
at the World Photography
Organisation’s Sony World
Photography Awards 2020.

The series uses aerial images
of its subjects, alongside shots of
their environments from a much
higher altitude. Albarenga says
he wants to raise awareness of the
killing of indigenous people in
the Amazon. In 2017, at least 201
indigenous leaders and activists
were killed while protecting
communities from projects that
threaten their land, according to
pressure group Global Witness.

Other entries (bottom left to
right) include this photo of a pair
of cheetahs cleaning each other
by Guofei Li, the open natural
world and wildlife category
winner. Florian Ruiz’s shot of
Lop Nor – a dried salt lake where
nuclear weapons were tested –
in China’s Xinjiang province was
a professional landscape category
finalist, while Craig McGowan’s
image of an iceberg in Northeast
Greenland National Park won
the open landscape category.

Caroline Paux’s photo of
gulls fighting over a starfish was
shortlisted in the open natural
world and wildlife category, and
Luca Locatelli’s image of high-tech
farming was a professional
environment category finalist.  ❚

Gege Li

MAIN: SEEDS OF RESISTANCE © PABLO ALBARENGA, URUGUAY, PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR, PROFESSIONAL, CREATIVE, 2020 SONY WORLD PHOTOGRAPHY AWARDS. LEFT TO RIGHT: TAI CHI DIAGRAM 13 June 2020 | New Scientist | 29
© GUOFEI LI, CHINA, WINNER, OPEN, NATURAL WORLD & WILDLIFE; PROJECT 596 © FLORIAN RUIZ, FRANCE, 2ND PLACE, PROFESSIONAL, LANDSCAPE; ICE REFLECTIONS © CRAIG MCGOWAN, AUSTRALIA, WINNER,
OPEN, LANDSCAPE; STAR WARS © CAROLINE PAUX, FRANCE, SHORTLIST, OPEN, NATURAL WORLD & WILDLIFE; THE FUTURE OF FARMING © LUCA LOCATELLI, ITALY, 3RD PLACE, PROFESSIONAL, ENVIRONMENT.

Features Cover story

Fusion
of minds

We could finally harness nuclear fusion to
power our world thanks to a star turn from
artificial intelligence, says Abigail Beall

THE big joke about sustainable nuclear their origins in something vanishingly
fusion is that it has always been
30 years away. Like any joke, it contains small: the nucleus of an atom. Consisting
a kernel of truth. The dream of harnessing the
reaction that powers the sun was big news in of positively charged protons and neutral
the 1950s, just around the corner in the 1980s,
and the hottest bet of the past decade. neutrons orbited by negatively charged

But time is running out. Our demand for electrons, the nucleus makes up the bulk
energy is burning up the planet, depleting
its resources and risking damaging Earth of an atom’s mass.
beyond repair. Wind, solar and tidal energy
provide some relief, but they are limited When two or more small atomic nuclei
and unpredictable. Nuclear fission comes
with the dangers of reactor meltdowns come into contact, they can, under certain
and radioactive waste, while hydropower
can be ecologically disruptive. Fusion, circumstances, merge to form larger nuclei,
on the other hand, could provide almost
limitless energy without releasing carbon releasing huge amounts of energy in the
dioxide or producing radioactive waste.
It is the dream power source. The perennial process. On a gargantuan scale, this is what
question is: can we make it a reality?
takes place within the core of stars like our
Perhaps now, finally, we can. That isn’t
just because of the myriad fusion start-ups sun, giving them the power they need to
increasingly sensing a lucrative market
opportunity just around the corner and shine for billions of years.
challenging the primacy of the traditional
big-beast projects. Or just because of Fusion’s extraordinary potential has
innovative approaches, materials and
technologies that are fuelling an optimism been tantalising scientists for decades,
that we can at last master fusion’s fiendish
complexities. It is also because of the but remains difficult to realise on Earth. It
entrance of a new player, one that could
change the rules of the game: artificial requires the creation of a “plasma” of naked
intelligence. In the right hands, it might
make the next 30 years fly by. atomic nuclei at huge temperatures and

Nuclear fusion is the most widespread densities – something that is both difficult
source of energy in the universe, and one of
the most efficient: just a few grams of fuel to achieve and difficult to control (see “Why
release the same energy as several tonnes
of coal. These vast quantities of energy have fusion is so hard”, page 32).

At present, the most popular approach is

to use what is called a magnetic confinement

fusion device. In fusion’s early days in the

1950s, the favoured design was a kinked

doughnut shape known as a stellarator.

These machines created complex magnetic

fields that could theoretically hold a charged

plasma steady, but their twisted shape

made them tricky to build.

By the 1970s, interest had turned to simpler

designs: vast hollow rings called tokamaks in

which trapped plasma is heated to hundreds

of millions of degrees. The forces required

to keep such a plasma in place can only be

ADA ZIELINSKA generated by powerful superconducting

magnets cooled to close to absolute zero,

creating the sharpest temperature gradients

in the known universe. >

13 June 2020 | New Scientist | 31

Why fusion NASA, ESA, AND E. SABBI (ESA/STSCI)
is so hard
“Fusion These magnetic confinement devices have
Under ordinary circumstances, reactors have had a few successes over the years. In 1997,
atomic nuclei don’t fuse easily: the biggest the Joint European Torus (JET) near Oxford,
the positively charged protons temperature UK, set the world record for the amount
in two nuclei repel each other gradients in of energy created in a fusion reaction,
electrostatically. They need enough the known producing 16 megawatts of fusion energy
energy to overcome this hurdle and universe” from an input of 24 megawatts. This is the
let another force kick in. closest anyone has got to breaking even –
getting as much energy out as that pumped
This other force is known as the in – but the reaction lasted for only a few
strong nuclear force, although it is in hundredths of a second.
fact weak over long distances. But
when two protons are less than a Back then, break-even seemed around the
trillionth of a millimetre apart, it corner, but strange instabilities appeared in
lives up to its name, creating a pull JET’s plasma that worked to cool down its
that overwhelms electrostatic centre and stymie the plans. Now, after
repulsion, allowing protons to fuse. years of upgrades, changes in design and
materials, the reactor is back. In November
Kick-starting this process – and, 2020, JET is set to power its first fusion
more importantly, getting it to reaction in more than 20 years, aiming to
continue happening in a fusion beat its previous energy record and sustain
chain reaction – requires huge the reaction for longer.
temperatures and densities. In the
core of the sun, for example, the Meanwhile, other players have been
temperature is 15 million °C and the getting in on the act. In 2018, China’s
density such that half a litre of water Experimental Advanced Superconducting
could be held in a teaspoon. Under
these conditions, electrons have
enough energy to separate from
their atoms, leaving behind a hot
swarm of positively charged nuclei
and electrons known as a plasma.

All sorts of reactions take place
inside a stellar plasma, but the one
that generates the biggest bang for
its buck sees two nuclei of hydrogen
isotopes – deuterium, which has one
proton and one neutron, and tritium,
which contains one proton and two
neutrons – fusing to form a helium
nucleus and one high energy
neutron. When the hydrogen runs
out, it is the turn of helium and other
heavier elements to fuse. When
these too are exhausted, nuclear
fusion stops and the star goes out.

It takes stars a million years to get
the initial reaction going. If we want
to replicate it on Earth, we need to
accelerate the process. That means
producing plasmas 10 times as hot
as the centre of the sun – which is
one of the key reasons why fusion
is so hard (see main story).

32 | New Scientist | 13 June 2020

Nuclear fusion within
stars is the most
widespread energy
source in the universe

Tokamak (EAST) sustained a plasma at “A flurry of ranging from improved construction
temperatures of 15 million °C for 100 seconds, innovation
the longest confinement time yet. aims to make techniques to robotic systems that can
fusion cheap
EAST plans to start operating again in 2020, and sustainable inspect and maintain parts of the reactor,
but is comparatively small fry. The heavily within years”
backed favourite in the race is the huge have made it cheaper to get into the fusion
International Thermonuclear Experimental The international collaboration
Reactor, or ITER. Founded in 1985 as a ITER hopes to start fusion business. “It’s gone from being a purely
collaboration between 31 nations including reactions in 2035
China, the US, Russia and the European academic activity that only government-
Union, ITER was originally expected to
start experiments in 2016, but design funded research labs can fund, to something
challenges mean it is likely to remain
under construction in France until 2025. that private individuals are prepared to invest
“ITER is a first-of-a-kind facility,” says Howard
Wilson at the University of York, UK. “It will in,” says Pinches.
take 10 years to learn how to bring it up to
its full performance.” This has sparked a race between private

ITER currently aims to begin fusion companies to be the first to achieve
reactions in 2035, and it has big goals:
pushing beyond break-even to produce sustainable fusion. One prominent
10 times as much power as goes in. Despite
the delays, there is confidence that ITER will competitor aiming to exploit the same
achieve this. “The question now is, do we
have the technology to make a commercially tokamak concepts as JET, ITER and EAST
viable power plant?” asks Simon Pinches,
head of the plasma physics division at ITER. is Commonwealth Fusion Systems. A

Even if ITER achieves its goals, its journey spin-off from the Massachusetts Institute of
will be far from over. The reactor isn’t set
up to capture the energy it produces as Technology, it is partly funded by billionaires
electricity. Instead, the idea is that it will pave
the way for demonstration power plants including Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma and
down the line. One is the China Fusion
Engineering Test Reactor (CFETR), a follow-up Richard Branson and is aiming to produce
tokamak to EAST three times the size, which is
expected to be built in the late 2020s. a reactor within the next 10 years. Other

But with climate change looming ever challengers, like Windridge’s Tokamak
larger, the need to find alternatives to fossil
fuels has become more urgent. That has Energy, are also aiming to provide power
coincided with a flurry of innovation across
the fusion industry, aiming to make cheap, to the grid by 2030.
sustainable reactors a reality within years,
not decades. Most important has been the Some are wary of promises given by
discovery of superconductors that work at
higher temperatures, and so can generate private companies. “Even with those
strong magnetic fields with less dramatic
refrigeration. Such superconductors allowed companies which have been around for a
magnets to become smaller, and tokamaks
to be more compact. longer time, it’s still the promise of a reactor

Other recent breakthroughs in technology, in 10 years from now,” says Tony Donné,

programme manager for EUROfusion, the

consortium in charge of JET. Partly, these

timescales are given to keep investors happy.

“I’m sceptical that they will deliver a fusion

reactor much faster than we have,” says

Donné. “If the community thought there

was an easier way of doing it, they’d be

doing that,” says Pinches.

Whether public or private, everyone

designing tokamaks is facing the same

problems. Chief among them is how to

handle instabilities in the plasma. When hot

plasma is contained within the magnetic

fields of a tokamak, it behaves weirdly.

Sometimes small ripples appear like on the

surface of a lake, while at others huge tidal

waves send the plasma shooting towards

the reactor walls. It is enough for some

people to seek alternatives to the magnetic

confinement technique, which depends on

ITER the plasma remaining stable for a long time

(see “They do it with lasers”, page 34). >

13 June 2020 | New Scientist | 33

Starting in the 1980s, some researchers “Increased It is still a hugely complex, time-
looking for such alternatives dived into computing consuming business trying to work out
the past, dusting off the long-abandoned power has led how best to build a fusion reactor, however.
stellarators. Their more complex design a renaissance “Finding the optimum design of stellarators
generated magnetic field patterns capable in fusion typically requires playing around with about
of stabilising the plasma, says Amitava research” 50 parameters until the best design is arrived
Bhattacharjee at Princeton University. at,” says Bhattacharjee. Plasma instabilities
What’s more, increases in computing power can plague any reactor design, and
meant it was becoming possible to model understanding the complex behaviour
how plasma behaved within their more involved requires a lot of data and time.
complex configurations, and so potentially “A fully integrated predictive simulation
create more effective designs. “This produced for ITER could take many weeks to run at
a renaissance in stellarator research,” says present,” says Pinches.
Bhattacharjee. At the same time, new
materials and construction methods mean That is why, over the past few years, plasma
building a stellarator has never been easier. physicists have been turning to a new partner
to help haul a sustainable reactor design over
And while stellarators still lag decades the finishing line: machine minds. “Artificial
behind tokamaks, they are starting to catch intelligence can give us much greater speed
up. In 2015, Wendelstein 7-X, the largest and a much deeper exploration of the range
stellarator in the world, was switched on at of possibilities,” says Bhattacharjee.
the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics
in Greifswald, Germany, and is gearing up to TAE Technologies, a California-based fusion
maintain a plasma for 30 minutes, with this research company, has had a partnership
milestone expected in 2021. After that, the with Google’s DeepMind AI set-up since 2014,
aim will be to start fusion. while Canada’s General Fusion is working
with Microsoft. Improvements are already

They do it with lasers

Magnetic confinement fusion UK. To do this, powerful lasers are show in town at the moment,” says expensive,” she says.
(MCF) reactors are the focus of fired at a spherical pellet of fusible Kate Lancaster, a plasma physicist Smaller fusion start-ups are also
most nuclear fusion interest (see nuclei a few millimetres across in at the University of York, UK. “It’s
main story), but they aren’t the a technique known as inertial the only laser that exists that’s getting interested in the inertial
only way to get fusion going. confinement fusion, or ICF. capable of reaching ignition, confinement method. One is First
Rather than using magnetic fields getting more energy out than in.” Light Fusion in Oxford, UK, which
to keep a relatively low-density The laser burns the outside of Thus far, though, the complexities aims to reach energy break-even
fusion plasma stable, you can use the pellet, causing an explosion of the underlying physics means with its fourth machine by 2024.
lasers to compress a small quantity that sends shock waves towards that capability remains theoretical.
of fuel in a short, sharp burst. its centre. This squeezes the fuel But could the answer lie in
to extreme densities, reaching For decades, MCF and ICF have combining both techniques?
“People thought we needed temperatures of 100 million °C been the only games in town. Canada’s General Fusion, funded
some way of compressing our fuel within a few trillionths of a second, “Historically, those two had a lot by the likes of Amazon billionaire
down, like the conditions in the kick-starting fusion. more funding,” says Windridge. Jeff Bezos, is adopting a technique
centre of the sun,” says Melanie “Now, the problem with those called magnetised target fusion
Windridge at Tokamak Energy, a The world leader in this research tracks is that they got really big, (MTF). “MTF plasma is confined
fusion research company in the is the National Ignition Facility in and that meant they got really by magnetic fields like MCF and
Livermore, California. “It’s the only compressed in pulses like ICF,” says

34 | New Scientist | 13 June 2020

RGB VENTURES/SUPERSTOCK/ALAMY The kinked design
of a “stellarator”
Christofer Mowry, the company’s “Calculations fusion reactor could
CEO. That means the fuel doesn't that once allow it to be more
have to be as dense as it does for took a month stable when it runs
inertial confinement. Instead of can now be
lasers, high pressure gas-driven performed emerging, says David Ewing at TAE,
pistons can compress the fuel, within hours” particularly with regard to modelling how
reducing reactor costs. the plasma reacts to different configurations
of temperature, density and magnetic field.
“We have begun the process “Previous to our advancements in machine
of designing and building a learning, optimising the performance for a
near-power-plant-scale fusion particular experiment set-up could take well
demonstration machine, which over a month,” says Ewing. “These can now
is expected to be completed over be achieved within hours.”
the next five years,” says Mowry.
Even so, the firm thinks it will be Key to this speed-up is AI’s ability to
some time before it gets more recognise patterns and make predictions
energy out than is put in. about future behaviour. You can’t put
a thermometer inside a tokamak to
understand its workings, so the temperature
has to be inferred from other properties, like
how much light is coming out. This can be
a difficult task for a human researcher, but
an AI trained on mountainous data sets can
dramatically cut the time it takes – and also
up the efficiency. In 2019, a team at Princeton
paired the US’s fastest supercomputer
with a neural network to predict plasma
disruptions with an unprecedented
95 per cent accuracy.

Artificial intelligence could also be a rocket
booster for ITER, too. For some tasks, like
modelling the consequences of small ripples
in the plasma, AI has already made the job
10 million times faster, says Pinches. Now
the key is to boost the speed of the whole
simulation, allowing researchers to predict
problems and avoid them without needing
to run the experiment.

Such innovations, and the speed at which
they are now happening, is bringing a new
optimism that fusion’s time could, finally,
be nearing. “In the last decade, we’ve seen
exponential progress in the science,” says
Ewing. “That, coupled with the emergence of
critical support technologies like AI, has now
created the proper tool chest to bring us to
the cusp of a breakthrough.” The old joke
about fusion hasn’t dated, but this time
its backers may have the last laugh. ❚

Abigail Beall is a freelance
writer based in Leeds, UK.
You can follow her on twitter
@abbybeall

13 June 2020 | New Scientist | 35

Features Interview

Witness to the
misbehaving

mind

Neuroscientist Mitul Mehta is
using brain scanners to find new
psychiatric drugs. What he has
seen defies our expectations of

the brain, he tells Clare Wilson

36 | New Scientist | 13 June 2020

ILLUSTRATION: TOMASZ MAJEWSKI; PHOTOGRAPHER: DAVE STOCK FOR NEW SCIENTIST WHEN it comes to treating mental If it is, then maybe it might be responsive Have you had any particular successes so
health conditions, you could to the same or similar treatments. So there far with your approach of using brain scanning
say we have been working in the might be benefits in looking at symptoms to investigate psychiatric conditions?
dark. The drugs we use to treat them are and how to understand particular symptoms The timescale that we have been working
notoriously problematic. Almost every one better, and then how to treat those symptoms to is the timescale it takes to develop a new
of them was developed before the advent of better, because you might benefit more drug, so we wouldn’t expect big successes
brain scanners, and Mitul Mehta believes than one diagnosis. yet, but hope to in the next 10 years.
these powerful machines offer an unrivalled
chance to open a window onto brain So, rather than dealing with specific Take, for example, Parkinson’s disease,
conditions and see how the brain responds psychiatric illnesses that fit our current which is a movement disorder, but in
to treatments. This could ultimately help labelling system, you are almost looking which up to half of patients also experience
us find better medications. Pushing the at things that run deeper below them? psychosis. They will often experience
boundaries of conventional drug discovery For sure. I think this is the way to go. hallucinations, and that might develop
methods, Mehta, who is a professor of Psychiatric diagnoses are clinically useful, into experiencing delusions. That can cause
neuroimaging and psychopharmacology but they are not based on a neurobiology, a lot of distress, not only to the individual
at King’s College London, is using scanners they are not based on a functional affected, but also to their partner or carer.
to explore how psychedelic drugs and even understanding of the brain. If we are going
hypnosis influence the brain in an effort to base new treatment development on a How can we reduce their symptoms?
to find new ways to treat psychiatric and neurobiological understanding of the brain, One of the models that we have been
neurological conditions. What he is finding we want to look at processes and symptoms, working with is using psychedelic drugs.
is unmasking much about the way the brain and they may cross diagnostic boundaries. Drugs like psilocybin [the active compound
works, and causing us to reconsider the way in magic mushrooms] hit a particular
we think about mental illness. receptor in the brain called the 5-HT2A >

Clare Wilson: Why do we need to study 13 June 2020 | New Scientist | 37
psychiatric drugs using brain scanning?
Mitul Mehta: Pretty much every drug
available in psychiatry, we don’t really know
how they work in the brain. There is a huge
unmet need in the treatment of psychiatric
disorders. For example, we might be
interested in a potential new treatment
that might impact the reward system in
the brain. You might have a symptom of
low motivation, which is quite common
across the psychiatric spectrum, for instance
in schizophrenia and depression.

One of the questions is: is low motivation
mediated by the same circuits in the brain?

Mitul Mehta reveals how brain DECREASES
scans can help drug development WITH
newscientist.com/video SUGGESTED
PARALYSIS

receptor and we think that is instrumental “Healthy people INCREASES DEELEY ET AL.CORTEX.2013;49(2):411-422. DOI:10.1016/J.CORTEX.2012.09.016
in its psychedelic effects. who are highly WITH
suggestible can SUGGESTED
One of the features of psychedelic effects also experience PARALYSIS
is visual distortions or hallucinations. this alien control
What’s interesting is that when you study of movement” So you are using the mind-altering effects
individuals with Parkinson’s disease of ketamine as a proxy for schizophrenia?
psychosis, you find an elevation in the beneficial in helping the treatment You can give otherwise-healthy people
number of 5-HT2A receptors, especially of post-traumatic stress disorder. And ketamine, you can put them in the scanner
in a visual processing pathway in the we are also learning that compounds and you can give them other drugs on top of
brain. We have seen this in patients who within cannabis may be beneficial in it and see if it reverses the effects of ketamine.
have had PET scans, and we have seen it various conditions – sleep, pain and You can find out, first of all, if the other drugs
post-mortem as well. psychosis, to name just three. work, if they get into the brain sufficiently to
reverse the effects of ketamine, and you can
We came across a drug that had been Ketamine is very interesting at the find out which dose is most successful. Then
developed for cancer, but which reduces moment, because it appears to be successful you can test patients with real confidence,
the impact of 5-HT2A receptor stimulation. as an antidepressant, particularly in people because if you can’t reverse the effects of
It does it through a novel method, which for whom other existing treatments just ketamine, then you are probably not hitting
we think might be quite successful. haven’t worked. But ketamine is also the glutamate system enough to be beneficial
interesting because it produces a set of to patients.
Have you tested this drug in people experiences which, for a long time, we
with Parkinson’s disease? thought looked a bit like psychosis – one You also work with hypnosis. How can it help
First we have tested it in healthy volunteers of the main symptoms you have in us understand neurological issues?
given psilocybin. This is like a simpler test schizophrenia. If you give someone ketamine We have put hypnotised people in
of our hypothesis, as we are not as sure about and then you use a scale that you would use the scanner so we can look at the brain
the role of 5-HT2A in Parkinson’s. It is also to measure symptoms in schizophrenia, systems involved in hypnosis generally.
harder to work with patients than healthy they would score very highly on this scale.
volunteers. We gave the volunteers the cancer We can also give people particular
drug first, then put them in the brain scanner It tells us something very important: that if suggestions in order to study certain
and then gave them psilocybin. It did reduce you manipulate one system in the brain, and experiences in isolation [a suggestion in
the impact of the psychedelic experience. with ketamine we are manipulating mainly hypnosis might be something simple, for
the glutamate system of the brain, then you instance that a person’s eyes are heavy and
That is very promising. If it is reducing can actually create a set of experiences, which they feel relaxed, or more specific, such as
the impact of the psychedelic experience, you know are mediated by glutamate, that paralysis. Some people are more suggestible
that suggests it is getting into the brain with look a bit like psychosis. So we have been than others]. One thing we did was to suggest
sufficient success to actually have an effect using ketamine to try to develop an assay
on the brain physiology. Now we can go to test new treatments for schizophrenia,
into the scanner with patients who have which work on the glutamate system.
Parkinson’s psychosis. We are running a
study where they are given this drug for a
couple of weeks. At the end of those two
weeks, we put them in the scanner to see if
the activity in this visual processing pathway
has been normalised by this compound.

What made you work with psychoactive
recreational drugs? Is that a useful way to
shed light on how the brain works?
Oh, very much so. We are already
discovering through colleagues of mine
that psilocybin may be beneficial as a
treatment in depression. We are learning
that MDMA, also known as ecstasy, may be

38 | New Scientist | 13 June 2020

FMRI scans show
changes in activity
in the brain areas
involved in motor
planning when it is
suggested to people
under hypnosis
that they can’t move
an arm

paralysis. We would suggest to people that downregulating parts of the motor network. in isolation. They tell us a few really
their left arm cannot move and is paralysed, This experience that people are describing is important things. First of all, they tell
and then we might ask them to try to move matched by what we are seeing in the brain. us that otherwise-healthy people who
a joystick whilst they are lying in the scanner. are highly suggestible can experience
Then we can look at their behaviour and What we did next was we suggested passivity phenomena. They can experience
they aren’t moving the joystick. that someone else is controlling their this alien control of movement, these
movements. So this idea that they have got thought insertion experiences.
Fine, maybe they are being very compliant, agents of control or loss of agency, that it’s
maybe these are the best volunteers in the not actually them controlling their arm. We can study the brain areas involved in
world and they are behaving exactly as we ask We can have a look at the areas of the brain that particular symptom. It’s also reversible,
them to do [with the suggestion]. Or maybe involved in that experience. which is amazing – we can have a look at
they genuinely are experiencing a paralysis. the brain circuits involved and we know
Maybe they really want to move, but We can even go a step further, and we have it’s a safe environment in which people can
somehow their arm is not moving. That’s done this as well, where we can ask people to have these experiences.
what they describe to us. We can believe write down the end of sentences. We can tell
them, but that can only take us so far. people that the thoughts they are having – Do you hope to one day be able to help
the words they are choosing – are not their develop drugs to cancel out those symptoms?
If we can look in the brain during own words, but are someone else’s words Yes. We are already looking at how drugs
that experience, then we can compare that they are writing down. People do claim might modulate some of them. I think with
that with what’s happening in the brain to have less control over the words they are this new understanding, we can start to think
when we ask them to simulate not being selecting and they feel like someone else about better ways to use existing drugs, but
able to move their hand. is giving them the words to write down. we can also start to develop the techniques
We see changes in the language areas in to look at novel drugs and novel treatments,
Does it look different in the brain when the brain during those experiences. so we can accelerate their development. ❚
they are hypnotised compared to
when they are simulating it? Isn’t that a symptom that is sometimes Clare Wilson is a medical news
It is completely different. What you find seen in schizophrenia, too? reporter at New Scientist.
is decreased activity in some of the areas Yes. Passivity phenomena is what we call Follow her @ClareWilsonMed
involved in motor planning. This is this and that is a very common symptom
amazing, really. It tells us that, through in schizophrenia. So this is really an 13 June 2020 | New Scientist | 39
hypnosis and this suggestion, we are actually opportunity to study these phenomena

Features

Here be giants

The blue whale has no competition for the largest animal to
have existed on Earth – but working out the largest to have
walked on it is a giant problem, finds Colin Barras

40 | New Scientist | 13 June 2020

PATRYK HARDZIEJ FOR a century, visitors to Chicago’s Field heavy as Patagotitan. How they have reached sauropods, the titanosaurs. First, in 2000,
Museum have marvelled at a display these conclusions is a story of monumental came Futalognkosaurus, an animal known
featuring two African bush elephants, discoveries, lost treasures, academic from three specimens that together preserve
frozen mid-fight. In the past couple of years, showmanship and clay models. about three-quarters of the skeleton,
however, this awesome spectacle of the excluding the skull – sauropod skulls were so
largest living land animals has been Sauropods first appeared in either the Late fragile that they rarely fossilised. In 2005,
overshadowed by an enormous skeleton. Triassic or early Jurassic, about 200 million Dreadnoughtus began to emerge from the
As impressive as the elephants are, they look years ago. Dinosaurs in the group, which ground in the form of two specimens, also
like squabbling children beside Patagotitan, includes Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus, are representing around three-quarters of the
a 100-million-year-old sauropod dinosaur known for having large bodies, long necks skeleton. Finally, in 2013, work began to
that was as long as a blue whale, taller than and tails, and tiny heads. Yet their most uncover bones at a site in Chubut province.
a giraffe and probably outweighed each defining characteristic is their size (see “How At least six specimens of Patagotitan were
elephant 10 times over. to grow really big”, page 42). For more than found, which together encompass most of
a century, people have wanted to know just the skeleton.
Since 2014, when news first broke of its how big they could get. Until recently, an
discovery, Patagotitan has frequently been answer has proved elusive, not least because “Titanosaurs were very fragmentary
described as the most massive animal ever to sauropods often leave surprisingly light and poorly known,” says Gregory Paul, an
walk the Earth. Such superlatives captivate us. footprints in the fossil record. “The bigger independent researcher based in Baltimore,
Even if you aren’t a dinosaur fan, it is awe- they are, the less of them we find,” says Maryland. “Now we’re getting enough skeletal
inspiring to think that the skeleton in the Mathew Wedel at the Western University material to get some good reconstructions.”
Field Museum belongs to a creature that is of Health Sciences in California. “Burying Rebuilding these skeletons still requires
as big as they get. a whale-sized land animal isn’t easy.” someone who understands sauropod
anatomy, he says, because there is plenty
Except it isn’t. Weighing up such giants isn’t So when, in the late 1980s, palaeontologists of variation and potential for error. This is
simple, but new calculations indicate that in Argentina excavated a few bones of a truly especially true when it comes to the torso,
other dinosaurs from the same family – the enormous sauropod, it wasn’t clear what the where the bulk of a sauropod’s weight
aptly named titanosaurs – were at least as complete animal looked like or how large it is concentrated. Rebuild the skeleton
massive. In fact, Patagotitan might not even was. They named it Argentinosaurus and incorrectly – which even some museums do,
come close to claiming the heavyweight title. continued t0 work – and to great effect. according to Paul – and you will overestimate
Some palaeontologists now believe that the In the past two decades, the fossil beds of the weight of the sauropod. But get the
ground once trembled under the mass of a Argentina have yielded a string of remarkable anatomy right and you can calculate its >
near-mythical dinosaur that was twice as discoveries from the same group of

“Sauropods often
leave surprisingly
light footprints in
the fossil record”

13 June 2020 | New Scientist | 41

How to grow
really big

The largest land animals ever to live body mass with reasonable precision. ANUP SHAH/NATURE PL
were sauropod dinosaurs. They were A few months ago, Paul published his
an order of magnitude heavier than shortcomings. Biologically and behaviourally
anything alive today. How did they latest estimates for a range of sauropods. speaking, a 30-tonne sauropod was probably
grow so enormous? To do so, he fashioned 30-centimetre-long similar to a 60-tonne one, says Campione,
models from clay, measured their volumes and pinning down body mass more precisely
“The short version is that from the amount of water they displaced and arguably has limited scientific value.
sauropods did a lot of things right then scaled up. Futalognkosaurus came out at
that mammals do wrong if you want about 29 tonnes and Dreadnoughtus at about Kenneth Carpenter at Utah State University
to get big,” says Mathew Wedel at 31 tonnes. Patagotitan was much heavier, Eastern in Price, who has attempted to
the Western University of Health weighing between 50 and 55 tonnes. These measure sauropod body mass with great
Sciences in California. estimates are very close to others published accuracy, agrees that such efforts aren’t
recently based on virtual sauropod models particularly important scientifically. He
Like birds, their living relatives, built using computer software. In other points out that palaeontologists who claim to
sauropods had a system of air sacs words, says Paul, a consensus is beginning to have found the largest and heaviest sauropods
in their bones. Birds use these to emerge on exactly how big these titanosaurs are invariably male. This sentiment is echoed
capture and store part of each were. There is just one problem. by Kristi Curry Rogers at Macalester College
inhaled breath and then released in Saint Paul, Minnesota. “I just don’t get that
it into the lungs when they exhale. An alternative method for estimating body excited by these claims, even though I work
mass in land animals is based on the idea that on these giant dinosaurs myself,” she says. “I’d
“Sauropods had this circular it correlates with the sturdiness of their limbs. rather put more focus on the palaeobiology
breathing pattern to extract more After all, it is the limbs that must bear the and less on the sauropod showmanship.”
oxygen from every breath,” says weight of anything that stalks the land. That is
Kristi Curry Rogers at Macalester why, however you measure them, not even the Yet try telling an inquisitive child it doesn’t
College in Minnesota. This would help most enormous dinosaurs yet discovered are matter exactly how big the biggest ever land
power the metabolism needed to anything like as big as the giants of the sea: animal was – or, indeed, anyone’s inner child.
keep such a large animal functioning. blue whales, which can weigh in at upwards That is why people take notice when someone
of 150 tonnes, remain the biggest animals like Wedel says that Patagotitan was almost
The air sacs brought another we know to have existed on Earth. certainly not “the largest dinosaur that ever
advantage: they reduced the weight lived”, as the Field Museum claims. He thinks
of bones, particularly those of the By measuring the circumference of a that the half dozen Patagotitan specimens
spine, allowing sauropods to grow thigh bone and plugging this into a “scaling
their famously long necks. With those equation”, you can get reasonably accurate
necks, they could graze on vegetation body mass estimates for animals as distinct
beyond the reach of other dinosaurs as orangutans and kangaroos, says Nicolás
and feed from several trees simply by Campione at the University of New England
swinging their necks, cutting down in Armidale, Australia, who swears by
on energy loss from moving their the technique. However, when applied to
pillar-like legs and huge torsos, sauropods, it gives results wildly different
says Martin Sander at the University from those obtained with anatomical
of Bonn, Germany. models. For instance, it almost doubles the
weight of Dreadnoughtus to 59 tonnes, and
They were formidable eating makes Patagotitan about a third heavier at
machines too. “Sauropods did not 69 tonnes. What is going on?
chew their food,” says Wedel. Food took
so long to pass through their huge gut “I don’t think the scaling equations are
that there was time to extract nutrients wrong,” says Wedel. “I think they’re imprecise.”
even from whole leaves. “If you don’t The main problem is the margin of error,
have to chew, you can cram in more which can be 30 tonnes or more for a gigantic
food per day,” he says. sauropod. Despite its imprecision, the method
is popular among dinosaur palaeontologists
“They reached full size in maybe because it is easy to use, even without a good
20 or 25 years,” says Curry Rogers. understanding of sauropod anatomy. They
“It’s really amazing, especially when aren’t necessarily concerned by its
all they’re eating is plants.”

42 | New Scientist | 13 June 2020

African bush elephants
(left) are the largest
living land animals on
Earth, but Patagotitan
(right), which lived
100 million years ago,
was ten times as heavy

LUCY HEWETT/FIELD MUSEUM

“Sauropods might have
come much larger than
Patagotitan, but such
gigantic beasts might be
too difficult to fossilise”

were approximately the same size and large as Cope claimed, because that would Paul has taken Carpenter’s reappraisal of
weight as the largest specimens of two other make the dinosaur unfeasibly huge. In 2014, Cope’s dinosaur and built on it. In his recent
Argentinian titanosaurs we know from just a a pair of researchers suggested that there was study, Paul estimated its body mass at between
few bones: our old friend Argentinosaurus and a typo in his description – that he mistakenly 80 and 120 tonnes, making it about twice as
Puertasaurus, which was discovered in 2001. labelled its height as 1500 millimetres instead heavy as Patagotitan. Carpenter says such a
What’s more, this could be very significant. of 1050 millimetres. Carpenter finds that wide range is little better than a guess, and
“Maybe they’re hitting the limits of what you implausible, pointing out that the specimen’s Paul accepts that his estimate is necessarily
can bury,” he says. To put it another way, collector, Oramel Lucas, discussed the vague, given that it is based on one fossilised
sauropods might have come much larger than fossil’s size in his correspondence. “It is vertebra that is now lost. Nevertheless, when
Patagotitan, but such gigantic beasts might be an independent corroboration of what Carpenter attempted a similar estimate 15
so difficult to fossilise that we will never find Cope published,” he says. years ago, he calculated that the missing
their remains. Or will we? giant might have weighed 120 tonnes.
In 2018, Carpenter estimated that the
Mythical monster? complete vertebra stood 2.4 metres tall. Wedel reserves his judgement. He says
The equivalent bone in Patagotitan is that, without discovering many more fossils,
Way back in 1878, Philadelphia-based 1.4 metres tall. He also suggests an explanation we can’t be sure just how big the biggest ever
palaeontologist Edward Cope received delivery for its enormousness. Researchers now land animals were – however frustrating that
of a fossil from a quarry in Colorado. It was recognise a distinct group of Diplodocus-like might be to some museum-goers. “There’s a
part of a sauropod vertebra – a spine bone – sauropods with unusually large vertebrae. widespread perception that we understand
and it was astonishingly large: the fragment Carpenter believes A. fragillimus belongs in dinosaurs a lot better than we do,” he says.
alone was 1.5 metres tall. Cope named the this group; these dinosaurs had thigh bones “Palaeontologists are nowhere near done.
dinosaur Amphicoelias fragillimus. He then, about 1.2 times as long as their vertebrae, We are just getting started.”  ❚
somehow, misplaced the fossil, or perhaps it whereas in some sauropods they are almost
was so fragile – as the name suggests – that twice as long. This would put the thigh bones Colin Barras is a
it crumbled to dust. Ever since, A. fragillimus of Cope’s specimen at 2.9 metres – not freelance writer based
has been considered almost legendary. Some outrageously longer than Patagotitan thigh in Ann Arbor, Michigan
simply refuse to accept that the bone was as bones, all of which are around 2.4 metres long.
That isn’t implausible, according to Wedel. 13 June 2020 | New Scientist | 43

New Scientist Events Quantum physics

Decoding reality

Vlatko Vedral’s day job is exploring reality’s most profound questions. At a recent New
Scientist online event, he explained how quantum logic shows everything in the universe
must be connected – and that time probably doesn’t exist. At least he did in one world...

T O TRY to explain quantum physics, We call this state of the photon a quantum then anything that they couple to has
it's always best to start with Einstein. superposition. Einstein called it “spooky also got to become weird.
He had two famous complaints action” because it looks as though the photon
about it: how it seems to say that “God plays can exist in two places. But we've tested the There's a version of the Schrödinger cat
dice with the universe”, and how it appears to effect not just on photons, but also on atoms, experiment where you can test this idea – in
allow “spooky action at a distance”. subatomic particles and larger particles and principle, because we're nowhere near close
molecules, and every time we've actually got to doing this in reality yet. Imagine that Alice
A very simple experiment illustrates them to behave this way. Randomness and is the chief experimental physicist outside
both problems. First, imagine sending a spooky action at a distance are here to stay. the lab, and Bob is inside the lab, observing
single photon of light through a beam the interferometer and the cat and the two
splitter, a piece of glass that either reflects That's where Erwin Schrödinger, distinct possible outcomes. Alice wants to
it or transmits it with a 50 per cent chance. entanglement and that exciting and test whether Bob really sees two alternatives
One of two detectors clicks in each of the two stimulating thought experiment we all know simultaneously, and whether he sees a
cases. If we run this experiment many times, and love comes in: Schrödinger's cat. Imagine definitive outcome at some point in the
we find that half of the time detector 1 I put a cat into the laboratory together with experiment.
clicks, and the other half detector 2 . But this photon that's undergoing interference. If
quantum mechanics shows that nothing in the photon goes one way at the beam splitter, So she waits for the photon to go through
the universe can tell us which detector will nothing happens. But if it goes the other, it the first beam splitter and Bob to look at the
click any one time. Einstein came from a hits a very fragile bottle, releasing poison so outcome. Quantum mechanics says that
classical frame of mind where everything the cat dies. If quantum mechanics really following this point, there is one happy copy
is deterministic and predictable: but it describes the whole experiment, and the of Bob with a live cat and another sad Bob
seems randomness really is at the heart of photon does go both ways simultaneously, with a dead cat. At this point Alice sneaks a
quantum mechanics. then the cat is not either dead or alive; it too piece of paper under the door so Bob picks it
must be both things simultaneously. up – both copies of Bob, if you like. On it, she
But suppose now, instead of detecting the asks: “do you see a definitive state of the cat?”.
photon with two detectors behind the first Genie outside the box Note she doesn't ask “do you see a dead or
beam splitter, you first recombine the light at alive cat?”, because if Alice got the answer to
a second beam splitter, with two detectors The story doesn't stop there. What if there that question, she would join one of these
now behind here. What's remarkable now is is a physicist observing this experiment – two quantum worlds. What's interesting here
that the photon behaves perfectly how would quantum mechanics describe is that quantum mechanics would suggest
deterministically. Basically, only detector 1 this situation? Well, you would now have a that in both branches, Bob must answer the
clicks, never detector 2 (see diagram, page 48). superposition of a physicist who in one question Alice actually asks with “yes”.
branch sees a living cat and in another branch
How can two random things be put a dead cat. Anyone who interacts with these So Bob writes his answer, and then gives
together to give you something 100 per cent kinds of superposed states and finds out Alice the piece of paper back under the door.
predictable? In quantum mechanics, the only what state it's in has to join in and actually Only now does Alice complete the
way to explain it is to say that the photon split according to the same two possibilities. interferometer with the second beam splitter.
actually splits into two at the first beam This is what quantum mechanics This is tantamount to undoing the whole
splitter and takes both routes: it's reflected says would happen, if the whole universe experiment and returning it to the original
and transmitted simultaneously. When these really can be described quantum state, before the photon split. You recombine
two possibilities converge on to the second mechanically. If you think small objects like the two possibilities, and bring them back
beam splitter, they interfere like water waves: photons and atoms are weird, and can exist into just one universe. That's difficult to do in
when they go to detector 1, they amplify each in many different states at the same time, practice, but the conclusion of the thought
other, and when they go to detector 2, they experiment is that halfway through, if the
cancel out and make no signal. laws of quantum mechanics hold, Alice can >

44 | New Scientist | 13 June 2020

FRANCESCOCH/ISTOCK PHOTO From cosmology to climate change...

Upcoming events include Mark Maslin on coronavirus and
climate and Dan Hooper on what happened at the big bang.
Details on all events at newscientist.com/events

13 June 2020 | New Scientist | 45

“Quantum theory suggests that
nothing evolves and everything
that will happen, already has”

Weirdness, squared observers is called Wigner's friend, after
Eugene Wigner, a quantum physicist who
Using an interferometer to measure single photons in two different ways illustrates two key thought very deeply about these issues and
weird properties of quantum theory – randomness and spooky action at a distance asked, what kind of reality does this lead to?
The analogy is of a painter who wants to
Randomness Spooky action at a distance paint, say, a forest 100 per cent faithfully
down to the smallest minute detail. When he
Measuring each path separately produces Measuring the paths after they are combined again finishes, he realises that one important bit is
blips split between two detectors at random – at a second mirror produces a wave-like interference missing: himself. So he decides to add
and you can never tell which will fire effect with all hits on one detector, as if a single himself, but then of course realises that the
photon has taken both possible paths painter painting the first painter is missing –
Photons fired and so on ad infinitum.
one at a time
This is very similar to how, in this picture,
PATH 1 REFLECTING a definite reality emerges through a sequence
MIRROR of entanglements that you get from
interactions that, we are now assuming, are
BEAM-SPLITTING completely quantum mechanical: between
MIRROR the photon and the poison, the poison and
the cat, the cat and Bob, Bob and Alice, Alice
PATH 2 and the Mad Hatter and so on. As with the
somewhat paranoid painter, it's not a
DETECTORS completely faithful image of reality – because
there is always another observer missing.
confirm that Bob really is entangled to the outside the experiment that you are now
cat: there is one branch with dead cat and sad split into two different states. But she can't This leads to another fascinating
Bob, and another with live cat and happy Bob. know which state Bob's in, or she loses her conclusion, one that many of us are actively
perspective and becomes part of his world. researching. It is linked to a question that that
There is another interesting twist on that, you frequently get when you talk about this:
one proposed by my friend and colleague Curiouser and curiouser what does it feel to be in another universe?
David Deutsch at Oxford. He also invented The interesting thing is that, quantum
the idea of quantum computers, and I think You can go further down this rabbit hole. mechanically, this is the same as asking what
you can see why these experiments might What if there is another observer, call him the would it feel like to exist at another time.
make someone think about massive parallel Mad Hatter, who is outside Alice's laboratory
computations, all happening simultaneously so the he can control Alice, who in turn can Two physicists called Don Page and
but on one and the same device. control what happens to Bob, who in turn is William Wootters showed this in the 1980s
observing the cat...? You can follow the same in a paper whose title is “Evolution without
Now, as far as each of the Bobs is logic, and you come to the same conclusion evolution”. What they suggest is that the
concerned, there is nothing unusual about as we did before. If Alice figures out what's universe at different times is really just
their situation: each of them exists in their happening with Bob, she can communicate different quantum universes. Nothing really
own alternative world and sees one definitive this to Mad Hatter. She can open her own evolves and everything that will happen has
outcome, a dead or alive cat, and behaves as door towards the Mad Hatter and say look, already happened: it's all sitting
though the other Bob does not even exist. So Bob has made an observation and the cat is simultaneously in this “block” universe that
armed with her knowledge, Alice can sneak alive, but as soon as she does so they're all contains all possible things that can happen.
another piece of paper in halfway through part of that world, even if from the point of In this case, the components of the entangled
this experiment to tell Bob that he's actually view of an ultimate observer, there must be state are just different times at which the
in two different branches. She can say, I know this other world in superposition, where the universe exists. This, believe it or not, is a
that each of you doesn't know about the bad news is that the cat is dead. fully consistent way of thinking about
existence of the other one, and that you quantum mechanics.
definitely see one state of this cat or another, This picture of observers observing
but I know from my position observing from Just finally, I'd like to bring things back to
experiments. The reason why doing this
46 | New Scientist | 13 June 2020 Schrödinger type of experiment is so difficult
in practice is that it relies on the sort of

Your quantum reality X
questions answered X

Vlatko Vedral also took questions from audience
members after his talk. Here’s a selection of the best

IS QUANTUM But I think it as time the observed. So you end communication between the different
ENTANGLEMENT went on, physicists got up concluding either that observers in the experiment that really only
PREVALENT IN used to the fact that consciousness is not humans can do. You might perhaps
EVERYDAY LIFE? quantum mechanics could relevant, or that everything substitute Bob, say, with any computer. In
IF SO, WHERE MIGHT actually be a universal is conscious, even atoms, fact my impression is that it's more likely that
WE SEE IT? theory. It seems to me from and when they’re observing a very simple artificial intelligence system
reading various historical us you could attribute some will actually be the first to undergo this kind
As soon as you get any kind accounts that even consciousness to them – of experiment, in which we will be
of interaction between Schrödinger changed his not that I’d agree with that communicating with it and asking questions,
quantum systems where mind. I think the support for personally. like how do they feel about being in one state
they can exchange energy for many worlds is certainly or another and things like that.
and information, quantum growing in my community, ISN’T THIS ALL
physics says that they and may well be the JUST AN ARGUMENT But the next milestone would be to put
become entangled. What is dominant view now. But FOR REALITY BEING something like viruses or bacteria in a
difficult, and a serious there are certainly many A SIMULATION? superposition state. You might think it's
problem for quantum other competing something we might like to do with covid-19,
technologies, is to maintain interpretations, and that’s This idea has many origins, if only as a revenge, but it's probably too large
and isolate entanglement in what makes the whole and resonates with the idea for the present technology – you would need
a useful way, because it discussion very interesting. that you could think of the something two orders of magnitude smaller
tends to interact with the whole universe as a in mass. But in principle you can do these
environment. In that sense, DOES AN OBSERVER quantum computer. But all experiments with two microbes confined
there is good entanglement IN QUANTUM you’re really saying there is between two mirrors, where a split photon
and bad entanglement, and MECHANICS HAVE that every physical process would excite one and not the other. Of
we are trying to somehow TO BE CONSCIOUS? can be thought of as a course, you cannot communicate with
enhance the good bunch of gates that act on bacteria and ask them whether they feel
entanglement and suppress That’s an excellent different quantum bits. they're in a definitive state of being excited or
the bad one. question, and it impinges None of us really not, but you can confirm from the light they
on the fact that we don’t understand where the laws emit whether they are entangled or not.
DO PHYSICISTS really understand of physics come from; they
REALLY TAKE THIS consciousness very well. It’s are taken as as the initial It's still very hard to do. We're trying in
IDEA OF PARALLEL mindblowingly complex. As axioms. I think when Oxford, and there is another group in Vienna
WORLDS SERIOUSLY? a physicist, I would like to Napoleon read Laplace’s run by Markus Arndt that I think is also close
think that quantum physics treatise on Newtonian to being able to superpose a virus in a number
That’s still a point of applies to everything mechanics, he said, I loved of different spatial locations. It's hard to
controversy. When indiscriminately, and that your piece, but I was speculate how long it will take, but the race is
Schrödinger wrote his cat the way that we understand disturbed that you never certainly on. We're really at the level where we
paper, he really was aiming atoms and molecules mentioned God. And can test some of these ideas that maybe 100
to expose a contradiction, should somehow be Laplace replied, I simply years ago would would be thought to be
maybe a little bit like Einstein applicable to had no need for such a completely crazy, maybe impossible, maybe
himself. He thought that it consciousness. And if you hypothesis. It seems to me even contradictory. It's a very exciting time. ❚
was contradictory to think accept the idea that that would be our answer
that quantum mechanics quantum mechanics applies as well: you have the laws Vlatko Vedral is a professor of physics at the University
could describe cats or any to the whole universe, you of physics, but you don’t of Oxford, where his group researches ways of
macroscopic object, for can always interchange the really need a programmer applying quantum physics beyond the microscopic
that matter, as being in roles of the observer and there as well. domain. This is an edited version of a talk he gave at
two very distinct states. a New Scientist online event on 21 May 2020

Want to see Vlatko Vedral’s full talk? 13 June 2020 | New Scientist | 47

Sign up for the event on-demand, including exclusive access to
additional New Scientist content at newscientist.com/events


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